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Aug 5, 2011

Welcome to the most expensive music festival in the world

While headliners at last weekend's Splendour in the Grass festival, Kanye West and Coldplay, would have walked away with tidy sums and an adoring crowd ringing in their ears, for the vast majority the equation didn't seem to stack up.

Crikey spent last weekend at the Splendour in the Grass festival in the delightful South East Queensland hamlet of Woodford. While headliners Kanye West and Coldplay would have walked away with tidy sums and an adoring crowd ringing in their ears, for the vast majority the equation didn’t seem to stack up.

For the first time in years, Splendour failed to sell its 30,000-odd tickets with locals urged to pay cash at the gate. That might have had something to do with an underwhelming line-up (despite the top heavy presence of the aforementioned mega-acts) or it could have been simply trop cher, as excellent French electro act Yelle, who smashed it in the mix-up tent on Sunday might say.

As blogger Danny Yau helpfully demonstrated a few months’ back, this year’s Splendour was by far the most expensive festival in the world and probably the most dear of all time with a headline ticket price of $523.60, including camping and booking fees (it was $401 plus booking fee sans accommodation).

And that’s before the food, booze and (totally legit) stimulants. Realistically you’re looking at well over $1,000 for three days entertainment. The cost, of course, is born not by most of the 22-year-olds that attend but their parents.

Owing to Queensland licensing regulations that apparently prohibit full-strength booze at festivals only mid-strength beers for $6 and truly dire Smirnoff pre-mix (3.5%) could be acquired, although weirdly, a wristband to the “Gold Bar” or the even more exclusive “Tackle Shack” permitted you to go the whole hog — not only was full strength Pure Blonde on tap for $8, but you could also get a notorious Smirnoff Ice “double black” (6.5%) for $12. And then take them back out into the festival.

You couldn’t camp with alcohol or bring it in the venue proper, even though many campers employed the classic Glastonbury “bottle in each gumboot” tactic and cheerfully quaffed martinis out of plastic cups all weekend in full sight of security.

Despite all this co-promoters Paul Piticco (who did not respond to email queries) and Jess Ducrou wouldn’t have come away anywhere near a loss. A well-informed music industry insider was invited by Crikey this morning to jot down the numbers on the back of an envelope.

Assuming 29,000 payers are stumping up an average $450 each, the duo raked in at least $12 million in gate receipts. And that’s before the alcohol sponsorship orgies, vendor fees, and bar takings are factored in.

But what about costs? According to the insider, Splendour would have cost about $15-16 million — pretty steep when something like Big Day Out costs about $25 million for seven shows. Part of the problem lies at the feet of savvy agents shopping their stars around in an increasingly competitive and saturated domestic festival market.

Kanye would have set back organisers $1.5 million (plus accommodation, flights and incidentals taking it up to about $2 million), Coldplay about $1 million, Jane’s Addiction $700-$800,000 and a mid-tierer like Cloud Control $20-25,000. Even a smaller local act like The Holidays would cost about $10,000. Total takeaway profits from Splendour? Around $4-5 million, according to the source.

There are also some creative synergies. The most glaring are the links to Piticco’s own label, Dew Process, with many of the festival’s local acts drawn from that milieu. Out of the label’s 31 signed artists, 11 played this year. Just two — Freelance Whales and Dropkick Murphys — have never played the festival. Piticco also did extremely well as Powderfinger’s manager in their 30-show “Sunsets” stadium tour last year.

Factor in co-promoter Jess Ducrou’s booking agency Village Sounds, Piticco’s management arm Secret Service and tour promoter Secret Sounds that handles the lucrative side shows and you’ve got a nice little monopoly developing.

Further, a lot of the bands are repeat performers. This informative table from Collapse Board shows just how dependent the festival has become on a small cabal of Australian bands that comprise about half the lineup.

There are also some tie-ups with national youth broadcaster Triple J, who provides marketing cachet via constant spruiking by its presenters on the condition the festival grant it exclusive broadcast rights. It also seems to play most of the acts on high rotation.

But sometimes the festival abacus slides off the rails. Crikey understands that there are some severe stressors around September’s also-not-sold-out Soundwave Revolution festival with two headliners still sought to play after Alice Cooper. Promoter AJ Maddah, who also looks after the Harvest Festival, may also need to replace Van Halen, with that band’s management reportedly teetering.

