Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Just this week Mountain Sounds Festival was forced to cease operation a mere week away from its intended date. With the news spreading quick, the organisers left what some have dubbed a heartfelt but scathing indictment of the 'war on festivals'
"We can’t begin to express our sadness in having to cancel the event, particularly this close to it," the organisers were reportedly "blind-sided" by a $200,000 bill which would see an additional 45 police on duty.
"We, like many of you, have seen the festival climate continue to diminish in Australia. NSW in particular is in dire straits. This is yet another example of the government’s war on festivals."
In the past six months five drug related deaths at music festivals amidst an ongoing debate over 'pill-testing' seems to be the impetus behind NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's hardline policies, which appear to be at odds with the live music industry. In January organisers in NSW were hit with new licensing laws requiring them to apply for a specific liquor license for each music festival they host each year.
Despite this, the organisers say "In 2018, Mountain Sounds ran smoothly, with an attendance of 16,000 people over two days, 11 user pay police and no major drug-related incidents.
"Safety has always been of the utmost importance to us, and it was for this reason that we agreed to downsize our festival site, cancelling over 20 acts, to ensure we met newly imposed safety, licensing and security costs, in order to maintain the wellbeing of our patrons and still put on the show".
Yet these measures and their track record did little to protect the festival from the significant new costs imposed by the NSW Government.
Just last week another festival, Psyfari, was also cancelled citing similar difficulties. Psyfari organisers stated "There has never been harder times for camping festivals in NSW, with challenges and conditions slowly squeezing things too far."
"We are unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when festivals are the new scapegoat of a failed government and their failed war on drugs."
Last year, Good Things festival had to reverse its all ages policy, limiting the event to 18+ as a result of what organisers said was "unprecedented opposition to the event from the police and the government." NSW Police were also called out by the organisers of Bohemian Beatfreaks for increasing the festival policing fee to nearly 12 times the cost of the previous year. Many punters and industry insiders fear what will happen to the live music scene and long running festivals in the wake of these new restrictions but they are being drowned out by vocal support in the conservative community.
We spoke with Benny Nelson a music festival organiser and musician [edited for clarity].
How do you feel about the increasing number of music festivals that have been shutdown or been forced to cancel in recent times?
Obviously, very frustrated and annoyed. The Government has overreacted in their display of force of power and ignored the plea of the youth of Australia.
In the news they're calling this a "war on festivals." Do you agree with that phrase?
Absolutely, this is a ‘War on Festivals’. Not only that, it’s a war on 'millennials'. There have been, as far as I know, nine confirmed deaths linked to drug overdose at music festivals in the last five years. There are roads, sports, industries and plenty of other recreational activities that have a much higher death-toll than music festivals. Yet instead of putting money into protecting these young lives by educating them through pill testing, [the government] decide to throw unrealistic measures at festival organisers at the last minute. Only inevitably bringing it, and at this rate the festival industry to a halt. Not only would legal pill testing save those who could or would be harmed, it would potentially take tampered drugs out of the hands of youth that otherwise might be taken at home.
Will Tregoning, co-founder of drug law reform agency Unharm, said
"Whatever the number of drug-related deaths at festivals, it's dwarfed by the total number of deaths related to illegal drug use, which is itself dwarfed by the total number of deaths related to legal drug use," he said. "Most overdose deaths happen at home and involve opiates or benzodiazepines."
What are the major changes you've seen in the music festival scene over the past decade or so?
As someone new to the Music Festival industry, starting COWSOUND Music Festival last year, I really haven’t seen any significant changes up until now. The Government and media has blown this way out of proportion. In my first year [excessive government regulations] weren't a major concern for our small scale event yet now some of my partners working with me are scared of how this could effect not only the festival, but us as the organisers.
Do you think its the organiser's sole role or responsibility when it comes to copping the cost of drug prevention? is it a shared role - is the current legislation fair?
I do understand the responsibility and duty of care to your patrons as an organiser, but we can’t be to blame if we aren’t given all the resources possible. Pill testing has been shown to deter drug users from dangerous substances, therefore saving lives. Festivals can’t cop the entire cost for these tests or else our ticket prices go up and become unviable, putting us in the same situation as we are now - cancelled festivals. We've seen tax payer money going to much larger projects which have had no evidence of a positive effect on people's health and wellbeing.
A festival manager once said if it doesn't feel like you're putting out fires you're not doing enough. Does the current climate compound the already hefty challenges faced by festival organisers?
Mountain Sounds festival is the prime example. It’s starting to become impossible to run a music festival in NSW. What's a great way to make a business broke? - Make it cost more to run than you can make. Putting on a festival or event of any size is no easy feat, and it looks like the industry is now at breaking point.
Are you afraid that other festivals, and live events including your own might be at risk in the future?
Extremely afraid, if these extra costs were dumped on my event, the cost of tickets would skyrocket to an unacceptable amount. I created my festival to be cheap and affordable, and it would instantly tear COWSOUND apart if we had to implement anything like what was dropped on Mountain Sounds...like a strategic airstrike.
Pill -and I cannot stress this enough- Testing!
Pill testing is not the ultimate fix. But it will save lives while we work towards a better solution to drug use. Pill testing is painted by pollies as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for drug use, which is completely false. No festivals are pro-drugs. [NSW Premier] Gladys Berejiklian is the one that brought this issue into light, but she doesn’t want to fix it, instead blaming the entertainment industry, destroying it brick by brick. Enough bricks have been taken out now that the wall is starting to collapse. About 2000 people die of drug related deaths every year in Australia. There are nine reported deaths at festivals in five years, thats less than 0.1% of drug related deaths. Festivals aren’t the problem, drugs are.
What they’ve really done now is pissed off the youth of Australia, and despite what they think, that's a very powerful group of people.
Benny Nelson, Singer/Songwriter, Rock Performer and Festival Organiser