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‘More Than Half Had Never Been To A Festival’: Music’s Impact On Regional Aus

26 May 2023 | 11:04 am | Anna Rose

“I think we deliver a way better experience than any Metro festival can.”

Music's impact on regional Australia

Music's impact on regional Australia (Graphic by Mitch Fresta)

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The pandemic disrupted every aspect of our lives, hitting those whose livelihoods are directly tied to live music particularly hard. A pivotal cultural element of our society was all but extinguished by the onset of coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns, impacting not only the mental well-being of people employed within the sector, but their self-worth. 

While the tabloids have been intermittently riddled with stories of major city venues announcing their closures over the last two years, the impact on regional areas has been overlooked. For all that the bulk of major live music and entertainment takes place in metropolitan centres, East Coast cities being the ports of choice for major international and local artists alike, live music and entertainment forms a major element of entertainment in regional life; with countless lockdowns implemented across the country, the closure of live music venues and events has also had an impact on regional centres’ hospitality and tourism, too.

Though there have been a handful of well-known homegrown acts touring these more isolated areas - Amy Shark, for one, having embarked on a colossal 60-date national tour back in May 2022, inclusive of city and country alike – it seems that festivals may hold the key to jumpstarting small-town entertainment, hospitality, and tourism sectors post-pandemic.

“Regional festivals largely share the same challenges, as metro festivals,” begins Savannah In The Round director James Dein. “Savannah In the Round was the only camping festival to run during COVID; it was a festival born out of COVID.”

Indeed, the Far North Queensland town of Mareeba has played host to Savannah In The Round since it launched in 2021. A one-hour drive west of Cairns, Mareeba’s livelihood depends, in some ways, on live music events such as this. “We get so many people [coming] from right across the top end of the territory in the northern parts of Australia attend,” says Dein, “and this a really interesting stat - 58% who came in 2021, had never been to a music festival before. 

“[Savannah In The Round] is really growing the pie for music lovers and for the festival industry.”

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Savannah In the Round was set up as a destination event, Dein calling himself and other organisers “music promoters who sit inside the tourism industry". “We’re part of the solution,” Dein says of the efforts to bolster regional town economies. “we’re offering another event-driven tourism opportunity for the Far North. So, we have a great camping and music festival, an hour from an International Airport, in far north Queensland, really easy to fly from Melbourne, or Sydney or any port in Australia into Cairns, and literally within an hour be on-site at the festival. And we always saw that as being a big factor in the decision to launch the event in the north.

“When you look at the economic impact of the event - because so many people come not just for the festival, but they hang around and take in the region; they go to Port Douglas, Palm Cove, they go out to the Great Barrier Reef or the rain forest in the Daintree or whatever, they hang around for days afterwards - the footprint on the North is pretty significant. I mean, Savannah In the Round left a $4.7 million financial impact for far north Queensland last year.”

Putting on music events in areas more off the beaten path like Dein and his team have done with Savannah In the Round looks to be exactly what regional towns need. Towns like Armidale in New South Wales. Armidale sits high up on the Great Dividing Range; six hours drive from both Brisbane and Sydney. The town’s retail and hospitality industries took a massive hit during Covid. Its main strip, Beardy Street Mall, while boasting some visually stunning architecture, dons many closed shutters. Signs for bars and cafes remain on dilapidated shop fronts, proffering memories of a once bustling strip. Armidale, though, has not lost its sense of drive and ambition.  

Revelling in its renowned cold climate and a strong sense of community, for the second time since restrictions lifted, Armidale’s two-day annual festival, The Big Chill, took place in mid-May. The 2023 bill boasted headliners Birds Of Tokyo and Dragon, along with the likes of Des Cortez, Lisa Hunt, Taylor B-W, The Axemen, Fyrebirds and more - an excellent blend of artists local to Armidale and interstate guests. Such a plethora of globally renowned artists along with lesser-known acts provides a massive draw for the community and bolsters other industries exponentially.

Revellers are scattered in heaving groups throughout the venue on a combination of plastic lawn chairs and their own camping chairs. Warming themselves in the six-degree evening chill around camp stoves and fires in bins, this isn’t quite the wine and cheese crowd, but punters are certainly enjoying the array of food and drink vendors at The Big Chill. Smo-KING Barbeque, The Pie Mechanic, G-Free Donuts, Glen Gowrie Distillery, Grumpy’s Ginger Beer and many more, provide an excellent bougie-meets-country mix of food and drink to locals and visitors alike, these festival-worthy refreshments reminders of the sensational culinary experiences on offer in the region. 

