Opinion

Why the Aussie festival isn’t dead – it’s just evolved

Bolster’s head of creative & strategy, Darren Levin, shares an insider perspective on how the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival is regenerating the Australian festival experience for young consumers, after many have been forced to shut down.

My first Big Day Out as a teenager in 1999 was the ultimate cultural hazing. We snuck in vodka in water bottles that were expertly sealed with soldering irons, endured facilities that violated every OH&S rule under the sun (and were probably the reason some were created), and survived mosh pits that could literally swallow you up.

I’m still not sure how we made it out alive – but we did and we told everyone about it the next day.

For many years festivals were the ultimate rite of passage for young Australians. And then came the Covid circuit breaker, confining teenagers to their bedroom, ushering in a wave of social anxiety, and accelerating the take up of TikTok, Twitch, Discord, and other online experiences and communities.

Despite an initial burst of excitement when things opened up – Bolster reported a median excitement level of 9.5 out of 10 about the return of live events in February 2022 – young Australians seem to have retreated back into their shells. The data suggests they were hosting intimate gatherings at home, drinking less, and feeling the pinch of ‘cozzie livs’.

When regional touring festival Groovin’ The Moo pulled the pin on six dates the question was rightly asked: was the Australian festival experience still relevant to Gen Z?

Dr Andy Ward – a senior lecturer in contemporary music at the University of the Sunshine Coast – said young Australians had begun seeking out different experiences post-COVID.

“We need to look at the other things they’re spending money on,” he told The Guardian, “and it seems to be home entertainment and more streaming-based media. Younger people aren’t engaging in the traditional coming-of-age [experiences], they’re socialising at home and having house parties.”

But there’s another story that’s been lost in all the doom and gloom. Festivals aren’t dying, they’re regenerating. In recent years Coachella has tapped into Gen Z’s thirst for global sounds and trends, elevating Bad Bunny, Black Pink and Rosalía to the kind of headline positions previously reserved for ageing stadium rock acts and nostalgia bands. Then there’s Tyler The Creator’s highly curated Camp Flog Gnaw – an explosion of luxe street culture, progressive hip-hop, and genuine fandom – that made its triumphant return after a Covid-enforced four year hiatus.

“While most other fests seemingly recycle the same buzzy names based on social engagement and streaming numbers, [Tyler] selects friends and artists he’s genuinely a fan of,” wrote American youth culture publication UPROXX of the 2023 event.

In the Australian context, I saw this with my own eyes at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, a mainstay of Australia’s summer festival circuit, which has undergone its own audience evolution in recent years.

Full disclosure: Bolster has been working with Laneway is some form or another since 2016, supporting with digital marketing and media buying and managing brand partnerships and activations through our sister agency Aeroplane.

We have a vested interest in Laneway’s success, but the numbers don’t lie.

Bolster can reveal to Mumbrella exclusively that this year’s Laneway Festival sold more tickets than any year previously (125,000 nationally), which is a remarkable achievement for a festival that started when co-headliner Steve Lacey was just six years old.

This was one of the biggest years from a partnership perspective as well: 22 across Australia and New Zealand including newcomers such as Samsung, ISLA, McDonald’s and Cancer Council and returning partners including Jameson, Malibu and Lipton.

If that’s a death knell sounding for Australian festivals, it’s a pretty damn quiet one.

But it’s the demographic in which Laneway is seeing the most growth that’s the most striking. In 2023, 60% of Laneway attendees were aged between 18 and 24, with a small but healthy cohort growing in the under-18 category. The numbers from the 2024 event are still trickling through, but they’re expected to be even higher.

That can be attributed to a programming team that is cognisant of a shift in the listening habits of young Australians, the diminishing influence of radio, and TikTok’s rapid rise as a discovery platform.

There’s a tonne of work put into the experience as well, starting with creative director Jack Irvine, whose freehand illustrations adorn everything from merch to activations such as Samsung’s UFO, which doubled as a photo op and a showcase of the phone’s AI-driven feature.

