Floods, COVID, border closures, public health orders, last-minute cancellations. Bluesfest has taken a flurry of hits over the past two years, the type that would knock-down most heavyweights.
Finally, after all the troubles and drama, Bluesfest made its long-awaited return over the Easter weekend, with a familiar multi-day format and a six-figure audience, well-up on the rosiest of expectations.
Peter Noble and his team are declaring the event a success, a win against the odds.
Sales were forecast to be well behind the 105,000 counted in 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, due in part to the shocking weather that hit the northern rivers in recent weeks, a factor that would keep many locals away.
Speaking with TIO on the penultimate day of the latest edition, which ran Thursday, April 14 to Monday, April 18, Noble said “the numbers are astounding. We did a budget on 80,000 (tickets), with the hope of 85,000. Now we’re basically at 100,000, a thousand under. You can’t predict that.”
On Tuesday morning, as the mud dried on the Tyagarah site, north of Byron Bay, Bluesfest organisers announced sales nudged past 101,000, with more than 15,000 of those tickets changing hands in the past week.
Consumer confidence has taken a hammering since March 2020, and last year’s last-minute cancellation, thanks to a public health order from the NSW Government, didn’t help matters.
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“We had a surge of sales in the last 10 days,” Noble explains. “People waited to make sure we didn’t get cancelled again before they bought a ticket.”
Among the crowds over the long weekend were Tony Burke MP and opposition leader Anthony Albanese, who introduced headliner Jimmy Barnes on stage during the Sunday night programme.
Performers included Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, Crowded House, Amy Shark, The Cat Empire, George Benson, Teskey Brothers and Six60, while Kev Carmody received Bluesfest’s Shining Star Award on the Saturday.
Bluesfest has weathered storms, literally and figuratively.
“We’ve had two flash floods on the site in six weeks. Byron Bay had flash flooding,” Noble tells TIO.
“Lismore had the worst flooding they’ve ever had, then four weeks later, on the day another flood. For us to have a flash flood here two and a half weeks ago was really really hard for us.”
The spectre of COVID and its various variants has lurked throughout. “We created a COVIDs safe protocol. It was the blueprint for the industry,” notes Noble, who spoke with TIO backstage at Bluesfest, as this reporter along with staff and crew wore masks to reduce the spread of infection.
COVID doesn’t follow protocols. Several team members battled with symptoms in the lead up, and during the event proper, volunteers and staff went down each day. One of the Pierce Brothers missed the band’s performance on the Sunday after testing positive.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” explains Noble. “I feel sometimes we got a right hand from Muhammed Ali and got up again.”
The combination of an extended period of downtime and the stunted flow of travel has created another problem: a skills shortage.
“It’s so difficult to do festivals now,” adds Noble, “because so many people have left the industry,” some through retirement or simply moving on.
“You’ve got people doing their first festival even though they might have been working with us for two years. The last two were cancelled. The police, security, parking, you can’t get the number of people. We usually have volunteers from Brazil and all these wonderful countries, none of that. They’re not coming. We have half the number of volunteers. How do you make events work at the level they need to work at when your available work pool is really shallow. It’s very very challenging.”
The road back to normal, even a “new normal,” is a long one. And the success of this year’s festival can’t be gauged without understanding the context of the past two years, and the past two months.
In 2021, the show was cancelled when a single Byron Bay visitor tested positive to the novel Coronavirus.
The state government called time just hours before the gates were due to open, with the-then premier Gladys Berejiklian making the off-colour remark that the show would simply be rescheduled.
It’s not so simple.
“There were artists who were already here or on the way. The camping ground had thousands of people in them. You can’t have a worse situation,” Noble recounts.
“The store holders were set up, they’d prepared all the food. The level of media, it was enough for the government to be calling me, appropriate people at the high levels, from the relevant ministers, a number didn’t even agree with the decision. I said ‘why don’t you change it,’ but it was too late.”
The call to cancel the 2021 edition came from above, though Bluefest had to make the heart-wrenching announcement to ticketholders to stay away from the grounds.
“What it did, it not only gutted us, it put us in a horrible situation. We couldn’t stop work. We had to load it out. I had to give speeches to crew, that I’m going to fight for you and get your money.
“Yes, we finally got money, I have to be thankful for that, but there were still people who didn’t get what I felt they’d be assured they would get. Musicians, store holders. Because we didn’t get our money.”
Noble, like many other live industry professionals, is filthy with the double standard that’s kept professional sports humming along and concerts under the cosh.
“Personally, I felt that active bastardy toward our industry, while we watched the sporting events find a way, the big shows happened,” he tells TIO.
“The message was clear, there’s no way forward for the music industry. It basically deflated the music industry. And I still don’t believe there’s the right kind of round table between government and the major events.”
Bluesfest 2022 and the masses who passed through the gates shows there is a way forward, and Noble is already looking ahead to bigger and better things. Starting with next year’s 34th annual adventure.
“I’ve been working on next year since February and it’s going to be the best fucking thing I ever did. I’ve got no one holding me back anymore. That’s my plan.”