The music is delivered with massive enthusiasm, interstate acts spurred by the boisterous crowd who welcome them and the big yearly injection of live music to their town. It’s events like these that will, slowly but surely, provide a much-needed injection into many industries reduced in capacity by recent events. But an increase in live music opportunities can only come with support from local governments. 

In Mareeba, Dein has been doing just this. “We work closely with the Chamber of Commerce, and the Shire Council, and the business community,” he says, “we engage hundreds of volunteers from the region in helping deliver the event so that we know firsthand what the economic impact is.” Dein says he’s heard firsthand of the improvement in traffic in local businesses as a result of Savannah In the Round. “It goes beyond that,” Dein says earnestly. “We have a real commitment with building capacity within people and helping the community come along with us. 

“Whether they're artists, or musicians, or whether they're community organisations who are there to improve their lot within the community, we embrace those people and bring them on the journey. Savannah's interesting; it's commercially led but it brings an enormous amount of the community with it. It’s becoming very, very dear to the community up there. I think it's the most positive thing that happens in the course of a year. 

“It builds confidence in individuals and people. Its human input impact is quite incredible. We help develop young artists careers, musically and I mean, there's just a whole range of different things that the festival does aside from you know, holding a bloody good party for three days – and we know how to put we know how to party trust me!”

Down on the sensational Sapphire Coast lies Pambula Beach, home to Wanderer Festival, a different kind of party. Industry in this region of New South Wales is built primarily on tourism, and even as locals recover from challenges presented by the pandemic, so rising fuel prices have had an impact on that sector as well. 

Though it in some ways is an area that has had more than enough of its share of challenges in recent times, the sheer beauty of the place is undeniable. Wanderer Festival founder and Sapphire Coast local Simon Daly says that in spite of difficulties faced by the community, the event has experienced an influx of people from metropolitan regions looking to attend Wanderer, perhaps deterred, in part, by lockdowns and a lack of option for live music venues. 

“My father used to run a business in really hard times in the 90s,” says Daly, “and [he] found that through the difficult time of the 90s, which was when interest rates were really high, and sort of similar things to what we're facing now, he said that people always still like to spoil themselves and cheer themselves up. And if you've got something that's really unique, and different, very experienced-based, that they're the things that will, will shine through - I sort of feel like Wanderer really delivered that last year. 

“The response this year has been [a] real kind of enthusiasm that you can just feel locally, but also outside of the region as well. There is just something unique about Wanderer, for location and the way the festival is themed.”

Though it’s far from a new trend, a wave of better-known artists going out to perform in regional Australia, like Birds Of Tokyo headlining The Big Chill, isn’t an isolated occurrence. Daly says he’s seen an influx of larger talent interested in coming to Wanderer Festival. “So many artists are just so keen to get out on the road and work and keep on working,” says Daly, “because there was those two years of just nothing at all - from that perspective, it's been really great.”

The 2023 iteration of Wanderer will see the likes of Ocean Alley, Django Djano, The Jungle Giants and heaps more appear.  “We’re really keen to challenge ourselves as a festival.” Daly continues, “and deliver something that's that builds on that uniqueness. 

“But we are only 10,000-person festivals. So we're not one of the big ones where we're more of a boutique event, I guess. And so, with that comes some budget limitations to what you can procure, but in some ways, that's a good thing too, because you're challenged to you know, find stuff that's really interesting and, and you know, not necessarily what you'd expect to see at a regular festival, both in the arts programming and music.”

Arguably, an increase in foot traffic to all industries in regional Australia depends on not just the community and their government working together, but the support within and spirit of that community. It’s one which both Dein and Daly say is unlike that which you’ll find in the city. “I feel like as a society, we probably took a big step forward,” Daly says of developing community in the city post-pandemic, “But in the regions, it’s always been the way where people always know everybody and their families, and there's always people pitching in.

“I just love regional Australia full stop,” says Dein. “I mean, I've spent most of my years in regional Australia, and I think that the people in regional Australia and the experiences that music festivals deliver in regional parts of Australia is a completely different experience to a metro festival. 

“It's not to take anything away from metro festivals, they're very popular and they fit in the groove. But I just think that regional festivals you know, throw a really broad net across the whole community and as an experience, I think we deliver a way better experience than any Metro festival can just on the basis of where we located, how we go about it.

“Let's face it, North Queensland has this amazing backdrop of natural beauty. And that's the icing on the cake.”

Tickets to Savannah In The Round and Wanderer Festival are on sale now.