Byron Bay forged its image as an alternative community hosting intimate, quirky events, including the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival, first held in a converted piggery before a few hundred stoned hippies.
Last weekend’s version drew 15,000 punters and was sponsored by Bundaberg Rum, Coca Cola, Jim Beam and Toohey’s. Between acts, big screen ads intruded on conversations and local charities are finding they no longer get the support from the event they used to. As one festival worker said, ‘it’s just become too big and too corporate’.
But not big enough, apparently. It’s rumoured that the promoter, Peter Noble and partners, have paid a deposit on a new flood-prone site 10km north of town. Plans are reputedly for five or six events a year, audiences of 30,000 plus, a 24-hour liquor licence and, to snare a larger share of total visitor spending, onsite camping.
The Blues Festival trades on Byron Bay’s alternative reputation but in reality it’s become Party HQ for kids too old for Schoolies. Holidaying families are much less in evidence than they were a few years’ back while locals, after battles with Club Med, Becton and Mcdonald’s, are manning the barricades once more. The festival captures the paradox faced by many country towns: how to prosper without losing what makes the town special in the first place.
Local residents are again asking themselves that question, and not just in Byron Bay. Sandwiched either side of the proposed new site sit two of the area’s few remaining alternative communities. Arising from the aftermath of Nimbin’s Aquarius Festival of 1973, these residents must think last weekend’s Blues Fest was from another planet. At the Bundy Marquee, for example, you could “get your photograph taken with the Bundy girls” while the Jim Beam Party Crew roamed around looking for drinkers “to reward with a free photo invitation”.
The Aquarius Festival celebrated a “dawning of the consciousness and protest movements”, which in the past has been the defining character of Byron Bay. It seems this year’s festival holds slightly different values: like being unconscious and prostrate.