Two Australian music festivals will be the first in the world to go ahead during COVID. Here’s how.

We speak to the organisers of Byron Bay Bluesfest and Yours & Owls on how the first COVID Safe music festivals in the world will work, and ask an epidemiologist if it’s the right call.

UPDATE Wednesday 1 April 5:20PM: Since the publication of this article, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard announced that Bluesfest 2021 has sadly been cancelled. A locally-acquired case of COVID-19 in the Byron Bay area (plus a snap lockdown in nearby Brisbane) led to Hazzard's decision. Organiser Peter Noble reportedly told ABC News that announcing the festival had been cancelled was "one of the most difficult statements [he had] ever had to make". In response to the cancellation, Brad Hazzard has reportedly said: "While the cancellation of Bluesfest is disappointing for music lovers and the local community, I hope that ticket holders would support Bluesfest and hold on to their tickets as I understand Bluesfest will be working on a new date as soon as possible." Whether a new date for Bluesfest 2021 will be announced remains to be seen.

Next month, Byron Bay Blues Festival and Yours & Owls in Wollongong will become the first two major music festivals in the world to get the green light to go ahead since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a rare spot of good news in the Australian music industry, currently running at four percent of its usual capacity and bracing for possibly half of all its businesses to close when the JobKeeper wage subsidy ends this week. 

Any event in New South Wales that aims to exceed the current outdoor gathering limit of 3000 people must apply for an exemption to the current Public Health Order with a bespoke COVID Safety Plan. So how did these two festivals do it, and just what will music festivals look like in a pandemic world?

How did the festivals get approved to go ahead?

On March 13 of last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared all non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people would be cancelled to stem the spread of COVID-19. Music festivals were forced to postpone and cancel en masse, despairing in how much money and talent was lost in a single press conference – but just six days later, Byron Bay Blues Festival announced it would go ahead in 2021 with most of the same artists. 

The annual Easter weekend event began devising a COVID Safety Plan in May 2020 with a risk management firm called Riskworks, while the return of small-scale live music was still over a month away. Bluesfest head Peter Noble Noble told MTV Australia that by August, they’d lodged their plan with the NSW Health Department. The department sent it back to the festival, telling them they were not yet able to assess it. But concurrently, government-approved crowds at football stadiums had begun to return in their thousands and Noble wanted to know how they could make the same thing work for live music.

“The challenges were pretty obvious to [the NSW Health Department]. Multi-day events are a challenge, multiple stages are a challenge, camping is a challenge,” he said.

Noble says Bluesfest’s regional setting on the north coast of NSW, where there has not been a case of community transmission since May last year, assisted their case.

“[Byron Bay] has been getting 20-30,000 tourists a day and we've still been fortunate enough not to have community transmission,” he said. “So that certainly is part of the thinking of the Department of Health; that COVID is primarily occurring from quarantine in the cities, and that is where community transmission is occurring.”

Yours & Owls festival’s journey to approval has been more complicated than Bluesfest. Last year, they moved their event from October to January 2021 before the NSW outbreaks of December made conditions too difficult to go ahead, forcing them to move to April. Even the announcement of their approved COVID Safety Plan was difficult – because each plan is lodged as an exemption to the Public Health Order in place at the time, the plan must be approved yet again as restrictions ease. On March 6, when the previous Public Health Order concluded, Yours & Owls were forced to reapply.

“It’s been pretty bloody stressful,” organiser Ben Tillman told MTV Australia. “We've had five or six weeks to basically put six months of a festival build, planning and logistics into place.”

During the process, Tillman said they’ve been in regular contact with Noble to share notes on the status of their respective COVID Safety Plan bids, as well as other industry players expressing support and curiosity at what they’re doing.

“I think everyone's got their fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly. It has been kind of nice in that everyone's rallying around it. We’re happy to chat to whoever,” Tillman said.

“We've had five or six weeks to basically put six months of a festival build, planning and logistics into place.”

Because COVID Safety Plans themselves are currently event-specific and non-standardised, they are also copyrighted – subsequently, they will not be published to the public. Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, Catherine Bennett, told MTV Australia that this could change in the near future to a possible set of generalised guidelines, like those that exist for the hospitality industry, as restrictions ease further amid the progress of the vaccination roll-out.

“People could make sure they comply with those, tick it off and register the event, but probably not have to go through this process that is demanding for them and demanding for the Health Department, of vetting every single event,” she said.

What will each festival look like?

Both festivals will have all-Australian line-ups, with Yours & Owls forced to ditch its planned New Zealand artists Benee and Wax Mustang last minute due to current border restrictions. Bluesfest boasts Jimmy Barnes, Tash Sultana, Ocean Alley, Hiatus Kaiyote, Kate Miller-Heidke, The Church and many more; Yours & Owls suits the younger crowd with Tones & I, DMA’s, PNAU, JK-47, Lime Cordiale and Dope Lemon among others.

“We are either fortunate or unfortunate enough to be the first [music festival], because obviously all eyes will be upon us. And every little transgression will be reported on in the Australian media.”

Tash Sultana will perform at Bluesfest (Licensed by Getty)

Both events will be seated, but their respective capacity limits and approach to presenting the music differs. Bluesfest will run at 50 percent of its usual capacity, with three stages and 15,000 people per day. It will have free-flowing movement between its three stages, and socially-distanced camping on site. Because of the open movement between stages, seating is non-allocated. Instead, family, friends or households sit together with a seat next to them marked “unavailable” to allow for adequate social distancing, regulated by COVID Marshalls on site.

