Another music festival collapse – alarm bells or death knell?

Groovin The Moo, a national touring festival that was to celebrate its 20th birthday next year, announced during the week that has been “forced to cancel” its 2024 edition, just eight days after tickets went on sale.

“Ticket sales have not been sufficient to deliver a regional festival of this kind,” the statement from the organisers reads.

“Thank you to everybody who has supported the festival. We hope to be able to bring Groovin the Moo back to regional communities in the future.”

So, are those alarm bells? Or is it a death knell?

It’s not looking good for GTM. The history of music festivals collapsing due to low ticket sales then coming back as a roaring success is… well, it’s zero. Zero Australian festivals have managed a successful resurrection. 

Even the Big Day Out couldn’t pull it off.

Back in 2014, I was working for a magazine that shared offices with the Big Day Out, the same year that legendary music festival collapsed in a heap.

The Big Day Out operated so close to the bone that once headliners Blur pulled out, tickets to the second Sydney show failed to sell out, which meant the high operating costs in Perth weren’t covered by the profits from Sydney.

Refunds to disgruntled Britpop fans meant ticket sales were roughly halved for the year. It was enough to tip the country’s most successful festival into the realms of  a “financial catastrophe”, as co-owner AJ Maddah dubbed it at the time, telling triple j the 2014 Big Day Out lost $10 million.

It never returned.

No doubt, this Big Day Out cautionary tale was flashing through the nervous minds of the Groovin The Moo organisers as they watched ticket sales dribble in last week.

But, for an entire national touring festival, one that travels to six regional flashpoints, to be cancelled due to “low demand” after just eight days is a terrible sign. And Groovin The Moo is just the latest in a long line of music festivals to fall.  

Falls Festival was the last really big music festival to collapse, a 30-year New Year’s Eve ritual that took 2023 off to “rest, recover and recalibrate”. Hmmm. 

Hobart’s massive arts festival Dark Mofo also won’t return in 2024 due to “escalating costs”. 

Last month, Adam Metwally, the organiser of Coastal Jam, pulled the plug just three days before the event was set to take place at Mornington Peninsula. 

In a video announcing the last-minute cancellation, Metwally noted the cost of living crunch means “much slower than usual and very much last-minute sales for boutique events like Coastal Jam”, before hitting on another big reason for the slowdown in festival ticket sales. 

“We only have enough money for a few things now,” he said,  with “massive international tours being the priority” for thrifty ticket buyers.

“Unfortunately it’s led to smaller boutique festivals and events such as ours to fall by the wayside.”

Do you know what filled the Big Day Out sized gap in the schedule? And what’s going to fill the Groovin gap? Ed Sheeran tours. Pink tours. Taylor Swift tours. 

Those international tours sell every city out within a few hours. The Big Day Out used to sell out within a few hours every single year. So did the 50,000-capacity Splendour In The Grass. So did every major music festival in Australia. Every year for a decade, Splendour would sell out in a single day –  until 2023, when it struggled to sell tickets for weeks.

The year before, a disastrous weather event saw the first day cancelled, an entire camping ground and natural amphitheatre turned into a two-foot hellscape of sludge, and wet-drunk-muddy punters stranded waiting for buses until 6am. Conditions were so bad, there was a tragic death from meningococcal disease

Which brings us to the other reason that festivals are over. The world has spent an inordinate time over the same few years either burning, or flooding. 

Between Splendour, in July 2022, to early December that same year, more than a dozen Australian festivals collapsed due to terrible weather. 

This came after a two-year stretch of COVID-19 cancellations.

So, if the weather doesn’t shut down your festival, public liability insurance will.

Last June, James Young, owner of Melbourne rock institutions Cherry Bar and Yah Yah’s, told A Current Affair that insurance at Cherry Bar jumped from $400 a week in 2022, to $2,500 each week, while Yah Yah’s leaped from $600 to $3,500.

Young called these leaping insurance costs “the greatest threat to live music in Australia that we’ve seen in decades”, estimating that 30% of live music venues in Australia will be forced to close.

After the aforementioned floods in 2022, the Australian Festival Association (AFA) said that 2023 was met with a 300% hike in insurance premiums, a 30% rise in supplier costs (this was followed by six more rate rises), and “inconsistent advanced ticket sales compared with pre-Covid patterns”.

“The festivals that we know and love may not survive if they don’t have a successful first season back after Covid,” the association’s managing director, Mitch Wilson told the Guardian. “They’ve struggled to stay alive.”

And they have. This That Music Festival, which draws 20,000 punters in Newcastle, and close to that in Sandstone Point in Queensland, couldn’t afford to run last year. South Australian festival Vintage Vibes booked Groove Armada and Rudimental, but cancelled last month.

Vivian Lees, the co-founder of the Big Day Out, saw this coming a decade ago, as his own brainchild folded.

“The Big Day Out has been, and will always be, the festival in Australia,” he said, “and if people are expecting something better to come along tomorrow, then they shouldn’t be holding their breath because it’s not going to happen.”

Since then, we’ve skated (are skating) close to a recession, suffered through a two-year pandemic, and had a string of the worst weather disasters in living history.

In 2024, the idea of staging a multi-day, multi-city, multi-artist festival, seems to be an impossibility.

When the insurance agents are pricing you out, what you are doing is probably madness. 

Until, of course, we fix the environment, and the economy. There might still be time. 

Enjoy your weekend.


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