Still, the future for Splendour appears to be rosy. Next year a permanent super site at North Byron will swing in, depending on NSW government approval and the outcome of a bitter spat with the local council which has moved to limit festivals in the shire to two per year over 6,000 capacity and in excess of two days.

That would let the Blues and Roots Festival and Splendour continue on — but there’s also plans to use the new site at other times of the year, enraging conservative Councillors but letting the gravy train get a little thicker and richer.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Welcome to the most expensive music festival in the world

  1. matticus

    One of the 3 reasons I don’t go to music festivals anymore, that and the mass selling of booze (do you really need to get pissed to enjoy bands you like?) and the cashed up bogues who make up ~75% of the patrons.

    I guess if you took away the booze the bogans would go too, making only 2 problems to fix.

  2. Phen

    But come on – how excellent were Pulp?

  3. ggm

    hence the local $20 ticket “too poor for splendour” in Brissie which filled its hall to overflowing, and made a profit…

  4. shitesherlock

    Thanks Andrew, I thought I was the only one feeling ripped off! I didn’t have a coin to spare this year. It will be interesting to see how they handle this at next year’s Byron event. I’m incline to hope/think that with punters getting miser and wiser with their cash in this difficult times, it’ll translate to organisers adjusting to prevailing moods accordingly. Though, I’ve been wrong before.

  5. drovers cat

    devil’s advocate view:
    Splendour was utilising Woodfordia, home of the (December) annual Woodford Folk Fest, so would be paying a bit of rent for even part of the 300-acre site.
    Woodfordia also got hammered by the January Qld floods, so a lot of work had to go in just to get it right in time for Splendour …

  6. Kristin O'Connell

    1. “Piticco also did extremely well as Powderfinger’s manager in their 30-show “Sunsets” stadium tour last year.” – I fail to see the relevance of this statement to the overall article

    2. “…you’ve got a nice little monopoly developing.” – Creative industries in Australia are small, underfunded and generally tough going – particularly when it comes to independent art of any form. The size of the community and the inevitable networks that produces are a big factor in the ‘monopoly’.

    3. “Further, a lot of the bands are repeat performers.” – I think a festival on the scale of what Splendour has grown to, in an industry the size of Australia’s, will inevitably rely on repeat local acts – there just aren’t that many quality crowd-drawing artists to choose from. Furthermore, given the costs of touring in Australia, music fans outside Melbourne and Sydney do not get to see these bands often. Many of the bands in the table provided have longevity that would be the envy of any artist, and they are rightfully included in multiple line-ups as they develop and change direction throughout their careers.

    Overall, I agree with the sentiment of your article. Splendour is an exorbitantly expensive, if wonderful, festival that has evolved in a direction that frustrates many long-time supporters of the event. Given that, my personal view is that Splendour brings something unique to the Australian festival circuit. It is bringing us closer to something that represents the great international festivals such as Lollapalooza, Coachella and Glastonbury.

    Bringing big international acts, particularly for a single festival appearance, will always be costly in comparison to comparable circumstances in the northern hemisphere. I don’t support the pricing that organisers have applied to tickets or beverages, but I do understand that as an Aussie festival goer, I will always pay more. As someone who mourns the Splendour of old, in future I will be spending my festival budget elsewhere, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see the value it delivers.

    I think the point you have made is an important one, but perhaps a more balanced article would have communicated your message better.

  7. Kristin O'Connell

    Oh, and a lot of people, myself included, save their asses off in order to afford their festival experiences.

  8. Phen

    Yeah actually – I’d be surprised if a big proportion of the festival attendees were really having their tickets bought for them by parents.

  9. Robert Staszewski

    I fail to see your point. Some guy made money? So what? Isn’t that the point of a business enterprise? Tickets were expensive? As far as I can see nobody was forcing anyone to buy them. Parents buying festival tickets for their children? Huh?

    You also need to look up the definition of the word “monopoly”. Which ever way I read it, it does not apply to any of the situations described in this article.

  10. Gavin Moodie

    I enjoyed reading this piece, especially since I haven’t seen the topic covered in Crikey before.

    Unlike Crook and many of the posters I don’t resent Splendour’s high price. Popular music promotion is very risky and promoters need to make many substantial profits to cover their occasional wipe-outs.

    I hope the local council doesn’t restrict the new Tyagarah tee tree farm festival site between Byron Bay and Brunswick Heads to 2 big festivals a year. These sites need a lot of investment which can barely be recovered in just 2 festivals. It is far more efficient and environmentally sound to spread the investment over several events.