Crunching the numbers on Australia’s top music festivals shows that making the ARIA charts is no longer the major mark of popular success. By Kye Halford.

How are Australian music festivals choosing their headliners?

Artist Fred Again.. performing at Melbourne's Laneway Festival in 2023.
Artist Fred Again.. performing at Melbourne's Laneway Festival in 2023.
Credit: Daniel Boud

Music charts have prompted a lot of discussion over the past year. In Australia it takes the star power of Kylie Minogue, Troye Sivan’s world-beating “Rush” or enduring tracks such as Vance Joy’s “Riptide” for homegrown artists to crack the ARIA Top 50 Singles Chart. How industry bodies such as ARIA determine their chart rankings in the age of streaming will likely remain a circular debate, but a notable absence are the acts that front Australia’s biggest music festivals.

Crunching the numbers on 15 of Australia’s most popular festivals in 2023, only 10 out of 36 acts have broken the ARIA top 50 in the two years preceding their festival appearances. It’s a figure that captures a striking division between recording and touring and reveals an undercurrent of uncharted music that’s attracting punters en masse. A report released by Live Performance Australia in December revealed that more than 1.5 million people attended contemporary music festivals in 2022 – results that surpass pre-pandemic levels and are the highest ever recorded.

Perhaps it’s more valuable for these artists to have their name on these festival posters rather than music charts, especially when pay-per-stream structures used by industry giants such as Spotify have gutted revenue opportunities for established and emerging artists. While variables such as the cost-of-living crisis have forced pressures on touring in recent years, festivals continue to offer performers the rare chance to play an entire show to new audiences.

An artist who can attest to the benefit of these opportunities is Sugar Bones, frontman of Brisbane electro-pop group Confidence Man, which has become a mainstay on Australia’s festival circuit. The band has experienced several surges in popularity after strong performances on festival stages. 

“One of the early shows we did was at Splendour in the Grass [2017],” says Bones. “After, they put out one of our tracks, ‘Boyfriend’, with the whole live clip of it, and said ‘Best Australian live act ever? [Best Up-And-Coming Live Band in Australia?]’ … We didn’t realise it at the time, but that small moment gave us a whole lot more attention from everyone in Australia.”

The video captures Splendour punters going batshit as Sugar Bones and fellow vocalist Janet Planet twist on stage with the energy of kids who just blew their savings on Wizz Fizz. It attracted a wealth of online supporters and, naturally, pissed off a bunch of others. But beyond provoking a mind-numbing national debate on what constitutes “real music”, the backlash reinforced that Confidence Man had broken into new territory.

Fast-forward to Glastonbury Festival 2022 and the game is played again, only now Confidence Man’s audience is exponentially bigger. Their set, stuffed with loud outfits and trademark dance routines, was broadcast live during a primetime slot on the BBC and watched across the United Kingdom.

“We’d been building up the crowds there for four or five years and worked really hard, toured lots, and it had always been pretty good for us over there and growing steadily,” says Bones. “But then, after that set it just sort of exploded. We were trying to sell this venue out and then we ended up selling out three of them, because the demand had just skyrocketed after everyone had seen this Glasto set.”

These key moments for Confidence Man are only a few among countless shows that weren’t recorded and broadcast to millions, but they represent the best of what music festivals can offer their artists. But if festival scouts aren’t turning to record sales or chart rankings to find new talent, how does an up-and-coming artist draw their attention? And how do event curators decide which acts will be taking their prime slots late in the evening?

Once you remove the artists who have recently made the ARIA top 50, 26 of 36 headliners remain in the festival data pool.  Many of the rest are legacy acts – artists who’ve held a dedicated fanbase for decades and boast cross-generational appeal. Eleven headliners fit this category and are most often booked by festivals such as Bluesfest, who cater to an older demographic. But that still leaves 15 (over 40 per cent) of performers unaccounted for.

Enter Meredith Music Festival, a Victorian institution since 1991, which can be so confident of demand for their tickets that it implements a ballot system. All 12,500 tickets to last year’s December edition, led by Kraftwerk and Caroline Polachek, were snatched up within hours.

