Grass greener on every side
Music festivals are getting, and spreading, a cleaner message, writes Iain Shedden
SOMEWHERE in every Australian state this weekend, large numbers of people will be gathered in a paddock eating, drinking and listening to music. Perhaps you are one of them. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a weekend during the summer and autumn months where there isn’t a large- scale music festival taking place in Australia. Live outdoor music is a greater part of Australian culture than ever and in 2007- 08, it seems, our thirst for such gatherings knows no bounds.
New rock, folk and blues events are springing up from east to west, while the well- established ones, such as the Big Day Out, Falls Festival and the International Blues and Roots festival, sell out each year long before they happen.
On Thursday the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland began its six- day run, during which a total of 130,000 people will pass through its gates, many of whom will be camping nearby for the duration. In Lorne, Victoria, and Marion Bay in Tasmania the Falls Festival, a relatively lowkey rock affair that nevertheless has been a sellout since its inception in 1993, runs from today until Monday. In NSW, Sarah Blasko, De La Soul and the Audreys were among the 400 acts scheduled to appear during the next four days at the Peats Ridge Sustainable Arts and Music Festival in Glenworth Valley. Unfortunately, heavy rainfall this month forced the cancellation of the event. The elements, it seems, make no allowances for environmental endeavours.
If the word sustainable leaps out at you from the Peats Ridge title, that’s because it’s meant to do that. Aside from the Chai temple, the organic food and the healing area at Peats Ridge, each of them entrenched symbols of the new age festival experience, the most significant development there and at many festivals across the country is their increased green awareness.
An industry that gets bad press for the amount of energy expended, not just in putting on a festival but in generating the music the crowds come to see and hear, has been cleaning up its act in more ways than one in recent years to reduce carbon footprints on their sites.
This year’s Live Earth concerts across the globe on July 7, including one in Sydney, did significant good in highlighting the need to conserve energy, recycle rubbish and generally be much nicer to the planet when attending music festivals. Yet Live Earth was by no means the beginning in Australia.
Peats Ridge has been doing its bit with composting toilets, biodiesel generators and organic waste disposal since it began in 2004, while the Falls Festival, set in the beautiful rural landscape on the Great Ocean Road, this year was named at the inaugural Banksia environmental awards as the greenest festival in Australia.
Falls organiser and founder Simon Daly says his festival has set an example for years and that while Live Earth raised awareness, it was not the beginning of greening rock ’ n’ roll in this country. ‘‘ The music industry, which is often seen as not being the cleanest living business, has been a bit of a frontrunner in going green,’’ Daly says.
‘‘ We’re in a rural environment here and I grew up in that environment, so I was never going to leave the place short of spotless. We started from scratch in 1993 but from 1999 we started looking at every aspect of making the festival as sustainable as possible. It’s fantastic that festivals across the board are embracing the green footprint. It’s positive for everybody.’’
A new initiative by environmental groups Greening Australia and Green Tix gives music festivals assistance and advice through carbon offsets and tree- planting programs. So far 12 leading festivals, including Falls, Peats Ridge and the Blues and Roots festival in Western Australia, have signed up to the programs.
Daly’s festival has had 14,500 trees planted near the Derwent river in Tasmania and is about to plant a similar number in country Victoria. That represents one tree for every punter who attends the festivals in both states.
Greening Australia’s vicepresident Rob Gell says it is critical that the music industry ‘‘ adopts a new approach to stage festivals that is sustainable both for the environment and for the enjoyment of the patrons’’.
But it’s not only the greening of festivals that is growing at a rapid rate. The demand for them, in a range of innovative formats, is unprecedented. If it’s outside and you can sing to it, Australian music fans want it.
‘‘ Live music has never been so strong,’’ Daly says. ‘‘ The punters are the biggest winners of all. They have so many opportunities to see live music in so many different ways. That’s a great thing. With CD sales and album sales dropping away it’s great for the artists, too, that so many people are going out to see live music.’’
One of the newest and most successful areas of growth, if you’ll forgive Australia’s wineries.
Rockin’ in the vineyards has become an established, some may say more refined, alternative to the traditional rock gatherings such as Homebake, Big Day Out and Splendour in the Grass. Big- name artists, albeit ones who appeal to an older demographic, are queuing up to appear in the Hunter, the Barossa, Margaret River and elsewhere.
Already this year Bryan Ferry, Elton John and Lionel Richie have crooned to large numbers of chardonnay- swilling picnickers. It’s a niche market, one lucrative to promoters, to the wineries and to the artists, that until the turn of the century was the domain of mainly classical events where one could enjoy the shade of a tree, a quiet sherry and the more familiar passages of Beethoven and Brahms. Now rock has moved in. The most successful of these winery events is the A Day on the Green series, which since 2001 has brought Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and Jewel, among others, to wineries such as Bimbadgen in the Hunter Valley and Rochford in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Promoter Michael Newton has seen the concerts increase from two in 2001 to 25 annually during the past few years.
‘‘ A winery has a romantic attachment to it,’’ he says. ‘‘ There’s something special about the vines being next to the venue rather than just having the show in a park or an oval. That doesn’t have the same ambience.’’
Even so, there’s no guarantee that a romantic setting is going to work in quite the same way for Jimmy Barnes as it does for Vivaldi. ‘‘ That’s true,’’ Newton says. ‘‘ It’s a leap of faith or madness that got us over the line in the first place.
‘‘ We believe that while one estate had a wellestablished series of shows there was no reason why you couldn’t appeal to a younger demographic and put great line- ups on in great venues
in where people are able to eat and drink and sit around with their friends. It sounded good in theory.’’
So far, so good, then, for A Day on the Green and a few smaller promoters buying their way into the winery circuit. Their only problem is that there are a limited number of wineries with the necessary land and suitable facilities to stage large- scale concerts. Indeed, Newton believes the options are close to exhausted.
‘‘ There aren’t a lot of other opportunities left, aside from the venues we already have,’’ he says.
‘‘ There aren’t that many that can handle the show, in terms of the site and car parking. We like people to be able to park on site. There aren’t many wineries that are able to do that, ( that) also want to do it.’’
With Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Barnes and the John Butler Trio looming in the new year, Newton is already assured of a successful season, even allowing for the weather.
And although he hasn’t embraced a full- on green agenda on his greens, he plans to introduce further environmentally friendly measures to next season’s program. ‘‘ It hasn’t impacted us a lot yet, although we do green tickets and our posters are made with recycled paper,’’ he says. ‘‘ We want to do it fully and properly, so we are investigating it for next season.’’
Even if there are similar environmental issues, a day on the green, or indeed on the wine, is a different experience from a big day out on the rock festival circuit.
‘‘ It’s easier to put on in financial terms,’’ Newton says. ‘‘ Our shows are green- field shows in the middle of nowhere. Because we only go for one day with one stage, people treat it differently. They treat it as a weekend away and stay in a B & B or whatever, and play a bit of golf and taste some wine. It’s been fantastic for us so far. Considering we started in 2001 and now we’ve had Steely Dan, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Lionel Richie, it’s all very gratifying.’’
Green friendly: Revellers muck up at Queensland’s 2006 Woodford Folk Festival