It’s no secret that large outdoor music festivals have taken a battering over the past four to five years, not only from the ravages of Covid but through the vagaries of our weather and the effects of climate change. We’ve seen events in Victoria cancelled because of extreme heat and bushfires, as was the case with the 2019 Falls Festival; the Yours & Owls Fest in Wollongong also fell victim to months of rain and flooding earlier this year. Numerous smaller festivals across the country have suffered a similar fate. With last weekend’s debacle at Splendour In The Grass, the future of all large scale music festivals in Australia must look rather shaky.
When large music festivals began to take off in Australia, such as Sunbury back in 1972, the organizers generally opted for a time in the year when the weather would be kind, normally summer or early autumn. The weather gods were in most cases on their side and we had yet to feel the real onslaught of climate change. In 2022 it’s a far different story and now there is no time period during the year that is a safe bet for fine weather.
Splendour In The Grass is one of the few winter music festivals in Australia, held annually in July in the mild Byron Bay climate. After the severe rainfall brought on by La Nina earlier in the year, the organizers had good reason to believe that the worst of the weather had departed and the site would be blessed by sunshine. Admittedly there had been rain and mud in some of the previous years but nothing to rival the deluge that hit the festival grounds late last week. It’s a scenario that they probably could not have imagined, nor adequately planned for. Hence the traffic chaos, the water-logged camping areas and the many disgruntled punters who vented their disappointment on social media.
Rain, mud and slosh have been part of music festivals worldwide, going right back to Woodstock in 1969. Glastonbury in the UK is synonymous with fields of mud and many festivals now adopt an ‘all weather policy’. If there are no large tents like at Byron’s Bluesfest, the open air stage and all the electrics are well protected and punters can please themselves. Only a cyclone or hurricane can disrupt the event.
As a kind of right of passage, festivals like Splendour In The Grass attract very much a youthful crowed – happy to rough it in a tiny tent for the weekend and queue at the showers and portaloos. The reward for this Hell is the music and the sense of community. When it does rain, some embrace the mud, succumbing to their primal urges and wallowing in it like pigs in a sty – a tradition that goes right back to that seminal fest at Woodstock. For others it’s barely tolerable as their tent collapses and their sleeping bag is saturated. At least there are drugs and alcohol to ease the pain, as well as the camaraderie of their fellow rain soaked.
And spare a thought for those behind the scenes, the roadies and techs who risk electrocution as water seeps in everywhere on the main stage. Even more honourable, are those that service the countless portaloos and composting dunnies that are needed to cater for crowds of twenty and thirty thousand at a time when mud and shit often become indistinguishable.
With an unpredictable climate and the ongoing outbreaks of Covid, it’s difficult to say where the future of large outdoor music festivals lies. Many of the promoters behind them have a gung-ho approach, propelled by a seemingly eternal optimism and the access to plenty of cash to fund these multi-million dollar events. The punters themselves seem always forgiving of any previous calamity, willing to brush the mud off their sneakers and hit the camp ground next year.
There is also the possibility that the publicity surrounding this year’s festival will attract the same international audience that flock to the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea, a two week celebration that includes a giant mud pool, mud slides, a mud prison and mud skiing competitions. There is obviously bad mud and good mud, and maybe it’s time to celebrate the latter – bring on the slush!