Kraftwerk fits comfortably in the legacy act category, but Caroline Polachek is a contemporary artist who also stands as a major drawcard for festivalgoers. While Polachek’s work hasn’t reached the heights of commercial success, her 2023 album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You received universal acclaim upon release and went on to rank near the top of many critics’ “best of 2023” lists.

Polachek becomes an appropriate fit for Meredith once you understand its core audience. A scan across the line-up poster is enough to reveal that festival organisers cast their net across a plethora of genres and include a mix of local and international artists. A celebration of diversity is a major part of Meredith’s identity, and its insistence on keeping the festival to a single stage has cultivated a space where festivalgoers expect to be taken into new territory. While Kraftwerk and Polachek operate within different genres and are in vastly different stages of their careers, their place at the summit of their respective subcultures makes them top-shelf acts for an audience that has few demands beyond being exposed to incredible music.

Laneway Festival is another that has enjoyed long-term success by keeping a consistent identity ­– it’s known for hosting international artists who have limited experience with Australian audiences. With its 22nd edition starting on February 3 in Brisbane, the festival has grown from small shows in Melbourne’s Caledonia Lane into a tour that travels across Australia, with more than 100,000 punters buying tickets last summer.

“We always ask ourselves, does this artist make sense on Laneway?” Laneway’s co-founder Danny Rogers tells The Saturday Paper. “We’ve passed on so many artists because we didn’t think they were the right fit. Some of those acts would have sold out the event in 20 minutes and some decisions we got wrong, but we have never made it all about one or two acts.”

Signing international artists early means that Laneway is likely to boast serious line-up depth, and it also allows the festival time to adjust the playing schedule if an artist’s popularity rises in Australia after they are booked. While streaming numbers are a factor in the scouting process, Laneway places greater emphasis on live performances, which means visiting overseas festivals such as Coachella and Primavera Sound to scout for talent. Laneway was scouting these international festivals months ago for their 2025 edition.

“Seeing acts live before they have been to Australia and thinking ‘wow, people will love this’ is a huge part of what inspires us to do this,” says Rogers. “I imagine it being somewhat like a fashion forecaster where you spot cool designers, seasonal colours, et cetera, and anticipate that by your summer that particular artist will be everywhere.”

The process has led to an alumni roster that includes Lorde, Billie Eilish and last year’s Fred Again.., who sold out a last-minute Melbourne sideshow within seconds of tickets becoming available for purchase.

Laneway’s emphasis on booking popular live acts over those who find overnight fame via the charts was best seen in 2020, when Australian artist Tones and I had recently finished 21 consecutive weeks at the top of the ARIA top 50 with her record-breaking “Dance Monkey”. Despite the success of the single she remained far from the headline slot, playing several acts before prolific live rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Longstanding festivals such as Laneway and Meredith remain popular because of the trust they’ve gradually developed with their respective audiences, who are willing to fork out their money without the allure of a chart-topping headliner. In contrast, festivals that trade star power at the cost of line-up depth are at risk of never establishing an identity of their own, leaving them vulnerable to years with underwhelming bookings.

It makes little commercial sense for consistently chart-topping, stadium sell-out stars such as Taylor Swift to join the festival ranks. If she did decide to take to a festival stage on a whim, it would be hard for organisers to turn down an artist of that magnitude but acts further down the bill would likely be drowned out by Swiftie Mania and the festival would be overwhelmed by her fanbase.

Deeper than the glancing interaction a music listener might have with an artist through TikTok and streaming playlists, festivals offer the chance for musicians to play for thousands of keen punters who are willing to stand, with wet clothes and feet aching in the mud, for a transformative experience with an unfamiliar artist.

It’s these listeners who are likely to walk away from the set ready to buy the merch, who will keep tabs on the release date for an upcoming album and will buy tickets to solo shows for years to come. Perhaps the greater mark of an artist’s success or their likelihood of sustaining a long career isn’t their rise and fall on the charts, but their presence on music festival line-ups.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2024 as "How are Australian music festivals choosing their headliners?".

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