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Opinion Piece: How the new NSW festival permit scheme could impact on VIC

By Patrick Donovan, CEO Music Victoria


All Australians can vividly recall their favourite festival moments. Mine was the first time a white Cuban heeled boot was raised in excitement above a fans’ head at the Golden Plains Festival at Meredith in south-western Victoria. It kick started a global tradition of festival audiences recognising a five star live performance in a joyous instantaneous review.


Australian music festivals are a powerful economic driver to the economy. According the Live Performance Australia’s Ticketing Revenue and Performance Report, they contributed more than $100 million to the national economy in 2017. They are a vital source of economic activity and social engagement in many regional cities and towns, and have an important flow on effect to venues through numerous side shows.


But this is all under threat after the NSW State Government announced the implementation of a new festival permit scheme from March 1 which has created uncertainty and led to the cancellation of two festivals.


The NSW Government has released a list of 14 festivals, including global and national festivals that take place in Melbourne including Laneway, Ultra and Electric Gardens, that they consider high risk and will bear the brunt of increased licensing fees and security costs.


Higher risk festivals are festivals “where a serious drug related illness or death has occurred in the past three years or where the Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority has determined, having regard to expert advice from NSW Health and NSW Police, that there may be a significant risk of serious drug related illness or death”.

The new scheme looks like a blanket knee jerk reaction, policy on the run, and has created financial uncertainty for the promoters. There’s too much discretion and not enough transparency. Rather than being entirely safety focussed, the measures are more punitive, pushing a law and order agenda instead of a nuanced approach to a complex issue.

The Australian Festival Association says the introduction of the new proposed Festival License and Interim Health Guidelines was rushed, lacked consultation and failed to consider the impacts on the industry through a rigorous Regulatory Impact Statement.

The damage to NSW’s live music sector is not confined to one state. Australian festivals and touring circuits don’t exist in isolation; they often share headliner acts around the country, so any harm to the NSW festival industry will damage the entire ecosystem and impact on Victoria.


Laneway’s Danny Rogers said that in the past 14 years in Sydney they have only had two incidents of people being transported from the festival out of 300,000 attendees, and said the event might not go ahead next year in Sydney because of the crack down. This would severely impact the festival’s ability to attract big headliners to events across the country.


This is another lost opportunity for New South Wales. According to the 2017 Live Performance Australia Report, NSW generates the highest market share in revenue (54.7%) and attendance (45.9%) in Contemporary Music Festivals. But two festivals – Mountain Sounds Festival and PSYFARI – were cancelled in the last fortnight, and Bluesfest Byron Bay director Peter Noble has threatened to move his festival, which contributes $40 million to the NSW economy, interstate.


The music industry is rallying in what is being considered the biggest threat to music in Australia since the implementation of draconian Victorian Liquor Licencing laws in 2010 led to the temporary closure of iconic venues such as the Tote Hotel.


Then Victorian music fans responded when 20,000 music fans marched on the steps of parliament in protest, and the laws were changed after a last minute accord was struck between government and industry.


And last Thursday, about 20,000 NSW music fans attended the public Don’t Kill Live Music Rally at Sydney’s Hyde Park.


More than 120,000 people so far have signed a petition urging the NSW government to form

a music regulation roundtable to review all regulation impacting live music, immediately undertakes a Regulatory Impact Statement for any regulation impacting music festivals and works closely with the music industry to develop robust, effective and achievable safety protocols for festivals.


Like in 2010 in Victoria, the NSW decision seems to have been made without properly consulting all of the key stakeholders. Since 2010, the Victorian music industry has been given a voice at the decision making table through committees and roundtables and the results couldn’t be clearer - Melbourne is now considered one of the live music capitals of the world and live music continues to be a major driver in the Night Time Economy.


It’s another kick in the guts for the NSW music industry, coming after ‘’Lock Out’’ Laws introduced in 2014 in Sydney’s inner city to curb alcohol-related violence were blamed by the industry for forcing the closure of venues and damaging its once vibrant nightlife.

A report released this week by Deloitte Access Economics found that Sydney is missing out on about $16 billion a year because its night-time economy is underdeveloped.

In response to that, a NSW Government Parliamentary Inquiry the music and arts economy in New South Wales outlined 60 recommendations, including regulatory reform and $35 million in funding to match Victoria’s recent funding for contemporary music per capita. But these recommendations are year to be implemented.

The Victoria State Government ruled out implementing new licensing laws for festivals.

“What I can tell you is the New South Wales government’s knee-jerk reaction to regulate the bajeebies out of (festival/music) providers is not a path that we’re going down. They will kill the music scene going down that path,’’ the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, told the Ballarat Courier.

However, he said that introducing pill testing at festivals was a more complex issue. “(There’s a) whole lot of other unresolved issues around liability, around certainty of those tests, and around legal obligations that may place the state, operator, or provider in. It’s a complex issue because of all those other unresolved issues and those shifting of resources means we’re not in a position to do so.”

Music Victoria agrees that the issue of pill testing is very complex. Drug use is a broad societal issue and drug taking shouldn’t be linked to music festivals, just as violence should never have been linked to live music in 2010. Festival promoters work incredibly hard to create fun safe events for a wide variety of music fans.

As a peak body, we are privy to both sides of the argument and we understand that it draws passionate responses. The industry shares the same concerns as the community and we are committed to working towards safety and reduced harm. We urge all parties to come to the table and have rational conversations to support the development of festivals while maintaining the safety of music fans, and for policy makers to learn from progressive policies in European countries.


So when you head to Meredith’s Golden Plains or the Port Fairy Folk festival over the next month to enjoy the unique communal bonding over your favourite musical acts, don’t take it for granted.