Festival culture in Australia is rapidly changing due to environmental and social pressures, so what might the future hold?
To know where we are heading in this context, we must first know from where we have come.
ONE DAY FESTIVALS ARE DEAD
Remember all those one-day touring festivals of the 90’s and early 00’s? Big Day Out, Stereosonic, Good Vibes, Soundwave etc? They were the biggest thing since Woodstock. They seemed too big to fail.
Punters wanted the all out indulgent over-the-top experience, bigger, better, harder, faster. It was all about ‘getting wasted’; popping pingers, smashing over-priced mid-strength tinnies, being blown away with the biggest sound possible in a tightly regulated mosh pit and then at the end of the day leave behind a sea of rubbish, literally trashing the place.
Don’t get me wrong. It was awesome. I was there riding that wave. The market was saturated with events like this because that’s what the market wanted. However, most of the biggest one-day touring festivals from that era do not exist anymore. The culture evolved, they did not.
There are of course – and always will be – a few exceptions to this trend. However they are riding a short term wave of popularity booking the big acts of the day propped up by international conglomerates and corporate sponsors. I won’t cite those examples as they are far from curating the future of festival culture in Australia.
By observing the patterns and trends of one-day festivals over the last 30 years, it is obvious that these festivals are far from sustainable; environmentally, socially, economically and most importantly energetically or spiritually.
In terms of large one-day festivals, if we refer to Rogers’ famous ‘diffusions of innovation’ bell curve; we can see that Big Day Out was the innovator (at least in Australia – in a global context more of an early adopter). Then came the early adopters in the 90’s, the early majority in the 00’s, late majority in the 10’s and now we see the laggards still trying to keep this dream alive.
MULTI-DAY CAMPING FESTIVALS (IN THE TRADITIONAL FORM) ARE DYING
The naughties saw an explosion of multi-day camping festivals. Splendor in the Grass is a great example of this. The inaugural edition was a one day event in 2001, riding the peak wave of the one day party in Australian festival culture. Organisers must of known what was coming and expanded to a two day event in 2002 and a three day event in 2009.
It appears that these events gained in popularity as the culture evolved and people started looking for something with a little more substance. We saw workshops become more included in an ever expanding program. Punters were given the opportunity to BYO and self-regulate their intake of substances. Referring back to Rogers curve the early majority took up this new wave of festival culture and we have seen it flourish over the last two decades.
However, over the last few years we have seen many well loved multi-day camping festivals dropping like flies. If they are not being cancelled due to wider societal pressures like the ‘war on festivals‘, they are now being cancelled due to extreme environmental conditions. Some are now asking the question “Are we looking at the end of summer music festivals as we know it?” My answer – only the ones that are not evolving with the times.
The organisers of these events are being given very clear social and environmental feedback. Are they accepting, regulating and integrating that feedback to evolve their events? Token gestures towards harm minimisation and moving dates to reduce the environmental risk is not enough, they need to evolve the intention and culture of the event if they wish to survive. Evolve or die as the old saying goes.
It seems Australia’s largest ‘doof’, Rainbow Serpent is picking up on this feedback. With the cancellation of their 2020 Festival due to catastrophic bushfires the festival will run a “Regen Edition” in Lexton over the Easter Long Weekend. The event will involve tree planting and a working bee – giving back to the earth and the wider community. Rainbow Serpent has certainly been an innovator in many regards over the years and this new direction perhaps offers a glimpse of what is required if these events wish to survive and even thrive into the next paradigm.
Environmental, Social and Cultural factors are all intricately linked. It’s a common tenet of all indigenous cultures around the world and this same concept forms the three ethics of permaculture. Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share (or Future Care).
Our environmental conditions are intricately connected to our social conditions which are intricately connected to our cultural conditions. They all reflect each other and are interwoven in a tapestry of consciousness that is beyond our limited 4D rational-mechanical awareness. We are entering an age where events that do not honour the highest good for all will not be supported by the universal forces that are behind this grande symphony of life.
This is what is happening to festival culture in Australia at the moment. We are being called to step up to evolve for the new paradigm – or depending on how you want to look at it – we are being called to step back, slow down and integrate the old ways of ancient wisdom in a modern context.
What is it that truly brings people together in celebration? Escapism or Connection? Destruction or Regeneration?
