The climate crisis is crushing Australian festivals

Following a devastating week of extreme weather forcing the cancellation of Pitch, Australia’s decimated live entertainment scene recalibrates.

Falls festival on 2015
Falls festival in Marion Bay in 2015. The 2023 event was cancelled after a challenging few years for Australia's lvie music industry. Image: Aron Mayo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

The cancellation of West Victorian electronic music festival Pitch was a waking nightmare. 

After pushing ahead in the face of earlier warnings from fire authorities, organisers were forced to pull the pin on its second day amid extreme heat and a death from a suspected drug overdose.

On March 10, around 17,000 patrons were evacuated from the festival near the Grampians National Park with many accusing organisers of poor communication amid scant mobile phone reception.

It was a disaster on many fronts, but not one entirely unfamiliar to attendees of Australian music festivals. As the effects of the climate emergency intensify, festivals of all shapes and sizes are suffering costly and at times dangerous disruptions, no matter where they fall on the calendar. 

That weekend saw a record-breaking heatwave across southeast Australia. While Pitch saw the worst tragedy – the death of a 23-year-old man – the extreme weather caused havoc on many fronts. Melbourne’s Moomba Parade, celebrating its 70th anniversary, was forced to cancel, while the Yarraville Festival was postponed.

Across the border, South Australia’s WOMADelaide pushed ahead with water stations and misters on hand to service its estimated 100,000 patrons and local grey-headed flying foxes, as well as dedicated ‘bat bins’ to dispose of the carcasses of animals killed by the heat.

What has global warming got to do with it?

Extreme weather events are a growing threat to festivals in Australia and around the world. In the last ten years, over 40 Australian music festivals have been cancelled, postponed or evacuated due to heat, fires, rain or floods. More than 20 of these were in 2022, as the eastern states endured record rainfall and floods.

Splendour in the Grass, Australia’s largest single-ticketed festival attracting 50,000 patrons in Byron Bay, cancelled its first day’s performances in 2022 due to inundation. Organisers were required to pay A$100,000 (US$74,516) to local schools affected by the associated traffic chaos. The following year’s iteration failed to reach capacity after more than a decade of selling all tickets on the day of release.

The global scientific consensus on climate change tells us that extreme weather will become more frequent and severe. In Australia, predictions project more extremely hot days per year and more intense rain events.

These environmental threats bring precarity to a live music sector already undergoing turbulence. Regional touring youth music festival Groovin’ the Moo cancelled its 2024 programmes citing growing overheads and slow ticket sales in the cost-of-living crisis, less than a year after Falls Festival took a pause to “rest, recover and recalibrate”.

Of the major festivals that run, upheaval and inconveniences are not uncommon. Laneway Festival’s 2023 Auckland leg was cancelled due to record rainfall, while the Sydney stop of rock festival Good Things saw its headlining set cut short due to a sudden downpour.

The increased uncertainty of staging events in these circumstances is compounded by an insurance crisis, with events and venues suffering reduced coverage and higher premiums. And the associated expenses of running a festival — transport, accommodation, food and costs of that nature — add to the squeeze.

What is being done to help festivals

The devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic drew attention to underlying vulnerabilities in the arts. Following Commonwealth parliamentary inquiries into the music industries, and the wider cultural and creative industries, the federal government launched a new national cultural policy in 2023.

The policy recognises contemporary music, and festivals specifically, as important spaces of cultural participation that warrant public support. The document also addresses ways that the arts intersect with other policy areas, such as workplace rights, discrimination, regional connectivity and First Nations representation.

However, in the policy and elsewhere, we are yet to see systematic discussion and planning with respect to the immediate and long-term consequences of climate change.

The music and live events sectors, represented by peak bodies such as the Australian Festivals Association, have begun to acknowledge publicly the growing impacts of natural disasters and a changing climate.

Industry proposals for addressing the uncertainties caused by these factors, in conjunction with higher-profile pandemic risks, include a government-supported business interruption fund and insurance underwriting scheme. Such measures have been implemented in other countries and in other Australian sectors. 

There is also some recognition of the need for festivals to adapt directly, including by reconsidering the location of events. There are indications that changes are happening “behind the scenes”, including through contractual terms that allocate the risks and costs of cancellations .

Festivals represent an ecosystem of diverse, interdependent and often competing interests. Staging a festival involves project management, logistics, security, first aid, emergency services, local government, insurance, ticketing agencies, food and beverage provision, and of course performers.

Importantly, this takes place in a commercial marketplace, subject to unequal resources and power. Some have expressed concern about the increasing dominance of a few “corporate giants” in the Australian live music sector.

The growing risks and costs associated with festivals have the potential to heighten this market concentration, by excluding the startups, small businesses and community initiatives that are less able to adapt. This threatens the diversity that is important to realising the wider social and economic benefits of festivals, including in regional areas.

How to protect our festivals for the future

Festivals are one of the most popular ways for Australians to engage with the arts, attracting 44 per cent of the population over 15. Finding a way for people to continue to enjoy these festivals while reducing risks associated with attending and ensuring that they are sustainable for organisers must be a priority.

Doing this requires a better understanding of what the risks are, and in particular how they are going to change as the environment we live in is impacted by global warming. As yet, we do not have a thorough understanding of which festivals are more likely to be affected and how. 

This includes examining not just the impacts on the ground on the day, but how climate breakdown might impact many parts of the festival ecosystem, from suppliers to crew to audiences to performers. 

Ensuring the sustainable development of music festivals, and the wide enjoyment of their benefits, requires a coordinated approach from government and industry, based on evidence. 

Bringing together scientists, policymakers and industry stakeholders to start these conversations is an important first step in this process. 

Dr Ben Green is a Griffith University Postdoctoral Fellow in the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research where he is studying crisis and reinvention in Australia’s live music sector.

Assoc Prof Catherine Strong is a sociologist who works in the Music Industry program at RMIT University. Her research focuses on working conditions in music, gender inequalities in music making, popular music as history and heritage, and climate impacts on music.

Originally published under 
Creative Commons by 360info™.

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