Splendour? Up my arse!

The blueprint for a community-led festival already exists in the way Splendour patrons interact with each other. Perhaps it’s time we wave goodbye to the profit-minded model of Australian festivals, and move towards one which cares for the people who attend them. And, more urgently, one which cares for the land they inhabit.

This is an article about Splendour in the Grass 2022. Before you immediately stop reading, I promise that it is not about the mud, and I will not make any SplEndOur In tHE mUd jokes. In fact, I will try to only mention the mud when it is unique or explicitly necessary. 

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

                Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

The above is a passage from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ a poem by William Wordsworth about the beauty that is our natural tendency to find joy in darkness and grief, and from which Splendour gets its name.

Through the late ‘90s, the Australian summer festival season was a thrilling rite of passage for young music fans and full to the brim with international acts, most notably the star-studded Big Day Out. The winter, however, was long, sad, and musically-deprived. Music industry professionals Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco saw this as a gap in the market, and thought the colder months deserved a touch of brightness. Thus, Splendour in the Grass was born.

Splendour’s inaugural 2001 event was a sellout, a one-day only special with 12,500 people heading to Bellingen Fields on the north coast of NSW, and (much like most Aussie festivals at the time) was headlined by Powderfinger, whom Piticco was managing.

Since then, it has replaced the Big Day Out as the de facto rite of passage music event. Attending Splendour for the first time, as your very first festival, is uniquely special no matter how much of a music wanker you later become. The experience of seeing multiple international artists in one place, in a rural field with no phone reception, and giving yourself over to the exhausted mess that is the three days, is inherently mind-blowing to the sheltered teenager whose only live music experience is a $300 concert at Qudos Bank Arena. If you ask most young Australian music fans what their first festival was, they’ll say Splendour. Some will still attend years on, and for others, it will have been the launchpad into an exploration of more unique tastes – they’ll joke about how cringe their music interests were back then. But for all of them, it was formative and communal, marked by shared moments of love and camaraderie with the strangers they fleetingly met in mosh pits or campgrounds.

This might all sound like a genuine gathering of grassroots music lovers, desperate for warmth in the depths of winter’s cold, simply there to revel in the joy of live music as one of the few pure experiences left in this horrible, hyper-capitalistic world. But worry not! The internal machinations of this music festival are quite the opposite; the systems that gave the event its success are the same ones risking its downfall. 

Given the event was launched by the manager of Powderfinger, Splendour was not borne out of peace and love alone, but also substantial financial and reputational pedigree. The Australian music industry is fiercely money-driven. Too often, the only way to get famous is to already be famous. Splendour has grown to such prominence and continued consistently across decades – a rare feat for an Australian festival – largely because of the money, connections, and power it has batting for it. Despite multiple occasions which looked like the end, Splendour always found a way to survive. To make a moral judgement on whether or not this is a good thing becomes difficult when one considers the unseen consequences.

Splendour is Australia’s only long-running international music festival, and has opened the doors to a world beyond parochial pub rock for generations of Australians. In many ways, it is a collation of pure, genuine moments between music lovers. But it has only become that through environmental annihilation, and to the detriment of those who are actually on the ground, doing the work to make the festival run while being unpaid and overworked. The latter practices, despite allegedly keeping Splendour ticking in the past, are now coming back to bite them, making the festival’s future unclear. This year’s cracks are becoming gaping holes. 

Day one of this year’s event was cancelled due to what the festival described as “the heavens” opening on Thursday night. Organisers cited “unforeseeable circumstances” as grounds for cancelling the day’s events just minutes before they were due to begin.Some bands were allegedly waiting backstage to perform before hearing of the cancellation via an Instagram post. 

The festival has been defensive of their decision and strong on the narrative that this was the shock work of “Mother Nature”, something that they couldn’t possibly have predicted or prepared for. 

In 2009, former public interest lawyer Sue Higginson represented the Byron Shire community in a case in the Land and Environment court. It sought to prevent Splendour from taking place at its current site, North Byron Parklands, due to both its vulnerability to severe weather events and its ecological sensitivity. The site sits alongside Billinudgel Nature Reserve, which is the Byron Shire’s easternmost wildlife corridor and state-registered coastal wetlands. 

According to social media posts by Higginson, not only has the site always been inappropriate “from a flood and fire safety perspective”, but it is also “the only intact corridor that connects the Gondwana Wollumbin ancient deep time forests to the unique subtropical coastal lowlands”. The 2009 case was successful in preventing the festival from taking place there. It had brief stints in Queensland, and at its original site at Bellingen Fields. In 2013, the New South Wales Department of Planning granted a development application which rendered the ruling defunct, allowing the festival to be held at the site ever since. Subsequently, the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) has allowed the space to be used more frequently and by more people, with Splendour now catering for up to 50,000 festival goers. ABC gardening specialist Costa Georgiadis recently explained in a TikTok that the earth beneath the festival, following the impact of La Niña, is now like a “wobbly crème brûlée”.

The Northern NSW area has faced ongoing floods and water damage since 2017, with the biggest hits coming in the last 12 months. Many locals claim to have been warning the festival of the high risk for flooding that exists for the parkland. Yet Splendour in the Grass continue to assert that the weather conditions – which posed extreme threats to patrons’ safety and forced a cancellation – were “worse than expected”. 

Splendour’s relationship with local residents is likely permanently soured. As they continue to watch the local environment get destroyed, they also have their lives uprooted for the festival each year due to extreme traffic. This year, some reported not being able to leave their home and having to miss school or work due to traffic gridlocks outside their front yards.

