This year sees Byron’s most famous signature event, Byron Blues Festival, turn 25.
Founded by Keven and Karin Oxford, ‘Bluesfest’ was born back in 1990 as a four-day indoor event at the then Arts Factory (now Byron Brewery), drawing a capacity crowd of 6,000 in its first year.
In 1993 the event moved outdoors to Belongil Fields, on to Red Devils Park in 1997 until 2007, when the capacity reached 16,000 attendees per day. After a two-year stint back at Belongil Fields, Bluesfest moved to its permanent home at Tyagarah in 2010.
Now in 2014, a quarter of a century on, and under the directorship of Peter Noble (who came on board in partnership in 1994 and by 2009 became the sole owner), the festival boasts up to 17,5000 attendees per day with an impressive 45,000 music lovers enjoying Bluesfest each year.
The event also has a swag of internationally recognised awards under its belt, including two Robert Helpmann Awards for Best Contemporary Music Festival in Australian (2004/5) and many times a finalist for the US-based Pollstar Concert Industry Awards, placing Bluesfest alongside names like Montreux and Glastonbury.
It’s just four weeks out from his event and festival director Peter Noble is sitting calmly behind his desk. Someone pops in with a cup of tea, another staff member makes sure his lunch is ordered. Staff are clearly busy, taking calls, selling tickets, making artist arrangements. For an event so close, everything seems incredibly relaxed. Noble credits the longevity and success of his award winning festival to his team.
‘The people in this office are seriously good,’ he says. ‘You learn in this business that you are fortunate to have a good group of people around you because they are what makes it happen.
‘You don’t hear yelling and screaming here. If someone in the office is overwhelmed, they are encouraged to break down and cry at the desk. We will help them.
‘It’s about having a good vibe and about people who work with each other actually caring about each other. Here people can admit if something is not working. We expect mistakes. If you don’t go out there and put yourself on the edge from time to time you won’t achieve anything.’
Peter believes that his staff, largely local people, many trained from the ground up, have created the team behind the event that keeps Bluesfest ahead of the pack.
‘I can’t stop thanking them. We are no longer what we once were. I get the kudos, but our ongoing success is about the brilliant people you have around you. It’s never about one person.’
In an economic climate that has seen many major events close their doors or in financial decline, including Future Music Festival, Big Day Out, Peats Ridge, and Harvest Festival, Bluesfest continues to surge ahead, with Noble confirming that ‘we have less than 3,000 tickets left for Friday and Saturday and three quarters of our sales this year have been season tickets. We are going to have our best year yet.’
Noble says this is on the back of a bumper festival in 2013 that saw numbers reach all-time highs, with ‘heritage’ acts like Santana, Steve Miller Band, Robert Plant, Iggy and the Stooges, Jimmy Cliff, Rodriguez and Paul Simon the focus of the crowds. Noble believes that it’s events that focus on the destination and the whole experience as part of the festival package that are continuing to thrive.
‘In our industry people tend to make grand sweeping statements. But they don’t look at the whole story. One-day events seem to have a problem, but the destination events, they are doing well. In the end it comes down to your product. We know why we are sitting here: it’s because the customer likes us.’
The new site at Tyagarah, Noble believes, has offered Bluesfest a chance to create a unique and evolving festival experience.
‘You are not loading into a rented ground any more, dealing with the pressure to set up quickly. Here we have an opportunity to work on the site. I can congratulate Byron Council as we have our DA now, forever approved.’
But having a site doesn’t come cheap.
‘We have the carparks finished this year. We now have sealed roads running to the end. That costs into hundreds of thousands of dollars but it means if you have a rain event you can pull onto a sealed road.
‘We have more water-proofing this year, we have a new stage. Areas that were tea tree are now being prepared for camp grounds. Of course it will take a year and a half for the ground to settle and for the work to begin but that is how we are working – looking towards the future and making a better and more comfortable festival for our patrons.’
Rain has long been an issue for the event which occurs in the middle of what is usually the area’s peak rainfall months. One of the dire predictions for the Tyagarah site was the management of rainfall and run off. It’s something that Peter believes his site engineers have tackled successfully, and it leaves him feeling confident that the festival is ‘water tight’ no matter what the weather.
