More bang for your Big Day Out buck: crowds at this year's event in Sydney. Photograph: Damian Shaw/AAP Image
As we near the end of the year, we can begin to cast about for what will define 2013. The birth of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's child perhaps? Macklemore's continually regrettable presence on Earth? For some Australian music fans, however, such stories of massive international importance are overshadowed by the shambles surrounding high-profile festivals in Australia. The narrative has been growing as the year has progressed: Australia’s music festivals are in terminal decline, and not worth the ticket price. We’ve had the cancellation of Harvest, and of Homebake. And then on Sunday came Blur’s withdrawal from Big Day Out citing “shifting goalposts and challenging conditions” from the festival organisers.
I remember being at Big Day Out earlier this year; in the crowd for Animal Collective, dancing with strangers to My Girls. We had a spontaneous moment of connection; the kind of experience that couldn't have happened anywhere other than a festival. That kind of psychedelic euphoria is more prone in environments like Meredith or Golden Plains – that it happened at Big Day Out, of all places, was kind of a surprise to me too. But maybe it speaks to the evolution of more mainstream festivals.
And yet all I ever hear these days is that Australian festivals are intolerable; people revelling in their much-prophesied doom. It establishes a cycle in which the negativity makes people less inclined to buy tickets, festivals get worse due to failing sales, and then a new round of "Festivals are dying!" hysteria begins. It's alarming, because regardless of how big a Blur fan you are, if we lose festivals like the Big Day Out, then we're all screwed.
No other live music experience in Australia offers anywhere near the same value. A Big Day Out ticket for next year will run you $185. That’s admittedly pretty steep for most folks – especially, perhaps, for young people contending with an unstable job market and the challenge of paying bills for the first time in their lives. But given the calibre of bands Big Day Out attracts, the ticket remains a bargain.
The evidence is in how much the headliners require for their sideshows these days: stadium rock bands go from anywhere between $80-160 each. On a purely financial level, then, your choice is between seeing Arcade Fire and Pearl Jam individually, or buying a BDO ticket, seeing both of them back to back, and spending the day before their set with precocious young artists such as Flume, DZ Deathrays, Rufus and Violent Soho, stalwarts like The Drones, Grunge pioneers Mudhoney, or the requisite Pitchfork bands The 1975 and Toro Y Moi.
Wrapped up in the criticism of ticket price, of course, is the notion that the lineups for this year’s festivals are weaker than ever. But while people crow about there being too many festivals, and that there hasn't been a single great lineup in years, that standpoint feels more an issue of taste than hard fact.
It smacks of the same mentality that constitutes good music is whatever you were listening to in your early 20s. So Big Day Out doesn't have Blur – what's the big deal? They haven't done anything relevant let alone good in years, and Damon Albarn's work in Gorillaz is far more interesting anyway. Lineups, much like pop music, are no worse now than they were then. The bands aren't the problem. You are.
Which is not to say that our music festivals are the utopian dream realised; there are legitimate complaints to be made. I don't really like being kettled from stage to stage by a labyrinth of steel fences, for example, and the cost of drinks is exorbitant. There could probably stand to be more shelter and more readily accessible water, as well – although given that many festival goers can barely organise their own circle of friends, we should probably cut a bit of slack to promoters trying to manage resources for 20, 000 people.
These are businesses providing a service, sure, but if you've been paying attention you know festival promoters, at least in Australia, are rarely pocketing millions by skimping on the amount of shade offered.
But if Australian festivals are dying, it's not because the festivals are getting worse, it's that punters might have had it too good for too many years. Promoters are still bringing huge headliners and exciting bands from outside Australia and within, but there's a destructive tendency to conflate bands people don't know with bands who aren't “good”. If AJ Maddah could reunite Powderfinger, Jet, and Wolfmother for the next Big Day Out, would there be so many complaints?
The onus, as ever, is on the festival goer to engage with music long enough to see that there are still plenty of incredible bands playing festivals, and to appreciate what a privilege it is to see so many of them. I know, I know, it's such a drag that you have to get a tan while waiting to see a handful of your favourite bands within the span of a few hours, but I would much rather see festivals as they are now than no festivals at all.