“We are either fortunate or unfortunate enough to be the first [music festival], because obviously all eyes will be upon us. And every little transgression will be reported on in the Australian media,” Noble said.

“Let's hope we get support and people are just not looking for some little thing that goes wrong, because nobody's perfect on this planet. There'll be people that forget to do something, but you know what, we'll be there to remind them. We won't be there to tell them, ‘Get out if you don't get it right’.”

“Nobody's perfect. Somebody is going to make a mistake somewhere, just don't make the major mistakes.”

Yours & Owls’ approach is more novel, allowing them to run at 100 percent of its usual capacity with up to 14,000 people per day. Four groups of 3500 people will be zoned off into quadrants around two alternating, rotating lazy Susan-style 360 degree stages, to allow everyone equal viewing access.

“It is just a way of us minimising potential crossover [infection] or cross-contamination, if there is someone with COVID in a particular zone,” Tillman explained.

The rotating stage first debuted in its nascent form at the small Good Day Sunshine festival in Western Australia in September last year, though Yours & Owls will be the first to have two of them, with a capacity nearly three times as large on each of its two days.

“We've gone really hard on all the productional stuff, the sound, the video screens are going to be pretty impressive. We have a massive lighting show,” Tillman said.

What is the risk?

Speaking to MTV Australia, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, Catherine Bennett, was generally positive about the safety of both festival formats and stressed the importance of allocated seating.

"Having dedicated seating helps because it does allow you to both position people and know where they are relative to risk," she explained.

"It's often when you get in and out of an event or when you need to go to the bathrooms, where you actually probably have your highest risks, not when you're sitting down."

To highlight the effectiveness of zoning in crowds at large events, Bennett used the example of a positive case attending the Melbourne Cricket Ground in December last year, where only the people in the zone around the case had to be tested and isolated.

"It's about containment of the virus, but it's also about containment of the disruption to individuals after the event," she said. "People who know they are in a different zone, they're not impacted. That's a really good thing as well, because it can take people out of work to go and get a test and isolate until they get a result."

The only concern Bennett expressed in regards to Bluesfest's free-flowing movement was in regards to the access of amenities.

"It's often when you get in and out of an event or when you need to go to the bathrooms, where you actually probably have your highest risks, not when you're sitting down," she said.

Bennett clarified that music festivals were not necessarily riskier for infectious diseases than sport events of the same scale, despite sport crowds being given greater leniency with capacity, running up to 100% in certain states.

"The whole thing with both music festivals and the football is that people are vocalising and maybe there's a bit more vocalising, depending on the circumstances," Bennett said. 

"Maybe you're gonna sing through the entire set of songs if you're at a festival, but it depends on the festival. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn't. People boo and cheer at the football. So it really depends on the nature of the event."

Licensed by Getty

“It is that participation and that vocalising that can add another level of risks, just because you're more likely to produce the vaporised particles that might travel further than the standard one and a half metres we worry about.”

Both Peter Noble and Ben Tillman did not wish to discuss the possibility of, or what they would do if a snap outbreak of COVID-19 occurred around their respective festivals. Noble refused to discuss it outright, telling MTV Australia he would not answer any more questions about COVID. Tillman acknowledged the existence of contingency plans in case an outbreak or tightening of restrictions did occur, but did not wish to comment officially on what they may be. 

When Australia’s overseas borders come down, with the potential for the virus to recirculate in the community, Bennett pointed to solutions like requiring proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test for entry to festival-size events.

“I know there's controversy about it because people argue that's a way of mandating vaccines, but at the end of the day, vaccines are a known way to prevent risk,” she said. “I think it gives us more options earlier in terms of running these, what are from an infectious disease point of view, higher risk activities.”

How important is this to the Australian music industry?

On the micro level of the two individual festivals, costs involved with implementing COVID safety measures will make turning a profit almost impossible. But both Peter Noble and Ben Tillman acknowledge the macro role of setting a precedent for the music industry.

“The cost of doing everything we've got to do is just, it's ridiculous, crazy. I don't even know why we're doing it.”

“I feel a responsibility to everybody,” Noble said. “To my staff, who look to me at times, like, ‘Are you going to pull this off?’ To the musicians and the agents and the managers who all said, ‘Yeah, we want to be a part of this, but do you really think it's going to happen?”

“[If it’s successful] we will have shown the industry that you just have to be proactive, get out there and put your events on, do them safe. Nobody's perfect. Somebody is going to make a mistake somewhere, just don't make the major mistakes. So our industry can look at it and go, we found a way back ourselves.”

Tillman is more demure about his aspirations for a successful Yours & Owls festival, which he said would be lucky to break even.

“If we can keep even we're stoked pretty much. But the cost of doing everything we've got to do is just, it's ridiculous, crazy. I don't even know why we're doing it. I think it's just important, and we want to get it out of the way and be able to just move on,” he said.

“At the very least, people are going to be able to look back on this and tell their grandparents, grandkids that we went to a festival in the middle of a global pandemic. That’s pretty cool.”

Byron Bay Blues Festival will go down at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm outside Byron Bay from April 1-5, with tickets available here. Yours & Owls Festival will go down on April 17-18 at Dalton Park, Wollongong, with last tickets available here.

Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.

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