Making festivals is my practice. I’m interested in why we gather, how people gather and what makes people stay. And who’s not there. So when a new player arrives on the scene, announces an absurdly good line-up and calls itself “The Gathering”, my nerd-o-meter rocks out. An aspiration to include some kind of substantial arts content within its line-up triples my curiosity, anticipation and intrigue.
The programming and production of yesterday’s Harvest Festival was great. Some excellent bands played really terrific, generous sets – my particular highlights being Dappled Cities, Holy Fuck and Bright Eyes, with a nod to a pretty spectacular set by Portishead and another beautiful experience with The National. Changeovers were smooth, everything happened on time, and I thought the sound quality was great too (though I’m no expert there).
There were a few signs last week that the forward planning and care for the audience’s experience were a bit askew. The playing times for Melbourne were announced very late; there’s a bit of “he said/she said” going on, but it appears something fell down in the negotiations with Portishead. Much worse though – and an insight into things to come – was the email I received on Friday:
Dudes! You can’t sell 15 000 people (more on that later) a line-up that includes The Flaming Lips and then, just 24 hours before your event, inform them that unless they drive, they won’t be able to see the band. With an already complicated public transport situation, it’s just inconsiderate.
Upon arrival, I thought it strange there was so little directional signage and that the traffic marshals weren’t wearing Festival-branded gear but rather just their normal traffic management uniforms. I’m not convinced they were properly briefed; many friends got lost and our driver was very confused as to where we were headed. Without the stamped authority of being involved with and representative of the festival’s broader vision, the traffic management staff contribute as much to the festival as any old roadworkers on a freeway. When proceeding through the gates, I saw that the volunteers handing out programs were just wearing normal clothes – nothing that would identify them to a crowd as helpful sites of information. Though this appears to be purely a ‘branding’ issue – I think involving your staff in a broader statement about who you are as a festival is important, and the branding is actually an essential element of how you feel you’re at an event where someone cares, is in control, and if you’ve got an issue or someone is feeling unwell, you know who to talk to.
The rest of the day continued along the same balance I’ve just described: programming excellent / audience experience appalling. Social media has been pumping with criticism of the hours and hours of waiting in queues for coupons, drinks, food, toilets, and just to leave the place at all, after they seemingly forgot to employ traffic wardens to direct cars to leave the park. The coupons system was complicated and sprung on punters on arrival, resulting in two queues: one for ability to purchase drinks, then to purchase drinks. When the bars later ran out of beer, many felt scammed as they were not able to use the coupons for which they had queued. It’s undeniable that the event would have been a far better experience for everyone if they’d reduced the capacity by half.
It says a lot about the crowd that was there, and the absolute blessing that was the stunning weather, that something dangerous didn’t erupt. A good friend of mine, also a festival-maker, observed what appeared to be some pretty severe safety risks, with some 15,000 Flaming Lips fans exiting through one passageway, approximately 5m wide. I shudder to think what would have happened if someone had a heart attack at the back of that crowd, or if there was a fire, or if mass panic erupted as per the tragic events of Love Parade in 2010.
I guess this is interesting to me because it drives towards the essential elements of a large gathering of people having a good time. It’s not just about the art. The art leads the way, but after that you need a thorough vision of the entire experience. For this Festival, it felt like the organisers had only progressed two-thirds of a way through their thoughts, and the planning around audience experience was left undone. It’s unfortunate, because their press release stated the opposite: “…you limit the capacity and exclude rugrats to ensure comfort while substantially increasing the quality and quantity of the amenitities, services, food outlets and the variety of food and beverage options provided.” (Sourced here.)
There’s also that strange mystery of how you create a space where people develop their own rituals and sense of identity. Maybe that just takes time, and won’t happen with a debut. Yet another good friend, also highly experienced in Festivals-land, observed that “there’s so many people here it’s difficult to know what you’re part of.” And though I had fun, I didn’t get a sense of a personality from this Festival, what makes it distinct or interesting, why “we” 15,000 were drawn to this particular time or place. These are the more ephemeral components of Festival-making, that result in loyalty. Meredith and Golden Plains drip with personality, and I think it’s sometimes overlooked that a key part of Matt High, Greg Peele and Chris Nolan’s genius vision is openness, and a deep commitment to providing a space in which people can create their own magic. Obviously they’ve also had the strategy of a slow-burn evolution, so that 21 years on, they are able to deliver quality, intimate, special experiences to crowds of 12,000 each December. Indeed, the most common statement I heard from other punters whilst waiting in the queues was “this would never happen at Meredith.”
Perhaps the other missing ingredient was a healthy dose of risk, in the best possible sense. That spirit of adventure that comes from not being quite sure what you’re going to get. A great music festival is often characterised by the total surprise of loving a band you’ve never even heard of before, of totally rocking out to something brand new. I’ve had a pretty excellent year as live music goes, and had seen the shows by the Flaming Lips and The National already. But as music knowledge goes, there’s about a bazillion people in Melbourne who know more than me, and even they are usually surprised by some of the bands in the line-up at Meredith or Golden Plains. That’s when the magic happens, in a sweet combo of the things that you know and love, and the things you’re discovering for the first time.
So would I go again? Would I give Harvest another go to get right? The summer music festival calendar is chockas, with loads of excellent options and plenty of people vying for my dosh. With no loyalty, sense of identity or adventure established, it’s hard to say that I would…
PS: There’s some interesting commentary happening over at The Vine as well.