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The Wizards of Oz: A Conversation with the Founders of Splendour in the Grass

on July 21, 2016, 1:00am

Sometimes Australia, with its beaches, low-crime levels, and 40 KM speed limit, can seem not of this world … an untouched, faraway island nestled on the moon, perhaps. Other times, with its massively trendy fashion and progressive music scene, it occupies a space in the future — ahead of the curve and inventing it. Splendour in the Grass is very much the essence of what it means to be Australian today. From Friday July 22nd to Sunday July 24th, the lush, green fields of North Byron Parklands will transform into a national musical mecca with over 100 acts across five stages and a slew of seminal artists performing their only Australian tour stop of the year. Some names for your hat: The Cure, The Avalanches, The Strokes, Sigur Ros, and James Blake.

Splendour masterminds Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco actually met at the festival’s current home of Byron Bay. “A pack of my marauding male friends and Jess’ randomly met one day, even though both of us had been in the industry for years,” says Piticco. Three decades later, Splendour in the Grass is celebrating its 16th year. We sat down with the pair to talk about mud, festival trends, and the challenges of working in the music industry.

01splendourlineup feed1 The Wizards of Oz: A Conversation with the Founders of Splendour in the Grass

In your minds, how do Australian audiences differ from the rest of the world?

Paul Piticco: Because we’re an island, and a lot of people haven’t traveled abroad and experienced many countries and festivals before, what the average Australian festivalgoer expects at a festival is a little bit skewed with the reality of what happens in the rest of the world. Sometimes it works in our favor, and sometimes it’s a little bit of shock for them. Most Australians haven’t ever seen anything this scale, of Glastonbury or Coachella.

Jessica Ducrou: Or the conditions. That’s where we have the privilege of being able to attend some of the international festivals. While those festivals have such an awesome charm about them, if we tried to do that in Australia, we would receive so many complaints!

Piticco: The Australian festival culture was built up around Day festivals, like Big Day Out. That isn’t a camping event. You would go to a particular venue with five stages, and you’d see as many bands as you could that day, then go back to your hotel and bed. That was the end of it. Our audiences are yet to adapt to big camping events.

The trends in music festivals are particularly interesting. In the past few years of covering various festivals in Europe, I’ve been chatting to people about camping versus a city takeover.

Piticco: As a music lover, I’ve always found festivals that are city takeovers feel like concerts to me. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s very convenient and practical in a lot of ways. I don’t feel like I’m immersing myself in an experience. Going on the trip of camping makes you organize well in advance; there’s travel to consider, groups of friends. It’s a camping trip. That raises the stakes socially, and expectations start shifting.

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Photo by Bianca Holderness

Jess, you mentioned that you go to a lot of the other festivals so you can see what’s out there and cherry-pick the best bits and offer it to your market. What sparked your love for festivals?

Ducrou: The Big Day Out started in 1991, and Livid Festival had been going in Brisbane for quite a while. As an agent, I would put bands on those shows. Paul would put his bands on those shows. I had started a festival in Byron Bay called Homebake with my partner at the time, and that was really based around a band called Tumbleweed. But Paul and I worked closely on Powderfinger. Paul suggested that because Powderfinger were very popular at the time, why don’t we start a show in Byron in winter with them? Because of the event experience that I already had, Paul’s relationship with Powderfinger, and their size, it seemed like a very obvious thing for us to do, because it seemed like an extension of our simple gigs we would put on.

Piticco: Doing a show in winter too was probably a weird concept at first! Originally a lot of Australian festivals just followed the Northern Hemisphere’s Festival’s lead of putting on festivals in summer. Of course summer in Australia can mean 40 degrees Celsius? I was just kinda curious, I was wondering what the temperature was in summer in the UK, and it was only in the 20’s — a much cooler climate — and I was just thinking well, in Australia it doesn’t even get that cold in winter.

I know you’re both geniuses in the industry, but I know you can’t wield the weather.

Piticco: We’ve tried all kinds of black magic and voodoo! Other than crossing fingers and preparing for rainy weather … 40-45% of the 16 years has been pretty good weather, but the problem is people seem to forget the great weather years much quicker than the muddy years. Those tend to live on in people’s memories for way longer than we’d like them to.

Ducrou: In saying that, they’re incredibly good-natured about it. Last year was challenging. I think comparably to Glastonbury, we’re mild!

So it’s the 16th year of this, too. You’re not new to uncontrollable issues.

Piticco: Sweet sixteen!

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Photo by Stephen Booth

Have all these years in the industry given you the confidence to do what you do now, or is it a never-ending opportunity to keep learning and experiencing?

Piticco: I actually think Jess and I still desire to do the things that we’ve always loved. I don’t get much more satisfaction than standing in front of an audience watching a band. I guess the thing that’s happened along the way is that Jess and I have learned how to scale that up, really from the fundamental effort of putting on a gig in a town hall; it’s similar to putting on festivals — just on a much grander scale. The problem for us is when your music passion turns more into a big business, you’ve got to really focus on bringing your heart and what it is that you started doing it for. That’s always a struggle, but now we’re getting back to what it was all about in the beginning. No two days are ever the same.

