The War on Festivals – The State of the Australian Festival Industry


The Australian nightlife and festival industries have appeared in the news a lot lately, and for all the wrong reasons. From drug related deaths at festivals to licensing restrains threatening some of the countries most loved events, the industry is under scrutiny.

Back in 2014 the New South Wales government introduced ‘Lock out Laws’ to combat nightlife related deaths. The legislation requires venues to refuse new guests entry from 1.30am and stop selling alcoholic drinks from 3am. The law came to fruition after two high-profile one-punch deaths in Kings Cross, these following a stream of nightlife related violence.

The scheme certainly impacted alcohol related violence but failed to meet the expectations and promises the government made to the public and came at the expense of the city’s cultural life and hospitality industry. Since 2014 alcohol related crime has decreased in New South Wales, but now the state faces new scrutiny in drug related festival deaths.

Drug Related Deaths at Festivals 

Since the middle of September 2018, seven young people have died from suspected drug overdoses at music festivals in New South Wales. Most recently a young man and a woman were found dead inside a tent at ‘Rabbit Eats Lettuce’ festival near the Queensland-New South Wales border.

Alex Ross-King, 19, passed in January of this year, after she was transported from the Fomo festival at Parramatta Park to Westmead hospital on Saturday night.It followed the deaths of Joseph Pham, 23, and Diana Nguyen, 21, who attended the Defqon.1 festival in Penrith on 15 September. Nineteen-year-old Callum Brosnan died at the Knockout Games of Destiny at Sydney Olympic Park on 8 December and Josh Tam, 22, at the Lost Paradise festival on the central coast on 29 December – and this is in New South Wales ALONE. In addition to the above, since September 2018 there has been at least one drug related death at a festival in Victoria, Adelaide and Queensland.

Deaths at Defqon prompted NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to call for a ban on the event, saying: ‘I never want to see this event held in Sydney or New South Wales ever again – we will do everything we can to shut this down.’

The recent spate of fatalities prompted the Australian Festivals Association to write an open letter calling on state and territory governments to allow pill testing trials at events in a bid to prevent more deaths. However despite its proven ability to save lives, Victorian and New South Wales Governments remain against it. This statement can be found here- a snippet below.

“We do not believe that pill-testing is the only answer. But it is a crucial part of a broader harm reduction strategy that prioritises people’s health and safety, over criminality or laws. Encouraging drug abstinence instead of education is out-of-touch, proven to be ineffective and unnecessarily risking lives. Young people deserve better. Older people deserve better. Families deserve better.

We implore Premier Berejiklian, Premier Andrews, Premier Marshall, Premier McGowan, Premier Palaszczuk, Premier Hodgman, Chief Minister Gunner and Chief Minister Barr to be open to better ideas and to work with experts on making festivals safer for everyone.”

Pill Testing

Despite the deaths – and a pill testing trial at last year’s Groovin the Moo that was hailed an “overwhelming success” by harm-reduction campaigners – the government of New South Wales (NSW), which contains Sydney and the Glenworth Valley, has once again rejected industry calls for permitting drug testing at live music events.

Drug testing returned to Canberra music festival Groovin the Moo for the second time a few weeks ago, with increased numbers of punters using the service and number of legal substances detected, a potential 7 young lives saved.

The ACT is currently the only state in Australia to allow pill testing. ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris says ‘the state government is committed to “contemporary approaches”, focused on harm reduction, rather than punitive practices’. Groovin the Moo festivals taking place in Adelaide, New South Wales (NSW) and Western Australia did not offer pill-testing services. NSW police said 14 people were taken to hospital with suspected drug and alcohol intoxication cases at the Maitland (NSW) festival.

Following the previously discussed pattern of deaths, the NSW government has consistently rejected calls to introduce testing services, ‘opting for the implementation of new licensing laws that demand detailed safety plans from festival organisers and impose significant licensing and security costs.’

Licensing Crack Down 

Music festivals in New South Wales are facing strict new licensing laws, from 1st March, festival organisers will need to apply for a specific liquor license, similar to those for pubs and clubs, for each music festival they hold, AAP reports.

‘Each application will need to be approved by a panel of authorities, reportedly believed to include NSW Health, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance and Liquor and Gaming NSW. The new regulations will supposedly see festival organisers face large fines or even jail time if their events are deemed unsafe.’ ‘“Festival organisers will need to ensure their events meet high safety standards,” Minister for Racing Paul Toole said in a statement. “Events with a poor track record and heightened risk will face greater oversight from authorities.”

At least four festivals have cancelled or downsized their events in NSW since, citing tougher regulations and extra costs, including the beloved ‘Mountain Sounds Festival’ which was due to run for its 6th successful year.

Fourteen festivals found to be “high risk” by the State Government’s panel of experts will be forced to apply for a new license through the Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority come March 1.

The list includes:

  • Days Like This
  • Transmission
  • Up Down
  • 1
  • Subsonic
  • This That
  • Knockout Games of Destiny
  • Lost Paradise
  • FOMO
  • Electric Gardens
  • HTID
  • Rolling Loud
  • Laneway
  • Ultra


So how does a festival get on the list? Something a little confusing to me as the above listed Ultra festival had only been to Australia once before this list was released with no drug related deaths.

A spokesperson for the NSW Government said in a statement:

“Festivals required to operate under the new licensing regime will be festivals where a serious drug-related illness or death has occurred in the past three years or where the Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority has determined, having regard to expert advice from NSW Health and NSW Police, that there may be a significant risk of serious drug-related illness or death.”

So where does this all leave us? I have a number of concerns for the future of Australia’s festival industry as a result of the above.

Firstly, I feel the scare tactics placed on festivals are changing the industry and destroying the culture. Forcing excessive police presence makes people fearful about festivals under the assumption they are unsafe. The truth is that apart from the small minority who mindlessly abuse drugs, festivals are safe and joyous places. Encouraging pill testing seems a more supportive approach, supporting a positive culture, and is proven successful. Especially when compared with festivals in which upon the site of dogs at the entrance, punters down their drugs, a leading cause of drug related deaths in Australia.

Secondly, I’m concerned this will become an industry overwhelmed with majors like Live Nation and AEG, with little room for new promotors or events due to increased costs associated with festivals as a result of the above. The costs associated with increasing police presence alone are enough to knock a lot of hopefuls out of the race. It would be sad if this becomes an industry where only established promotors stand a chance.

Written by Natalie Oakes

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