The summer festival season in New Zealand has got off to a bumpy start with the cancellation of two major festivals. Lydia Jenkin investigates the state of the industry and what it takes to succeed in the current climate.
• Two major New Zealand music festivals have been cancelled in recent weeks due to lack of ticket sales, but 11 other major music festivals are going ahead over summer.

• Promoters are struggling with the weak Kiwi dollar as they pay international artists in US dollars.

• Audiences have become more discerning in what they look for in a music festival - big headliners are no longer the key to success.

• Smaller festivals with a strong identity and an emphasis on ambience, atmosphere and location are the most sustainable.

• The effect of greater regulations, lengthy processes and a lot of red tape has made putting festivals on a challenge, but promoters accept them as part of the business.

Back in October, it was announced that SoulFest had been cancelled. Low ticket sales in Australia forced cancellation of the entire run of dates, both in Oz and in Auckland. Then came the news last week that the new Echo Festival (which had been forced to move from its parkland site in the Bay of Plenty to Vector Arena in Auckland due to resource consent issues) would also be cancelled, again due to low ticket sales.

So the 2015 summer festival season has had a less than auspicious start. Indications are that festival organisers in Australia, North America, and Britain are finding things just as challenging.

But there are still at least 11 large-scale music festivals taking place around New Zealand over the next few months, some of which have been running for many years. So we decided to talk to several promoters, and take the temperature of the industry - find out what challenges they're facing, but also what's the key to putting on a successful music festival.

Splore festival's main stage, 2014.
Splore festival's main stage, 2014.

Underlying issues

The first sentiment that arises, no matter who we talk to, is that putting on a festival has always been a high-risk venture, with many variables including exchange rates, weather, changing regulations, and audience enthusiasm and spending ability. It doesn't matter whether you're in New Zealand or overseas, or what type of genre you're working with.

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"Look at what's happened in Australia over the last few years," says Mark Kneebone, promoter for Auckland's Laneway Festival, which has been running for six years. "There's been a massive constriction on the amount of festivals that are running. You look at what happened with the Big Day Out and Soundwave, and other big-name festivals not selling what they've traditionally sold. It's challenging everywhere."

Splore's promoter John Minty agrees that which country you're working in is pretty much irrelevant, but sees a pattern of festivals becoming too big too quickly, and being unable to sustain their ambitious undertaking.

"That's what happened with Big Chill in the UK and Good Vibrations in Australia, Future Fest has gone under. These were all festivals who were maybe just paying way too much for their artists, and then that just becomes economically unviable for everyone."

Auckland City Limits promoter Campbell Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland City Limits promoter Campbell Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Campbell Smith, who ran the New Zealand leg of Big Day Out in recent years, and has announced a new festival, Auckland City Limits, which will be held in Western Springs next March, agrees that sustainability is also the key issue in New Zealand.

"The challenge is always sustainability. Organising a festival in New Zealand has become more challenging in that there are more options for both audience and talent, and it's a challenge to be relevant with a very discerning audience. It's certainly not like the days when we rolled out Big Day Out every year like some sort of unchallenged heavyweight."

For Smith the biggest current issue is the value of the Kiwi dollar.

"The exchange rate is always a huge unknown. But we pay the majority of our artist fees are in US dollars, and when the rate goes from 80 US cents to the dollar to 62 cents, that's going to hurt. We can't start selling tickets in US dollars!"

Too many festivals?

Of course, despite the financial pressures of putting together a festival, there has been a great bloom of events in recent years, some which have worked, and others which have been put to bed. Coromandel Gold, La De Da, and Rippon, are just some of the festivals which haven't returned in recent years. Did the market possibly become too saturated for our population size?

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"It's a hard one because I've been in this business a long time, and every year you see festivals or events fall over, and then something else pops up" Minty explains. "So there does seem to be a sort of natural number of events that will always happen, and some will come and go, and some will grow, and some will disappear.

