Time Out Melbourne

How to stage a successful music festival

Andrew P Street reveals the one absolutely guaranteed thing to make a music festival a massive success - and the three things that make no difference whatsoever

Every year there’s a fun conversation had in the music press on the subject of Is This The Year That Festivals Collapse And Burn To The Ground. It’s an easy piece to write – I’ve written it myself on several occasions – that usually happens when there has been either a spate of high profile flops, or when festivals sell out with head-spinning speed.

This week we have a perfect storm of both, which confuses the narrative more than usual. On the one hand we have the hip-hopstrastrophe that is Movement, which was killed last week mere days before the first event was meant to take place, while its major competitor Supafest scrapped its dates and is promising a reschedule to November, though no dates, acts or venues have been announced as yet.

On the other hand, Splendour in the Grass sold out in record time – even their $712 Country Club tickets that had Facebook up in arms about how very dare they have a premium tier for tickets and how it’s all about the money, man.

However, I can happily announce that I’ve worked out the simple, straightforward, absolute near-as-dammit way to guarantee that a music festival will be successful. Before we get to that, though, let’s look at the three things that people think matter but absolutely don’t. Things like…

1. Ticket price
There’s an experiment that gets carried out a lot in psych labs, where the same wine will be poured into different glasses and given different price tags, and everyone will taste the more expensive wine as being better. It’s a legitimate cognitive bias that humans have: people actually do genuinely enjoy things more if they pay more for it, which is why traditionally things like operas are so damn expensive, because the pleasure of paying for it outweighs the objectively ghastly experience of actually sitting through one.

The phenomenon is so well-known in psych research that is has both its own name (“post-purchase rationalisation”) and it’s own nickname (‘buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome”).


"That's why operas are so damn expensive: the pleasure of paying for it outweighs the objectively ghastly experience of sitting through one"


So provided that the price isn’t so shockingly inflated that one’s monocle actually falls into the soup, people will generally stump up, even after bitching on Twitter about how they went to the first Big Day Out for thruppence and still had change for a phosphate and a hansom cab home. Failed festivals might have had pricy tickets, but the reason they didn’t sell generally wasn’t because people decided it wasn’t financially worth it.

The second least important thing at a music festival?

2. Convenience
This seems counterintuitive, especially when you’re an older person who bitches and moans about being hot and how there are no buses (like, um, I did with I’ll Be Your Mirror earlier this year). That stuff affects whether some people actually turn up on the day, presumably, and you’d think that it would be a factor in whether people buy tickets to start with. But the fact is, it’s not.

Luna Park, which is serviced by trains, buses and ferries, has been home to a bunch of underperforming music festivals, while the annual Homebake Festival in the Domain – in the middle of the nation’s largest damn city – recently held an online survey that seemed highly skewed toward asking if they should even bother. Meanwhile Splendour moved for several years to Woodford in regional Queensland, which is convenient for absolutely nobody at all, and everyone obediently trotted along.

It’s probably connected with the same quirk in the human brain discussed above regarding price: if we’ve made this much of an effort to get to this event, it must be amazing. Otherwise we’d be some sort of idiot, right?

And the leastest-importantest thing at a music festival?

3. The music
I’m not just being contrary here. The festivals that consistently sell out – Splendour, Soundwave, Meredith/Golden Plains – do so generally without releasing their line ups much ahead of the on-sale date – and Bluesfest traditionally starts selling tickets months ahead of any announcement of the line up. In fact, the festivals that rely heavily on a killer line up are the ones that struggle from year to year – think about how Big Day Out’s fortunes started to wane from 2004 onwards, when Metallica changed the festival from “bunch of popular but generally mid-level bands that you’d probably not pay more than $70 to see individually” to “one or two big name headliners and a day’s worth of supports”, while Future Music, Laneway and relative newcomer Harvest are still struggling to become an immediate go-to festival rather than an event-by-event decision based on the acts on offer.

Now, obviously part of the reason that people will buy a ticket without worrying about the line up is at least in part because the festival has a reputation for killer programming – a couple of shitty years can scuttle even the most beloved event (which, again, Big Day Out learned to their detriment in the mid ‘00s – and, arguably, Falls Festival is currently discovering) – but once a festival becomes a regular part of someone’s life, it takes a fair bit to dislodge it. One perfect Meredith and I was hooked, while one shitty V Festival was enough to turn me off for life – and the things that determined both experiences had very little to do with the music.

So that’s the stuff that doesn’t make a difference – and brings me to the number one way to all but guarantee success for your music festival. I’ve looked at the data, I’ve crunched the numbers, and the secret is this:

Already be a successful festival for the last five years or so.

Simply jump that teensy little hurdle, and you’re well on your way to Successtown, population: money!

Oh, and maybe sell a T-shirt of some kind at your event. Kids still like T-shirts, right?

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Updated on 9 May 2013.

By Andrew P Street   |  
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