From Barcelona to Arnhem Land, cultural events are changing for the better – and it’s not just the line-up.
Been to any good gigs lately? If you travelled for them, you’re not alone. Between March 2022 and March 2023, 3.4 million Australians went away for a night or more to see a sporting or cultural festival, spending more than $3.5 billion in the process. These figures, surpassing even pre-pandemic levels, are reflected in broader global trends: internationally, demand for cultural tourism is predicted to rise at an annual rate of 14.4 per cent over the next decade. And along with it comes an improved way of doing things.
Garma Festival, Arnhem Land
“Garma” is a Yolŋu matha term for “two-way learning process” and ever since the festival was conceived in 1999 by Yolŋu leaders Yunupingu and his brother, Dr M. Yunupingu, frontman of rock band Yothu Yindi, that’s precisely what the event has strived to foster.
“I was there at the very first Garma,” the musician’s daughter, Dhapanbal Yunupingu, recalled in a speech during the 2018 festivities. “We were only little. There were five white fellas who came. There were no tents, two cars and a barbecue.”
Today, more than 5000 festivalgoers are immersed in traditional Yolŋu storytelling, miny’tji (art), manikay (song), and bunggul (dance), as well as the Garma Key Forum, where community leaders, politicians, First Nations people and guests on Yolŋu land can come together for four days in the spirit of truth-telling and change. It’s this last concept that holds the ability to bridge the gap between life in remote communities and the policy decisions that influence it. “What unfolds at Garma reverberates around the country,” says Denise Bowden, Garma Festival director and Yothu Yindi Foundation CEO. Important business deals are brokered here, such as the agreement between the Gumatj Corporation and Rio Tinto in 2017 that would see the first Aboriginal-owned and -operated mining venture on Traditional Custodian land. Garma employs more than 160 Yolŋu people and delivers about $15 million in economic benefit to the Northern Territory, much of which stays in the local community.
Crucially, as Dhapanbal explained, the festival is about the passing on of cultural knowledge. “People will come every year and go back to their homes with their stories, with their experience, with their love, with their joy, with their happiness – with what they have learnt here.”
Øya Festival, Oslo
During summer in Norway’s capital, the sun doesn’t set until well after 9pm. At Øya Festival, a four-day musical extravaganza held in a tree-lined field on a hill overlooking the city, sunset is a signal that the party is just getting started. While impressive, the festival’s pedigree (in its 24-year history, acts such as Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Cure, Kanye West and Lorde have performed) plays second fiddle to its aim of being close-to-zero-impact.
A 2017 report from Waste 360 found that Coachella festival in California produced an estimated 1600 tonnes of waste per year (though it has since made some strides towards sustainability). In contrast, Øya has been heralded by the A Greener Festival Awards as one of the greenest events in the world and boasts a slew of other accolades, including the 2022 Eco-Lighthouse National Award. The fossil fuel-free festival has been running on renewable energy since 2009 and machinery used to construct the grounds – where 70,000 punters party each year – run on biofuels. Waste is hand-sorted (about 60 per cent is recycled for new products) and single-use plastic is banned so beer cups are washed and reused and a raincoat rental system replaces the emergency poncho. Organisers hope that by proving it’s possible to tread lightly with an event of this magnitude, they might inspire others to do the same.
Ability Fest, Melbourne
Describing itself as a “gleaming benchmark for the wider event industry”, this joint project from the Dylan Alcott Foundation and Untitled Group was initially launched by Alcott in 2018 to raise money for children with disabilities. Fast-forward to 2023 and just shy of $500,000 has been raised. Accessibility is the linchpin of every behind-the-scenes decision organisers make: there are earbuds for blind patrons that guide them around the event space; quiet areas for those with sensory needs; a ground that is entirely floored for those with mobility issues to navigate with ease; Auslan interpreters on every stage; and custom vibrating suits for the deaf and hearing-impaired, which allow people to feel the music throughout their bodies. In addition, carers of people with disabilities can enter for free, solving the prohibitive cost issue for patrons who are usually required to buy multiple tickets.
“We want absolutely every single event around the world to be like Ability Fest,” Alcott has said. “The way to do it is to listen to the lived experience of people with disability. We know what we need.”
Primavera Sound, Barcelona
There’s more to the 50/50 gender split in the line-up at Primavera Sound than feminist ideals. Equity is baked into this event’s ethos. “When you have a lot of women and people from diverse backgrounds in your company, it’s probable that they have felt unsafe and have felt scared going home afterwards. When they are able to work on the other side of the business, they think about that and create the kind of festival they want to attend,” Marta Pallarès Olivares, head of press at the Barcelonabased music festival, told a 2023 United Kingdom parliamentary committee examining misogyny in the music industry.
The commitment to equal representation of male and female artists has made headlines but there’s ongoing work within the event to scaffold that decision. Since 2019, Primavera Sound has partnered with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Campaign, which seeks to improve a number of social and environmental responsibility metrics.
The Nobody is Normal campaign, also launched in 2019, includes installing educational touchpoints around the event, as well as ensuring there are avenues for reporting gender-based violence or discrimination. The Primavera organisers say they’re acting to “raise awareness of and take precautions against aggression and harassment towards those people who challenge gender stereotypes”.
Image credit: Melanie Faith Dove, Pål Bellis