Once upon a time, headbangers ruled Australia’s festival scene. But this year we've been all but snubbed, from Splendour to VIVID, Groovin and beyond. What happened?
At one point in time – specifically from the early 1990s to the late 2000s – heavy music, indie and pop all lived harmoniously at mainstream music festivals. Before the Big Day Out became the biggest date on Australian fezzie-goers’ calendars, for example, it was mostly a rock show: the first edition, held in Gadigal/Sydney in January of 1992, was headlined by the Violent Femmes and Nirvana. The subsequent few editions all had names like Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Ministry, Primal Scream, Hole and Rage Against The Machine billed at the very top of the posters.
Even when the Big Day Out branched out further into other genres, ringleader Ken West and his crew ensured their ears for rock, metal and punk were kept sharp. In 1997, the festival sported Soundgarden, The Offspring and The Prodigy as its three main drawcards – a decently eclectic mix of vibes that undoubtedly led to an eclectic crowd. 2005’s lineup was even wilder, with the Beastie Boys, the Chemical Brothers and System Of A Down headlining. Even the final Big Day Out in 2014 had Flume and Snoop Dogg brushing shoulders with Primus, Deftones and Ghost.
Especially in the 2000s and early 2010s, every festival that didn’t appeal to a niche audience – your Soundwaves and Stereosonics (RIP to both), for example – wanted to be the Big Day Out. Gadigal’s Homebake was the all-local answer to the BDO’s international suite (a role kept today by Garramilla/Darwin’s BassInTheGrass), while Groovin The Moo became similarly iconic when it took the touring festival concept to regional hotspots.
When it launched in 2001, Splendour In The Grass sought to answer the question, “What if the Big Day Out was held in the icy pits of winter, in the middle of a family farm in far-northern NSW?” To do it, they booked Michael Franti & Spearhead, Squarepusher and Pnau to play alongside 28 Days, Frenzal Rhomb, Powderfinger and Something For Kate. The experiment was obviously successful: Splendour even became a camping festival from its second year onwards, and has since grown to become the single biggest music festival in Australia. This year’s edition sold out in minutes, as it typically does, despite Splendour 2022 being nothing short of absolutely fucking disastrous.
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Chris Maric – the man behind the madness at Maric Media – rose to stature as an artist manager at majors like Sony and Universal, and by proxy worked at his fair share of Big Days Out. His first was the 2001 edition, where he was tasked with making sure Sunk Loto kept out of trouble (a terrifying feat, no doubt, with Limp Bizkit, Rammstein and At The Drive-In also billed). Maric says the existent harmony between heavier acts like those and more pop-friendly fare was “a reflection of what was out at the time”, citing “the early 2000s’ nu-metal explosion” as a key factor for a band like Limp Bizkit being booked to headline.
He’s also uniquely predisposed to talk about the difference in crowds between a Big Day Out and something like the rock and heavy-focussed Soundwave: starting with the latter’s Nine Inch Nails, Alice In Chains and Bloodhound Gang-headlined 2009 edition, Maric worked every leg of both festivals.
“The difference in the crowd was very obvious,” he says. “The Big Day Out crowd definitely had more of the Southern Cross tat-sporting bogan, and there was a certain point in the day – kind of late afternoon, something like five o’clock – where [the atmosphere] would turn and the shirts would come off, the tats would come out, beer cartons would be used as hats... It would get a little boisterous and rowdy, and guys would be looking for fights and stuff like that. Just like an afternoon down at the beach. Whereas for the metal crowd, it was about the music.
“I mean, you could see it online – there were always more complaints about schedule clashes and lineups for Soundwave than there ever were for the Big Day Out. I think Soundwave brought out more music fans – like genuine, caring music fans – rather than people who were literally just going for a big day out.”
Incidentally, Soundwave got heavier as other festivals lightened up – an intentional move that had a significant impact on the scene’s prevalence and maintained strength across the 2010s. “It put heavy music front-and-centre,” says Chris O’Brien (general manager at Destroy All Lines, a role he formerly held at Soundwave HQ), “not just for punters but for the [wider Australian music] industry, for media, for radio...
“You know, we never really had presenting partners with Soundwave – we’d go for triple j and they’d ignore it – and even when it was at its peak and it was selling upwards of 300,000 tickets, it was still widely ignored by mainstream media. But as much as that frustrated us, it gave us a lot of impetus to keep going and keep working harder, thinking, ‘Well, we don't need you anyway.’”
That headstrong drive and willingness to take risks made Soundwave the biggest day of the year for headbangers Down Under – it also might be (part of) what killed it in the end, but until then, the festival gave local bands like Northlane, The Amity Affliction, In Hearts Wake, King Parrot, Confession and Parkway Drive enormous legs up, and made household names of international acts like Enter Shikari, mewithoutYou, Trivium, Bring Me The Horizon and A Day To Remember.
