Sunday, June 13, 2010

Festival blues

Sometimes everything goes wrong but it all works out anyway. That was my experience of this year's We Love Sounds festival, held (as usual) in the Hordern and surrounds. All the portents were poor—a less impressive line-up than previous years, poor ticket sales, cancellation of the Perth leg of the festival's national tour, downsizing of the venue, etc, etc. 

I was lucky enough to get free admission because my friend Phil (pictured above) was playing. When Dave and I arrived we soon realised how limited the sales had been, with only a hundred people barely making their presence felt in the Royal Hall of Industries. There was a sedate atmosphere and very short lines for drinks all day. Things did pick up as the evening progressed, and the Hordern was apparently inaccessible for 2-3 hours because of the massive electrohouse crowd rammed in to see Crookers and Steve Aoki.

Nevertheless, the music we did catch was excellent. Seth Troxler, following the Bang Gang in the RHI, miraculously managed to shift down several gears from their noisy, ravey nonsense. Sure he lost half the crowd at first but then expertly built atmosphere without resorting to obvious choices (the "Angel Eyes"-sampling bleeptastic techno monster he played was nothing short of thrilling). Soon the empty hall was filling up to genuine underground sounds.

Off to the Forum, we then caught most of The Revenge's set, which was a slow-building, pitched down house sound warm-up (ridiculously programmed after the hideous blare of Sound Pellegrino Sound System). Unlike the last time I saw him, at La Campana last year, there was a cohesion and flow to what he was doing that suggests growing maturity as a DJ. It was a perfect lead-in for M.A.N.D.Y., who have not been on our shores since 2007.

Sadly the promised live show was not to be as the airline had sent their equipment to some misbegotten part of the world. But, after not having played together for some time, Patrick and Philipp played a storming set that started a little shaky (too much Dirtybird-style stuff for mine) but then tore the roof off the now comfortable full Forum. That massive Angelique Kidjo track by Tim Green was the absolute highpoint in terms of energy, but seeing the boys having a ball behind the decks reminded me that tech-house DJs don't all have to be mopey and serious all the time.

Then it was Ellen Allien's turn: she who had blown me away with her festival and after party sets two years ago. This time she was much more eclectic, mixing indie sounds with techno and even old Chicago house. The musical selections were always top-notch but the set was all over the place. And one does wonder whether she, dressed in oversize t-shirt and bright red leggings, is more fashionista or DJ?

Finally, we decided to brave the queue for Underworld and to our surprise we were allowed in to find... a near deserted Hordern. It would seem the electro kids had moved on after Aoki's set finished and while the room filled up again it was disappointing to see that it was far from packed (as it had been last time I saw the band here). Underworld, of course, didn't disappoint, mixing more recent material including the euphoria-inducing "Scribble" with classics like "Rez", "Cowgirl" and "Two Months Off". The visuals, their amazing stage presence (Karl Hyde > Peter Garrett on the gangly dancing front, any day) and the musical production were all stunning, letting us leave on a high note.

I wish I could be as kind to the after party (and I didn't stay to see the worst of it).

So what to make of the poor ticket sales for WLS? In late 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of global economic crisis, I speculated that we were approaching a fin-de-siecle moment in the Sydney electronic music scene. At that time it seemed to me that the overpriced hedonism being offered by increasing numbers of promoters in proliferating venues was unsustainable. But the unexpected economic revival under the influence of government guarantees of a fragile financial sector, the stimulus package, the reflating of a residential property bubble and the continuing good fortune of exports to China seems to have not only staved off the collapse of the economy but the restructuring of a bloated EDM scene.

In 2010 things are not looking so good. Quality nights like Future Classic's Adult Disco are pulling small numbers and there has been a string of festivals performing below expectations (Shore Thing, the tiny Space Ibiza event and now WLS). It would be too easy to blame this on the specifics of the events—even if their quality is variable. Rather, it seems to me that what we are seeing is a classic crisis of overproduction in the Marxian sense.

During the good years, promoters used profits to expand and upgrade their operations and thereby created larger markets for their product. When I seriously got into clubbing in 1998, international acts in a particular genre came around every month or two, but in recent years a minimal head (for example) could almost see a different international every week. 

Yet as more players entered the market, a saturation point was reached—more was being put on than could possibly be absorbed. Such expansion need not stop as long as the factors which allow promoters to find a large enough market willing/able to consume the product persist, most importantly a growing economy where employed wage workers can fork out pricey entry fees.

There is a paradox in how these economic processes work themselves out. Even while too much is being produced across a sector of the economy (here, too many club nights and festivals), for each individual business person it is in their interests to keep expanding in order to beat the competition. It is my understanding that WLS tried to expand this year in particular because there was a new festival on the block with a similar type of line-up, the same venue and a well-known brand (Creamfields).

In a different time, with Sydney clubgoers happier to spend their hard-earned pay for a fun day out, perhaps both festivals could have done well. But I am speculating that the relative failure of WLS this year is an early warning that we are heading for a double-dip recession, initially being reflected in a contraction of discretionary spending by consumers. Given that retail sales in general are sluggish, the headline unemployment figures (generally a lag indicator anyway) may be lulling us into believing that old cliche that "the economic fundamentals are sound".


