Promoters defy festival gloom... by playing the blues

By Liz Hobday and Callum Godde
Updated April 3 2024 - 2:55pm, first published 2:49pm
Musicians Merry Gushi and David Ralston from the band Okinawa Americana. (HANDOUT/ADAM L PHOTOGRAPHY)
Musicians Merry Gushi and David Ralston from the band Okinawa Americana. (HANDOUT/ADAM L PHOTOGRAPHY)

Performer and choreographer Shaun Parker is launching a music festival - and he is more than prepared for people to ask if he is crazy.

"There have been a few raised eyebrows," he laughed.

Australian festivals are risky business right now, with increasing costs such as insurance, security and international artist fees, while wary consumers are leaving purchases until the last minute - or not buying tickets at all due to cost of living pressures.

Last Wednesday, one of the biggest events on the festival calendar, Splendour in the Grass, cancelled its 2024 event, with punters speculating online that this meant the death of music festivals in Australia - they had become unsustainable.

In the face of all this, Parker remains confident that the not-so-well-known names on the Matsumura Blues Festival lineup will see crowds flock to the inaugural event, to be held in Melbourne and Mildura in June.

"Obviously, we're scared. We really want to sell tickets, but we also know how brilliant the artists are, and they're going to bring in people because they are stunning," he told AAP.

Apart from the support of the Mildura Rural City Council and local business Tasco Petroleum, the Matsumura Festival is backed by private funding after organisers missed out on other government grants.

In late 2022 the Victorian government made an election commitment to spend $34 million on the state's live music industry, including grants of up to $50,000 for music festivals.

That money has yet to be spent, with the Live Music Festivals Fund set to launch later in April to support existing events.

A program of $1000 grants promised to musicians performing live is also expected to be launched soon.

Victoria is seeing more festival cancellations than any other state, according to Mitch Wilson from the Australian Festival Association, who says government support is needed as soon as possible.

"The fund just needs to actually be released by the government so that it can support the industry at a time when we most need it," he told AAP.

At a federal level, a parliamentary inquiry was launched Thursday to look at the live music industry with submissions due by the end of April, weeks before the federal budget.

Parker - who is also a fan of big concerts - suggests that smaller, grassroots events could be one of the ways forward as the industry tries to find a workable model for the future.

Starting small has become a trend for new entrants to the market, according to Wilson, but he also wants festival-goers to question whether they are prepared to let long-running events such as Splendour fall over.

Matsumura is billed as a micro festival.

It's organised by a group of volunteers, and tickets are $50-$70 - a fraction the price of a stadium concert or major festival.

"We want young people to be able to afford to see gorgeous music, and not be priced out," Parker said.

The bill of about a dozen acts includes husband and wife musical duo David Ralston and Merry Gushi of Okinawa Americana, which blends traditional Japanese folk with American blues.

The focus is not on big name acts, but discovering new music and cross-cultural collaboration, with Indigenous performer Tony J Hunt playing the didgeridoo solo and with other artists, and staff from the Japanese Consulate on the guest list.

Importantly, it will be staged indoors - at the Prince Bandroom in St Kilda followed by a two-day event at Powerhouse Place in Mildura.

"Having it indoors solves a lot of problems, because it's highly unlikely something's gonna go wrong unless it burns down," Parker said.

The Matsumura Blues Festival is on at the Prince Bandroom in Melbourne on June 1, followed by Powerhouse Place on the Mildura Riverfront on June 8-9.

Australian Associated Press