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Dylan Alcott: 'Music Was The First Time I Felt Fully Included'

8 February 2023 | 3:16 pm | Parry Tritsiniotis

"After COVID, everyone was talking about how much they missed dancing, but imagine you never had the opportunity to watch live music in the first place because of who you were. That’s just not fair."

(Image: Provided)

Former Australian of the year, gold medal winner, Grand Slam winner, radio host and lover of live music, Dylan Alcott is undoubtedly an Australian icon.

Between being one of the most inspiring and motivating public figures in Australia and running his own charity, he also hosts an annual music festival, Ability Fest. 

Ability Fest is a festival that welcomes all guests- regardless of their abilities - to engage with and enjoy live music in the Alexandra Gardens. The festival site will be transformed into a fully accessible venue, fitted with elevated viewing platforms, pathways, quiet zones, a designated sensory area, companion ticketing and AUSLAN interpreters to ensure a remarkable experience for all.

On the festival Alcott states, “I’m so proud to see the path Ability Fest has already paved for inclusive events across the country. First and foremost, our main priority is to create a kick-ass festival that happens to be accessible. And that’s something I think we’ve achieved since launching in 2018.”

Hilltop Hoods, daine, Alter Boy, Sampa The Great, Meg Mac, BROODS, SHOUSE, DZ Deathrays, Telenova, Alex Lahey and many more will perform at the festival, which is proudly touted as Australia's first all accessible music festival.Joining them on the dance stage includes Mashd N Kutcher, PARIS, dameeeela, Linda Marigliano, Tyson O’Brien, Juno Mamba, Latifa Tee, Mulalo and Tiff Cornish.

The festival’s proceeds are donated to the Dylan Alcott foundation.

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The foundation enriches the lives of young people with disabilities, delivering mentoring, grants, and scholarships for people in Australia; aiming to deliver pathways and inspire the masses to fulfil their dreams.

You can grab tickets to Ability Fest HERE.

To get to know the formation of the festival, the power of music for people living with disability and what the music industry can do better to help and platform people living with disability, we chat to the festival’s organiser, Dylan Alcott.

Congratulations once again on Ability Fest. When you started it could you have imagined it would have got to this level, this size and this amount of impact? How do you reflect on the journey?

It’s been incredible. It sounds weird but there is a beautiful vibe at Ability Fest that is so hard to quantify. I’m just so grateful for all the support we’ve had from artists, crew, publications, ticket holders, absolutely everybody. It’s something I thought of years ago and to see how much it has grown and to be in the city of Melbourne now, with their support with a massive line up. I’m super pumped and grateful for it. 

Let’s take it back. You were lucky to be able to attend music festivals and live music events, was there a moment in the crowd for you, where you thought, “everyone deserves to be able to experience this?”

I did, I used to go to Meredith, Falls, Beyond The Valley and all these festivals. I was really lucky I had a pretty strong upper body to get around and I’ve got incredible friends who could help me around. It was really strange, the music festival was the first time that I felt genuinely and 100% included. Nobody really cares about your disability, gender, race at a lot of festivals, people are there to watch the music together. I then realised that even though I felt very included based on my personality, it was actually very unaccessible and non inclusive based on the surroundings. I thought why can't we make it so that everyone gets these opportunities despite their abilities and just come with friends and have a good time. 

Those experiences and those thoughts turned into the pipe dream that is the Ability Festival. We just want to set that gold metal standard so that we can hope that other major events copy us. We want all major festivals to look like Ability Fest and I think they should because everyone deserves the choice to control their own lives. 

What is it about music that you think can break down the barriers of understanding disability that other sectors of society can struggle with?

I think music is something that absolutely everybody enjoys. Once everyone is on board with a common interest it makes it easier to do things like that. There’s an element of music that is so great at lifting your personality, while that can be in your headphones there is this really special part of comradery when seeing live music together with people. After COVID, everyone was talking about how much they missed dancing, but imagine you never had the opportunity to watch live music in the first place because of who you were. That’s just not fair.

Seeing people share that moment at the music festival with the community element is why we do it and that makes a huge impact. 

I love that this year's festival also platforms artists living with disability who have also opened up about the impact that has on their performance. How important is it not only to make fans feel comfortable at the festival, but also have representation on stage?

100% incredibly important. The reason these artists are getting booked on our line up is not because they’re disabled but because they’re amazing artists. To be able to give them that platform is amazing. We’ve also got DJ Cooper Smith on the line up, who was the grant recipient at the last Ability Fest. He got a whole heap of DJ equipment and lessons, he practised every day for 14 months and now he is playing at Ability Fest. That’s what it’s all about.

They’re amazing artists and there’s no way we’d do it without showcasing them. We hope they get more opportunities on other festival line ups because they deserve it. 

On the curation of this year's lineup, how surreal is it getting some of the biggest acts in the country performing and supporting the movement?

It’s bloody ridiculous. I can’t believe it. Hilltop Hoods were one of my favourite bands growing up and I still pinch myself when they got announced on the line up. To have support of some of the biggest acts in Australia is massive. It’s a massive and diverse line up which we are so proud of. 

I’ve been to a lot of festivals and live music venues and noticed that many are doing the bare minimum for accessibility. What are the small or big added extras that Ability Fest provides that truly makes it an accessible space, rather than ticking boxes?

The most important thing is that we listen to lived experience. If you want to find out about what somebody needs you should listen to their experience. Whether you’re a wheelchair user, neurodiverse or something else, Ability Fest is built off lived experience and that’s why we are so proud of what we do. Organisations who throw events have so many reasons to be accessible, obviously mainly to provide a safe space for everyone to enjoy music, but also it’s good business. 

We are consumers, just like you, who want to have choice and control. We often get left out of that economic conversation with the choices getting taken away from us because people think we don’t want to come, or people think we can’t do anything. Which is just not true. It’s worth investing in your business to become more accessible and inclusive because you’ll see it effect ticket sales.

I say that but mainly, it’s the right thing to do to be inclusive, no matter what their difference is.  

So much of the conversation around disability is that people have “limitations” or they aren’t “able bodied”,  or that there are “deficits” but the conversation should shift to people living with disability who contribute so much to live music spaces. What do you think people living without a disability learn from disabled people in the live music space but also in the world?

All people living with disabilities have amazing things to contribute to society, music or not. The important point here though is that they need to be listened to first to make those contributions. We need to amplify the voices of more people living with disability, especially in music. Whether it's the artist, crew or little things around. Disability is a wide breadth. We all have different accessibility needs, whether it’s through the way you listen or watch music. Listening to experience is the best way to figure out the best way to be inclusive.

There are so many people with disabilities with amazing contributions to make, but they just need to get given the platform and people need to give a shit about what they’re saying. There’s no point ticking a box and then moving on. If you genuinely care you’ll get the best out of yourself and people with disabilities. 

One final lighthearted question, anything piques your interest in the Hottest 100? Any music internationally that you’ve been loving recently? 

I’ve got a massive fan crush on Fred Again.. at the moment. I can’t get away from Delilah, I voted for that. I have a great story for you.

We were in London and we got invited to his Boiler Room. My partner, my brother and my brother's partner all said they couldn’t be bothered and we didn’t go. It is their favourite piece of music of all time now, they listen to those Actual Life albums everyday. I always tell them now, that is what we could have went to so I still haven’t forgiven them.

I bring it up almost daily to that crew. Ride it home, I’m devastated. Write about it please.