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LANEWAY: THE SMALL BUT PERFECTLY FORMED FESTIVAL

February 3, 2017

 

Danny Rogers has “a bit on” this week, what with the next shows in a run of seven Laneway Festivals, which began in Singapore on January 21, skipped to Auckland and ends in Fremantle on February 5. But “it’s under control … for the most part” for the festival’s director.

 

“I feel a cross between nine [years old] and 87 but you just roll with it,” he said between checking final details of Friday’s show in Adelaide and the big Saturday show at the Sydney College of the Arts grounds in Rozelle.

 

Rogers can afford to be a bit relaxed as so far this year has not featured “artists having minor panic attacks, sound completely dropping from a stage for 20 minutes or a generator just [going] down”.

 

First staged 13 years ago, literally in a rat-frequented laneway in Melbourne’s CBD, the festival, formally known as St Jerome’s Laneway Festival – named in mock honour of Rogers business partner and co-founder Jerome Borazio - is now a remarkable success story.

 

In a period where music festivals have crumbled away (Big Day Out), gone on indefinite hiatus (Homebake) or been sent to the courts, bankruptcy or the knackery (too many to mention), Laneway sells out all its shows and doesn’t look in any danger, not even from the fun police and lockout laws in NSW which have little direct impact on the festival.

 

“Maybe 21-year-olds should be made to wear P plates on their chest when they go out at night,” joked Rogers. He has some sympathy for the laws but not their wide sweep, arguing that as a father of three children he understands the concerns about violence – “I’d like to see a stronger presence of police in hotspots” – but feels suburb-wide bans are a “band-aid approach which won’t work”.

 

Laneway’s success springs from the most unprepossessing beginnings. That first show attracted 1400 people with barely any notice - for $36.50 a ticket - and it seemed sensible to try again.

 

And when the second year did well, the pair thought they’d “just keep doing it” while they were having fun.

 

“There was never really a big plan though, a business strategy,” says Rogers, who looks after the musical direction and runs a sideline company which manages and tours other acts, while Borazio, who runs bars in Melbourne, handles sponsorship, food and beverage.

 

“It was quite the opposite. We are not trying to make heaps of money. We never expected to make any.”

 

The modesty of their ambitions was reflected in their first Sydney festival a year after the Melbourne launch, which took place in a small plaza near Circular Quay and the Basement and sold out its 2000 tickets.

 

Even now the largest two festivals in Melbourne and Sydney are capped at 15,000 and 12,500 respectively for tickets a little under $200, with a total audience across the seven shows of about 80,000. At its height, the BDO was attracting 60,000 in Sydney alone.

 

“You’re working around realistic expectations and production fees and not under pressure to just break even,” said Rogers of the moderate crowd sizes. “We are definitely ambitious but we are always thinking about what is the magic [crowd] number before it loses that intimacy and boutique element. I think we’re right there now."

 

Is size one reason why Laneway has succeeded? To a certain extent, said Rogers, who is keen to stay at the Rozelle site once Sydney College of the Arts moves on because it fits his crowd “magic number” comfortably.

 

He also puts it partly down to a young and diverse back room staff, the music programming being driven by one person – him - not a committee, and a continuing interest in bringing new acts for their first Australian experience or their first time on a festival bill.

 

To which you could add that Rogers and his staff “know” their audience and that is why Laneway sits at the centre of music culture in Australia.

 

Where once the Big Day Out was the festival which brought all the acts on everyone’s lips that year, Laneway has a reputation for bringing all the acts people will be talking about in the next year.

 

Three years ago Laneway booked a teenage New Zealander and a curly haired Australian, neither of whom were known outside their families. By the time they played the following February, Lorde was an international star and Vance Joy was on top of the triple j hottest 100.

 

From this year’s crop, Rogers expects singer/guitarist Tash Sultana (who a year ago was still playing in her bedroom but now is attracting full rooms at her shows) and art pop singer D D Dumbo (whose debut album is on the shortlist for the Australian Music Prize in March) to be the breakouts.

 

“It’s exciting to think you’re playing a small part in helping those artists get the spotlight,” said Rogers.

 

And being the festival which managers for big acts such as last year’s highlight, Flume, and this year’s headliner Tame Impala, coming to them with interest in supporting Laneway.

“After a while, people do, hopefully trust your tastes.”

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