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Music festival organisers say this summer is ‘critical’ after years of COVID and La Niña interruptions

Extreme weather is posing a challenge for outdoor festival organisers across Australia, dampening hopes this summer high season would revive a music industry hit by two years of COVID disruptions.

Music fans, hungry to see their favourite artists after two years of COVID disruptions and international travel restrictions, will be looking forward to the festival season.

But heavy rainfall, flooding and wind gusts have already seen multiple festivals cancelled or postponed in recent months, including Strawberry Fields, which was to be held in southern New South Wales in October.

Organiser Tara Medina said she was forced to make a “really, really hard choice” to cancel a month before the festival was due to begin, when the flooding banks of the Murray River swallowed the site.

“We’d seen a lot of different floods come through over the past decade, and they tended to subside within a week or two,” she said. 

“We’ve just never seen such persistent high levels in the Murray River as we have this year and that’s what really sort of forced our hand.”

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Aerial footage of Tocumwal flooding in September 2022 where Strawberry Fields was to be held

In July, Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass festival cancelled its first day of performances, leaving more than 40,000 ticketholders high and dry, if only in the figurative sense.

Port Macquarie’s Festival of the Sun, originally scheduled for early December, was cancelled three months in advance, ahead of the Bureau of Meteorology’s official declaration that a third La Niña weather pattern could bring above-average rainfall to Australia over the summer.

In October, Grapevine Gathering in Victoria’s Yarra Valley was cancelled when roads and parking areas leading to the side remained underwater just hours before the event.

Wind gusts above 80 kilometres per hour saw Moonee Valley’s Illuminate the River festival cancel proceedings half way through the afternoon last weekend.

On Tuesday, Victoria’s Hopkins Creek festival cancelled all three days of performances scheduled to take place this weekend. 

Back-to-back wet seasons ‘unsustainable’

With a third consecutive La Niña event underway, summer festival organisers are taking steps to avoid a similar fate.

Woodford Folk Festival organisers have undertaken extra works to prepare the site, in bushland north-west of Brisbane, for potential wet weather during its six says of performances over the new year period.

“It’s mainly to make sure the venue pads are raised and that any water flowing around the site goes into the drainage and the creeks easily and it isn’t impeded in any way,” deputy festival director Amanda Jackes said.

A sign for the Woodford folk festival.
A sign for the Woodford folk festival.(ABC News: Owen Jacques)

Ms Jackes said repairs had been made to nearby roads damaged by wet weather over the course of the year.

After a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, she said it was “critical” that the 20,000-person festival go ahead this year.

“The uncertainty of the last two and a half years have been huge – not only just on our festival – on so many businesses in the tourism industry, in the art industry,” Ms Jackes said.

Woodford deputy festival director Amanda Jackes.
Woodford deputy festival director Amanda Jackes.(ABC News: Owen Jacques)

But some organisers are concerned festival-goers are hanging up their bumbags and gumboots and turning away from outdoor events.

“You’ve got to prepare for rain, it does happen every now and then. But over the last year, so many festivals have been impacted significantly by rain and I think so many people are just over it – they’re not ready for another wet festival,” said Lincoln Savage, who runs Yonder festival in Queensland’s Scenic Rim.

The 1,000-person affair is wrapping up today and Mr Savage said the weather had been “awesome” so far, but ticket sales were down.

“This year we’re so close to the line of making it work,” he said.

“Everyone in the events industry was hoping that it would be two La Niñas, not three.

“We’re obviously hoping that it’s not going to be four, because the ongoing impact – it can be once-off a wet year and you can recover from that, but to be happening every single year, it’s going to be unsustainable,” Mr Savage said.

Yonder Festival organiser Lincoln Savage
Yonder Festival organiser Lincoln Savage.(ABC News: Lillian Rangiah)

Mr Savage said highly publicised scenes of muddy chaos at festivals like Splendour in the Grass had also left authorities sceptical of festivals.

“Even going through the process of getting our event permits and approvals, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, is it going to be like Splendour this year?'” 

Insurers unwilling to engage

Mr Savage said with bad weather, cost of living and COVID weighing on consumers’ minds, it had been more difficult to put on the festival this year than in the middle of the pandemic.

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Ms Medina, of Strawberry Fields, said music had always been a risky business, but the stakes were increasing, as cancellation insurance was becoming more elusive.

“We started speaking with insurers mid-year and the understanding that we got from them was … there weren’t enough insurers who were willing to come together to offer a policy to cover the event because there had simply been so many claims across Australia for weather-affected events that they were reassessing their engagement with the sector in general,” she said.

The federal government has recently offered grants of up to $2.5 million to music festivals hit by rising costs.

Ms Medina said the music industry would have to grapple with the long-term effects of a changing climate.

“Being at the edge of dangerous weather has always been a part of festivals. I think in the last three or four years, we’ve kind of just seen the probabilities get worse,” she said.

“We had the bushfire season of 2019-2020 summer and then straight into COVID and then straight into three years in a row of La Niña and unprecedented amounts of water in all river systems and catchments and just rain that doesn’t seem to want to quit.

“You can put in place some degree of amelioration and risk mitigation in your site and the infrastructure and the crews you have on board but, you know, six metres of water in our case – there was nothing that was going to mitigate that.”




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