It’s difficult to believe that Splendour’s management couldn’t have anticipated the extreme weather incident, but their claims that they did not have enough staff on the ground to manage the situation safely are certainly true. However, they once again cannot claim victimhood for severe understaffing: the blame falls squarely on them. Most Australian music festivals, including Splendour, Falls, and Spilt Milk, are largely run by unpaid volunteers. The setup is egregious at worst and ethically murky at best; you contribute labour to the festival through reasonably physical work, such as setting up campsites and directing people entrance areas, with compensation being festival attendance. This system has quietly continued for years, offering a huge monetary gain to these festivals, who have never had to include actual wages for staff in their financial planning. They’ve never seen what would happen if these people didn’t offer free labour – until now.

While media releases and mainstream press will tell you Splendour suffered from “unforeseeable staff shortages” – something easy for a reader to buy during a pandemic – they didn’t mention that it’s because people weren’t willing to be exploited. According to conversations across social media, around 400 volunteer workers were allegedly unwilling to attend the festival in extreme weather or for fear of sickness. Some online forum users allege that there were mass emails sent out just days before the festival to people who had signed up to volunteer many months ago, desperately calling for them to help out at the last minute. 

The lack of staff on the ground meant that, in the severe weather conditions, there were not enough people to ensure a safe festival could run. The festival itself continually noted that this was not the first muddy Splendour. One of the variables in the cancellation is chronic understaffing, something easily avoided by engaging waged labour, and something which mainstream media has been blind to in their reporting of the festival. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that sickness and severe weather are not going away, and that people will no longer settle for dreadful working conditions. Australian festivals need to urgently reassess their employment model in order to avoid their own imminent downfall. Workers and attendees just aren’t buying unpaid labour models. A repeat of this year has the potential to be fatal for the festival. 

Issue after issue with this year’s Splendour can be pinned on a lack of care for attendees in the planning process. The first night made national headlines for leaving people out in the winter cold overnight, waiting up to six and a half hours for buses that never seemed to come. There were no bathrooms, food, water, or blankets provided, with some individuals passing out due to hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. Unsurprisingly, a large number chose to pass up on the following day. While this was to some extent out of Splendour’s control – some of the buses booked never arrived – they seemingly did not plan for the many patrons who were forced to stay in external accommodation rather than camp. The campgrounds had become inaccessible, meaning more groups needed to be bussed out. To think a premier event would subject patrons to these conditions without any emergency amenities is broadly unthinkable. 

However, Splendour’s it wasn’t our fault response is the most deplorable, with their statement asserting “90% of bus patrons were offsite by 3.30am”. Being proud of getting most attendees onto a bus almost four hours after the final headline act is inherently concerning, but there is an acute failure in duty of care when an event organiser doesn’t hold concern for the other 10% who weren’t offsite. The festival’s chronic failure to accept accountability leaves little assurance that future years will be planned any better – what’s there to change if they did no wrong? 

There have been bandaids placed on the wounds left by this year’s festival, with partial refunds for patrons who missed out and “goodwill” payments for artists who never got to perform. Unfortunately, the underwhelming response from the festival organisers has remained with its stinging and condescending tone: “We also acknowledge all the first-time festival goers and those who hadn’t experienced a rain effected [sic] event before”, the Festival said in a statement, making clear that if you didn’t like having to be knee deep in mud, starving and shivering while watching people drop shits straight onto the ground, then maybe you just couldn’t hack it. 

Despite how neglectful the festival was of attendees’ needs, I would go again without second thought. Life’s great pleasures – live music, mates, and beer – were still the overarching features of the weekend. Besides the major issue of my not learning about the case taken to the Land and Environment court until after the festival, I have no regrets about the experience itself, and would choose again and again to end up sliding around in mud barefoot, surrounded by actual poo, while belting out lyrics to The Strokes with 30,000 other people doing the same. But too many people just didn’t get to enjoy that properly when it became an unsafe and inaccessible festival. 

Suggesting that severe weather is unpredictable, or that volunteer shortages are a shock, is a disservice to the music fans who give wholehearted loyalty to Splendour year after year, and yet another piece of evidence that the Australian music industry progresses at a speed ten times slower than its devotees, continually being held back by a profit-driven mindset that cares more for corporate interests than the needs of the people it allegedly serves. 

Reliance on volunteer labour is a symptom of a broader flaw in the set-up of music festivals in Australia: an obsession with profit. Compare a festival like Splendour, at which you had to pay for basic medical needs such as bandages and medicine at the first aid tent, with a festival like Glastonbury, a non-commercial festival that has been running successfully since the 1970s. It’s clear that the constant internal threat to Australian music festivals is a desperation for financial gain – even if the price is the festival’s quality. 

The blueprint for a community-led festival already exists in the way Splendour patrons interact with each other, caring for those around them and taking the difficult conditions head on. When profit and gain are removed from the situation, we’re left with a purer and longer-lasting vision of festivals. Perhaps it’s time we wave goodbye to the profit-minded model, and move towards a Splendour which cares for the people who attend it. And, more urgently, one which cares for the land it inhabits.

Live music in Australia is grasping for life after continual lockdowns and travel restrictions. Without a good quality festival that makes travelling out here worth it for international artists, the local music industry will struggle to thrive. Without a festival that pays basic respect to the land it takes place on, we’ll be without land for any festival at all. Splendour knows the importance of its role, the devotion of its fans, and the potential of how brilliant it can be. They can’t keep letting us down.