Bluesfest Byron Bay, 2018

April marked the 29th anniversary of Byron Bay Bluesfest, Australia’s Contemporary Blues and Roots Festival. From a modest crowd of 6000 people in 1990, the five-day festival now attracts 100,000 revelers each year and some of the world’s biggest music acts. Bluesfest has clearly grown in size over the last three decades, as has the Australian music festival scene with more and more festivals springing up each year and attracting ever larger audiences. But while Bluesfest has ballooned, it has managed to retain its fun family feel with much less drunken debauchery and less drug related incidences than other festivals of a similar scale. 

As a millennial, I’ve been to my fair share of music festivals over the past 15 years. However, this year was my first Bluesfest and it was a markedly different and welcome experience. It’s no secret alcohol has come to make up a large part of youth festival culture, the day becoming as much about socialising with friends as the music itself. Bluesfest on the other hand, attracts a different kind of festival-goer, one that rightly prioritises the blues over the booze.  

It’s true the average age of a Bluesfest attendee skews older than most of the country’s other music festivals, but it appeared even younger Bluesfest patrons were happy to cut back on their alcohol consumption in honour of the music. Gerard Duffy of Brisbane commented, “It’d devastate me not to remember in vivid detail seeing Robert Plant play the music I grew up on, and with one too many beers that’s quite possible.”  

Perhaps this shift in priorities can be attributed to the arts and culture focus of Bluesfest, or perhaps it’s reflective of a broader festival trend. Bonnaroo is a major music festival in the US, headlined this year by Eminem, The Killers and Muse. It is also home to Soberoo. According to the Soberoo community Facebook page, “Soberoo is a group of clean and sober music fans who choose to remain drug and alcohol-free at Bonnaroo and other music festivals.” Available to all patrons, these meetings are free to attend and are 100% anonymous. Average attendance per session is around 50-75 people.

 Global festival Daybreaker takes alcohol-free festivals a step further, hosting entirely sober events. Originating in New York, Daybreaker has been featured in The New York Times and The Huff Post and has expanded to 22 cities including Sydney and Melbourne. Co-founder Radha Agrawal told NBC News she created Daybreaker to see if people were “as tired of alcohol-induced nightlife as she was.” She wanted to recreate the nightlife and festival experience by eliminating alcohol from the equation altogether and providing healthier options such as green juice and tea.

 Closer to home, New Zealand based No Beers? Who Cares! is an organisation all about shifting attitudes around how and why we drink. No Beers? Who Cares! throws monthly parties and mixers and requires a 100% sobriety commitment from its patrons. Founder Claire Robbie as told to the Daily Mail states, “it’s not about giving something up, but seeing how much you gain.”

Which brings me back to Bluesfest; yes, the same punitive measures such as long lines, quota systems, high drink prices, and designated drinking areas were in full effect at Bluesfest, as they are at nearly all international music festivals. But the more significant deterrent to excessive drinking seemed to be the bands themselves. Unlike the usual headliners that tour the summer festival circuit, Bluesfest attracts true music icons, and it seemed to imbue the air with a particular kind of reverence. For many attendees like Gerard Duffy, missing out on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime performance in favour of a few drinks with friends in the beer garden just didn’t seem right.

As the festival scene continues to grow and drug and alcohol consumption continues to be an issue for medics, organizers and attendees alike, perhaps it’s time to introduce a new narrative into festival alcohol restrictions, one that highlights more of what we gain, and less of what we give up.