In the wake of Soundwave’s axing in 2015 (a 2016 edition was announced but ultimately cancelled), heavy bands looked to the UNIFY Gathering – a metal-tinged camping festival analogous to Splendour – as well as smaller touring festivals like Good Things (which launched in 2018) and the local edition of Download (which also launched in 2018, but didn’t return after its 2020 edition was cancelled). Festivals like Splendour and Groovin also took the occasional punt on mosh-friendly fare, booking what’s becoming lovingly known as “the token heavy bands” for each edition.
Before they broke up last September, Violent Soho were longtime faves of both, performing at Splendour in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2022, and at Groovin in 2014 and 2017. The former also booked High Tension and At The Drive-In for its 2016 edition, the same year the latter booked In Hearts Wake. Groovin 2017 was especially great for punk and metalcore – alongside Soho, we caught sets from Against Me! and Architects – while 2018’s edition had The Amity Affliction, and 2019’s had Regurgitator and Trophy Eyes.
Splendour 2017 had Queens Of The Stone Age as a headliner (as well as Ocean Grove as one of the mainstage openers), while 2018’s joint had The Bronx, Marmozets and DZ Deathrays all play the amphitheatre on day one (while Dune Rats closed out the GW McLennan tent), and 2019’s offered sets from FIDLAR, Slaves and Trophy Eyes.
Speaking to Kill Your Stereo, Ocean Grove frontman Dale Turner looks back at that Splendour ’17 set as one of his all-time fondest memories: “It had always been a dream of ours, to be honest. From the moment we started Ocean Grove, we had this vision that we’d take heavy music to the masses at a festival like that. We wanted to be that anomaly – the band that could slip into the lineup at any festival, where people wouldn’t understand why it works, but it just does.
“I think we were either first or second on, on the mainstage, day one. So it was just like, yeah, 12:30, one o'clock. Was a nice sunny day, so we lucked out there. People were out and about... It was the amphitheatre, which is kind of where people gather when they don't really know what else to do – so there were a lot of people just sort of scattered on the hill when we came out. But they got amongst it really quickly! It made me smile, seeing all these mini-moshes and circle pits start forming right away. I think that was the moment that really sparked it, in my mind, just how big of an impact you can have with a high-energy show when it’s contrasted by a festival that is quite lowkey in comparison. It really makes you stand out.
“The people at those festivals – especially if they haven't been to many heavy shows – they're usually pretty easy to convince that we’re the craziest band they've ever seen. For someone who's going to those shows all the time, they'd be like, 'Oh yeah, that was sick – but I see that every week.' So it's kind of like that level of excitement and shock – and that potential for shock – is just so ready to be captured at a festival like Splendour, where you’re immediately there like, 'Okay, this is going to be great because people don’t know what to expect.' And I love that. I love capturing people in that way.”
Ocean Grove went on to play Yours & Owls and Land Of Plenty in 2019, and last year flipped the script when they were the “softest” band on the Monolith lineup (where they played alongside the likes of Karnivool, Cog and Reliqa). Tanner says its because of festivals like those – and of course Splendour – that Ocean Grove have risen to the scene-leading stature they have: “We've definitely noticed that so many of the fans that we've accrued over the last couple of years have come from those festivals, where people just happened to be there or they were walking by while we played, and after checking us out there for the first time, they went on to be some of our biggest fans.
“You know, they wouldn't have even known about us if it hadn't been for that element of surprise you can only get at a festival. You get this unique chance to be exposed to people who aren't necessarily buying a ticket to see you, and there's every chance you might just grab them and capture them, and turn them into a fan for life. And that's such a cool thing.”
O’Brien agrees that when heavier bands are billed on mainstream festivals like Splendour and Groovin, there’s lucrative potential to capture a new audience. He cites Polaris – a band on his own management roster – as an example of another act primed for such billings: “They have a lot of triple j crossover, so you will get people that attend festivals like that, who will have heard their songs on the radio. And even if they're not enamoured to it, they might see them live and think, 'Oh, I know that song! These guys are great live, I'll check them out on the next tour.’”
Splendour and Groovin both paused operations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when they returned last year, they did so with the “token heavy bands” intact. In addition to Soho, last year’s Splendour had PUP, Amyl And The Sniffers and Bad//Dreems, while Groovin had Polaris and RedHook. Polaris guitarist Rick Schneider beams when he looks back on his time at Groovin, vouching that he too saw punters be converted to the church of metalcore in realtime: “I think at music festivals, once you really get out and about there, all that genre-based stigma and elitism kind of sifts away, and it's more just about having fun.
“I don't think people really understand that until they’re in that situation, in that moment. And that especially goes for heavy music. Because a lot of the people that go to something like Groovin, they'll hear one scream or one chunky riff on the radio and they're just like, ‘Nup, I'm out! Distorted guitar? I don't like it!’ But you put yourself in a festival setting, where you can just kind of hang out with your friends and have a dance, have a jump around, go in a circle pit or two... It opens you up to these things you might never experience if that band wasn't playing on the day.”