It’s difficult working in the business. Having that passion in music, you do get a little jaded sometimes. What allows the festival to expand every year?

Piticco: I think that what made Splendour what it is today is that when we started, we had a beautiful site in Byron Bay, but it was so small it sold out quickly. Which is maybe not the world’s most exciting thing, but relevant to its size. There’s a real culture about it being more intimate, more exclusive, and a little harder to get to. I still think it has a special place in people’s hearts — people do desperate things to get tickets every year! There’s a lot of things that are in the secret sauce of Splendour.

Ducrou: The location of Byron was really important to its identity. Paul and I are always putting experience before budget for better or worse [Laughs]. We should probably be making a lot more money than we do, but we want to invest it in putting on a fantastic festival.

Piticco: For our very first show, we didn’t know what we were doing, but we had sold all our tickets. As we got closer to the show, we realized that we were going to lose money on a sold-out event. The point I’m trying to illustrate is, always, get it right, get the bands right, get the feel right, and get people there and worry about other stuff later!

Ducrou: [Laughs] And then we have to start cutting out flooring and make sure water doesn’t flow through dressing rooms. That’s the most forgiving thing about the process of putting on festivals. You do a lot of learning, and we’ve been lucky enough to even get the opportunity to improve.

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Photo by Bianca Holderness

Changes should mimic the way music is being consumed. If you don’t cater to the current market, you’d be stuck. What is the biggest addition or new change that you feel like you’ve incorporated for 2016’s edition?

Ducrou: We’re always considering how broad we want to make the lineup, what age do we want to appeal to? Are we alienating certain age groups by putting on acts that are too old? People who are 18, 19, 20, are they interested in The Cure? We came out of it on a lineup front with a well-balanced feel and something for everyone. Looking at people who have bought tickets, they’re everyone from 15 to 60 years old.

Piticco: Also, we add a new area every year and always tackle a “village” concept.

Ducrou: The Global Village — we’ve added a stage to that. We really want to show and grow the different music genres in the festival. We have such a large representation of world music at the show, and a new area called Bollywood that is an Indian dance space to do meditation and yoga at, and DJ sets at night.

Piticco: A close second to Jess and I’s passion for music is our passion for food, and that’s something that we’ve developed over the last few years. We’ve really embraced food truck culture, and we’re constantly challenging food vendors to find new and creative things to bring to the site. Another ambition of mine is to break the boundary of what is an installation and what is a brand and trying to make it so you can’t tell a difference, and when you can’t, that’s a real achievement.

Ducrou: Our sustainability program is incredibly important, too. It’s an ongoing battle for us. We are always trying to create a sense of awareness, particularly for people who come to the country from the city. In Byron, sustainability is a big issue.

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Photo by Bianca Holderness

Festivalgoers do expect a festival to keep “green” as such.

Piticco: We’ve tried to put dollar values on used cups, but there are pros and cons with all those models. Ultimately, if you have an audience that’s taught and encouraged to care about the environment, that is the best solution rather than having to clean up after the masses. The more thoughtful and in tune and aware your audience is, the better the systems and easier it becomes. That’s how Jess and I live our lives outside of the festival. The policies we instill at our house are the same that we try and instill at the event.

I hope you don’t expect me to take off my shoes at the entrance then! What band was the turning point this year?

Piticco: [laughs] I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, but Jess and I find it very hard to be satisfied with the lineup. I do think when we tick one of the bands on our bucket list off, it’s a sigh of relief and a high-five. The Cure had been on that list for several years.

Ducrou: And The Strokes who are always on our list!

When you read the lineup, you see: “ONLY AUS SHOW.” How do you manage to wrangle that, and do you feel that level of exclusivity is really important to you?

Piticco: I’d love to hear how you answer this one, Jess!

Ducrou: [Laughs] Australia is a long way to come, and we’re often getting bands out of cycle, so it’s very much a case of us convincing them that they should come. I always find out if they’re playing Fuji Rock, which is in Japan, so they’re already on this side of the world.

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Photo by Stephen Booth

Who are you most excited to watch?

Piticco: The Strokes. The Cure play for three hours, so you could watch 45 minutes, see another band, and catch end of it. Band of Horses are a big moment.

Ducrou: For me, The Avalanches. To have them come back to Australia feels like such a momentous occasion. Sigur Ros are always amazing. Kacy Hill, who we saw at SXSW earlier in the year, we had to twist her arm to get her to this side!

Australia sometimes does feel like it is on the moon, because of the time difference and how long it takes to travel. How much do you want Splendour to grow to where it’s accessible for the international market?

Piticco: To Europe and North America, where most festival audiences naturally are, we’re a long way away. It would be a real endeavor, no matter how good the show is. But the festival market in South East Asia is flourishing, and there’s a lot of cities like Jakkarta and Hong Kong and Singapore with big, active audiences. I would really like to focus on developing those audiences. Now, just make sure you bring the sunshine with you’re here, please!

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