Seventy-seven minutes. Shorter than your average movie and about the length of a typical rock concert. That was all the time it took to sell out seventeen and a half thousand tickets to this year’s Splendour in the Grass festival. Now in its ninth year, Splendour held at Belongil Fields in New South Wales’ ever popular Byron Bay, is for many the poster child for a dream festival. While acquiring its fair share of detractors it is an event with few equals in this country, a cross between the lifestyle and community aspects of Woodford folk festival, more traditional Aus rock showcases like The Big Day Out and V and England’s legendary Glastonbury festival. Every year sees thousands of new and returning fans, many of whom travel across Australia, eager to tap into the magic of Splendour.
We chat to Splendour promoter Jess Ducrou about the tremendous success of the festival, the process for picking the line-up and this year’s bands, future expansion of the site and the improvements in ticketing technology.
Congratulations on Splendour selling out in record time. Does it still surprise you that Splendour sells out so easily?
I guess not so much surprise, given it’s in its ninth year, and it has sold out since the first event but the amount of people that want to buy tickets seems to grow every year and I think that’s surprising.
Do you know how many people applied for tickets this year?
Well our database has almost 50,000 entries and we have 17,500 tickets. We actually don’t promote or market the event that much. Our advertising is quite minimal. To have that amount of people interested no matter how feverishly we market it or don’t market it is pretty amazing.
It sounds like a promoter’s dream really.
Yes it is. It’s an awesome problem to have.
Splendour seems to go beyond just being a music festival; it’s seen as an institution that many people go to regardless of who’s on the bill.
It’s had a real life of its own from the beginning. We had people come to us with ideas for things that they thought would be good to do at Splendour and we embraced those ideas. People that went had an amazing amount of ownership of the event and wanted to contribute. I think it’s something that you can only hope for, I don’t think you can create it, it just happens.
Over the years we’ve recognised that and embraced people’s ideas and tried to develop them. As the producer I’ve been mindful that I want the experience to be more than the music. Sure I want the music to be interesting, challenging and incredible — but I also want people to go to the event and not just go and see the bands. Go and spend the weekend in the tepee forest, or get involved in some of the performance workshops, or hang out in the Guzman Y Gomez bar which was a new destination for us last year. We try to make that as important as the music.
When you were first establishing Splendour were there other festivals you went to and researched?
Absolutely. With Splendour I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted it to be, so I was developing ideas and avenues and then coincidently travelled to the UK and visited Glastonbury and it was like Splendour twenty years down the track. That was really interesting; I didn’t even know I was heading down this path until I saw that event. I was aware of Glastonbury, but until you go you don’t get a real idea of what it’s like. It’s definitely rougher than Splendour but it’s got a charm and an organic nature which appealed to me.
What’s the process in creating a typical Splendour bill?
My Splendour business partner; Paul (Piticco, and Dew Process founder) and I have a wish list of stuff that we want to see and every year we manage to tick off a band or two which has been on the list since the beginning. Then other promoters or agents come to us with ideas and we also travel overseas to London and California, but generally London is where you buy most of the talent for Australia. We go over there and meet with various agents and hear what they’ve got to suggest and also check out some of those bands while we’re there.
There are some bands on this year’s bill that have played Splendour previously e.g. Grinspoon, Bloc Party, Sarah Blasko, Decoder Ring. Are some bands an automatic decision to re-book?
Yes. Bands that we might like; bands that have played and received an awesome reaction and have defined their festival career by Splendour, which I think Bloc Party are definitely one of; and then just populist favourites that we know people will want to see. I mean Grinspoon are a bit of an Australian staple diet and they’ve proven themselves over time that they can put on a great show and that’s what we look for when we’re choosing acts.
People seem to rave about Decoder Ring’s Splendour shows.
We love those guys. It’s also a bit of an indulgence from our perspective.