  1. So Creamfields pipped WLS at the post. How do you explain then the incredible popularity of the Stereosonic monstrosity - I thought the lineup for that was terrible - over WLS or, say, Space? Simply because it was run in the summer time? I'm sure weather plays some part in determining crowd number, but there are also popular winter festivals - Splendour is a good example. Did Space fail because it was yet another new festival?

    I think discretionary spending is certainly playing a part, I just question festival goers' discretion!

  2. personally i think creamfields did much better than WLS. much better use of the venues.

    also space ibiza was a great festival! nice and cosy, only 2 stages which were both relatively small. awesome trance and progressive on the smaller of the two. perfect way to party in the new year

  3. Great read! (As usual) but the crisis of over-production, in terms of music festivals and club nights, I don't believe really applies. Yet.

    If we look at the said festivals individually, namely Creamfields and WLS both were in many ways an example of mis-guided direction by event organizers (hate the word promoter) who were desperately trying to appeal to a wider audience but not really having a deep impact in any particular area.

    Granted retail areas are down, many cultural events (music or otherwise) seem to be experiencing a mini-boom. Syd Fest sold the most tickets so far, Syd Film Fest saw a 15% increase in box office (the great programme this year did help), FMF packed out (again), Splendor has sold out and many major club nights this year have either sold out or done well enough. Even the festivals mentioned will undoubtedly go on to see 2011.

    I believe this has more to do with 'misguided' production rather than over-production although the two probably complement each other in many ways. Creamfields failed to bring the glory of its original self over, rather it was a 'lazy' attempt of another festival under the same organisers (stereosonic?) which ultimately failed to bring the excitement to all masses. WLS has tried to changed too fast too soon, it used to be loved by techno heads (Forum was packed most of the time no doubt?) but has spread its wings too far this year with no real punch.

    For me, saying the Sydney EDM scene is 'at capacity' is grossly under estimating the potential that is still untapped. On a summer saturday night, clubs are often too full. In fact I believe we definitely need more (quality) clubs to cater for the growing demand.

    Perhaps, certain genres are being bombarded by similar styled nights by similar (ex-pat?) promoters who lack the knowledge and know-how of putting on local nights that really appeal to locals Sydney Siders.

    I havent even started talking about the lack of music distribution networks for EDM in syd which would also, in turn, boot club attendances.

    Just a thought.

  4. The problem with being in the midst of a bubble economy is you can never be sure when the bubble will pop. It's easy enough to list a series of events and complain about their individual failings, but apart from Field Day (which unusually sold out only at the last minute) and FMF, EDM festivals have struggled lately.

    I think there is good evidence of oversaturation right now, but the bubble has not yet popped. A further tightening of the economy could send things over the edge.

    WLS grew year after year, but the numbers were massively down this time... the smallest WLS I have been to. The Forum was never packed... the top level only had small numbers of people in it. Only half the RHI was being used and it never totally filled up. The numbers at the Trance area were never great.

    WLS has had organisational difficulties before, but their production is generally good, and it was noticeable that they had scaled back the glitz on-site to save $$ (it was all a bit bare bones).

    Of course there are club nights that still go off and one-off parties that sell out, but there are so many that heaps of them barely stay afloat. One of the problems with the scene is not that promoters have no idea but that club/pub owners want quick results and are unwilling to invest in a night for 12 months to allow it to build. That's one of the pressures of capitalist competition in a cutthroat market.

    You also have to consider who goes to EDM events and the relative strength/weakness of the economic sectors they work in. So when finance briefly turned down, Justin Hemmes' glitzier venues took a brief hit (in part because he had opened too many of the damn things!) but my understanding is that the Establishment has recovered alongside Ivy, as has the financial sector thanks to the outrageous guarantees we taxpayers have given it via Mr Rudd's policies.

    It's not a uniform situation, but I think we are close to breaking point. As Marx said, business conditions always seem sound until the crisis hits!

  5. What Amity and Shortino said...

    I like this article by the way. Good work.

    In my opinion, there are good parties out there but they are not easy to find if you don't know the right people.

    The thing is, when you do know the right people, you don't realise that there are people out there who might like the sounds you are playing but just haven't been exposed to it, or just haven't got friends to go to these parties with...

    I'm not joking when I say that I see the same people at these all the time. Is this healthy? People at gigs are often really cliquey. There's a lot to be said about a party that is welcoming to new faces.

    End rant.

  6. Ella:
    Good, small parties? Absolutely their punters are cliquey to some extent or the other. I guess people have found their niche and they stick to it; there is so much crap out there, so many "yukky" punters, some would prefer to keep things quiet to avoid the riff raff.

    That being said, all the club nights that can afford to, do advertise - they'd be mad not to, so you can't really complain that good music is hard to find. Parties like Mad Racket are far enough from the city that only people who know about it or dig the sound will go, rather than stumbling upon it - although there have been a few 'incidents' recently.

    And not going to a party because your friends don't? That's definitely a fair comment - it's difficult to talk to people at clubs, particularly if you can't hear what they're saying! Drugs "not being the way they used to be" mean punters are more aloof. I got out by myself all the time, but in the knowledge that I've been going out so long I always seem to run into someone I know...

    When it comes to the festivals, however, I've got to say that these days 9/10 don't appeal to me, and I haven't even heard of 90% of the acts they put on anyway. I have been to quite a few recently though, and I must say the comedy value is fantastic. I must be getting old.