Five Things I Know: Julia Robinson, Australian Festival Association

As COVID-19 vaccines begin their global rollout and restrictions ease going into summer, Australia’s music festival industry faces a long road to recovery. Australian Festival Association General Manager Julia Robinson talks to NME about insurance, New South Wales’ Music Festivals Act and other issues Australian festivals have to tackle

Festivals need insurance

There’s no insurance for communicable diseases or pandemics at the moment. We’ve been told that could be the case for two to three years, based on SARS, which is a significant period of time. You can still get weather and public liability insurance, but if you have to cancel your event due to the pandemic, you can’t cover your sunk costs.

Very early on AFA supported Live Performance Australia who lobbied for a range of packages, including an interruption fund. After gathering restrictions and the ability to have artists travel around Australia and internationally, insurance was the third highest priority on our list.

An interruption fund would see promoters actually paying to access a kitty if the pandemic caused a cancellation. So it would be co-contributed – we’re not asking for money without paying for anything, we just want the ability to underwrite these events.

I think the impact that would have on our industry, and also the economy, can’t be underestimated. When you feel confident booking a festival, event or performance, then you’re putting deposits on artists and venues. They’re then receiving that money, and money is circulating in the economy.

If we had insurance, we’d be seeing a lot more things being booked, and there’d be a lot more announcements happening. Promoters are quite happy to take on a bit of a risk. That’s in their nature: an entrepreneurial spirit. But there comes a point where there’s too much risk to take.

Julia Robinson of Australian Festival Association
Julia Robinson of Australian Festival Association

NSW’s Music Festivals Act has definite room for improvement

The terminology of ‘high-risk festivals’ in 2019’s NSW Music Festivals Act became a psychologically damaging phrase rather than a useful definition or category. It served to demonise or target certain events and genres. The list of ‘high-risk festivals’ was released before the New South Wales state election, so it also became quite politicised. It’s great to see the review of the Act recommend the terminology be changed, though we’re still waiting for the official response, which we’ve been told should come early 2021.

Under the Act, ‘high-risk festivals’ have to develop Safety Management Plans. The requirements of those Plans are actually limited largely to drug safety. It’s alarming that it’s not more comprehensive – it’s a bit like misdirection. If there’s a fire going on to your right, you might actually miss the bomb going off on your left.

We had terrorism as a huge threat a couple of years ago, but that’s not included in the Safety Management Plan requirements. What is frustrating is both government and industry were arguing for safety and patron wellbeing – but just from different standpoints. We all wanted the same thing.

“Large-scale sporting events returning earlier than music is frustrating, but not surprising”

Growth might stall in March due to JobKeeper and JobSeeker ending

Anecdotally, there is a positive consumer sentiment towards the return of live events, particularly in the under-30s market. But these things change almost week by week and consumer sentiment can change just as quickly.

I’m interested to see what happens post-March when people start losing their JobKeeper and JobSeeker benefits – especially when that younger crowd has to think long-term about their expendable income. We have been advocating for an extension to JobKeeper – or something like it for the industries that haven’t come back to full scale, including festivals but also tourism, among others. We think that will be really important, especially as we come into winter: there was that story about Victoria predicting another wave come March.

A lot of AFA members are using JobKeeper for their own staff. Those staff, like production and site crew, often work seasonally, but their backup jobs might be in corporate events, which are also not happening – or have turned virtual. You don’t know what will happen once JobKeeper runs out, and what consumers will actually end up doing once they lose that income.

Australia music festivals insurance 2021 pandemic
A punter enters Perth’s Castaway Unlocked festival in July 2020, Western Australia’s first live music concert since the COVID-19 lockdown. Credit: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

State differences really matter

Running COVID-safe events is so different state by state. The variance in terms of what is allowed and what isn’t is kind of mind-blowing in and of itself. It’s really hard to keep track of if you’re even trying to consider doing anything nationally. You just can’t compare apples and apples: it’s a total fruit salad.

And when it comes to patron behaviour, which is already unpredictable, state differences apply, too. If you take a traditional festival tour across Australia, each state has its own personality already that you get used to and know how to plan for. What is tricky with COVID is you can’t plan for that at the moment, because you don’t know how consumers are going to react. I think it will largely play out as summer progresses, maybe even into autumn and winter next year.

The music industry has come far

Other industries seemingly getting priority – like large-scale sporting events returning earlier – over music is frustrating, but not surprising. Australia is a sporting nation, and the sporting codes are a lot more advanced at working through these issues and getting their needs considered. They’re really great at what they do.

But I think the music industry has stepped up.

This year has been proof that through collaboration, some work can be done with federal and state governments on commercial live music, when there hasn’t been meaningful funding for decades. The RISE Fund did mention festivals, specifically, quite a few times. It wasn’t just about the subsidised arts like opera or ballet. So you’ve also got to step back and look at it from afar to see how far we actually have come.

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