Australian neo-soul and hip-hop fans are still picking up the pieces after the late cancellation of the second Soulfest. Short of one week before the slated October festival, the event and subsequent sideshows were canned, citing poor ticket sales. Nearly a month on, Soulfest promoter John Denison is still nowhere to be found, leaving only speculation and reminders of Denison’s faulty track history in the industry.
It’s certainly not the first time hip-hop or R&B festivals have suffered the same fate in Australia. Denison was also behind the troubled Supafest, a dedicated festival of ‘urban music’ cancelled in its third year. There was the 2013 Nas-curated Movement festival, an attempt to make right what past hip-hop festivals had failed to do in Australia, but even that was sadly pulled after artist withdrawal and venue changes.
Despite the troubles of hip-hop festivals, solo stadium tours from the likes of Kendrick, A$AP Rocky and Drake sell out in a matter of minutes. The hip-hop fan base down under obviously exists, but can our market sustain a hip-hop and R&B festival just yet?
The problems in past attempts have been well documented – high-profile artist cancellations, poor ticket sales, visa issues, questionable financial management, some would say overly-ambitious lineups – at this point, it’s understandably a tough gig to rebuild trust from both the audience and the promoters working to bring acts down here. When it comes to ticket sales, fans are checking the history of promoters twice before committing to a show, and that could be underselling our strength as a market for hip-hop. It’s a vicious cycle.
Then there’s Australia’s reputation in the States. In a 2013 interview, Los Angeles-based hip-hop critic Jeff Weiss said Australia lacked the prestige of major hip-hop festivals and wasn’t viewed as a money-spinner for major American hip-hop acts. Weiss says that unlike The Netherlands and Germany, who have shown their dedication to rap music for decades, Australian festivals are “just another concert in a country separated by an 18-our flight.” The physical distance is a factor artists across all genres factor in. If they do make the trek out, the touring circuit here can be pretty limited. There’s Melbourne and Sydney, maybe Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane or at a stretch, a hop over to New Zealand. But compared to the ease of a 20-city Europe tour, you can see why we’re not a priority.
Despite Soulfest promoter, John Denison’s view back in 2014 that Australia can no longer “handle big festivals” when it comes down to it, it’s the long-running established festivals that are well placed to rope in overseas artists. So while hip-hop festivals are notoriously difficult to coordinate and occupy somewhat of a niche market in Australia, it’s interesting to note the increasing number of younger indie rappers turning up on mainstream festival line-ups.
We saw Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt at Laneway 2014, then Vic Mensa and Ratking for Laneway 2015, A$AP Ferg for Groovin’ the Moo and Earl Sweatshirt for Splendour in the Grass in the same year. Childish Gambino, Joey Bada$$, Rae Sremmurd and ILoveMakkonen all made it down for the dance-music heavy Listen Out 2015. And who’s to say we can’t have the hip-hop greats either? It wasn’t that long ago that Nas headlined Sugar Mountain, performing Illmatic in its entirety.
The long-running Bluesfest in Byron Bay brought alt hip-hop acts like The Roots back in 2007, Jurassic 5 earlier this year and despite apparent furor from regular Bluesfest go-ers, Kendrick Lamar will be headlining next year’s festival. While major festivals are still only featuring a handful of rappers on their lineups each year, it’s likely we’ll see more come down via established festivals than boutique start-ups. After all, it’s the long-running festivals with capital and a strong enough reputation that have the best chances at bringing artists out.
It might be a long wait before we see anything like Rock The Bells happening in Australia. Until then, we can more than make do with existing festivals and a reinvigorated local hip-hop scene.