Splendour in the Grass: Celebrating a Splendid Ten Years

Published in The Music Network

 

As its title would suggest, Splendour in the Grass has grown organically. This year, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary with a killer line-up, a new location and a swift sell-out.

The Pixies, The Strokes and Scissor Sisters are booked to appear on its biggest-ever bill, featuring more than 150 acts spread across July 30 to August 1. Splendour is the hottest ticket this winter. But the grass hasn’t always been so green. Early losses, inclement weather and 11th-hour cancellations have kept co-organisers Paul Piticco and Jessica Ducrou on their toes, as TMN discovered.

Splendour had an inauspicious beginning. In year one, the festival sold out but still managed to lose money. “It wasn’t very much – maybe $20,000 – but we were struggling,” recalls Piticco. “We’re never geared to be highly profitable, but costs were blowing. There were a few sideways looks from agents when we told them.”

There were also some strange glances from the talent. Certainly from Piticco’s wards Powderfinger, who on the 2001 debut of Splendour took centre stage, a position they would lock-down on a number of occasions through the years.

In an effort to trim costs, the Splendour crew removed the flooring from the band’s tent. Then the rain came. It started as a trickle, then moved as a current. All of it passing through the middle of the bandroom for Australia’s biggest rock group.

“Splendour started with very meagre beginnings,” muses Piticco. Those rookie mistakes provided Piticco and Ducrou a cold, hard lesson in how to run a big show. In the decade that has passed, Splendour has grown fourfold. Splendour began as a one-day treat, with. 7,500 punters walking through the turnstiles, many of whom pitched a tent for the night.

This year, 32,000 festival goers will descend on what is a new site for Splendour. The hardiest ticketholders will pitch their tents for the full four-night stay.

Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug hasn’t missed an edition of Splendour, and he’ll be there again this year as a punter. “There’s an inexplainable vibe playing Splendour,” he tells TMN. “All the bands hang out together and it’s really relaxed. It just feels more personal. And it doesn’t have the production line feel other big Australian fests have.”

Spendour was always envisaged as a camping festival in Byron Bay. Indeed, it was in the northern New South Wales beach community where Piticco and Ducrou first met, some 20 years ago. Ducrou, then an account executive with Rolling Stone Magazine, happened upon Piticco during an early incarnation of the Blues Festival. The pair hit it off immediately. Ducrou would learn the ropes in the live scene, first managing a venue, then working as an agent with APA Agency. Soon after, she became Powerfinger’s agent.

In 1996, she teamed with International Music Concepts’ Joe Segreto to launch the Homebake festival, which moved south to Sydney in 1998. That year, Ducrou established the Village Sounds agency.

Piticco, meanwhile, was creating his own empire in Brisbane. These days, his day job includes steering the Brisbane-based Secret Service artist management firm and the Dew Process label. After all these years, the pair know each other’s moves pretty well. Ducrou brings to the table her expertise in orchestrating live events, Piticco the intangibles. The pair draw up their musical wishlist more than a year before each festival.

“Do we have disagreements? Every ten minutes,” laughs Piticco. “Half the time you’re wrong, half the time you’re right. You’ve just got to identify when it’s you that’s wrong and know when to hold firm if you feel you’re right.”

This year marks a radical transition for Splendour, which has moved away from its Byron Bay heritage for the first time. Having long since outgrown its traditional home in Belongil Fields, Splendour’s organizers set their sights on a permanent home in the nearby Yelgun area. It wasn’t to be. After years of wrangling with councillors, organizers were unable to secure the requisite council approval.

A move north to the site of the annual Woodford Folk Festival in rural Queensland was decided, after striking a two-year contract with the Queensland Government and the Moreton Bay Regional Council. For now, Splendour will call Woodfordia home. Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh was quick to declare the arrival of Splendour as a “huge coup” for her state, one her advisers claimed could generate upwards of $13 million for the local region.

“It’s a far superior site to the one we were at. But it’s not a ten minute walk to the beach,” admits Piticco. Splendour’s position in the middle of Australia’s winter sets it apart from its rivals. The giant Big Day Out national tour in January and February has its own gravitational pull, dragging its artists to the sunnier climate when the northern hemisphere’s outdoor music circuit has shut down for the winter. Splendour has little competition down under. Rather, it faces-off with the crowded northern festivals market. When its organizers initially drew up their battleplan, they factored in the action going on nearby.

By piggybacking onto the Japanese Fuji Rock and Super Sonic festivals, and creating opportunities for separate sideshows in Australia’s main markets of Sydney and Melbourne, Splendour adds an Australian link to a new mini- Pacific Rim circuit for the performers. When it comes to selecting Splendour’s historical high points, Piticco and Ducrou are in step. Coldplay’s 2003 headline set sticks in the mind, as does last year’s Flaming Lips dazzler.

And the low points? During the 2003 event, the heavens memorably opened over Splendour’s campsite. “Oh, it was pretty terrible,” explains Ducrou. “The rain was relentless, torrential on the Friday. The rain returned the following day. By the time Sunday came around, the site was a mudfest. The team has also battled scalpers and dealt with last-minute cancellations, including the loss of 2009’s headliner Jane’s Addiction when the band’s drummer Stephen Perkins went down with a “mysterious infection” to his elbow. The Living End slotted in. Just 200 tickets were returned for re-sale.

Ticket-touts regularly threatened to rain on Splendour’s parade. Weary of seeing tickets appearing on eBay at twice the face value, organizers broke ranks in 2006 and trialled a new ticketing “tout-proof” system, which required an ID counterpart. It’s a necessary evil, one that has all but stopped Splendour tickets from surfacing on eBay.

“The Government should pass some legislation that stops the re-sale of a ticket for more than face value,” Ducrou says. “If they did that, we wouldn’t need this complex process for people to buy tickets.” On a show day, Splendour’s site will count roughly 2,000 crew and artists. Ten years earlier, that figure was less than 400. Clearly Splendour isn’t turning back. Piticco and Ducrou are already planning next year’s event, which both concede will likely stay in Woodford.

There’s still a desire to bring Splendour home to Byron Bay, with news on which is expected later in the year. And is there room for growth?

“It won’t be any longer. The three day format matches other events around the world, like Glastonbury, Coachella, Reading,” notes Ducrou. “Splendour is long enough.”


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