The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Australian Music Festival

It’s been just two days since Aussie music festival Spilt Milk released a rather impressive line-up of international and local acts for this coming November. It’s fair to say eager festival punters, and indeed a large proportion of the internet, have had their minds blown over the announcement that Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), will be headlining the modest Canberra festival. The actor/musician/ writer/comedian/saint/one-man-wonder has broken the internet since the debut of political mega-hit “This is America”. Good luck in that ticket queue.

Gambino will headline alongside a predominantly home-grown line-up, including the boys from Peking Duk, red-headed angel Vera Blue and hip-hop trio Thundamentals. The announcement comes as another highly anticipated festival approaches, the hippie-glitter-infused Splendour in The Grass. Compton rapper and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar, Splendour‘s headline act, will soon be gracing Byron Bay’s parklands next month. Thousands of die-hard fans are eagerly awaiting the rapper’s arrival after falling for his poetic lyrical genius since the explosion of ‘DAMN.’ in April last year.

This is America, Courtesy of Time

With these powerhouse headliners, both Splendour and Spilt Milk have observed the shifting trend in Australians’ taste in music, closely watching those artists who have been smashing records globally, both in the charts and in 2018’s political climate. The importance of recognising this distinct pattern of change comes after the sudden deaths of Big Day Out and Soundwave in 2015. (A moment of silence, please). It was a huge loss for festival enthusiasts, losing the only festivals that hosted the best global rock acts on one stage. Emo kids will reminisce about the days they eagerly awaited to see which of their favourite punk bands made the line-up, ready to wail “Where are youuu?” Tom DeLonge style, or mosh to their favourite obscure Scandinavian Viking metal band.

The first Big Day Out in 1992 was legendary, as Nirvana famously made their debut on our shores. It marked the beginning of hope and lasting glory for the Australian rock scene. Fast forward 20-some years and we’ve witnessed BDO’s downward spiral and eventual demise, grimacing as the festival attempted to stay relevant with Kanye West headlining the 2012 show and Snoop Dog adding to the increasingly muddled line-up in 2014. Pearl Jam and Flume? Seems legit…

Big Day Out, Courtesy of JPJ Audio

While we’re not quite over mourning the loss of promoter A.J Maddah’s holy festivals, it’s obvious that the once-crumbling Aussie festival is in the midst of a much-needed resurrection in the form of a rap revolution. Abandoning ageing rock bands in favour of genre-defining artists like Gambino and Lamar – both of who have shattered chart records in the past two years – festival organisers are pumping new life into the barely-breathing festival culture.

While rock anthems are a timeless art, (I can vouch for that), the dance-inducing beats from this decade’s biggest names in rap are bringing an artistic vision and sound to the remote farm paddocks of Australia. Lamar and Gambino have a similar protest-tone to their lyrics – social discrimination and inequality, racial tension and culture are themes present in almost every song. Lamar’s quintessential album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was a politically-fuelled masterpiece, fused with rap and jazz, and made a statement that ignited global success. Authentic and iconic songs have been written and produced in the space of a year, right in time for the contemporary festival route. 

Kendrick Lamar, Courtesy of Tone Deaf

Yes, there have been void-fillers in times of denial and bargaining. Groovin’ the Moo is there to lend a shoulder to mosh on and Big Pineapple soothes the pain with backyard Aussie stoner rock, but the absence still lingers. Did last years’ Field Day perhaps mark the unofficial resurgence of a culturally relevant line-up? The one-day festival saw the emergence of rap and grime artists who preach social relevance and rap with a conscience. Featuring Grammy Award Winner for best rap album ‘Coloring Book’, Chance the Rapper, and Childish Gambino (again), this year’s line-up also included British grime rapper Stormzy, whose single “Shut Up” has now hit over 78 million views on YouTube.

With dad rock on the apparent fade, this undeniable popularity of a new age of rap is proving to be a saving grace. Coupled with remarkable artistry and diversity (something that’s been missing from our festival circuit) the memories of Big Day Out and Soundwave are being commemorated with reformed and celebrated musical invention.

Splendour goers: don’t forget your gumboots, stay hydrated, be humble.

What are your predictions for the future of the Aussie festival?