Music Festivals in Australia

mfg183_frontcoverby Richard Letts. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 3 (May 2012)

The musical world is driven by passion. The passion is there to hear and see in the performances of the musicians and in the people who present them. With a pub gig, you can guess what it’s about. With a festival, it’s clearer: a lot of program decisions have to be made and there is almost bound to be a philosophy at work, often described in the press by the Artistic Director.

The May 2012 edition of Music Forum takes Australian music festivals as its theme. We have put together a list of 350 Australian music festivals. Who knew there is such an astonishing number? Many of them present just one genre of music, some present multiple genres. Already, in that simple division, we can see two types of passion, one that finds musical depths through a special interest in one musical style, the other that takes a multiple view of the world.

Ten people were invited to write about the festival they organise or with which they have strong familiarity. Ten out of 350 only just begins to be representative. Nevertheless, we can see that each of these festivals is a particular world. The highest value may be place in the music in itself, or music may also be a means to other ends such as social integration, or profit or fame.

In some of the festivals, the only performers are the professionals; in others, the audience also makes music through workshops or busking or even on stage – for example, the National Folk Festival, Woodford, Fairfield, Tamworth. Some festivals are special meeting places for the musicians, who may be playing for each other as much as for the audience; Wangaratta comes to mind. BigSound is associated with an industry conference so the business side of music is also important.

What do festivals do for the communities that host them? Do they help to build the musical life, or do they create a level of excitement and quality that leave the rest of the year bereft? Our writers for festivals in Adelaide, Wangaratta, Tamworth, Bermagui have something to say about that. Some depend upon volunteers as organisers and as might be expected, this is the case with smaller festivals – but also, surprisingly, with some of the very largest. In the case of Tamworth, the programming is not by a single management but by many, both professionals and amateurs, cooperating.

Most carry a torch for a particular musical genre. While the Adelaide Festival covers many art forms and musical genres, our writer describes its continuing special strength in opera. But you won’t hear any opera at the Tamworth Country Music Festival or country music at the classical Four Winds Festival.

At the Four Winds Festival, alongside Western classical music you will hear art music from other cultures, and at the folk festivals, which 30 years ago were all about Australian folk music in the Anglo-Celtic tradition, there is now folk music from all over the world, brought here by our immigrants. Womadelaide presents top flight world music performers from other countries and from Australia, immigrants and native-born.

There is much more to be gleaned from the festival descriptions. Consider, for instance, the language used. But what does the audience take away? Packer and Ballantyne’s research found that for young people, festivals are more than entertainment: they can be life changing.

Peter Phipps describes the special importance and potential of festivals for the Indigenous community, and Jessie Lloyd makes some comments about the appropriate way for non-Indigenous festivals to include Indigenous music. Moshtix surveys the financial situation and we read the funding objectives of Festivals Australia.

The articles listed here are available to members of the Music in Communities Network.  For information about becoming a member, see


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