‘We’re giving it a crack’: Music festival organisers dreaming of summer
7th August 2021

Queenscliff Music festival organiser Andrew Orvis has a grim laugh when asked this week about his sanguine move of announcing the event’s line-up for late November.

“We’re giving it a crack,” he says of the program, which features John Butler, Julia Stone, Archie Roach, Client Liaison and The Bamboos.

Queenscliff Festival organiser Andrew Orvis hopes his event can go ahead in November.

“All the hoops, we’re jumping through every one … We’re hoping for the best. Is it a 100 per cent sure thing? No, but nothing is at the moment.”

The festival industry, which directly and indirectly employs thousands of Victorians and pumps millions into regional towns, has been on its knees since COVID struck 18 months ago – the most brutal example nationally being Byron Bay Blues Festival, cancelled a day before it was set to go ahead.

But images of crowds at festivals in Europe and the US – most notably Lollapalooza in Chicago, that hosted about 100,000 people a day over four days – have organisers hoping the warm weather and higher vaccination rates later this year might offer hope for a summer of fun.

Overseas festivals have been going ahead under conditions of punters providing proof of vaccination or showing that they have had a negative COVID test prior to entry, including through rapid turnaround anti-gen tests that deliver a result within 30 minutes.

Festival-goers in Chicago on day one of Lollapalooza last month.Credit: AP

Hamish Skermer, the organiser of Victoria’s Folk, Rhythm and Life festival, arrived in London to set up composting toilets at festivals on July 13 and has been run off his feet ever since.

“As soon as the weather was striding there were events popping up all over the place – it’s going crazy,” he says.

Hamish Skermer has worked at music festivals in the UK this northern summer.

“I had three major events cancel in the first week an a half, then I’ve had a bunch of little ones spring up. The first weekend I had six events.”

Skermer says patrons had to prove they had been fully vaccinated or take a COVID test as a condition of entry and that once inside there was a “bubble attitude”.

He plans to proceed with Folk, Rhythm and Life this year on a site near Beechworth on the first weekend of December and prioritise his ticket sales of up to 3000 to those who are vaccinated. “We’re absolutely planning on going ahead,” he says.

“We are going to prioritise vaccinated people. The first ticket batch is going to vaccinated people. There’s children who are not vaccinated who come to our festival and they need to be protected.

“If the government’s not going to make it [mandatory], I’m up for businesses doing it.

“[The unvaccinated] will be the ones staying at home, we’re the ones going out and going to the party. If you want to come to the party, get a vaccination.”

Orvis, who usually hosts 10,000 punters but will run at significantly reduced capacity, and admits to wanting to “bang [his] head against the desk repeatedly at the moment”, is also supportive of attendees providing proof of vaccination or a COVID-negative test.

“If that is a mechanism that gives government more confidence that our events can be safe, as an industry … a good majority would be supportive of that push.

”[But] we’re 20 per cent vaccinated a the moment. That means 20 per cent of ticket-holders can come. Until we get to higher rates it’s going to be tough.“

Julia Robinson, general manager of the Australian Festival Association, says the unpredictability of lockdowns means the most immediate problem is organisers can’t get insurance.

“We’ve seen really heart-breaking cancellations, when everything is up and running, ready to go … all that money goes down the drain,” she says.

The association is part of a group of industry organisations that on Friday called for a government-backed event insurance scheme similar to that announced this week by the UK government, in which the government guarantees policies issued by commercial insurers for events including festivals.

Robinson says if that certainty is in place organisers can get planning. “If [insurance] was there we’d have a whole lot of events on sale,” she says.

“This industry are a real hopeful bunch, they’re problem-solvers if nothing else … If they can open up, they’ll always find a way.”

Robinson also believes a health pass and masks indoors will be mandatory for large events later this year and that Victorians reeling from Lockdown 6.0 will need to let their hair down.

“It’s where the community comes together. For the last 18 months a lot of musicians and artists have been creating, they’re going to have some special creations to share. It will be a great recovery when it happens.”

Orvis agrees that Victorians need something to look forward to and that when festivals can get going again, and we can once again gather en masse, it will be the ultimate antidote to lockdown angst.

“Apart from all of the massive economic benefits for everyone involved, the local cafes, the petrol stations, accommodations, the people going, some of us have had 18 months or a couple of years of no live music, no social gatherings. I’ve grown up going to festivals and it’s part of the fabric of people’s beings.”

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