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May 1, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Festival Fever

Published 5/4/11 in Farrago‘s ‘Batmania‘ blog

So, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) has rolled back into town. Since event-clogged Melbourne may soon fall over due to the dynamic width of its own puffed-out chest, I ask an important question – are Melburnians festival whores?

There’s the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. The International Flower Show. The Writer’s Festival, the Queer/Underground/International/French/German/Japanese Film Festivals, and countless music festivals all featuring the same amount of barely dressed teens with scorching sunburn. We can eat, drink, dance, read, write and watch ourselves silly, and all in a festival format, which goes a long way towards supporting the claim that we are more bohemian than Sydney. It all has the potential to go too far; one morning we may wake up in someone else’s exhibition centre and not remember the last event we went to, or which festival we took home for a hedonistic, event-attendance orgy.

But there’s good reason why so many festivals pop up here; we actually go to them, more than ever. Australian Stage noted that attendance for the MICF was up 15% last year to a record 508,000, with 425,000 paid attendance. The festival bills itself as ‘one of the three largest comedy festivals in the world’, alongside Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. In comparison, attempts to search for any type of information about the attendance records for Sydney’s International Comedy Festival produces a flat ol’ nothing, suggesting that either the organisers didn’t work out the statistics or, more likely, the statistics weren’t quite impressive enough to go blaring out on the publicity loudspeakers. And it’s difficult to compare us to other state capitals, since the populations differ widely and each have their own niches. The Adelaide Fringe Festival, for example, sold 344,000 tickets (and for a population of around 1.2 million, it’s still a pretty solid effort).

Meanwhile, the 2009 Melbourne Fringe sold over 540,000 tickets, a 42% increase on ticket sales in 2008. (And before I get jumped on about ratios, I’m not going to launch into any overtly analytical study in my attempts to argue that Melburnians may fornicate more often, hence producing more children, which increases the population but decreases the amount of people able to attend the kinds of Fringe comedy shows where vagina jokes regularly make an appearance.) Melbourne’s main drawcard, it seems, is that it is an “events capital”.

A case in point is the Big Day Out festival, which sells out on a regular basis in Melbourne. Festival organisers usually reward us with the day of all days, Australia Day, to go and listen to new (and old) acts out in the showgrounds, while we are blasted with dust and dirt. Sometimes we even get the only-on-extra-hot-days sprinkler tent, a device that offers the guys an easy way to judge which girl wins the wet T-shirt contest.

But here’s where it all goes pear-shaped (and where I misquote Spiderman): with great success comes great marketability. An article in Meanjin this quarter by Lorin Clarke laments the way the MICF has lost its more grass-roots appeal, preferring to bring in the big names instead of engaging with participants “in an effort to encourage risk-taking and invite audiences to feel part of something bigger than a corporate entertainment package”. That’s not to say there aren’t some great smaller acts out there (and by smaller I do mean small – check out Imaan), but with a showing time like 11.30, a show like Imaan’s hasn’t got a chance of really standing out in comparison to big-name acts with commercial cred like Arj Barker, Carl Barron and Fiona O’Loughlin. Still, it’s encouraging to see that Imaan’s second show produced a full house on a Saturday night, and for a show that barely starts before midnight. It’s a sign that Melburnians aren’t just going for the big shows; they might be a huge crowd-puller, but often people might stick around for something smaller. Cheap tickets (an average of around $25 a ticket for last year’s shows) also makes it easier to take a punt, and given the proliferation of pokies venues around Australia, it’s hard to imagine us as anything other than gamblers.

But it’s still a head-scratcher as to why Melbourne in particular is so addicted to festivals. Sure, all the other state capitals have festivals, but Sydney can’t seem to hold its own against the eagerness with which Melburnians patronise these events. Is it to do with our semi-bohemian, latte-sipping culture? If Sydney is the place to be, is Melbourne making up for a distinct lack of Sydney Harbour Bridge-ness by gorging on festivals? Or is it simply that, since we have nothing more attractive than Federation Square to look at, we aren’t distracted by Darling Harbour and can utilise our time ignoring Melbourne landmarks by seeing other people, you know, doing stuff?

It’s here I should probably state that I’m not actually having a go at Sydney-siders. It’s a stylish city with sleek looks and killer appeal to tourists. But Melbourne has born the title of ‘festival whore’ for quite a few years now, and I’m beginning if it our addiction to festivals will ever wear off. For festival’s sake, I hope not.


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