With the summer music festival circuit more jam-packed than ever, what does it take to stay afloat and get punters through the gates? Scott Kara reports.

Manolo Echave knows what it's like to put on a music festival and it not quite go the way it was planned. Two years ago, the festival and concert promoter's short-lived Coromandel Blues Festival in Whitianga had a star line-up including Buddy Guy, Wilco, and former Stone Roses' singer Ian Brown. Despite Brown's voice being typically shoddy, the line-up wasn't the problem. It was the location.

"We stumbled. We didn't get it right by putting it where we put it," says Echave. "Even though it was a fantastic event, it was the surrounding niggly bits that got to people, like the long-distance travel, and the accommodation was difficult."

So next year Echave is back with the Grassroots Festival on April 23 and 24, only this time it's at Puhinui Reserve in Manukau.


The festival also takes advantage of the many international artists visiting Australia for the Byron Bay Blues Fest around the same time. So far the New Zealand line-up includes B.B. King, Ben Harper and Elvis Costello, Don McGlashan and Sola Rosa, with more international and local guests to be announced.

"People can drive in for the day, go home, and then come out for the next day. You can experience the ambience of it but not really have to go down to the mud and the grime," he says.

"These days people have other considerations from what they used to have in the 70s," says Echave, referring to the hippie festivals of Nambassa and Sweetwaters. "The whole travelling thing, and going long distances is a hassle for people."

The new kids on the block

Grassroots is the biggest of the new festivals that have sprung up in recent years, along with the second annual Laneway Festival in Auckland's Aotea Square on January 31, and Splore-City, the urban version of the biannual music and art festival, on February 11-12 also at Aotea Square.

Laneway's Mark Kneebone describes it as a boutique festival that is about creating a day-long experience.

"It's about going along to listen to a whole lot of bands in the alternative indie vein where you can sit down, stretch out and have a few beers. That's what has always been the aim of Laneways [it has been running in Australia since 2004], where it's as much about the day as what the bands are playing."

The biggest challenge, apart from keeping the ticket price affordable, is coming up with a cracker line-up - and then securing the talent.

"Easily the hardest thing to do is getting the right bands, then getting them on the day that you want them for the price you can afford," says Kneebone.

And he says the festival game is a risky business with a few sleepless nights leading up to show time.

"But you know pretty much within a day of it going on sale whether it's going to work or not. The night before [it goes on sale] is pretty terrifying but it's also a rush when you get it right and, 'Wow, we might actually be able to pull it off'."

The logistically challenged

Knowing the market is the key to the success of Gisborne's Rhythm & Vines festival, which started in 2003. Despite its out-on-a-limb location at Waiohika Estate, a vineyard 15 minutes out of Gisborne, it draws a big and loyal crowd over the New Year period, with its core punters mostly 18 to 25-year-olds.

"It's a crowd who are able to jump in a car and drive for seven hours to the edge of New Zealand and give us a week of their time," says founder and organiser Hamish Pinkham.

He believes Rhythm & Vines is unique because it's a three-day festival, the line-up is diverse and spans dance, electronica, hip-hop and rock, and in terms of talent and production levels the only festival that rivals it is the Big Day Out.

Plus there's also the all-important experience the festival conjures up - and the enticing location.

"That view over the vineyard blows away our international guests. And it's a journey for people. It's about experiencing multiple days with your friends and the different highs and lows that brings."

Another new series of shows on the calendar this year is Live at the Islands on Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands and Motutapu in the Hauraki Gulf which you'll have to take a boat to. The seven "concerts for conservation", which start on December 28, include performances by Nathan Haines, Anika Moa, the Topp Twins, and a mass concert on Motutapu on February 12.

Adding to the logistical issues of putting these concerts on is the fact that both islands are pest free so everything that is barged over - sound equipment, staging, or marquees - needs to be biosecurity checked. The transportation and set-up will take around three days. Okay, so it's not exactly U2's 360° Tour, which took a week or so, but it's still a lot of work. So why is it worth it?

"They are unique locations," says organiser Jackie Sanders, "and sometimes you've just got to do that little bit extra to do something that's going to be really amazing.

"Both these locations are stunning and it's not impossible. It's just a few extra hurdles."

The old dependable

The biggest danger for the Big Day Out, reckons New Zealand boss Campbell Smith, is complacency. The one-day event, still the biggest festival in New Zealand in terms of crowd numbers and the international line up it attracts, has been held at Mt Smart Stadium for 17 years.

"In terms of making sure it stays relevant and current it's a matter of not getting complacent and of moving with the times - and line-ups have a lot to do with it."

The festival always cops flak about the number of returning artists, and next January's line-up includes headliners Tool, as well as Rammstein and Iggy and the Stooges, among others who have played the festival before. But Smith says when you've been going for as long as the BDO has it's hard not to repeat - and besides, Tool's billing was dictated by feedback from fans.

Smith is non-committal about whether it is getting harder to sell tickets as more competition comes into the festival market with the likes of Laneway, and Rotorua success story Raggamuffin, which attracts more than 30,000 people each year.

"I guess I have this opinion where I don't really think about what other festivals are doing because I'd turn myself in knots about trying to match them. The market is a supply and demand situation.

"If the market can sustain this many festivals then it will, if it won't they'll go and all we can do is try to make sure we're offering something that people are going to continue to want to go to.

"The Big Day Out is interesting I guess because [it] is a certain rite of passage for late teens - it's something you kinda need to do. And that's great for us, but the worst thing would be for us to think that teenagers are always going to come."