Are there any acts you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
I’m a huge fan of The Flaming Lips and Bloc Party. We’ve toured Bloc Party outside of Splendour and I’ve been so chuffed watching their career develop here. MGMT I really like. I saw them at SXSW last year and they were amazing. Jane’s Addiction who I saw many years ago, they’re such an awesome live band. Friendly Fires I think will be great. The Middle East, an Australian band I think are incredible and have a bright future. There are a good dozen acts that I’d like to see and probably won’t get to.
A few of my friends are gutted that The Flaming Lips aren’t doing a Brisbane show. What is the reasoning behind Brisbane getting very few Splendour sideshows?
I guess primarily fifty percent of the people that go to Splendour are from Brisbane and its surrounds so to go and put a show in that market you kind of cannibalise your ticket sales. That said, when the festival has sold out and we’ve put shows on in Brisbane, and we’ve done over a dozen shows over the years, none of them work and we lose money. It’s the same reason why the Big Day Out, based on the Gold Coast, rarely put shows on in Brisbane — they don’t really work. You get crowds but just not enough, compared to Sydney or Melbourne, and you end up losing a bunch of money.
The demand to supply ratio for tickets is about 4:1 or greater and camping is even greater still (only 1,500 camping tickets are available). There’s also a strain on accommodation in Byron Bay and the surrounding area. Are there any plans to expand either at Byron or to extend to other states?
About three years ago we bought some land about twenty minutes north of the Byron Township preciously for the reason of growing the event, primarily on a creative front, because we’ve maxed out the physical space. We’d love to have more stages, love to have more bands and allow the festival to grow. So we’re going through a process of approval to get that site up and working. It’s still a work in progress. In regards to moving to other states, I would prefer to develop one show properly rather than diluting our focus and trying to do it in other cities or areas.
What would the capacity of the new festival site be?
I think we’d take every year as it comes. The land we’ve purchased is over 650 acres, it’s huge. We’re on 47 acres at present. We’re very mindful that people like the intimacy of Splendour, so as we develop it we’d want to keep that. Interestingly at Glastonbury, while it has 175,000 people (literally ten times Splendour) and when you’re at the main stage you can see thousands of people for miles, if you get away from the main stages and head off into certain areas it actually feels quite intimate. Not that we ever want to get to that amount of people, there’s not a market in Australia for that many, but if we were to grow it we would try to maintain its intimacy and sense of community.
You’ve had some well publicised ticketing problems in past but this year seemed to go fairly smoothly.
Yes it was an absolute victory this year. We’re all stoked. It’s been pretty traumatic for people buying tickets but also for those of us that work on it. We’ve wanted to a present a system where we’re protecting the ticket value for people through anti-scalping measures and there just hasn’t been anything in Australia that has existed. So it’s been really difficult. The demand for tickets is so high, which is why people want to scalp the tickets, and the pressure on existing technology was just too much. So big thumbs up to Qjump who managed to come up with something that worked this year.
You also implemented a pre-sales and re-sale system this year.
We tried to stagger the tickets so those in the Byron community, Splendour members/VIP club and those who had bought tickets last year were given the opportunity to buy tickets first. But we held some back, so there were still well over fifty percent available for the general public. No one in Australia had implemented a re-sale process before. A lot of time and effort went into it. I think it’s fair. Hopefully people can time it so they can put their ticket on sale and their friend can buy it at the same moment.
Last question. Due to the logistics of being a promoter how many bands do you actually get to see over the festival weekend?
It depends, some years I see more than others. Last year I didn’t see very much at all. I saw Sigur Ros who were amazing and snippets of a few other acts. The year before I think I saw between six and a dozen bands. It really depends what’s going on apart from the music. A relaxed show with everything running smoothly with good weather is very different than if there’s complications with bad weather or one of the act’s gear hasn’t made it and there’s delay in the playing times.
I was dying to see Band of Horses last year, they were the first act we booked and I didn’t get to see them. I was bummed and that happens quite a lot. Then there are other acts, like Ryan Adams, who I desperately wanted to play Splendour because I was such as huge fan. I was so excited and went along and it was an absolutely terrible show. So you get a bit of everything.