The Ararat Advertiser

What recent music festival blunders can teach us about messaging & marketing

After years of shutdowns, the music festival is trying to make a comeback. Picture Shutterstock
After years of shutdowns, the music festival is trying to make a comeback. Picture Shutterstock

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Music is an integral element of the lives of many Aussies. The experience, naturally, is different from person to person - for some of us, it's the nostalgia of listening to the latest season of hits on the latest So Fresh! mix - for others, it's being able to get in a car with some friends, head out to a country and listen to musical acts on a stage, in the middle of a muddy field, with tents and good company.

In the past twenty years, how we consume music has shifted - many of us now consume music via subscription, or through mega-concerts with global stars, such as Taylor Swift's recent Eras Tour demonstrating the power of wristbands in Australia.

In a world recovering from years of shutdowns, the music festival is trying to make a comeback - yet, in a world encompassed by music, festival organisers are making serious missteps. These often result in disappointment from excited festival-goers and questions from the industry - and perhaps we need to ask ourselves, are we at the end of the road for the once-great Australian icon?

The challenge for festival organisers

Thirty years ago, setting up a concert had its challenges. Often, it was a matter of getting a wide range of acts from around the globe, to commit to coming to a concert in Australia, a nation notorious to travel to by plane. Forum-goers often ask if Australia is worth it after a multi-dozen-hour flight, much to the chagrin of respondents.

Getting acts together aside, festival organisers often face many challenges when putting together an event. Logistics, in particular, can offer significant cost pressures - getting trucks full of staging equipment to a regional area, as well as the labour to set up the equipment on site can often be costly and time-consuming.

That's not the only thing that needs to be organised, though. Deaths at music festivals in the past have resulted in increased regulatory requirements, ensuring that services such as police, first aid staff, and appropriate evacuation and event management plans are in place. These are expensive to organise and can often be challenged on a whim - as a result, it can become very difficult to have an event running at scale.

In a world where climate change is changing the very surface of the ground that music festivals are held on, being able to get appropriate public liability and event insurance also represents a significant challenge. In recent years, event insurance has increased as much as tenfold - often making it nearly impossible for large music festivals to make a profit in a post-pandemic era.

A graveyard of cancelled events

The challenges facing organisers have led to many event cancellations, particularly in the last four years. COVID contributed to the cancellation of many concerts in 2020 and 2021, with many festival programs taking a year or two off, as it was simply impossible to get to the required attendance necessary for such events to be profitable.

However, it's important to note that the cancellation of major concert events started well before the pandemic - in fact, it's been a decade of decline for many concert promoters and associated support staff.

Take, for example, one of Australia's largest music festivals - Big Day Out, the brainchild of promoters Ken West and Vivian Lees. After being a regular occurrence on the music festival scene since the early 1990s, drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees across a five-city tour, a change in management resulted in the discontinuation of the event in 2015.

Other events that fell victim to changing attitudes towards live music included the Future Music Festival, an event headlined by many significant acts in the electronic and dance space, including The Chemical Brothers. Due to a decline in ticket sales in the 2015 series, festival organiser the Mushroom Group decided to end the festival series.

Effective crisis communication

Recent years have seen the cancellation of many acts, often with poorly received social media messages. From the sudden axing of Groovin' the Moo, as a result of poor ticket sales, to the decision of Falls Festival organisers to simply 'take a year off to rest, recover and recalibrate', what are organisers doing so differently in today's cancellations than how they were treated a decade ago?

The answer may lie in how organisations convey their cancellation message. In previous years, cancellations often didn't grab the imagination of social media - in today's world, where everything's a hot-button issue, even minor missteps can cause controversy.

What's the best way to cancel an event? There are no great ways to cancel an event, however, grabbing some pointers from organisations experienced in cancelling events can give an insight into how best the process can be managed.

Take, for example, Eventbrite and its tips for cancelling an event gracefully, which boils down to three key elements: stopping sales, communicating with attendees as early as possible, and issuing a full refund. In a world where the cost of living is often an existential crisis for young Australians, this simple, open, and responsive process is a great way to address customer needs, and not burn bridges before attempting to host another event in the future.

Cancellations will undoubtedly continue - in a world where major events can disrupt a whim, understanding the best ways to respond in a crisis can be critical in maintaining a positive relationship with potential attendees.

It's not the end for music festivals and concerts in Australia - however, as we enter a new, riskier era, the way promoters act and react to the challenges around them will be critical to the success of the next generation of music festivals.