From Bolster’s own research into the post-COVID landscape, we know young people are receptive to brand partnerships. But while 42% of 1800 festival goers said they’d purchased from a brand after seeing them at a festival, that audience is pretty particular about the way they expect brands to show up.

Festival co-founder Jerome Borazio says Laneway goes to great lengths to ensure the full experience is cohesive, tapping into the curatorial way in which young Australians live their lives and the un-interruptive way they want to be marketed to. That applies to the 50-plus brand activations that rolled out nationally – from a Maccas ice-cream stand to Jameson’s House of Rounds precinct showcasing emerging rock bands such as The Buoys.

“Did we just shove brands down kids’ throats? No,” he says. “It’s about seamlessly integrating them to bring colour and life and just add an element to the festival that can potentially be a good experience for the punters.”

At House of Rounds in Melbourne, Jameson carved out a distinct space that served a particular niche of the Laneway audience. A special touch was an entrance that referenced St Jerome’s, the legendary dive bar owned by Borazio and co-founder Danny Rogers that started it all.

“It felt like our own little oasis inside the festival,” says Jameson senior brand manager Aaron Castle. “Music is one of Jameson’s core pillars. Globally and locally, Jameson is a big supporter of local music. To bring added value to Laneway this year was exactly what we should be doing. We want to add value to the festival, rather than just attaching to it, and give opportunities for local artists to play. The audience is a great alignment for the new wave of Jameson consumer.”

Castles says music – and festivals, specifically – remain a core part of Jameson’s culture marketing strategy, driving trial and awareness among a cohort that’s slightly younger than the core whiskey drinker.

“It’s just a new audience. Post-Covid, there’s been an ebb and flow. It seems like the appetite is still there [for festivals], especially from the Laneway perspective. It’s starting from a lower base, with younger audiences now talking about it.”

In recent years, Borazio has put his money where his mouth is, launching his own brands ISLA and Water Can at Laneway. He says festivals can be a powerful incubator for brands – Water Can was inspired by consumer feedback around plastic waste, observations about the way on-site staff consumed water, and a change in drinking habits among young Australians. When it came to launch, Laneway was a no-brainer.

“Wouldn’t this be an amazing story for Laneway to hang its hat on,” says Borazio in regards to Water Can. “We launched this water company, we helped this tech company, we launched an artist’s career – it’s all in the same vein.”

But all of this wouldn’t be possible if Laneway didn’t begin its audience regeneration project several years ago. For the 2020 event, organisers decided to lower the age to 16 and adjust bookings accordingly; a masterstroke in foresight that is paying dividends now.

Covid put a spanner in those plans, interrupting those word-of-mouth connections that our research tells us are powerful drivers of ticket sales. Without those critical recommendations from friends or older siblings, was Australian youth culture’s ultimate rite of passage moment damaged beyond repair? Borazio is confident those connections are being repaired again.

“The rite of passage – of course it’s changed. We’ve just come out the back of COVID. This is a whole generation that was too young to go to festivals and when they’re old enough, didn’t necessarily have the gradual introduction to music – whether that be in pubs or at festivals.

“I think it’s just a bit of a realignment,” he continues, “because you’ve had that two to three year hiatus from festivals. And there were alternate things that people found to do. But it’s not going to take long for the cycle to kick back in because you cannot deny how important music is to people.”

It’s why Laneway’s most successful run yet isn’t just music to the ears of organisers, but a sign that Australia’s festival market is in a regeneration phase. Things are just a little bit different to the agro “kiss the flag” energy that greeted me at the Flemington Racecourse gates for the Big Day Out in 1999.

“That rite of passage – it was wild,” Borazio says, laughing. “The kids today have different priorities. They were just so polite, so courteous, so respectful, so grateful to be in that environment. There’s a community that is there – it’s just rebuilding. Laneway has a responsibility to help entertain them and educate them.”

Darren Levin is Bolster Group’s head of strategy and creative.

ADVERTISEMENT

Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.

 

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.