In a massive boon for northern hemisphere music lovers, event staff and general party fiends everywhere, Serbia’s EXIT Festival has taken the crown of this summer’s first major European festival, setting the stage for a massive summer of highly attended events.
The 20th edition of the event kicked off on the 8th of July in Novi Sad, Serbia, with crowds numbering upwards of 180,000 over a four-day period. As a further boost to the viability of the upcoming summer, EXIT Festival officials stated that 50% of four-day ticket holders came from over 70 countries worldwide, indicating a strong willingness to travel post-COVID.
So what does this mean for Australian festivals and events?
Well, it’s complicated. With New South Wales and Victoria plunging into a brand spanking new set of lockdowns, it’s hard to see Australian major festivals coming back in the immediate future until our most populous states can get a lid on things. The Prime Minister’s 4-part plan to lead us out of the pandemic promises that once we see higher vaccination rates we can expect to move on to “phase two”, where lockdowns will only occur in extreme circumstances. But the goal number of vaccinations to trigger our move to phase two is yet to be determined, which doesn’t allow event organisers much in the way of forward-planning.
Even with organisers going above and beyond with their COVID-Safe plans, thanks to ongoing outbreaks, situations can still shift dramatically and rapidly; this year’s Bluesfest was cancelled less than 24 hours before launching as public health officials responded to reports of a single COVID case in the area. Other events have suffered a similar, if not so cruel, fate.
The constant threat of artist cancellation can also be worrying. While EXIT saw a number of artists pull out at the last minute due to pandemic-related reasons, the organisers were able to quickly reschedule with high quality replacements. If an international headliner were to cancel very late for an Australian festival, however, could the organisers offer up a satisfactory replacement? It’s possible, but risky.
Additionally, government response towards events on a policy level has been mixed. Australia’s hard-line stance towards dealing with the pandemic has arguably prevented a higher death toll, such as those seen in Europe, with some nations still seeing tens of thousands of new cases daily. However, this tough approach has seen governments unable to work consistently with event organisers who have developed adequate COVID-Safe plans, as uncertainty continues to loom over snap lockdowns.
Compare this to EXIT Festival who were able to work closely with Serbian government officials to help create the “Safe Events Serbia” safety protocol, allowing large scale events to take place across the country in spite of their (currently) similar case numbers. But with our vaccination rates among the lowest in the world, lagging significantly behind many Western countries such as Italy, the UK the USA and even Serbia, it is hard to imagine our government committing to such a wide-ranging and authoritative protocol at this stage.
Though while our governments have been quick to prevent live events from taking place, financial support has been pledged at both federal and state level; along with the previously publicised federal arts packages, the NSW Government have recently announced a $75m stimulus package for the live music sector actively aimed at “live music organisations impacted by the cancellation of shows due to current COVID-19 restrictions.” Many however would argue this is still “too little, too late” to protect one of the hardest hit industries in the country, with many freelancers and casual crew members having received inadequate support to date.
Ultimately, the relaunch of large-scale events is something to look forward to. There’s no question that when the coast is clear, and events can proceed in a COVID-Safe manner without the constant fear of quick-fire lockdowns, the crowds will be there. We’d like to hope that would be sooner rather than later.
Photo: EXIT Photo Team 2021