4 Reasons Why NSW’s New Music Festival License Is a Buzz-Kill

A crowd holding signs occupying a street
The crowd builds up at Hyde Park for the Don't Kill Live Music rally. Image from DKLM Australia's FB page.
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You’ve probably heard by now that the New South Wales government is implementing new music festival licensing rules beginning March 1, 2019. Under these new rules, music festivals and bush doofs will be required to:

  • apply for a music festival license with its corresponding fees and liquor permits if the expected attendance is 2,000 or more; and
  • work with local authorities, including NSW Health and NSW Police, in creating a safety management plan. This safety management plan involves, among other things, user pays police and sniffer dogs.

As expected, organisers of NSW-based music festivals pushed back against these new licensing rules. Fourteen events – Days Like This, Defqon.1, Electric Gardens, FOMO, HTID, Knockout Games of Destiny, Laneway, Lost Paradise, Rolling Loud, Subsonic, This That, Transmission, Ultra, and Up Down – were deemed high-risk and automatically required to submit to the new rules. Some of these festivals are within weeks of opening their gates.

Other events were put through the wringer. The Farmer and The Owl, for instance, was reportedly classified as high-risk and had its original license revoked a mere weeks before its March 2 opening. After weeks of non-communication from the authorities, it was taken out of the high-risk list and had its old license reinstated.

To protest the new licensing guidelines, organisers, musicians, and fans alike gathered 30,000-strong for the “Don’t Kill Live Music” rally at Sydney’s Hyde Park on February 21, 2019. Organisers of Days Like This, Laneway, and Lost Paradise are also considering taking legal action against the NSW government. These organisers called the decision to classify them as high-risk to be “misguided and unwarranted.”

We’re assuming that the new licensing guidelines were designed to promote safety at bush doofs and music festivals. Even so, we think that these new rules will do more harm than good, for four reasons:

Reason #1: The new licensing rules are a bureaucratic mess.

You don’t need to be an organiser to know that putting together a bush doof with at least 2,000 people attending can be a logistics nightmare. There’s just so much to do—from getting artists to play at your event, to making sure there’s toilet paper in the portable toilets. Securing permits and coordinating with local authorities are only a couple of items in the long to-do list that festival organisers have to deal with. It can take months to get through that to-do list, and it won’t always be perfect.

It’s alright for the government to impose rules on music festivals as they see fit as long as it’s really for the good of everyone. It’s part of its job, after all. But these new licensing rules are not just disrespectful; they’re also a mess. The government could have given festival organisers a grace period of maybe a few months, or even a year, to make adjustments to their event and comply with the rules. March 1, 2019 was too close to comfort, as you can see from the case of The Farmer and The Owl, as mentioned above.

Additionally, when news of the new rules went down, the details of the implementing guidelines were reportedly yet to be ironed out. Who imposes new rules without a decent set of guidelines for their implementation? Is anyone surprised that the organisers felt confused, especially those whose events are in the high-risk list?

Reason #2: Many organisers will be forced to increase ticket prices or shut down.

Putting together a live event—whether it’s bush doof or music festival—requires serious money. Artists don’t play for exposure because they have bills to pay too. It can also cost a pretty penny to get a venue ready and safe to accommodate thousands of people. This is why we pay tickets to attend doofs.

The new music festival licensing rules require organisers to have medical personnel and ambulances ready at their venues. They also have to get user pays police plus sniffer dogs to patrol the area and flush out illegal drug users. Most organisers are more than willing to shoulder the costs of having medical staff on hand. Cops and their canines, too—except it’s up for debate whether sniffer dogs can really pick up the scent of drugs or just act on their handlers’ cues. User pays police can run up festival operating costs significantly, up to thousands of dollars. Of course, organisers will have no choice but to pass on those costs to the fans through ticket sales.

Most fans would be okay with forking more dough for tickets, but there’s a limit to how much of the costs that organisers can pass on. Hike ticket prices too much and you may end up with a near-empty venue. No one wants to see that. Some festivals, especially the smaller ones, may not be able to take on the extra costs that the new music festival licensing rules entail. They may end up shutting down like Psyfari and Mountain Sounds, or moving out of NSW altogether like Rabbits Eat Lettuce.

At this rate, NSW could find itself the first Australian “music festival-free zone.”

Reason #3: Doof and festival organisers do take safety seriously.

The NSW government never fails to portray music festivals and bush doofs as death dens, where young people are in danger of meeting their end with drug abuse and overdose. But this scenario is so far removed from the truth. Doof and festival organisers take safety at their events extremely seriously and do all they can to make it so.

Let’s take Rainbow Serpent 2019 as an example. It’s not an NSW doof, but it’s facing shutdown threats because cops made a “disappointing number” of drug-related arrests there. However, the number they called “disappointing,” around 80+ arrests, was actually minuscule compared to the 15,000-strong that attended the multi-day doof. Aside from heavy police presence, the organisers fielded a team of 30 medical personnel and two ambulances. Most of the attendees behaved, so why is the festival getting flak for the behaviour of a few?

The same can be said about NSW-based bush doofs.

Reason #4: There are better ways to make doofs and festivals safer.

The NSW government has claimed repeatedly that it wants music festivals in the state to thrive and to be safe places for everyone. But instead of listening to dissenting opinion, even from those in the know, the government seems to have taken the my-way-or-the-highway stance. And it’s not working.

Experts like Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame have come out to say that criminalising drug use isn’t the solution to the problem. Groovin The Moo has successfully done pill testing in Canberra last year and is given the green light to do it again this year.

Surely, Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her government can come up with better ways to address what they feel is a growing drug problem in NSW. But they’d have to open their eyes and ears to the clamour around them first and actually listen to those most involved in the issue.

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