Over this past weekend the Sydney suburb of Cronulla played host to the boutique festival, Sounds of the Suburbs. Now in its fourth year, the event is thriving and literally bursting at the seams – proudly boasting a ‘Sold Out’ sign before the event had even begun.
If you were to look at the landscape of Australia’s boutique festival market in 2016, you’ll see it blooming just in time for summer, but just a few years ago the outlook was very different. For a while it seemed that boutique festivals would be cancelled almost as soon as they were announced…and if they made it through their first, they rarely made it to a second.
As thousands of people were working through their hangovers and temporary tinnitus, from watching acts like DZ Deathrays, Alex Lahey and Peter Bibby, we caught up with Aaron Girgis and Jack Irvin; two key members of the festival’s team. Aaron and Jack talk to us about what they’ve done to keep Sounds of the Suburbs going.
The Neversphere: This year’s Sounds of the Suburbs happened just this weekend. How did it all go down?
Aaron: Well, I think this is testament to the quality of people at the event, the rain hit pretty hard this year. It was a big stuff up on my behalf…but we actually had to close a stage down. The P.A packed out, all the bands on that stage were left in the dark and the crowd were left standing around with nothing. The whole festival was shut down, but we didn’t get one complaint.
Now one person put a tweet up, not one person put something on our Facebook. We had it fixed in 40 minutes and everyone was happy again. I think that’s pretty unique. They were just supporting what it is – a grass roots type festival, and those hiccups happen.
The Neversphere: When does organising start for the next year’s event? Is it literally the day after the festival wraps up for the year?
Jack: That’s probably what we’re meant to do. Every month you’re like ‘Ok, now I’m going to start, I’ll do the artwork’ this year I don’t think we started until…well…the artwork was real late…
Aaron: That’s Jack’s fault.
Jack: Yeah, I do the artwork. I kind of wait for the energy of all the bands on the line up just to get the ball rolling and see what the deal’s doing to be, then I kind of go from there.
Aaron: Maybe it’s my fault then [laughs]. This year we had a couple of issues with some bands where the talks went on for too long, then right at the time when we needed to lock it in it fell through. But thank fuck we have good relationships with booking agents in Australia, and the bands themselves.
The Neversphere: Boutique festivals went through a bit of Dark Age with so many being announced, then only adding their bones to the pile. With events like Sounds of the Suburbs, it feels like there’s a new there’s a new acceptance for smaller festivals, are you seeing that?
Aaron: We’ve been doing Space 44 now for 5-6 years. Space 44 is a little art gallery in Cronulla that came from the fact there wasn’t much to do around here; there were a lot of kids who wanted things to do without going into the city. Then we got this opportunity to open Space 44. We always wanted to put on our own festival so we did in our back laneway. We’ve had council and police support since day one…We’ve been lucky in that sense.
Jack: Since the beginning we’ve worked with people like the police and the council. We’ve constantly had good communication with them telling them what our goals are and what we want to do. They’ve always been supportive. I think just knowing is enough for them. If they didn’t know what we were doing I don’t think it would go down as well.
The Neversphere: There is a vibe from the artists on social media that it’s a fun day at the office for them. What steps do you take to keep the artists happy?
Aaron: There was one thing we realised in the first year. We made proper backstage area, then we realised none of the artists used it. Which is pretty cool – we must have put on a rad festival if the artists don’t want to hang out backstage.
Then the next year we went with this open floor plan for the backstage area, where we just had an open rider for everyone, they loved it. The third year we booked pretty big bands and though that we should re-build a backstage area so we did. It was a waste of time and money – no one used it, again.
A lot of the bands already know each other on the line up. I wouldn’t say we’re like Splendour where it’s like a 5 star hotel backstage, but there’s something about our festival where the artists don’t seem to need or want that.
The Neversphere: You’ve made it to your fourth year. How has Sounds of the Suburbs gone down over the years, what is it about your baby that you are the most proud of?
Jack: I feel like the line up we always get seems to be fairly unique compared to other events in Australia. Also, the fact that we’re doing it in Cronulla; a suburb away from the city. Cronulla had a bad reputation 10 years ago, so I feel like we’re doing a good thing and we’re doing it in our own style.
Aaron: I just trip out that we’re allowed to do it. I don’t think a lot of people would be allowed to do this where they are…
The Neversphere: Yeah, I can’t see it happening in like, Roseville…
Aaron: The first year was pretty much the biggest event other than Spring Fair that we have every year at the mall. That was probably the first big event since all that shit went down ten years ago. So there was a big police presence that first year but there wasn’t one incident. Since then the police and council have just trusted us.
The Neversphere: Plenty of suburbs out there need a festival, what’s the plan with expanding?
Aaron: Well, we’ve actually had offers to go interstate but I don’t think we’d ever go into a venue that has a pre-existing bar and infrastructure set up – that’s too easy. We want to go into areas and activate something where we can do all our own artwork on site and keep it super Sounds of the Suburbs.
The Neversphere: So, for anyone who was previously too scared to put on a boutique festival but now they’re feeling the a call to it, what heads up have you got for them?
Aaron: I guess…stick to your audience and stick to your branding. I always compare it to a band going in to write an album. Don’t write an album to impress radio, write it and if it’s good radio will come. Same deal with your festival. If the media support comes that’s sick, but don’t rely on that alone to sell your festival out. At the end of the day if it doesn’t sell out it’s not their fault.
Jack: We really want to put on a festival that we want to go to; Something that we’d be happy to be at.
Aaron: Yeah, and I think more to Jack’s point, if you look at our bar prices, most festivals will have a beer for $11. We hate that, so we aren’t doing it at ours. It’s other little things like that that make it Sounds.