Parties for parties sake just won’t cut it anymore. Our mother earth is calling for more love and effort to be directed back into regenerating every piece of land upon which we stand – this is our response-ability, and while it may seem altruistic, it is purely a selfish endeavour as our very survival as a species depends on it. People are evolving from consumerist punters into productive participants that wish to grow and be of service to the land and their community. They want a deeper, richer and dare I say, transformative experience. They want to feel more connected to country, community and culture. They want to be part of something meaningful and contribute to creating a better world.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF FESTIVAL CULTURE IN AUSTRALIA LOOK LIKE?
I’ll give it to you straight… community gatherings that leave a positive trace across the environmental, social and cultural landscape. Festivals of the future will give people a more meaningful reason to celebrate, a purpose to party. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not; future festivals will proactively embrace the ethics and principles of permaculture – thinking tools for an era of change.
Who is on the leading edge of this cultural evolutionary leap? If we look back to Rogers’ ‘diffusion of innovations’ bell curve, then we can look to the small percentage of innovators and early adopters who are already showing us what the future of festival culture in Australia looks like.
INNOVATIVE FESTIVALS LEADING THE WAY
Woodford Folk Festival is in a league of it’s own – the largest folk festival in the southern hemisphere and the largest gathering of musicians and artists in Australia. They were, (according to inside sources) the pioneers of the multi-day camping event in Australia way back in the 80’s.
The organisers behind the festival started with the Maleny Folk Festival in 1987, in preparation for their bid to host the National Folk Festival in the following years. Back then there was no camping on site, everyone would go back to their own accommodation. The year that the National Folk Festival came to Maleny, they had all the artists, crew and punters camp onsite. This was apparently a first for festival culture in Australia.
Environmentally, Woodford has been cultivating a long term, all inclusive vision that not only makes it sustainable, but regenerative. Their 500 year plan, while pretty vague, lays a solid foundation of values and direction for all who engage with the festival. When they purchased an old run-down cattle farm to establish their permanent home, Woodfordia, they immediately began shaping their dream festival site and regenerating it into a cultural parkland dedicated to the arts, humanities and folklore. Soon after that ‘The Planting’ began in 1997.
From their website: Through The Planting, we created an event that contributes to worldwide consciousness emerging in communities everywhere—an endeavour to heal a planet damaged by the ravages of our industrial practices in the past and which sadly, still continue today. The programme, constructed to blend both the cultural expression and nurturing of our environment, both critical to the human experience and our planet’s health, is intended to encourage this symbiosis.
Socially, Woodford is a great example of embracing the traditional custodians and wider community, it’s a core value of theirs. Apart from the immense diversity in their official program, they have prominent politicians attending the festival every year (Bob Hawke was a regular) and over the years has been economically supported by every level of government. When the festival got slammed with the 2011 floods after a few years of poor ticket sales, they struck a deal with the local council to sell the land and lease it back at an affordable rate to secure the future of the festival for generations to come – an excellent example of resilience, adaptation, creative business and community integration.
Based on these observations Woodford is clearly an innovator when it comes to the trends around festivals. Ready to ride the (or define?) the next shift, they recently started their Artisans Camp that happens just before The Planting. A program of distinctive masterclasses designed to give participants the opportunity to upskill in a wide range of artistic and artisan areas such as comedy, circus, silversmithing, natural building and songwriting.
Woodford, whilst far from perfect, is a great example of the future of festival culture as they have been innovators from the start and are doing it now. They have strong partnerships with the local mob, they are actively improving and regenerating the land they are on, they have embraced and integrated just about every part of community and created a thriving culture that offers more than just a celebration.
Earth Frequency Festival & Island Vibe Festival
I’ve classed these two together for a few reasons, they are nearly sister events. They are both located in South East QLD, they both started in 2006, they are both of a similar size and each event shares resources and presents music/stages at the other. While the music and festival industry can be quite cut-throat and competitive, especially in the southern states, these two events are the fruits of a small but world-class collaborative community of conscious creatives that has emerged in the region over the last 20 years.
To expand their program and cultivate a deeper environmental and community connection both events have partnered with Grounded to offer a ‘Permaculture Retreat’ in the days leading up to the festival. These retreats are designed to allow a small group of participants to drop deeper into the story of themselves, the land we live on, the community we are a part of and the culture we are creating. Known to be transformational for the participants that attend, the retreats work thanks to a synchronistic alignment of values between all stakeholders giving back to the local community partners through project based education.
I initiated these retreats as I whole-heartedly believe them to be a fundamental part of the evolution of festival culture. The directors of these events do too, that’s why we do it.
Environmentally both events have been pushing to get their waste down to zero, first moving to full compostable cutlery and crockery and then seeking to remove single use plastic water bottles even before Green Music Australia initiated their industry campaign which has now gone global. Island Vibe has taken it one step further with it’s ‘Righteous Reusables’ initiative ditching the compostable plates in favour of a mobile wash station, with Earth Frequency sure to embrace the shift.
