Five Things I Know: Peter Noble, Bluesfest

While Peter Noble is well known as the director of Byron Bay’s Bluesfest, he has spent the past four decades working across multiple corners of the music industry in Australia and overseas. He spoke with NME about the festival’s infamous eleventh-hour cancellation in March, the evolution of the blues and more

1. The fight for state government support continues

Arts minister Paul Fletcher’s take was that a public health order enacted by the state government is what closes your event down or puts you into lockdown. Therefore, it’s a state government’s responsibility to have an insurance policy and a disruption fund. But state governments keep saying that because artists cross borders to perform, it should be a national policy.

The only government that’s got a communicable disease insurance policy for events is Victoria. Now, we need New South Wales to enact the policies beside Victoria, then we can start working on the other critical state, which is Queensland. If you’re a major act, local or overseas, you can have tours of Australia without performances in the other cities, but you can’t have them without those three states, because that’s where the majority of Australia lives and it’s where the shows are.

“If you want to all try to do the same old thing year in year out, it’s so boring”

2. Government jumped the gun with Bluesfest

Last Easter, Bluesfest was shut down with one case of COVID-19 in the region, by somebody who wasn’t a ticket holder, and who lived a 40 to 45 minute drive away. We were already at a restricted capacity of 16,500. Meanwhile, the Sydney Royal Easter show was getting up to 60,000 people per day, shoulder to shoulder, even though there were cases reported in the area.

Closing Bluesfest down robbed our industry of the opportunity to show we can put on a major live music event safely. That’s all we wanted to do. We had well over 100 COVID marshals on site to make sure that people sat in their seats with space between them.

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The simple, human approach by the government should have been: “We’re not going to let you open tomorrow. We have to figure out if this is the beginning of a spreader event. But you can open the next day if no positive cases emerge from the last four days. But we’re going to have to shut you down if something happens.”

You know what? There weren’t any positives the next day, which was supposed to be the first day of Bluesfest. They simply jumped the gun. What message did that send to our industry? Don’t even try.

Peter Noble Bluesfest
Peter Noble. Credit: Press

3. A degree can’t compare with on-the-job experience

The person that we’ve most recently added to our company started off with us as a volunteer in the office, because we were able to see them performing in the job. Prior to that, she was taking an entertainment course at TAFE. When she first started working with us, she was trying to balance both the job and study. Eventually she realised, “I could work here every day and get 10 times the experience that I’ll ever get by going through college. Or, I can study and eventually put myself on the job market like everyone else who only has a certificate.”

Be sure to reach out for every opportunity you get. As an employer, I don’t look for degrees. if someone comes to me, they’ve worked for X, Y and Z, and I can call their references and they say “you’ve got a good one there”, that’s what gets you the job.

4. The blues are constantly evolving

I remember I was touring Albert King, one of the great blues musicians, and Public Enemy were staying in the same hotel. When Flavor Flav and Chuck D heard that Albert was there, they came to pay him respect. Because they understood King as part of the Black pantheon, and that it’s all got to start somewhere.

There’s a reason the Bluesfest slogan is “blues, roots and beyond”. I get that some aficionados will say acts like Tash Sultana and Ocean Alley aren’t blues, but if you didn’t have those commercial artists like Tash Sultana performing, then you wouldn’t have a Bluesfest, because we wouldn’t have the audience. Besides, when you hear someone like Briggs, try and tell me there’s not a blues influence there.

These lessons were learned very early by Jazz Fest in New Orleans. I remember when they had the first rapper on their line-up. To the critics, that was like, “you’re breaking every rule, you can’t do this!” The more traditional folkies were calling it sacrilege, just like they did when Bob Dylan went electric and first played the Newport Jazz Festival. Music grows, it changes. If you do the same old thing year in, year out, it’s so boring.

“Shutting down Bluesfest sent our industry a message: don’t even try”

5. The blues aren’t just for an older crowd

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Forty is about the median age among the Bluesfest crowd. Having said that, there’s another group of people – God bless them – who go beyond triple j and pop music, and begin to ask “where does it all come from?”. They want to know who the greats are: Miles Davis, James Brown, George Clinton. Those people come to Bluesfest, not the festivals attempting to sell all their tickets to under-25s. Bluesfest is where you come when you’re through playing games and you want to hear the real shit.

Take Carlos Santana, one of the greatest guitar players in the world. The last time he played Bluesfest, you could hardly move. I looked into that audience and there were just as many people that were 20-25 years old as there were older people. There are artists that transcend age groups because they are at that level of skill.

Plus, because it’s a family event, there are children who grew up coming to Bluesfest. And now from what they’ve heard and experienced, they have become musicians playing the kind of music that they heard at the festival. We’re like the Catholic Church: if we get to you before you’re seven, we’ve got you for life.

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