Punters at Groovin 2023 weren’t able to have that experience: there were certainly bands that ticked the “alternative” boxes – The Chats, Slowly Slowly, Teenage Joans and Teen Jesus And The Jean Teasers – but nothing you could break out an earnest mosh or wall-of-death to. Similarly, the heaviest band at this year’s Splendour is IDLES, and while they certainly have a lot of pit-primed material in their catalogue, recent festival setlists have steered away from it.
Even more rock-barren were the VIVID Live and RISING lineups in Gadigal and Naarm/Melbourne, respectively. Especially considering the groundswell Turnstile had at Laneway back in February, it’s surprising that 2023 has been such a soft year for Australian festival lineups. Which brings us to our big question: where did all the heavy bands go?
Maric opines that “a lot of it comes down to the relationships between booking agents and festivals”, because that’s what ultimately fuels these events’ lineups to begin with. He explains, “An agent will say, 'Hey, we've got Band X,' and the festival will go, 'Great, we'll take them. And you've got band Y? We'll take them as well.' And obviously bands need booking agents, but there aren’t enough booking agents for all the heavy bands – and if there are, there's really only a small handful that have the clout or the power to talk to a big festival outside and get taken seriously.
“Because it's all about numbers: you could have the best music in the world, but if you don’t have the numbers to back it, the promoter isn’t going to put you on the show. Say, for example, you have an international band that needs to sell 3,000 tickets for a show to break even, and they're at 2,500 sales by the cutoff – then the promoter goes, ‘Okay, we need a local band that can bring in 500 payers.’ It's not a question of, 'Who's the most suitable for this show, musically?' It's, 'Who can bring us the people that aren't coming otherwise?’
“It's kind of the opposite to how it was a generation ago, when a support slot was meant to be a leg-up for that band. Now it's the other way around. So I think having the token heavy band on the not-so-heavy festival might not be needed anymore, because the festival is going to sell out anyway, or they're going to have their good numbers without them. It’s not actually a reflection of whether the bands themselves are any good.”
Maric also questions the longterm viability of tokenised heavy bands. “I think it's a great thing at face value,” he says, arguing, “If a band can get on a festival that exposes them to fans that would otherwise never hear them, that's only a good thing... But is it a sustainable thing? It's kind of like when straight-up metal and thrash bands come to me and go, 'Hey, can you get me on triple j?' And it's like, 'Well outside of The Racket, no, I can't.' And they go, 'Why not?' And I'm like, 'Well, go listen to triple j between 4pm and 6pm, and tell me: between which two songs there is your song going to fit right in? And even if they played it, none of your fans are listening to triple j.
“To a certain point, it's the same kind of thing – you put a heavy band on a non-heavy festival, and sure, the numbers might go up and people check it out, but is it sustainable? It's kind of like window shopping. It’s the same as how Spotify works: you can put one big single out and have your monthly listeners go up, but unless you retain those people and get them to follow you, the next month, when those numbers reset, they go back down to fuck-all because you haven't managed to capture anyone. So having a band like Polaris on Groovin The Moo, that's great – it definitely looks good for them – but how many people that went are now Polaris’ biggest fans?”
Smaller, more “boutique” festivals that appeal directly to heavy music fans – namely those like Good Things and, starting this year, Knotfest – also negate the need for bands in those genres to try their luck getting poached for more genre-neutral bills. Knotfest Australia launched back in March to sold-out crowds in all three cities it visited (Naarm, Gadigal and Meanjin/Brisbane), and O’Brien says he and his team at Destroy All Lines are currently “in deep discussions [with the overseas Knotfest team] about bringing it back”. He’s also looking into relaunching Full Tilt, a festival similar to Good Things that he says there’s “a gap in the market for” in the mid-year period.
And of course, Good Things will return for 2023, with its lineup slated to arrive in just a few weeks from now. O’Brien beams that he’s “really, super excited” about this year’s lineup, which he teases should “get a lot of people pumped”.
Even settings festivals to the side, live heavy music is thriving in Australia. Polaris will make their headlining debut in Australian arenas this September, with a similar-sized tour from Pierce The Veil and Beartooth kicking off next month, and one from Ghost on the cards for October. Smaller, but equally exciting tours coming up include headlining runs from Electric Callboy, La Dispute, Dance Gavin Dance, Cattle Decapitation, We Came As Romans, The Acacia Strain, Bury Tomorrow, Liturgy, Void Of Vision and Windwaker. And that’s just Destroy All Lines’ roster – one of dozens of stacked touring slates currently active in Australia.
Ultimately, we do hope that heavy bands are given more chances to shine on mainstream festival lineups. But whether or not they do, Australia’s love for heavy music will never die – we won’t fucking let it.