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Damage control: Peter Noble talks difficult start to year

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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Bluesfest announces rescheduled 2021 dates

Byron Bay Bluesfest is now slated to take place in October with a four-day format, after the original 2021 event was cancelled at the eleventh hour.

The festival had been set to take place between 31 March to 5 April 2021 but less than 24 hours before it was set to open, the New South Wales government called it off due to a new Covid case in Byron Bay.

The rescheduled event will take place at Byron Events Farm across four days instead of five (1–4 October 2021), though the organisers have said that current five-day ticket holders will receive some ‘special’ news alongside the lineup announcement.

This Wednesday (19 April), the festival will announce the full line-up which organisers say ‘will be worth the wait’.

“Trust us when we say the wait will have all been worth it…,” reads a post on Byron Bay Bluesfest’s Facebook. “We’ve been adding more of Australia’s absolute best talent – a way of saying thank you to all of you who have supported us during this time.”

“Trust us when we say the wait will have all been worth it”

The April 2021 lineup included the likes of Jimmy Barnes, Tash Sultana and The Teskey Brothers. It’s unclear whether any of the acts from the original lineup will appear at the October event.

Season tickets will go on sale after the line-up is revealed, followed by three-day and one-day tickets.

The cancellation of the April Bluesfest event was touted as a “watershed moment” by the Australian music industry, which had been lobbying for a business interruption fund that would help live events redeem their costs in the event of an eleventh-hour cancellation.

The Australian Festivals Association’s Julia Robinson told IQ that such a fund is essential to boost business confidence. Read her comment here.

 


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Bluesfest forced to cancel at the eleventh hour

Byron Bay Bluesfest 2021 has been cancelled by a public health order, a mere 24 hours before doors were due to open to the public.

The New South Wales (NSW) government announced on Wednesday (30 March) that Bluesfest would not be permitted to go ahead on its scheduled dates, Thursday 31 March to Monday 5 April, due to a new Covid case in Byron Bay.

Bluesfest confirmed the cancellation in a statement published late afternoon on 31 March. “We are heartbroken that Covid-19 has spread into our local community,” it read. “We are getting the message out as quickly as possible so that those traveling to the event can make alternate arrangements.”

Read the full Bluesfest statement via our website: www.bluesfest.com.au/bluesfest-is-cancelled-for-two-years-in-a-row

Posted by Bluesfest Byron Bay on Tuesday, March 30, 2021

 

In a statement, Minister Hazzard said: “While the cancellation of Bluesfest is disappointing for music lovers and the local community, I hope that ticket holders would support Bluesfest and hold on to their tickets as I understand Bluesfest will be working on a new date as soon as possible.”

Under an NSW Health-approved Covid-19 safety plan, Bluesfest 2021 was set to operate at approximately 50% of normal capacity and production, hosting around 16,500 people on each of its five days, with an all-Australian line-up.

The cancellation marks the second time the festival has been called off due to the coronavirus.

The last-minute cancellation of Bluesfest has prompted fresh calls for a government insurance scheme that would help live events redeem their costs in the event of an eleventh-hour cancellation.

Live Performance Australia and the Australian Festival Association, which have been advocating for a business interruption fund for the last year, say it’s “now a matter of urgency”.

“Govt has a Covid insurance system for the film industry. Music needs one too. Urgently”

Bluesfest’s Peter Noble had called for such a fund at the beginning of the year. A business interruption fund, he wrote on Facebook, would “incentivise event presenters to put on events and be protected in not going to the wall, should an out break of Covid shut down their businesses at short notice and protect artists, crew and suppliers [to] get paid should that occur”.

“The federal government did it more than six months ago for the film industry to get them back to making movies. Why are we still waiting?” he wrote.

Shadow Arts Minister Tony Burke has also called for a “Covid insurance system” for live music. “The music industry is full of viable profitable businesses unable to function because of public health,” he wrote on Twitter. “Govt has a Covid insurance system for the film industry. Music needs one too. Urgently.”

In the last year, insurance schemes have been announced in Germany (€2.5bn), Austria (€300m), the Netherlands (€300m), Belgium (€60m), Norway (€34m) Denmark (DKK 500m) and Estonia (€6m).


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