(your author in Splendour mud, not in 2022)
IT’S NOT THE FAULT OF Splendour In The Grass organisers, but it’s not not the fault of Splendour In The Grass organisers.
The pictures, stories, film and – even from this distance – smell of Splendour isn’t just an ugly, even distressing, event at a time when there is absolutely no shortage of ugly, even distressing, events. It’s also an open invitation to attach meaning. And blame.
The festival shouldn’t have gone on; the festival should have gone on but with better organisation; the rain was predictable, the mud even more so; we knew there would be rain, but who could predict that much?; who allowed a capacity increase?; who would have argued after a two year absence the demand wasn’t there for an increase?; what were they – ticket holders, organisers, vendors, gumboot sellers, bands – thinking?; who would have wanted to tell ticketholders, gumboot sellers, vendors, bands that the event would be called off because rain was expected?; the police rule on unaccompanied under-18s was outrageous and probably ruined many people’s plans; the police rule on unaccompanied under-18s probably spared many people’s suffering.
Let’s look at some mitigation, before we get to irrigation, speaking as someone who has had some “lived experience” as they say, at the festival, but mostly, quite deliberately, has observed from a distance.
This is not the first Splendour to become a mudfest – not for nothing, and not with all that much exaggeration, did I declare one year, as I stood knee-deep in mud (though, thankfully, the sun was shining at the time), that the high traffic area between the stages should probably be renamed the Somme.
Indeed, this is not the first Byron-based music festival to become a mudfest. This part of NSW gets wet, and when it gets wet it gets really wet. No one who has gone to Splendour or Bluesfest more than once could ever believe they’d only get dry and clear conditions. Okay, it could be like what they say about childbirth, that nature works it that a few months afterwards you’ve forgotten the pain and gore and ready to do that again, but Splendour mudbloods, Bluesfest wetlegs, keep coming back.
This is not the first Splendour to find itself with major queues for buses at the end of the night, stretching the departures past midnight. This is not the first music festival, day-long, weekend-long, or otherwise, to find exiting the area at the end of the day a test of patience and bladder control. If you want to have a music festival with good drainage, good sightlines, cover for bad weather, access to food, accessible transport and parking, they should all be staged at Lang Park or Western Sydney Stadium.
And this is not the only people-heavy activity happening around the country right now that is trying, and often failing, at managing crowds and coping with staff shortages. You see the lines at the airports? At Sydney on Monday morning the snaking queues were stretching out the terminal and seemingly to the carpark just to check in. Let’s not get started on the flights delayed, cancelled, or non-existent.
It's a debacle and they didn’t even have mud.
But. But. But.
After the wettest summer on the East Coast since Noah’s last tour, in a location where drainage is never going to be adequate short of a Muskian injection of funds to match ego, with forecasts predicting at the very least decent rain, you did not need to be a futurist to figure while the scale was unclear, this was going to get muddy, this was going to get shitty, this was going to get ugly.
When Covid has been decimating workforces in every business, expecting that you could rely on getting somewhere near full staffing – at the gates, in the food stalls, at the front of the stage, or driving the buses – and therefore handle the larger numbers, wasn’t blind hope, it was blindingly stupid.
Speaking of numbers. Yes, there was pent-up demand. Yes, the tickets sold. Yes, everyone who came can read a weather forecast, make a choice to spend the money, and theoretically take responsibility for their decisions. And yes, many if not most of them will likely come back next year.
But no, those aren’t necessarily convincing arguments to increase capacity by nearly 50 per cent in this year (see above reference to biblical rainfalls) of all years, unless you have converted your grounds into something (see above reference to sports stadiums) that can handle just about anything 50,000 people would do or need in the best and worst circumstances.
And Lordy, we haven’t even talked about how just as yet another wave of infections crashes onto our health system in peak Covid winter season, the mother of all superspreader events is held over three days, before dispersing throughout the country.
For Live Nation, whose money now backs (and extracts from) Splendour, and the Secret Sounds people who began the festival, decisions made can’t always be ascribed to sometimes nameless, sometimes absent from view, others, or natural forces. No matter how much the goodwill you’ve built up. I have two words for you: Bruce Springsteen.
The demand-pricing Springsteen tour debacle in the USA, where extravagant ticket prices are souring many lifelong relationships fans have with the man, has been blamed by some on the behemoth ticketing agency, which is a ruthless collector of fees on both initial purchases and resales, while also ratcheting prices up based on demand irrespective of whether the demand is from people or scalping conglomerates.
Indeed, among their defences, the agency (laughingly but quite seriously) claim their demand-driven prices is intended to deter scalpers – though it’s not clear yet if part of that is by making that role redundant as the agency becomes, effectively, scalpers themselves.
One veteran commentator even posited that Springsteen and his manager, Jon Landau, are men in their ‘70s who don’t understand modern technology, and they were blindsided by the scurrilous agency.
Yeah. But also, nah. It’s his name on the ticket, it’s his history in the demand, it’s his reputation on the line.
For Splendour, it comes down to this. It’s a fantastic event, a major source of music and cultural expansion and enjoyment, not to mention indelible memories. We have all benefited from it. But after 20 years, if you can’t get hundreds of people into the site the day before you kick off the music, and get thousands of them out of the site each night well before dawn; if you can’t prevent almost everyone camping on your grounds sinking into a quagmire when the downpours happen; if you weren’t prepared for the worst-case weather, workforce and health scenarios (or were prepared but just couldn’t do it right); if you can’t make it safe and viable …
... maybe, just maybe, you haven’t got this yet.