Five Things I Know: Ben Tillman, Yours & Owls Festival

In April, the team behind Wollongong’s Yours & Owls Festival pulled off the first major music festival held in New South Wales since the beginning of the pandemic. Roughly 30,000 punters turned up at Stuart Park over an April weekend to catch an all-local bill led by Tones And I, DMA’S and Lime Cordiale. NME catches up with co-organiser Ben Tillman to talk about lessons learned from the tricky, protracted experience, working with bands on the label Farmer & The Owl and more

Set your own deadlines or sit around waiting for normality

Organising the festival this year was really, really difficult. Usually after the last band has finished, we get this big sense of relief and euphoria, and all the crew and whatever artists are hanging around will have a bit of a party. But this year was just such a draining, difficult experience that we didn’t really get that this year. All on-the-day stuff was hard, and there was so much uncertainty.

We put six to eight months into just trying to get an approval to go ahead in the first place. The time was spent understanding what restrictions were in place, how we might interact with them from an event perspective, and then figuring out how we might be able to go ahead within a legal framework, and putting together a plan of what we’d like to propose. We spoke to epidemiologists and got lobby groups and high-level risk management consultants involved. Once we had those plans, then it was a matter of engaging with the state government who had set up a taskforce of sorts that was responsible for major events. We also had to balance this all up against running an event we were comfortable with from a punter-experience viewpoint.

Five weeks out from the event, we got a tentative notice: “If the COVID situation remains the same, we expect your plan will be approved.” It normally takes six months to plan a festival. At that point, we were like, “OK, it’s a gamble, but we need to press go.” We got our final sign-off from all other local stakeholders maybe a week and a half out from the event.

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We had to just draw our own lines in the sand, in a way, and give ourselves these made-up deadlines. “If this thing happens by then, we’ll move to the next step.” Obviously, we’re still guessing and we didn’t really know what would happen, but if you don’t give yourself these deadlines and benchmarks to hit, you’re just blindly waiting for things to go back to normal. The government or whoever aren’t actively looking to find a solution. The responsibility is on the people throwing the events to have a plan.

Ben Tillman, Yours & Owls Festival
Ben Tillman. Credit: Chris Frape

Sports’ success with COVID events provided lessons in lobbying and communication

Sports bodies in Australia introduced bubbles for players, and had matches and games with no crowds – then 25 per cent capacity, then 50. They demonstrated safety across different formats, and had full seasons to trial-and-error their plans. Sport also had the money and ability to collectively lobby the government and get their plans developed. I guess the difference between the music industry and sport is that they have unified bodies, like the NRL or Cricket Australia, but the music industry is made up essentially of a bunch of independent operators, acting on their own accord.

When it came to looking to and learning from sport, it wasn’t necessarily the specific measures that you could adapt, but more their ability to communicate with people in power. They understood risk, the laws and the current health orders in place – and that applies across the board to all events. That’s the basic stuff that everybody knows. It’s more about: how do you write that up and communicate it? Who do you talk to to give support to your submission and make the government understand that this is important and they should be taking it seriously? We had a lot of letters of support from, you know, high-up people, people that the government would have already known from other projects. That was a big thing to help get the festival over the line.

Yours & Owls Festival 2021 pandemic
Yours & Owls Festival 2021. Credit: Ruby Boland

Funds should support existing events rather than hastily conceptualised new ones

Yours & Owls applied for RISE Funding and was rejected on a technicality. Initially, when we applied, the festival was set to run in January. But there was an outbreak in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and we didn’t get our COVID safety plan signed off, and needed to move our date. So we moved it to April. And when the funding was announced, we were rejected because our event was now in April, and our application for January. We tried to appeal it, but it wasn’t on the cards. We are talking to the RISE Fund now, and they’re encouraging us to apply again. Hopefully that will be successful.

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I think the most frustrating thing with the fund is that they were looking for new events and pushing for innovative new kinds of events that can exist within COVID. I guess that just seems a little counter-intuitive. I feel we should be supporting existing events that are already here, that are at risk of going away and never coming back. We should be protecting what’s already here and established before. People are already struggling with no income, and to ask them to just make up a new event to apply for funding for their survival is kind of offensive in a way, I reckon.

It could end up forcing people to make snap decisions just to try get some of the money. It’s never going to be authentic or genuine. It’s literally just going to be an idea you can bind together quickly, to get money so you can survive. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with people who are going through that process and doing that. I just think we should be supporting the stuff that’s already here. There’s already so many horror stories within the industry, like Bluesfest.

“Be honest and upfront: pay people properly; pay your bills on time; send the bands updates”

COVID and no touring has sapped musicians’ motivation

The pandemic has really affected bands’ motivations to be doing stuff. Even when they do get a record out, it’s so hard to continue the life cycle of the record, which usually includes a couple of tours to back it up. Ultimately, Farmer & The Owl leaves it up to our bands, who end up doing what they want to do. But we’re always offering suggestions: “You could do this”, “Other people are doing that”, “What do you think about this?” I think the acts who have been proactive and come up with interesting ways to navigate COVID have done well out of it. So we’ve definitely been encouraging of that.

But I guess it’s hard to get inspired or want to do things when you’re not able to get on the road. I think, for rock ’n’ roll bands especially, a lot of their drive and inspiration does come from that live setting. We’ve noticed that as soon as bands start playing shows again, they’re immediately just like, “Alright, we want to do this, I want to do that.” They’re all happy again.

hockey dad 2020 getty images dave simpson wireimage
Zach Stephenson of Farmer & The Owl band Hockey Dad. Credit: Dave Simpson/WireImage/Getty Images

Do the boring stuff well, and people will want to work with you

Advice I’d give to people wanting to organise music festivals and venue booking is start small and then work up from there in an authentic way. Start off with a club night to find your feet and develop an identity. Figure out what your flavour is and then go from there.

Be honest and upfront – pay people properly, pay your bills on time. Make sure you send the bands the ticketing updates, make sure your tickets are going on sale at the time you say they’re going to. Do all of those fundamental boring things properly, and people will want to work with you more.

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