Lukas Nelson @ Bluesfest 2018 / Photo: Nikki Williams

Rusty Thorpe On Working Behind The Scenes At Bluesfest & The Magic Of The Festival’s Blockbuster Lineups

If you are a Rock or Blues lover, you’ve probably – at one time or another – come across Rusty Thorpe. Thickly entwined and a front runner in the promoting and marketing of music in both Australia and the UK, Rusty has the appeal of an old school rocker: tight black jeans, an untucked shirt beneath a sports jacket (the only visual hint of business), a shock of artistically-dishevelled white hair and, more often than not, a pair of Lennon-esque glasses.

Cool, affable, charming and talkative, we had the great pleasure to chat with the Bluesfest Marketing Manager as the festival gears up for its 31st edition.

Music Feeds: You’re kind of a staple in the Australian rock and Blues scene. What’s your role in Bluesfest and is it what you’ve always done?

Rusty Thorpe: My role in Bluesfest? On the business card, it’s Marketing Manager – basically devising the strategy to market tickets. Along with a couple of designers, I look after the logos, posters, poster art, where we are gonna put them and how we’re gonna put them. Main street press, street press, online, music blogs, radio and TV campaigns – the whole gamut. I also assist Bluesfest’s Head of Touring, Kimberley (Galceran) with Bluesfest Touring’s radio campaigns.

As far as what I’ve done previously, my history is in Radio and Television. I was just a poor boy who came out from England for a three week holiday in the ’70s and ended up helping out a new little radio station called double j, which during my sixteen years of work there – including a four-year stint doing the breakfast programme – developed into what we know now as triple j.

MF: Tell me about the discovery lineup at Bluesfest. How do you pick these artists?

RT: Peter Noble (Director of Bluesfest) has always wanted to be a part of the rise and development of up and coming artists. Obviously any festival still needs its headliners, the middle order and local bands; we aren’t reinventing the wheel, but the discovery artists are a collection of musicians Peter believes can do big things, and more often than not he’s right. They are the kind of artists that may sound familiar by name, but not seen much on the performing scene. When they hit the stage – and it may be only 3pm – it’s the sorta thing that has your jaw hitting the ground. And from there, they start rising up through the billing order here and overseas like Allen Stone did – once part of the discovery lineup and returning (from America) to Bluesfest this year.

We also have the locals we want to support. Hussy Hicks, playing again this year, is incredible – Julz Parker (the guitarist) came in at number five of people’s choice favourite all-time guitarist at Bluesfest. She came in head and shoulders above some really great guitarists without even being on the original list!

Like all great artists, these guys have a story, everyone on our lineup has a story. It makes for insanely good music with a message relevant to today. We have The War and Treaty returning this year – one of the stand outs from last year’s discovery lineup. He (Michael Trotter) has an incredible back story to his music making. Billeted in one of Sadam’s palaces during the Iraq war, he found solace at the keys of the palace piano. The story goes that his commanding officer heard him playing one day and encouraged him to do more with his music. The next day, the commanding officer was killed to which Michael wrote a song in his memory. And from there, he wrote many more songs for fallen soldiers upon the request of his peers. Shortly after the war, Michael met Tanya (Trotter) at a festival at which they were both performing and from that moment they haven’t stopped singing together.

MF: With such a long lasting festival, what’s changed since the first Bluesfest and does gender equality become a contributing factor when selecting artists to play?

RT: It’s changed drastically since its much smaller days back in the ’90s up at what’s now the Byron Bay Brewery. I started in 2010. Back then it was a five to six month job for me, but now it’s year round. The year it took off and really exploded was 2013. That year we had Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Santana, Iggy, Counting Crows, I could go on…the first twelve lines on the poster were all headliners.

When it comes to gender equality, there is no one on our bill who is not worthy of being there. Peter (Noble) goes after bands that play great music, but you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes – and especially with the big artists – playing a show in Byron Bay at Easter just doesn’t fit into their schedule. He (Peter) always starts with a wish list for each festival, but it changes. If you look historically, we’ve always been pretty good with gender equality in the lineup and this year is no different. The fact is all artists are there because they are gonna knock your socks off, and I think the artists would prefer it that way – they’re at Bluesfest because of how they perform, not because of the gender they identify as. Bluesfest is here to unite people by serving up an extraordinary experience and delivering some of the best music you will ever see and hear.

MF: Obviously you have work commitments during the festival. Who will you be sneaking away for to make sure you get a glimpse of their set?

RT: Crowded House. It’s an exclusive Australian performance and will be the first here in four years, since the steps of the Opera House, Alanis Morissette celebrating 25 years of her mega-selling album, Jagged Little Pill, Lenny Kravitz…(laughs)

Sounds like I won’t be doing any work doesn’t it? Some Patti Smith, George Benson, Kool and the Gang, and who’s not going to sing along to ‘Volare’ when the Gipsy Kings are on? Then John Butler, Xavier Rudd and The Cat Empire. Say no more, there are three of our finest exports right there, going to have to catch a bit of them. (Laughs again) Look, when you start adding it up, it’s not who am I going to see, it’s who am I not going to see. I wanna see everybody.

MF: Over the course of your time working at Bluesfest, can you narrow down a single moment to remember and one to forget. 

RT: There’s a million moments to remember…oh God. The trouble is they are all bucket list moments and I’m just an old sook. Over the five days of the festival, I laugh, I cry and I dance like a lunatic. And I work. To walk Patti Smith up to the stage and witness this seventy-odd year old grandmother walk into the spotlight and transform into the godmother, the empress of punk and deliver the most hard hitting performances as if she were eighteen all over again…it was tear jerking. To stand there and watch a true legend perform; it’s inspiring, it’s uplifting. It gives me hope for mankind.

As there a moment to forget? Nah, it’s Rock’n’Roll; it’s all Rock’n’Roll, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful industry. And yes it has its downs and it has its insane ups, but at the end of the day, would I change it? Not in the slightest.

Follow all the latest Bluesfest 2020 updates, here.

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