Bluesfest Boss Peter Noble Talks Festival Drug Testing, Soundwave Refund Saga & The Future Of Aussie FestivalsWritten by Michael Carr on February 5, 2016
Following the final line up announcement for Byron Bay Bluesfest yesterday and his comment in support of Eagles Of Death Metal’s decision to keep touring, we caught up with festival founder Peter Noble to discuss the future of the festival industry in Australia.
Unafraid to weigh in on the impact of major festivals like Soundwave and Soulfest folding, overall Noble is optimistic about the industry’s future, at least for those who can make it through the struggle ahead. Going into detail as to why he thinks it’s the model and not the market that doomed touring festivals like Big Day Out, the industry veteran is as outspoken as he is insightful.
On The Demise Of Australia’s Touring Festivals
The demise of Australia’s big touring festivals all started back in 2013 when the Australian dollar was at its peak against the US dollar according to Noble. “Australians were spoilt for choice for a while there,” he said with festivals unable to meet consumer expectation following the drop in the exchange rate back to $0.71 today.
However it’s not just the drop in the dollar, but the prices being demanded by artists and the promoter’s willingness to meet them that eventually doomed the big touring festivals. “I’ve heard some of the numbers artists were getting paid to play events like Big Day Out and I would argue if those numbers were sustainable,” Noble says.
“Those events only had one income stream, the ticket. In nearly every case, all the other income was going to other long term leases for food and beverage and things like that, and then you only needed a slight change in consumer spending, for it to change by 5 or 10 per cent for those business models not to work anymore.”
Noble cites the fact most of the North American touring festivals have begun to start specialising and doing multi day events in individual cities as proof the model is unsustainable.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a return of that kind of event unless we see a number of factors including our economy getting stronger and the dollar getting stronger and artist’s guarantee demands coming down,” he said.
“When you hear of an artist getting paid millions and millions of millions of dollars in guarantees to play Big Day Out or Soundwave, you’ve really got to question the viability of that”
Regarding The Soundwave Refund Fiasco
Noble doesn’t mince any words when it comes to the Soundwave refund fiasco or its impact on Australia’s festival industry. “Soundwave and the ticketing company being unable to immediately refund tickets is not good for our industry,” he says bluntly.
“It’s not good for confidence. The public is not given good reason to go out and buy tickets to festivals well in advance.”
When asked about what he thinks led to such a situation he said, “the reasons seem obvious.”
To Noble, “ticketing companies advancing promoters money is something they did of their own volition, it’s not the public’s problem.
“I don’t think our economy is traveling at the hottest it’s ever traveled at and at times like these we’ve gotta say that the guys who are putting on festivals have to have enough money to put them on, and if they haven’t don’t do them,” he said.
On Drug Related Deaths At Festivals
On the issue of drug related deaths at festivals Noble departs from the party line of his fellow promoters, calling on the industry to do more to avoid further deaths.
“I’m probably the only guy coming out and saying this, but I don’t want to be the next guy to say, ‘I feel very heavily for the family and their loss.’ It’s about what you do in advance to stop it,” he said.
Shocked by the numbers of deaths, Noble feels that “if we as an industry don’t want to stand up and condemn that, then I say there is something wrong with us as an industry.
“If we think that’s ok, that people can take pills and die at an event and we just go “oh, there should be drug testing” we’re not going to the root cause. Whatever people are being supplied with is poison and it’s killing them.”
Despite repeating, “If you don’t know what you are taking, why are you taking it?” dozens of times, when it comes to the possibility of pill testing he dismisses it as being impossible.
“That will never happen in Australia. It might happen in the Northern European or Scandinavian countries, they’ve got a much more liberal way of thinking, and a much more acceptable, perhaps to me personally, way of dealing with it, but that’s not on the agenda in Australia.”
Pressed on the issue though, he does admit that when it comes to measures like pill testing and amnesty bins, “it’s the law that’s the problem.” Describing his own experiences trying to have amnesty bins on site at Bluesfest, Noble informs us it was impossible, as “by law if someone is seen to be in possession of an illicit substance they have to be arrested.”
Admitting that “the Government and our lawmakers [could] take some steps to make it easier to deal with,” he was nevertheless adamant that festival organisers “shouldn’t be trying to deflect all the responsibility to them.”
Adding that “denial is not a river in Egypt”, Noble wants the rest of the industry to stand up and urge attendees not to risk their lives on a pill. “We are not standing up and making a stand and asking ‘if you don’t know what you’re taking, why are you taking it when it’s killing people?'”
It’s Not All Bad News For Aussie Festivals Though
Despite all the bad news surrounding the industry at the moment, Noble is confident in the future of Australian festivals. While he thinks “we are going to see a lot less festivals out there in the near future,” he believes “the ones that get through this time will do well.”
He’s also eager to bring up the fact that destination festivals like Bluesfest and Woodford Folk Festival are flourishing. “I spent a couple of days at Woodford last year and it was their 30th anniversary and it was their biggest festival ever,” he said.
“They had nearly 130,000 attendees across 6 days. 129,000 was the number I think. There is no contemporary Australian festival that draws at those numbers,” he points out before adding, “that’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t get printed a lot in our industry you know.”
On This Year’s Line Up Being One Of The Biggest Ever
In terms of extolling the virtues of this year’s line-up, Noble happily tallies the accolades all the artists are up for this year as a sign the festival “truly does bring the cream of the crop.”
“I mean you look at Kendrick Lamar, who’s up for 11 Grammy awards. There has only ever been one artist nominated for more, Michael Jackson who dominated with 12 for Thriller.
The 2016 Bluesfest lineup features 8 nominated artists who are up for a total of 22 Grammys this year. “I think that is a record for an Australian festival, by a long way,” says Noble. “I mean, I don’t think we’ve ever had more than 5 [nominated artists at one Bluesfest] before.”
The massive Bluesfest lineup features huge acts including Kendrick Lamar, Modest Mouse, D’Angelo, The National and Eagles Of Death Metal. The festival kicks off on Thursday, 24th March in Byron Bay. Check out the full final lineup announcement below.
Watch: Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Bluesfest 2016 Lineup Additions
The Mick Fleetwood Band
Eagles Of Death Metal
Playing For Change Band
Eugene Hideaway Bridges
Emma Donovan & The Putbacks
Blind Boy Paxton
The “Original” Blues Brothers Band
The Blind Boys Of Alabama
Jeff Martin (The Tea Party)
Tex Perkins & The Ape
D’Angelo And The Vanguard
Cold War Kids
The Bros. Landreth
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Steve Earle and The Dukes
Nahko and Medicine For The People
The National – Bluesfest exclusive
City And Colour
UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell, Astro & Mickey Virtue – Bluesfest exclusive
Joe Bonamassa – Bluesfest exclusive
Tedeschi Trucks Band
The Cat Empire
Lukas Nelson & The Promise Of The Real
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Thursday, 24th March – Monday, 28th March 2016
Byron Bay Bluesfest 2016
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, NSW