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The Bluesfest organiser looks to the future after the festival’s eleventh-hour cancellation by government due to a single positive Covid-19 test
By IQ on 16 Jun 2021
Earlier this year, the governor of the Australian state of New South Wales pulled the plug on Byron Bay Bluesfest the day before the much-loved festival was due to go ahead. Despite agreeing to operate at 50% capacity under a state-approved plan, Bluesfest was given no option to comply, leaving the festival owing artists, suppliers and contracts with no income to pay them.
Here, festival organiser Peter Noble talks about the impact of the last-minute cancellation and looks ahead to the ‘new’ Bluesfest 2021, which takes place from 1 to 4 October…
IQ: Tell us about the moment you learned Bluesfest would not be able to go ahead.
PN: The public health order came through at about 3.30pm on 30 March, the day before the festival was due to open. We were literally set up and ready to go. Every single thing had been done; the stallholders had the food and the liquor was in the fridges, the signage was up – it was as close as you could get to opening your doors. That positive Covid case was the first one we’ve had in our area since July the previous year. It was a shock. We were traumatised.
Did the New South Wales government consult you before they pulled the plug?
I’d been given a heads up a few hours earlier that the government was going to do it, but we weren’t given any opportunities to do anything but comply. Even though I was very much a part of a process of developing the first Covid safety plan for live music, once it got down to the government decision, the festival was not part of it.
A lot of people felt the government’s decision was very heavy handed – that we are a five-day event, and they could have cancelled our first day and see if there was going to be any further positive cases in the community and, in fact, it turned out that there wasn’t.
I don’t think that the health minister would make such a decision so quickly without looking at all the options again. We all learned something from it and it’s no use crying over spilt milk.
What were the financial ramifications of the last-minute cancellation?
Well, the treasurer of New South Wales called on Easter Saturday, when I was still in shock, and said that I would be the first recipient of the business interruption fund – which I had been advocating for, for a bloody long time. The festival received an interim payment from the government that allowed us to pay all of our workers, make a good start on paying our suppliers, and pay the musicians money. We paid half the fee to anybody that was earning under A$15,000 [€9,500] and 25% to anybody that was earning over.
“Ticket sales for the rescheduled event have been astonishing. I love being in this industry”
Our next payment will be to stallholders who had perishable goods or craft beer. We had to do all those things to be able to come back. I can’t say how much we were given because I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but after the government’s final payment to us, we will hopefully end up in the same financial position we were in when we started working on that first event in May 2020, which was cancelled. Without the business interruption payments, we would have gone into liquidation for sure.
What does that say about the need for government-backed insurance?
The fact that there is no avenue for that kind of support, unless I go to the tourism minister with cap in hand and say, “Please save my event,” is farcical. But I think it’s probably because we haven’t really lobbied the government in the way we needed to, to be recognised for our contributions.
There are only ever a small number of major event producers. You’re not going to see many events in Australia calling out in the way that I am because most are backed by multinationals and have the ability to be funded. The government needs to be stepping in and saying: “We value events. We’re going to invest in them. Or at the very least, we’re going to launch a government-backed guarantee.” If they don’t do that, I fear we’re going to see a loss of events.
How did you make the decision to reschedule Bluesfest for October?
I said to our artists, “If we did reschedule, would you want to come?”, and all but two headliners said yes. So then it just came down to whether or not the team had the fortitude. I couldn’t put it on my team to do the event if they just couldn’t do it on a mental-health level. We were traumatised. But we decided to go ahead and all of a sudden, the vibe came back into the office.
Tickets to the rescheduled event were released on 20 May and the sales have been astonishing. We had about a million dollars in ticket sales within 24 hours. To see such a big show of faith from fans through buying a ticket has really made me think, “God, I love being in this industry.”
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