"New Zealanders love music and love events, so there will always be some support for them. But we don't have a lot of money here, and it does make it hard when there are too many events or too many festivals. They may not necessarily be directly competitive, but they do divide the money up into even smaller piles. For example this year we had Eminem come and do a big concert at Western Springs in Auckland on the same weekend we held Splore, and that makes a big difference to us, because even if only 1000 of the 50,000 people who went to Eminem would've gone to Splore otherwise, that's the difference between profit and loss for us."

Australian band The Bamboos perform on the main stage at Splore Festival, 2014. Photo / Splore
Australian band The Bamboos perform on the main stage at Splore Festival, 2014. Photo / Splore

Brian Ruawai was part of the group who organised Soundsplash festival in Raglan between 2002 and 2008, before things folded after something of a financial wash out. Now he's bringing the festival back to life again in 2016, and hoping to make it last.

"In terms of numbers, I think New Zealand can only sustain a certain number of events. We are a small population, so you have to get your timing and location correct. For Soundsplash, Raglan swells to 15,000 people over summer, and the response to the return has been positive."

What works?

So what are discerning audiences looking for these days, and what type of festival is sustainable in New Zealand?

More choices, and more knowledge about festivals that are happening overseas mean we are all far more picky about what we'll spend our money on.

In a decade where we're lucky enough to be getting many major artists touring New Zealand to play their own shows, we no longer need a festival to draw them down here, and are looking for something more from our festival experience - musical discovery, the possibility of seeing more niche international artists who might not otherwise make it to New Zealand, or the chance to see local acts in a bigger setting.

The current crop of successful festivals seem to have two things in common: they have a strong identity (not necessarily genre-specific, but a certain vibe and aesthetic that people connect with), and they put an emphasis on an appealing overall experience, with a focus on location, art, food, and giving people something outside the box, rather than being overly fixated on booking the world's biggest names.

Gaza Trip, Mavs Adegbite, and Karima Madut perform on the main stage as part of the Weird Together collective at Splore festival, 2014. Photo / Splore
Gaza Trip, Mavs Adegbite, and Karima Madut perform on the main stage as part of the Weird Together collective at Splore festival, 2014. Photo / Splore

"I think with line-up-led events, there's not so much loyalty from the punters, whereas if you create an event that's as much about the destination and experience, then people have more impetus to come back regardless" explains Minty, who's been running Splore for 18 years, and has worked hard to create an idyllic festival in a coastal setting at Tapapakanga Regional Park.

With a New Zealand audience who are notoriously slow to buy tickets to new events, creating a base audience who will return every year is really important explains Kneebone.

"Over 60 per cent of the people who came to Laneway this year had also come last year. They know what to expect from Laneway, and they like it, and that's a huge thing for us to have created, and so we want to look after that loyal fan base. That's why this year we're expanding the site again, and we've put in more shade and more food vendors, and more screens so more people can see better.

"We've increased the size quite substantially, but we're keeping the capacity at the same amount, 12,000, because we're trying to create more space and make it really enjoyable for people."

Introducing Auckland City Limits Music Festival, happening at Western Springs on 19 March 2016. Source: Auckland City Limits Music Festival/Youtube

Even a festival like ACL which has major international headliners like The National and Kendrick Lamar is looking to create a well-rounded festival experience to offer more enticement to punters.

"ACL offers our audience an event that is international in vision, yet local in identity. It is relaxed. It is broad in its programming, with music, art, food, comedy, a kids zone. Best of all it's at Western Springs, with its grass, trees, lake, central city location and history. Western Springs is the star of our show" explains Smith.

Overcoming hurdles

All of these festivals have faced hurdles with location and regulations during their lifetime though. Womad didn't work particularly well while it was held in Auckland, but has flourished in its new home at the Bowl of Brooklands in Taranaki, where it is presented by Taranaki Arts Festival Trust, and has a unique combined public and private partnership arrangement, and is supported by the New Plymouth District Council.

Northern Bass moved from Haruru Falls to Mangawhai in order to be closer to Auckland, where its core audience is travelling from. Laneway has moved from Britomart, to Aotea Square, to Silo Park, trying to find its way around noise complaints in the city, and working out which urban site can hold the ever-growing audience. The organisers had hoped to move to the Auckland Domain in 2016, but those plans were thwarted when the council decided moving the annual Lantern Festival to the domain was going to bring the number of large scale public events held in the park to a maximum level.

