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Byron Shire
April 24, 2024

The politics of live music

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Splendour in happier times back in 2022, despite the mud. Photo Jeff Dawson.

The collapse of Splendour in the Grass before it reached the starting gates has been blamed on a lot of things, including the cost of living, Taylor Swift, the weather, ticket prices, millennial laziness, Kylie Minogue and inadequate government support. The event joins a growing list of major music events to be cancelled. So what do taxpayers owe music festival culture in Australia, if anything?

With all eyes on Bluesfest as the last behemoth standing in the (muddy) NSW regional music festival paddock, there were huge digital slides beside the stages all weekend asking punters to advocate for the music industry’s future, by urging state and federal governments to invest more in its growth. ‘Support the life-blood of Australian culture by providing financial aid to major, long-standing music events. Make your voice heard.’

A big QR code led to a petition aimed at the government in aid of ‘over 2,100 professionals and 700 artists and crew members at the heart of this extraordinary event’.

Festival fans Anthony Albanese and Justine Elliot tear themselves away from the mosh pit. Photo Jeff Dawson.

Money for nothing?

The fact is that after extensive lobbying from the late Michael Gudinski and others, under the current state and federal Labor governments there is already substantial public support flowing to the popular live music sector, after years of neglect from the Coalition, which favoured ballet and opera.

Splendour in the Grass, for example, was the beneficiary of $100,000 announced with great fanfare earlier this year by Richmond MP Justine Elliot and the Albanese Government. There’s no word on whether this will be repaid. In January, $2.5m of federal money was allocated to music festivals across the country under the Live Music Australia program, with more funding rounds to follow.

After the news about Splendour last week, John Graham, the NSW State Minister for Music and the Night-time Economy (as well as Jobs and Tourism), said the cancellation was devastating news, noting that the festival industry was under ‘extreme pressure’, and he was deeply worried about the health of the festival scene in NSW.

Mr Graham said the state government offered financial support to help Splendour proceed in 2024, but apparently it was not enough. Another NSW government initiative to keep the live music industry alive after COVID was Great Southern Nights, bringing Australian artists to regional and city audiences.

In 2021, the music industry charity Support Act welcomed $20m in emergency aid from the federal government to those who had lost work due to lockdowns and restrictions.

More recently, music fan and PM Anthony Albanese has driven millions of dollars worth of arts funding announcements, including support for the live music industry, but little of this seems to have dribbled down to actual musicians, many of whom are unable to survive beneath the twin attacks of streaming and dwindling live performance opportunities.

Am I ever gonna see your face again?

It’s a strange time for live music here, with visiting megastars like Taylor Swift able to fill arenas and ask anything they want for tickets, while the once-thriving Australian pub music scene is under threat like never before.

That other sector of the entertainment industry, sport, still receives a greater share of government funding than the arts, with live music a subset of that, although more people attend arts events and concerts than sporting events, and the flow-through positive economic effects of live music are substantial, even without considering the more intangible psychological and community benefits.

In terms of festivals, many commentators have said Splendour simply became too big. Smaller, more niche festivals are managing to survive despite the many challenges of the sector. Perhaps the mega-festivals will need to return to their humble roots if they are to have a future.

ALP Leader of the House and Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke. Photo Wikipedia/CC.

Climate change is beginning to bite the outdoor live music scene too. After contending with extreme heat waves this year, Womadelaide may have to move to a different time of year. Splendour turned to chaotic mud in 2022. The Pitch Music Festival in Victoria was cancelled a few weeks ago due to bushfire risk.

It’s a growing problem. Between 2013 and 2019, ten Australian music festivals were affected by extreme weather, but in 2022-2023 at least 22 music festivals were cancelled or disrupted in this way.

The Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke, who approved the massive Maules Creek coal mine in a previous incarnation, has just announced an inquiry into the challenges and opportunities within the Australian live music industry.

Submissions are open until the end of April.


David Lowe
David Lowe. Photo Tree Faerie.

Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and politics. He’s known for his campaigning work with Cloudcatcher Media.

Long ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum.


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7 COMMENTS

  1. The Music industry certainly needs Taxpayer’s
    Support when in a crisis..it generates much needs
    Support for the nearby communities…the government wasted over 2 billion dollars
    When Qantas was propped up during covid
    Went on to sack most of it’s workers whilst
    Still receiving government handouts that were
    Meant to pay for the wages of Qantas employees.
    Qantas goes on to make billions the following years
    After covid and to my knowledge has not paid
    Back one dollar back to the Taxpayer’s…billions been wasted on the NDIS scams ..500 million on the
    Voice proposal Which the government knew
    Would fail …so yes all this wasted money.. i feel as a taxpayer could go towards helping out the Music
    Industries… including Bluesfest if they reach out
    For help !

  2. If “Australian Music Culture” cant survive because of commercial funding failure of a majority USA Corporate owned business that Australians don’t want to pay for, is it Australian Culture, or just a failed overseas business initiative.

  3. Interesting comment from a bus driver the other night whilst visiting Bluesfest..seems the bus company was a close to “pulling the pin” on the whole event because the Bluesfest management where going to pay less to the bus company.
    In years gone by, the bus companies charged the fees for the patrons and Bluesfest Management had no real interest, now the Bluefest Management know how much they can make from charging transport fees, so they too control over the transport arrangement.
    As an example..the bus companies use to charge from $10.00pp return..now you have to register through the Bluesfest website for bus tickets and they were charging..$40.00 pp return Ballina – Bluesfest.
    Then don’t get people started on the parking fees the Bluesfest Management charge..for a “bog hole”.
    Interestingly, it is believed a Bluesfest patron received a significant hand injury whilst trying to get their vehicle out from being bogged..
    Talking about traffic.. Bluesfest Management baulked at opening exisiting entry to the freeway because the RMS were going to charge them fees, but relinquished and paid the fees when the Bluesfest became gridlocked.
    Whilst we are at it..the toilet facilies stunk!!..the male urinals were putrid, as you came out of the Mojo tent you could get a decent whiff of them.

  4. Seven hundred for a festival being headlined by a 55 year old budgie.. not including Perch Merch… add in the obligatory canine pill testing and the poor sales are hardly surprising..

  5. Splendour’s fall?
    As one of the leading local figures in opposition to Splendour ( specifically the festival site) I would say, ‘KARMA’.
    I only actively opposed it when they made it clear their plans for unlimited festivals and their all too obvious intentions of pushing up the permitted numbers at any given festival.
    They played extrenely dirty politics and threw their money around to get what they wanted, denying the wishes of local people and the local council to keep it limited to two festivals a year.
    KARMA and GREED….and interesting to read the obituary…..”they got too big”.
    In the meantime, good luck to the Bluesfest.

  6. Big Day Out was great. It changed locations for the Gold Coast leg. Bluesfest site is not really the best. 2021 onwards really suffered from being a melaluaca farm. The buses were never great coming home. There was nowhere to sit and wait out the traffic at Bluesfest. At least Splendour had entertainment going on later.

    As a North Byron local I would pick up my kid from Splendour before it got way too big. Festivals have been great, I just go to an occasional gig now

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