Michael Franti @ Bluesfest 2018 / Photo: Nikki Williams

“It Certainly Wasn’t A Negotiation”: Peter Noble On Bluesfest’s Final-Hour Cancellation & Its October Resurrection

Peter Noble should be furious. At the end of March, the Bluesfest owner endured the eleventh hour cancellation of his world-renowned musical festival for the second year running.

A single case of community COVID transmission in the Byron Shire was enough for the NSW Health Ministry to sign a public health order vetoing the all-Australian variant of the local music industry staple. It was an announcement that left many pondering whether Bluesfest would ever recover.

But anyone who knows Noble will know he’s not one to be so easily discouraged. The Bluesfest social media pages sprung to life again just one month later, announcing rescheduled dates for the 2021 festival, which will now take place across NSW’s early October long weekend.

The vast majority of the April lineup remains intact, including headliners Jimmy Barnes and Tash Sultana, plus Ocean Alley, Kasey Chambers and The Church. The rescheduled event also includes two additional headliners, Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly, both of whom are a major boon for Noble and the Bluesfest faithful.

While it’s anyone’s guess what the local COVID situation will be in four months’ time, Noble is resolute: Bluesfest will go ahead in October. In this interview with Music Feeds, he highlights why the event is so important for not just the cultural industries, but the local and state economies and the artists and festival employees.

Music Feeds: Bluesfest will happening from Friday, October 1st – Monday, October 4th. It must be a relief to have those dates locked in.

Peter Noble: I thought it was going to happen at Easter. We were OK until about 18 hours away from the gates opening!

MF: Are you able to disclose any details of the conversations between yourself and Health Minister Brad Hazzard that led to the ultra-last minute cancellation?

PN: I’d prefer not to. I’ll just say this: it certainly wasn’t a negotiation. I think that if everybody had been a bit more conciliatory, we could’ve shut the festival for Thursday whilst we all looked to see if there was going to be any community transmission of COVID, which in fact there wasn’t, and opened on Good Friday. That would’ve been acceptable and definitely achievable and, in hindsight, a preferred result.

MF: After two cancellations, has it become clear to you what’s lacking in terms of government support for live events and reliable safety nets for event organisers?

PN: An event like Bluesfest is not being supported by the government to the levels it should be. And it’s not only Bluesfest – it’s the live music industry. Investment in music for what we bring, not only on the arts side, but financially to our states and regions, needs to be quantified, understood and invested in by our governments.

We’re bigger than the mining industry, we’re bigger than all those industries that have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in them. Why aren’t we getting the same? Then we will see the arts flourish.

RELATED READING: New Calls For Festival Insurance Scheme Following Bluesfest 2021 Cancellation

MF: The Economic Impact Report from Bluesfest 2019 displays that not only is Bluesfest a major cultural event, but it creates hundreds of full-time jobs, provides essential revenue for businesses in the local area and boosts the NSW economy. Can you highlight some of the key findings from that report?

PN: You’re talking $350 million – that’s what we’re worth to the state. That is the sort of value that you just have to hammer home, because on top of that we’re also Australia’s most highly rewarded event. We were nominated in the top ten festivals of the decade by Pollstar, sitting alongside Glastonbury and Coachella et cetera.

When it gets down to the financial side, I don’t want to be a beggar, but what I want is recognition for my industry, the live music industry, for all the wealth that we bring to a community.

MF: Bluesfest is in its 32nd year. How much government funding have you received in that time?

PN: We got a minor grant somewhere in the last ten years. I think we might’ve got a major one around 2005. But within that time we won at the NSW Tourism Awards Best Major Event five times in the last ten years, including three in a row. We beat VIVID, which has got a $20+ million government investment in it, every single time that we were up against them.

The government is missing out on not having a fund that’s available to support major events that bring so much wealth to their communities and, of course, see the arts flourish. I’ve never put my hand out before because I’ve never needed it. But right now people do need it and there’s no one to go to.

MF: Were you offered any compensation after what happened this April?

PN: Bluesfest has been the recipient of an amount of money that allowed us to pay all our workers and pay some money towards all our suppliers. We’ve actually made a payment of 50% of the money for all of the artists earning under a certain amount and 25% for the big earners.

We didn’t have to do that, but I said to myself, look, the musicians, they were in transit. Many of them hadn’t worked for a year. Many of them were actually in Byron. They had costs. And although we contractually didn’t have to do anything because we were closed by a public health order, that’s not the point.

MF: The October Bluesfest will be a four-day event, rather than the usual five. You’ve lost a day, but gained Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly. Silver linings?

PN: You can’t understate that. There have been some great Australian artists, but you’d have to put Midnight Oil in the top three or four or five. They haven’t played Bluesfest in 19 years. I’ve been trying to get them back. I’ve been speaking with Peter Garrett, speaking with Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie. I even hired all the musicians in Midnight Oil to go and play the Rodriguez tour I did after the Searching for Sugar Man movie came out.

I’ve tried to get them back so many times, so when they called me and said, “What can we do? We’re so sorry to hear about what happened,” I went, “Come and play my bloody festival!”

MF: Did you consider scrapping the 2021 event after what happened at Easter?

PN: People go, “Are you mad, trying to come back again?” But we’ve got to stand up for our industry. You’ve got to be fighters and you can’t give up or wait to see what happens. We have to cause our industry to get back. That was my statement going into the Easter event

and it hasn’t changed going into October.

Running from Friday, 1st October to Monday, 4th October, the four-day Bluesfest 2021 event will be headlined by Aussie royalty in the form of Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly, alongside previously announced weekend headliners Tash Sultana and Jimmy Barnes. Head here for more lineup details. 

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