‘We had our worst case scenario February last year’ said Noble. ‘We had a prolonged wet. The water was at ground level and the hydrologists said that if you get 250ml one day and then 60ml or 70ml the next then it will flood.’
Yet when water hit predicted highs, things weren’t as dire as predicted.
‘We were all watching it,’ said Noble, ‘and the only area we lost was around the campsite, and with the worst-case scenario there was no flooding north of the creek. We built proper bridges and water was getting off site quickly.’
With festival success and bulging numbers, the issue of crowd management becomes critical. Last year saw a growth in the number of ‘chair dwellers’. These were people who brought folding chairs onto the site and left them erected in tents, upsetting the numerous festival-goers who found themselves falling over abandoned chairs in the dark, or slowing the exit at some of the larger venues. Noble has addressed this with a new approach to chairs at Bluesfest.
‘We are putting permanent seating in the main part of the tents at the back to add more weather proofing. You can still bring your chairs but you can’t bring them into the two main tents.
‘It will be policed. And you can’t put your towel down and go away for five hours. It gives everyone at the festival a fair opportunity.’
Peter Noble believes that he has found the ability to strike the right balance with lifestyle and his passion for festivals.
‘You have to spend enough time in your office, and with your family and in your relationship. As one of my Buddhists mates says, you can have the biggest car and the biggest house but at the end of the day the hole in the ground is still the same.’
One of the key figures behind Bluesfest who helps keep Noble focused on the task at hand is his partner of 15 years and general manager, Annika Oman.
‘It’s good being in a relationship with someone smarter than you are,’ laughs Noble.
‘We have been friends for 25 years. I knew her since she was very young; we are godparents of each other’s children. Her husband was my best friend, and after his death we became close.’
‘We have our moments,‘ says Annika, who is clearly focused on pressing matters at hand in the office beyond Noble’s door.
‘I am in awe of her ideas,’ says Noble, ‘like her idea of upselling the festival. It worked. Just one idea.’
Annika is business-like about her approach to festivals year in year out.
‘You prepare for it, you know you are going to have to push it home some way or another, and you learn a lot when you are doing something for ten years. You learn how to speak to your members. I take a very personal approach.’
And that’s a lot of talking, considering Bluesfest has 105,000 members, and climbing.
How do Noble and Oman cope with the stress of the financial pressure festivals present?
‘I am a totally positive thinker,’ says Oman. ‘You can’t let it get to you.’
Peter laughs: ‘Yeah, she says it,s going to be fine, even when the trend isn’t showing that!’
‘I picture what I want in my mind. You don’t want to have sleepless nights over weather and ticket sales.’ Oman is gone, back into the fray of phone calls and artist callsheets, databases and site management.
Noble has programmed a very different Bluesfest for 2014.
‘We’ve never had a year like it,’ he says. ‘We have Erkyah Badu, Grace Potter, Joss Stone, Beth Hart, Kate Miller Heidke, Clairy Browne, Indie Arie, my favourite ever of Bluesfest, Saidah Baba Talibah out of Canada, KT Tunstall, Valerie June – and Trixie Whitley – Chris Whitley’s daughter. She is sensational.’
It’s an impressive lineup of women blues artists, something Peter suspects has to do with the four-to-one women-to-men ratio he has in his office. ‘Guys are good,’ he laughs, ‘you just don’t need to have too many around!’
As for booking this year it’s been interesting for Noble, who believes he’s accidentally booked a cutting edge contemporary festival but with a strong lineup of heritage blues acts. ‘When Dave Matthews said yes after all these years and we got a yes from John Mayer, it all started.’
Peter believes that Bluesfest is on track for at least another 25 years. Something which is no surprise when the festival directors for Chicago Blues festival say to Peter, ‘I wish Chicago Blues Festival was your type of festival. Yours is four times as good.’
More Bluesfest artist announcemnts are rolling out this week and include Troy Cassar-Daley, supergroup Coronet Blue, Blondie Chapman, and a whole heap more.
For ticketing and program information go to www.bluesfest.com.au.