DJ Scissorhands performing at the Northern Bass, 2014. Photo / John Stone
DJ Scissorhands performing at the Northern Bass, 2014. Photo / John Stone

Splore was also surprisingly forced to move from its previous site of Waharau Regional Park (slightly further down the Firth of Thames coastline from Splore's current home at Tapapakanga Regional Park) in 2006 after one noise complaint was laid.

"We had one part-time resident nearby Waharau Regional Park, a lawyer, and he made a complaint about the noise coming from Splore, and in order to get permission to go ahead in the future, we had to commit to saying we would never use that site again. So that's why we moved to Tapapakanga," explains Minty. "And we had the same problem when we introduced Splore City back in 2011 -- Laneway had been held in the revamped Aotea Square the weekend before us, and they had a complaint from a lawyer who lived up in Greys Ave, and that's why we had to move Splore City inside the Auckland Town Hall instead of holding it in the square as we had planned.

"So yes, one complainant can actually close down a venue or festival, which really doesn't seem fair when you consider the positive cultural impact of these events, not to mention the money it brings into a region and so on. It's an area that all promoters have issues with, and it's a biggie, particularly when you're first getting established."

Laneway Festival held at Silo Park.
Laneway Festival held at Silo Park.

While all the promoters we spoke to completely understand all the regulation and processes they have to go through, and see it as simply part of being a promoter, there does seem to be some consensus that there's certainly more red tape and more hoops to jump through than there used to be.

"When we first started Splore, and I guess it was the same with The Gathering, and various other festivals back in the day, they were pretty well done in a quite informal way. No one was paid, the regulations were pretty light, it wasn't too hard to get set up, you'd get a few oks, and it wasn't quite the same resource management hoopla you have to go through now.

"We've obviously grown with those regulations so it's not been such a shock, and over those years we've established credibility with the local council and Auckland Parks, local community, local iwi, those relationships take years to build up to the point where people will say 'Yes, welcome back'."

Minty also has some sympathy for McLaren Vally/Echo Festival, and the difficulties they faced with getting resource consent.

"A consent for any event like this is a very long process. When we reapplied for another five year consent for Splore last year, that took about nine months. And the realitys, there's a bit of a catch 22 in that you almost need to be going ahead with your event before you get the resource consent, because invariably the bureaucrats take so long to process them, they quite often don't issue you with permits and things until the last minute. So if you waited to get them to sign off absolutely everything before you announce the event, you'd have to delay an event by a whole year really. It's not an exact science, and it can be problematic."

Mark Kneebone, promoter of the Laneways festival.
Mark Kneebone, promoter of the Laneways festival.

Kneebone agrees that the one thing you certainly need plenty of is time.

"With Laneway when we were working on the idea of moving it to the Domain, we started having those meetings 12 months before we lodged the application, and we lodged the application [for next year's event] in April this year. And to lodge the application we'd already put in hundreds of hours of meetings, and spent a lot of money on audio reports, traffic planning, security, safety, we'd met with Heritage Auckland, we'd met with all the different groups. So that's how far ahead you have to work. If you want to create a successful event you have to be planning 18 months ahead.

"We do take heart from the fact that there is so much paperwork involved in putting on a successful outdoor event that no one else would really want to take it on" laughs Kneebone. "No one wants to be sitting around at 2am in the morning talking about solid waste disposal, and how that will have an effect on the overall Auckland environment, and preparing another report."

The payoff seems to be worth it though - they all keep putting on festivals.

"I really dont know why I keep doing it" says Smith. "The risk is enormous. I guess I'm a festival junkie. Actually for all outdoor shows, from an ACL or BDO to a winery tour show. Standing in a stunning outdoor location, as the sun goes down, with an artist like Kendrick Lamar performing, its just the biggest buzz. And a captivated festival crowd is the very happiest live music crowd you'll ever find."

Kneebone is similarly buoyed by seeing a crowd enjoying their event.

"We definitely don't take it for granted."We never assume it will sell out, or that it will go really well...we're genuinely stoked and humbled that people come every year."