2014 columns, Music

The carnival is over

by Chad Parkhill , August 20, 20141 Comment


Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Its pedigree was impeccable: presented by an international festival organisation (All Tomorrow’s Parties), with help from one of Europe’s largest and most successful festivals (Primavera Sound), and a principal online musical taste-maker (Pitchfork). Its impressive lineup featured the sorts of cult acts that have become synonymous with ATP’s brand, including Neutral Milk Hotel, James Blake, and Caribou, as well as more recherché acts such as Earth, Vatican Shadow, and Chelsea Wolfe. Yet fail it did – a mere three days before the festival was scheduled to start, ATP announced that it had been cancelled. To say that the fallout has been acrimonious would be an understatement: both the festival’s ticketing agent and publicity firm have launched lawsuits against ATP, and Pitchfork has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement distancing themselves from the festival’s financial arrangements. (For their part, Primavera have simply deleted the event from their website.)

Jabberwocky isn’t the only high profile music festival casualty of late. Closer to home, the iconic Big Day Out festival recently and somewhat belatedly announced that it would not be hosting an event in 2015. According to promoter A.J. Maddah, the festival will instead be focusing its efforts on its 2016 offering. This may not necessarily spell the end of the Big Day Out – it went on hiatus in 1998, and returned the following year to absolutely dominate the Australian festival landscape for the next half-decade. But, as one eagle-eyed punter on FasterLouder’s forums noted, Australian festivals have a habit of going on hiatus and simply never returning. Such was the case with Livid (post-2003), V Festival (post-2009), and both Pyramid Rock and Homebake (post-2012).

Festival failures are not exactly unknown on the Australian circuit – regular readers of Mess+Noise might gleefully remember the disastrous Blueprint festival of 2009, whose organisers were bankrupted by their own poor management, and BAM!, a 2010 festival that didn’t so much resemble a fun weekend away as a pyramid scheme. In the past, however, it was usually greenhorns whose festivals folded or ended in catastrophe. This is evidently no longer the case.

Of course, the reason why each of these festivals has failed remains unique to that festival; there is no common cause for the general malaise. In the case of Jabberwocky, it must be mentioned that ATP have a relatively chequered history of delayed and cancelled festivals, including a Jeff Mangum–curated instalment of their core All Tomorrow’s Parties festival that was scheduled to take place in 2011, but postponed to 2012. Another instalment curated by Jim O’Rourke and scheduled to take place in Tokyo in 2012, was first postponed and then cancelled. Their Australian festival offerings have been patchy, to say the least – an instalment of ATP curated by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Victoria’s Mt. Buller in 2009 was exceptionally well-received, but an instalment of its I’ll Be Your Mirror series at Altona in 2013 was plagued with problems, and ticket sales for a one-off follow-up event called Release the Bats were so lacklustre that the event had to be moved to two smaller venues in St Kilda.

The failure of the 2014 Big Day Out seems to stem from its audacious use of three major headliners: Pearl Jam, Blur, and Arcade Fire (BDO promoter Ken West called the triple headliners three ‘white whales’ when announcing the lineup – perhaps unaware that Moby-Dick’s white whaleactually kills Captain Ahab). Aside from the logistics of dealing with three stadium-sized bands and their stadium-sized egos – the festival was planning to construct an extra main stage to accommodate all three without clashes – each band caused its own problems. Pearl Jam may have appealed to an older, nostalgic crowd, but those who purchased tickets just to see them let the organisers know they were only attending the BDO under sufferance (there were no sideshows). Arcade Fire had toured with the BDO previously in 2008, which made them a known quantity, and the release of a somewhat bloated and indulgent fourth album (Reflektor) had dulled their appeal. The protracted dispute between Blur and the BDO’s management ended with Blur pulling out of their headline slot. The BDO replaced them with three separate acts (The Hives, Deftones, and Beady Eye) compounding the event’s general state of confusion. The end result was an overstuffed festival bill with little coherence – one that generated a lot of internet chatter, but ultimately lead to disappointing sales.

The failure of these two high-profile festivals drives home a key message: the festival boom is definitely over, and we’re well into a period of festival crunch. The festivals that are likely to survive are ones that are small and agile, have well-defined target audiences they know intimately, and can respond swiftly to both musical and logistical developments. Most importantly, those festivals that wish to succeed in an environment where the 18–25 age bracket is no longer flush with cash will need to chase older, more moneyed audiences – and those audiences tend to prioritise about the overall experience of the festival rather than individual acts. The superabundance of festivals in the previous decade has given older audiences (25–35) some very high expectations: we want not only well-curated music but also nice amenities, an absence of long queues, decent food and drink, and not to be treated like potential drug smugglers on our way in by security and police. A small number of boutique festivals will be able to deliver such experiences, but until the economic good times return, expect the larger festivals with their quantity-over-quality format to struggle.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »