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22 Years Of Queenscliff Music Festival: From Launching Courtney Barnett To “Laughing Off” Lorde

Written by David James Young on November 19, 2018

In mid-November of 1997, the seaside town of Queenscliff on the peninsula in southern Victoria was overtaken with the sound of music. For a few days, the aptly-titled Queenscliff Music Festival had its humble beginnings with a run of sets in and around the traps of its small-town establishments. A ten-year-old music lover by the name of Andrew Orvis was in attendance – and, 22 years later, he’s never missed a festival. That’s due, in part, to the fact that he runs the show now – originally a volunteer, then an apprentice and eventually a booker, Orvis took over as the festival’s director officially in 2014.

“It was a bit of a learning curve when I first started out,” the 31-year-old readily admits. “I look back now at some of the stuff I was doing and it would have been clear to any passerby that I had no clue what to do. I kind of just winged it, and I made it up as we went.” At the time when Orvis was taking over the reigns, one has to consider that the climate of Australian music festivals had soured somewhat. Giants were falling, newer festivals were crumbling and more than a few straight up went into liquidation.

“A lot of festivals were peaking around 2011/2012 and then died in the arse around 2012/2013,” Orvis recalls bluntly. “We weren’t safe from it – 2013 was a rough year. We managed to survive, but it was tough for a little while there. When I took over, I knew we had to change things up in order to keep afloat. 2014 was a good year for us – we turned things around and I think we’ve really built from there.”

Orvis quickly rose through the ranks after becoming involved with the festival beyond simply being a punter. In that time, he has seen the festival go through searing highs and depressing lows: “It’s certainly been a rollercoaster,” he says. “The thing for us has been surviving the lows – we were able to do that out of the passion of people that put the time and effort into the festival. They refused to let it go, and we’re incredibly grateful for that. People keep coming back year after year – we’ve got some folks who’ve been to 20 of them.”

When asked what the key draw is for the festival’s lifetime devotees, Orvis points to the environment in which the festival is held. “I think it’s about where we are just as much as who we are,” he says. “We’re not a festival out in a paddock somewhere. We don’t just have one stage propped up on the side of a hill. We’re in a classic coastal town, which is beautiful unto itself. It’s in a park right next to the beach and the pier. It runs all the way through the town, with venues right up the main street. We’re in the cafes, we’re in the halls… we’re even on the trains. It’s a real experience, and I think that’s what people are drawn to.”

Originally in charge of booking the after-party for the festival, Orvis first tried his hand at booking in earnest around 2008. It was through him that the festival was able to score one of its all-time biggest drawcards – the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. “That was just right as he was breaking,” Orvis recalls. “I kind of fluked it – I just happened to be listening to ABC Radio at the right time when they were playing his music. He’d originally been booked as just one of the acoustic acts that we were going to stick on in the little halls. His profile rose so quickly that he ended up getting moved to the main stage – he basically headlined the entire festival.”

2018 marks the fifth QMF with Orvis at the helm. The director notes an interesting trajectory within the curation of its lineup, relying less on marquee acts as the festival itself develops its own reputation. “When I was starting out with it, we were a whole lot more about needing to sell tickets,” he says. “We weren’t selling heaps – we counted every single one of them. We had good and bad years, but it was always in the back of your mind that the program you were putting together had to sell X amount of tickets. It made the decision-making process a lot harder – especially when you’re in all these negotiations with the artists you know are going to draw.”

That stress, according to Orvis, isn’t so much an issue insofar as booking is concerned. “Now we’re a bit more established, we have people that come back no matter what,” he says. “That’s awesome, because I worry less about having to sell shitloads of tickets and I get the luxury of challenging our audiences a little more.”

A look at some of the headliners of the festival will quickly give you a who’s-who of Australian music greats – among them Paul Kelly, The Living End, The Triffids, Renee Geyer and the late Billy Thorpe. If you ask Orvis, however, the ones on the bill to look out for are in the fine print – every year seems to bring out a surprise new artist that is either about to ride a wave of momentum or is on one by the time they roll in to Queenscliff. “We’ve definitely been lucky and unlucky in the past,” says Orvis.

