Published in The Music Network
The man behind the Byron Bay festival discusses extending the event to six days, battling local councillors, the current festival climate and how he finally convinced Bob Dylan to come and play.
Much has been written about your amazing line-up this year – Bob Dylan, BB King, Elvis Costello, and now George Clinton. How did you pull it off?
I picked up the phone and sent lots of emails. I harassed people. Those who didn’t answer me first time, I caught a plane, jumped their fence knocked on their back fence and said, “g’day”.
There’s talk you worked a decade on securing the services of Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan played Ballina in 2001. He wanted to play in Byron but he couldn’t at the time. I was at a show in 2007, backstage at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and I spoke with Bob Dylan’s manager [Jeff] Kramer. His response was something like, ‘he doesn’t want to play no fucking town he’s never heard of.’ So we then went about educating him of the values of performing in one of the world’s most wonderful spaces. Every year we go for a whole bunch of talent, and then the talent decides. Hopefully with every year, you can edge them a little closer to a point where you get them over the line.
So you have to play something of a tourist-operator role?
Well, it’s just about making people aware of Byron Bay, in so far as it’s a town with an incredible history and culture with wonderful facilities and environment. We draw more people to Bluesfest than to Montreux Jazz festival or North Sea Jazz Festival.
You’re extending the event to six days, and you’ve had your battles with council.
Well, it was really one or two people who tried to bushwhack us. Two councillors who don’t normally come had shown up to the meeting. One was on the far-left and the other was so far up his arse he doesn’t know his left from his right. It was un-Australian. It’s not about mateship or a fair-go, it’s about people being pricks. We need people who represent communities, not themselves.
You’ve set the bar high with your talent line-up. Where do you take it next time?
I’ve had that asked of me many years. Last year, we won the Australian Event of the Year and Best Cultural and Arts Event [at the Australian Event Awards]. We try to put out these incredible bills every year. I’m learning each time what the public wants, and the public has spoken. What I need to do is give them even more next time (laughs).
Is Bluesfest feeling the heat like so many other fests?
There’s a lot of blood in the sand. Festival directors are getting burned on a regular basis. For years, the veteran guys have been saying, “festivals are the new pub-rock – one on every corner”. The economy tells you, you cannot maintain the level of festivals in Australia and the supply of talent doesn’t exist. Economics then pushes up the price of talent and makes it unviable. It’s an untenable situation.
The big events will remain established. The mid-level ones will do it tough. And it seems to be happening this year. In general, there has been a re-evaluation by the public. I am one of the events that they’ve decided to support. The differential between profit and loss can be 10-20% of the margin. It’s that tight. I hope much-loved events like Woodford Festival, which was hit by torrential rain, are able to quickly recover. Woodford, I think, is the best event.
How is your site?
We’ve not been flood affected, but there’s a perception that the whole area got blitzed. Tourism is down. Of course, we are not expecting people in Brisbane to be coming down at the moment.
So how do you rise above the market issues?
You can’t buy a ticket for Bluesfest unless you buy it through us. We know where our audience is. You have to become a member to buy a ticket. The average ticket buyer is 26-years-old. The vast majority, something like 70%, are under 30 years old. That astounds people. We have a big dip in the 30s, then the plus-40s to 50-55 picks up again.
People often come up to me and say, “I grew up going to your festival. My mum and dad used to take me. It’s my favourite music, and I go to Soundwave too”. We’ve got to use all that rootsy-type music, world music, the stuff you can shake your arse to. We have 110,000 subscribers. If a third of those people every year want to buy a ticket, we’re oversubscribed.
A lot of subscribers go every three years, according to our information. With direct marketing, you’re able to build an event on a yearly basis without doing print or any other forms of marketing. It costs more to advertise in the Sunday Mail, and you get better results doing direct marketing. It changes the world we’re looking at.