Earth Frequency was founded as a small tree planting doof, and now with its new permanent home at Ivory’s Rock that shares the same values, Grounded has brought this positive action back as a feature of the weekend festival.
Both Earth Frequency and Island Vibe are leading the charge when it comes to environmental initiatives and community integration and Grounded is right there with them playing our part.
Beyond these two well established events, a whole new series of events have emerged in the last few years that take it a step further as people seek out more intimate and transformational festival experiences.
Inspired by the events above, I initiated the first Grounded Gathering back in 2016. An idea that had been floating in the collective dreaming for a while, the intention of the gathering is to use the framework of permaculture to create a participatory event where people can learn and play whilst regenerating our sacred connection to country, community and culture. Bringing permaculture and transformational festival culture together into one potent experience.
Shifting the paradigm from ‘leave no trace’ to ‘leaving a positive trace’ we create symbiotic partnerships with all stakeholders and move to different sites each year to spread the perma-party action around. There is a whole lot of land in this country that needs a whole lot of love from people being on it and caring for it… it can be ridiculously hard work so that is why we make it our mission for it to be fun and enjoyable!
New Kind Conference is another event that has emerged in recent years that sits right on the cultural edge. Cleverly ditching ‘F’ word for the ‘C’ word they claim to be Australia’s only zero-waste, plant-based, solar-powered event. I’ve never been, and was sceptical at first, especially with the ‘preparation to leave earth’ narrative in the early years. Researching this article, it seems my initial gut feeling and skepticism was well founded. Whilst they claim to be part of the new wave and paradigm, there has been some questionable behaviour from the director(s) in previous years that does not align with the events stated intentions and integrity. If they can sort this out and clean up the mess the event might have a chance of thriving into the new paradigm.
INTENTION & INTEGRITY MATTERS
This article outlines some of the key components of festivals that have and will thrive in the long term due to their holistic and innovative approach in bringing people together to celebrate. However this will only work as long as the core organisers are operating from a place of pure intention and the highest level of integrity for what they claim to represent.
A pattern I’ve observed over time is some organisers trying to ride the cultural wave operating from the unconscious, using greenwashing and spiritual by-passing as a means to achieve their underlying shadowy intentions – playing out subconscious programs they might not even be aware of!
Everything is a reflection of everything. What happens at a festival is a reflection of the central core organisers. We are entering an age where if the stated and sub-conscious intentions are not aligned then it will simply not work. It is all well and good for festivals to claim to be healing, sustainable, or even regenerative, but if the individuals at the centre of the organisation are not fully doing the inner work to embody the values they claim to champion (to best of their ability,) then we can bust out the popcorn, sit back and watch them fail dramatically. All the industry round-tables and green-washing marketing campaigns won’t mean shit if organisers are operating purely for commercial gain or other shallow (or shadowy) reasons.
If the event does not come from a place of genuine heart and contribute something meaningful and unique to our culture, then the vision and stated values mean nothing. The multi-dimensional universal energies that are behind this grande symphony of life will see straight through the bullshit and it will not succeed. Welcome to the future of festival culture.
So on the one hand while we still have some festivals (the late majority and laggards) desperately clinging to the old paradigm of a hedonistic party just for parties sake, they are fraught with social and environmental problems and are getting feedback that the culture they are trying to celebrate just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.
Campground rubbish left behind at Lost Paradise 2018/19
Then on the other end of the innovation curve, we have festivals on the leading edge of culture, paving the way into a new paradigm. They are evolving beyond the ‘leave no trace’ concept and aiming to create a positive impact across the environmental, social and cultural landscape. This may sound bold, but Grounded is right there leading the way and creating synchronistic collaborative partnerships with our fellow innovators.
Tree Planting facilitated by Grounded at Earth Frequency 2019
As we step into this new cultural paradigm it is of upmost importance that we support these emerging events through our attendance and participation. We must also hold the individuals behind these events and their attendees to account when their integrity falters – not to shame them and cut them down – but to give them the opportunity to grow and evolve so the festival and our culture can too.
We deserve nothing less. Thanks for reading. Bless.
PS – I have been observing and interacting with festival culture for the last 20 years. I’ve referenced examples above that I had had direct experience with and observations of. If you know of any other festivals in Australia that are innovators in creating a truly environmentally and community friendly festival that surpasses the standards highlighted in the examples above… please let me know! I am always seeking out best practice and always curious to learn more!