“We booked Megan Washington just as she was exploding, and Kimbra just as her profile was taking off thanks to the Gotye song. Unfortunately, Megan had to pull out that year because she was ill – and Kimbra was a logistical headache waiting to happen because she’d been nominated for all these ARIAs that year. She ended up having to take a helicopter straight from the festival ground to the ARIA ceremony just to make it on time!”

If you want an example of how far an artist can come from their Queenscliff debut, look no further than Courtney Barnett. If you squint hard enough, you can see her on the second-to-last line of the festival’s 2010 poster. “She was playing in a couple of small cafes with her band,” Orvis recalls. “She had very small crowds, and obviously no-one knew who she was. I booked her because she was a friend of a friend, and I look back at those photos from that year just laughing.” She returns in 2018 as the headliner, and it’s not lost on Orvis how far she’s come. “To go from the smallest possible places you could play to being the top of the list and our biggest name of the festival is really something,” he says.

Of course, with every ingenious booking idea comes at least one drop of the proverbial ball. In one instance, Orvis recalls what can only be described as a royal screw-up on his behalf. “I think it was 2012, and my girlfriend – my now-wife – was telling me about this young artist that was breaking over in New Zealand,” he says. “She suggested I book them for the festival, so I checked them out. I kind of laughed it off to her, because I didn’t think they were any good.” That artist, for those of you playing at home, was Lorde. “It’s definitely one of my biggest regrets,” he says with an exasperated laugh. “I don’t think a week goes by without my wife reminding me.”

As Orvis prepares for the festival’s 22nd edition, things in the QMF offices are busier than ever. Dozens upon dozens of musicians and comedians are set to arrive in town very soon, and the stress of putting on such a multi-faceted event is not one that’s lost on Orvis – nor has it lessened in the years since he took over. “The hours can be ridiculous, and the jobs you’ve gotta do can be crazy,” he says.

“You might end up becoming the cleaner, or the director, or the bank manager – all in one day. I work full-time, all year round. When the actual festival rolls around, I’m there from god-knows-when in the morning until the very end. I finally get home, trying to get to sleep when I think of about 100 things I forgot to do that day I’ll have to do tomorrow.” He laughs to himself. “It’s full-on,” he confesses.

“I still love it, though. I’ve got a great staff and a great crew that make everything happen, as well as a group of 4 to 500 amazing volunteers every year. It’s the kind of thing that gets in your veins. I wouldn’t keep doing it otherwise.”

Queenscliff Music Festival 2018 is going down from this Friday, 23rd November around Queenscliff! Catch the full lineup & details below.

Queenscliff Music Festival 2018 Lineup

Anne Edmonds (comedy)
Corey White (comedy)
Danielle Walker (comedy)
Fenn Wilson
‘Find Your Voice (All-Abilities Choir)’
Finnigan August
Forever Son
Heath Robertson
Jack The Fox
The Kite Machine
MDRN Love
Nancie Schipper
Nathan Seeckts
Pollyman
The Refuge
The Sideshow Brides
Sweethearts with Bernard Purdie
Tides of Welcome
Tom Ballard (comedy)
Tom Richardson
Yoga Loves Music

Joining…

Alana Wilkinson
Ali Barter
Alice Skye
Amistat
Ben Ottewell (UK)
Bombino (NER)
Charm of Finches
China Bowls (UK)
Dan Sultan
Ella Trinidad
Grizzlee Train
Horns of Leroy
Jen Cloher
Maddy Jane
Mike Love (USA)
The Senegambian Jazz Band
Skinnyfish Sound System
Stu Larsen & Natsuki Kurai
Thando
Wanderers

Joining…

19-Twenty
Carla Geneve
Courtney Barnett
Donavon Frankenreiter (USA)
Fraser A Gorman
Gurrumul’s Djarimirri Live
The Herd
Kasey Chambers
The Little Stevies
Oh Pep!
Osaka Monaurail (JPN)
Sarah Blasko
Teeny Tiny Stevies
Tripod
The Turner Brown Band (USA)
The Whitlams

Queenscliff Music Festival 2018

Friday, 23rd — Sunday 25th November
Various Venues, Queenscliff
Tickets: Official Website

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