opinion Opinion July 30, 2019

What happens when a festival headliner cancels? [op-ed]

What happens when a festival headliner cancels? [op-ed]

“Flo Rida has slept in and will not be able to make the concert.”

That was the blunt announcement made to 11,000 fans at Newcastle’s Fat As Butter festival in 2011, minutes after he was slated to appear on stage.

The furious organisers Mothership Music sued Mr. Rida (real name Tramar Dillard) for $380,000 in lost revenue and reputation, plus an extra $20K in court fees. However, they were unable to serve him with a court summons, and so took the unusual step of serving these via email and a Facebook wall post, under the curious order of Judge Judith Gibson.

Dillard didn’t show, and Gibson awarded the damages but the decision was later challenged. Flo Rida walked away without paying a cent, Mothership Music went into liquidation, their only recourse to call Flo Rida a ‘prime dickhead’ in a post he is very unlikely to have ever read.

That’s the real damage that can be done when a headliner pulls out of a festival at the last moment.

Australia’s biggest music festival flop, possibly ever in terms of lost revenue, lost promise, was 1995’s Alternative Nation, which had a lineup worthy of a top-shelf MTV compilation: Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, L7, Violent Femmes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, Tool, Ween, and Lou Reed. Unfortunately, this joint venture between Michael Gudinski and Michael Chugg suffered the loss of the Chili Peppers within 24 hours of tickets going on sale, with Stone Temple Pilots quickly following suit. Ticket sales stalled dramatically, the panicked promoters overpaid to add NIN to the lineup, and the three-day three-city event was then hit by some of the most horrific rain storms seen for years. The festival, ‘Mudstock’ as the media called it, lost the promoters $3 million, and was never repeated.

Alternative Nation was intended to be a competitor to the Big Day Out, which started in 1992 in Sydney and expanded to four cities by the next year. By 2013, with American festival promoter C3 taking partial ownership of the Big Day Out, the writing was on the wall.

After two Sydney dates were announced, the second was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Then, Blur pulled out just eight weeks ahead of time, and given the festival was touted as their only Australian appearances, many fans demanded – and received – refunds. 2014 saw BDO attendance down by half the previous year, and organisers lost close to $10M. This was the last straw for the struggling festival, and after a proud tradition that stretched back to 1992, the Big Day Out was no longer.

Splendour In The Grass has weathered similar storms before.

In 2013, Frank Ocean pulled out of Splendour a few days before he was slated to perform. It was one of many festivals he cancelled around that time, including the prior year’s Future Music Festival, plus internationals, Primavera, V Festival, Bestival, and Pukkelpop. He is, it would appear, an equal-opportunity piker.

Although 2013 was a speedbump, a headliner pulling out can bankrupt a promoter. The organisers of Splendour were lucky that Chance, The Rapper pulled out when he did – with the announcement being made well into the second day. Had this occurred even a few days earlier, there would have been a much stronger push for refunds, with many punters claiming online they bought Splendour tickets just to see Chance. Many of these people opted for either weekend or three-day passes, as the logistics of travelling to Byron for a one-day show don’t add up for many city-dwellers. With the headliner removed, it’s quite conceivable that tens of thousands of people would have opted to forgo the slog, get a few hundred dollars back in their bank account and party closer to home.

Although Chance pulled out during the actual festival, legally, Secret Sounds were fairly solid. If you read the fine print on your Splendour tickets, it explains that the lineup can be changed at little notice, and you basically have to suck it up.

“33. The Organiser reserves the right to vary the Event program and/or to add, withdraw or substitute artists. No ticket refunds or compensation will be made in such circumstances, or if the Event program varies due to the non-appearance of an advertised artist. The Event will take place rain, hail or shine.”

Note also, for pure LOL’s-sake, section 19 which reads in part:

“Clothing, jewellery or accessory displaying the name of any motorcycle related or similar organisations or any ‘declared organisation’ within the meaning of the
Crimes (Criminal Organisation Control) Act 2009 is not permitted in the Event or at the Venue.”

So, no Harley jackets, dad! But pointing to buried terms and conditions don’t really fly from a PR standpoint, and so Secret Sounds offered one-day ticket holders refunds if they requested them, in writing, through Moshtix, before 9am on the Sunday. It wasn’t the most gracious approach, but it was an understandable one. People had experienced two whole days of the festival by Sunday morning; giving all ticket holders the option to refund at that point would have been their financial ruin.

Financially, Chance pulling out as he did was actually a good thing for Splendour organisations.

Judging by figures that were leaked to me through the series of secret spies I have operating at every level of the Australian music industry (hard to tell if I’m joking here, hey?) the organisers of Splendour might end up in the ballpark of $200,000 better off, than if Chance simply turned up and delivered his Sunday candy.

Chance’s fee was about $1 million, which was payable upon fulfilment of his contract, say the spies. He also demanded a private jet at the last minute, which cost organisers around $250K. Then, he didn’t even get on the damn thing. So, that’s a sunken cost of 250K there. If my spies are to be believed, Hilltop Hoods got roughly $500,000 for the last minute call. So, they are ahead for $250,000 at this point, minus the refund costs. The news was delivered on the second day, assumedly the day which most people with one-day tickets who live outside of the region would have been travelling to Byron. $180 refund isn’t worth the monumental fuck around that is cancelling accommodation, turning the car around, and all that palaver. Most of these people would have gone, and just whinged.

Chance The Rapper might have disappointed a lot of his fans, but he saved the Splendour organisers quite a bit of money.

should be bigger than one act. Splendour In The Grass is a monumental achievement, and a life-enriching experience on many levels. Just watching any music in that natural amphitheatre is worth the price of admission alone. As are the various worlds you can slip into, like wandering a medieval carnival back when magic was real and peyote was everywhere. Splendour is an institution for so many, a rite of passage for some, and the best way to see countless musical acts (well, you can count them if you want, I suppose) in one three-day burst. You can camp, you can glamp, you can tramp (that’s when you don’t organise accommodation and hope to meet someone there). There’s comedy, science talks, and market stalls and stallholders seemingly beamed in from Haight and Ashbury, circa 1967. If you thought Chance refusing to hop on a jet could ruin all that for you, then perhaps you shouldn’t have been making the trip in the first place. Or perhaps you should have widened your eyes and taken it all in.

It’s disappointing for festival-goers when headliners cancel, sure, but it can be downright devastating for organisers, who pin their financial stakes, their goodwill, and the joy they get from entertaining tens of thousands of people on these acts, and the contracts they don’t bother to fulfil. The organisers of Splendour wanted Chance to turn up so much they threw a quarter of a million at a private jet in hopes of coaxing him to fulfil his contract.

Next year, just book Powderfinger.

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