After two years void of major live music events, the return of Australian music festivals should have been accompanied by some feeling of zsa zsa zhu. Instead, there’s a prevailing feeling of flatness.

It’s hard to drum up excitement over every “stacked,” “massive,” and “huge”, lineup, filled with the same acts we’ve seen three-four times over since 2016. 

Maybe it’s always been this way. Five years ago stages were dominated by Flume, Sticky Fingers, Violent Soho, DMA’S, Gang of Youths and Rüfüs Du Sol. Five years prior it was Angus & Julia Stone, Little Red, Art Vs Science, and Birds of Tokyo. A decade before that Grinspoon, Jebediah, and Eskimo Joe all reigned supreme.

Festival lineups of bygone years made sense. In the past, we lived in a monoculture curated by a handful of radio stations, major labels, and major label distributors, and festival lineups reflected that. Those days are waning.

I would love to slip into a delusional utopian girl persona and say that the internet has completely decentralised culture — but we all know that’s not the case. The music industry’s old guards and powers that be have thrown everything they’ve got at utilising emerging networks through their financial resources.

Though, at the risk of sounding too optimistic, the internet has shifted the mediation of culture. Now, more than ever, artists have a direct access relationship to their audience.

Criticising Australian music festivals in the time of COVID? Probably not kosher. The live music industry is unstable, festivals are a vital source of revenue for Australian artists (many of which haven’t played shows in the pandemic era), and it’s a festival’s prerogative to book lineups with acts they know will sell tickets. That said, this unsettling sameness has existed before the pandemic. 

Never miss industry news

Get the latest music industry news, insights, and updates straight to your inbox. Learn more

So many festival lineups reflect an Australian music landscape that feels frozen, but we know this isn’t the case. There is a teeming underground of musicians making genuinely cool, esoteric art that is connecting with the internet masses (the Daine-curated Nocturne series, for example.) Sydney Opera House’s recent Liminal live series, and Phoenix Art Centre’s digital series Halo, both highlighted a crop of fresh Australian artists armed with live performance talent.

I’m not suggesting these acts be given the headlining tentpole at a music festival. But I do think we’d all rather see something fresh over, say, an ironic dance act flogging their tired Australiana-pandering aerobics act for the umpteenth million time? Or an interchangeable Northern Beaches band dishing out the same brand of good vibes indie rock?

As Cool Accidents writer, Ben Madden, put it so succinctly: “if you’re not trying something different with your mid-bill then you’re really missing out.”

There is space for artists of all stripes to exist, but do they have to exist on every damn lineup.