Written by Erik Skoog
Photos by Charlie Hardy, Claudia Ciapocha, Ian Laidlaw, Mitch Lowe, Bianca Holderness (cover photo), Jess Gleeson
Splendour In The Grass is often referred to as Australia’s Coachella, and while I have yet to go to the legendary southern California festival, I get the analogy. Huge international headliners featuring a wide array of genres, vintage clothing booths, a solid variety of food from all over the globe, and no shortage of places to pose for photos. And of course we can’t forget that heavy emphasis on fashion. But the Byron Bay festival is not just about wide brimmed bars, knee high boots, and fur – Splendour has a lot to offer for every interest. If you’re willing to wander and be flexible, there’s a lot of really great things to discover.
As a whole, everything felt very efficiently run. Waiting time for everything felt like zero in most cases. It took less than a minute or two to get inside the grounds, and with in and out privileges that is huge. Drinks and bathrooms were mostly fine until around 7:00, when it almost became quicker to go back to your tent and use the bathrooms there. Mainstage bars could get congested, and I spent a good 30+ minutes wading through a messy line to buy drinks at the VIP bar right before Childish Gambino on Saturday. But any of the other sponsored bars almost never had any line, or if it did it went quickly. Additionally, you could get most places across the festival very quickly and with multiple entry points to every location, I never felt like things got that congested, save the mass exodus at the end of the night. For 42,000 people a day, I feel like that’s all pretty acceptable.
Cup Disposal Program. Wow. Every festival everywhere needs to be doing this. In short, any drink you purchased over the weekend was given in a reusable cup initially costing $2. This could either be swapped at any bar upon purchase of your next drink, or turned into the redemption booth for one dollar cash. This applies to any cup, including any you picked up, you returned in good condition. Once people clued into how this worked, it was pretty amazing to see groups walking around with these tall towers or giant bags of plastics cups they had found on the ground. After a big set ended, people would swarm in and comb the grass, snatching up cups that had tossed on the ground. Some were returning multiple times and walking away with $200 cash at a time, even going as far as to cover their festival expenses for next year.
I can not state how much I love this. One, it obviously cuts down on waste. Two, it helps the groundskeepers and frees up their time to focus on other aspects of the job. Three, I think it’s incredibly important to get people involved in the whole process. It makes us very aware of how much trash is produced at events like this, but also get them excited about doing their part in cleaning up. As a bonus, I saw a lot of little kids getting involved. That’s awesome. Start them early, plus they get to make their own spending money. Only issue was that it seemed a little too successful, as the wait to redeem cups at the end of the last night easily went over an hour. They could definitely have used more staff members.
Drug Testing. I couldn’t believe it either. Australia of all places, is allowing drug testing on the premises of a music festival. To say the presence of law enforcement at festivals in this country is a little intense would be an understatement. At previous festivals I’ve seen a fairly massive and aggressive police presence including, but not limited to: full car searches, invasive strip searches, sniffer dogs, and groups of armed officers approaching attendees and asking what drugs they’re on. The relationships seems to be very antagonistic and built on a foundation of distrust. Certain festivals have even been classified as “high risk” by the government, and must pay police and licensing fees in order to continue to operate – a decision that was effectively made overnight and already forced some festivals to cancel. Up to this point, it definitely felt like the rules were set and those in charge were going to make damn sure we followed them.
Enter David Caldidott, an emergency medical consultant for the Emergency Department at Calvary Hospital in Canberra (Australia’s capital – not Sydney). In a former life David was just like anyone else in the festival crowd. An attendee, a raver, a punter. Now David’s mission is to keep the culture he grew up in safe. At a widely attended lecture hosted at Splendour’s Science Tent, David went over the testing process and its benefits, providing data, anecdotes, and compelling arguments for the value of testing. He made it accessible and funny, and directed it mostly at those who opposed the practice. And to put words into action, David had a team and tent just by the entrance where people could go to get whatever they had on their person tested.
My only mixed feeling about this is that it’s maybe a little hypocritical to have the testing booth right next to a cluster of police officers and those dogs I’m not allowed to pet, but David said they work in tandem with the police over the course of the event. I’m skeptical, and I know he’s meeting considerable resistance from the powers that be right now. Regardless, it’s a huge step in the right direction. According to New South Wales police there were apparently no hospitalizations this year, and I like to think David and his team had a part in that.
The Tipi Forest – Through the trees, at the bottom of the hill was a persistent rhythmic thumping you could hear in between every single song at the mainstage. Late night electronic bass lines and flashing lights lured in passersby like a bug zapper. Easily the best production the festival had to offer – lasers, smoke machines, fire dancers, tents surrounding the dance floor, and multiple projectors displaying trippy visuals across psychedelic peace hearts. There was a real personality to this stage and the DJs performing acted as a perfect extension of that. From glitch hop to psytrance to dubstep – I was constantly checking the set times in the mobile app to see who was behind the decks at the moment. Lots of soon to be discovered talent out there.
Mae Wilde and “So You Think You Can Burlesque.” I kind of stumbled into this show on Saturday, and liked it so much I went back on Sunday for another performance. Anyone can sign up and those brave enough were assigned a costume and a song to dance to, neither of which were known ahead of time. Some performers were clearly trained dancers, and some were clearly not, but everyone was equally welcomed and encouraged on the on the stage. It obviously helped that the hostess, the funny, sassy, sexy, and engaging Mae Wilde, was phenomenal – it’s entirely possible I went back just to see her again.
Little Splendour. This section of the festival reserved for families offered face painting, crafts, smaller music acts, and other side performances. I wouldn’t even be mentioning it as I wasn’t allowed in without accompanying a child (absolutely the right move), but my coworker mentioned it gives families their own bathrooms to use to avoid lines, something they can take advantage of even after the area closes down later at night. It’s little things like this that is a testament to the awareness of the organizers. Families will buy tickets if they have somewhere to pee.
But where Splendour really excels is all of the branded side attractions. Every bar had its own DJ set up, it’s own theme, style, and no matter what you were doing, something was designed to entertain you. Some highlights include:
- the Captain Morgan’s Tent – pirate themed (obviously), complete with crow’s nest tables and staff members giving out red pirate hats that were quickly turned into frisbees in the crowds of bigger sets
- the Strongbow Rose Cider Garden – a massive open air dome decorated with flowers and fairy lights
- my personal favorite – the Bonds house party. DJ behind the decks, bunk beds, Mario Kart on Nintendo, a secret passage through the closet, and wall decor that looked like it was taken right out of my room from high school.
- the outdoor movie theater – Free phone charging lockers, popcorn, ice cream, comfy bean bags to curl up in. A pleasant way to chill out in the middle of the day. Plus, I got to watch Moulin Rouge.
- The Iconic Laundromat – this one really should be experienced first hand, but a video will suffice for now. I was really excited to hear that this would be making an appearance at Splendour.
PLACES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The area around the water refill stations became a swamp. Runoff from people filling up their water bottles was largely left untreated over the weekend. This was manageable on flatter areas, where you could avoid the newly formed ponds with a little hop, but other spaces such as the top of the hill at the back of the amphitheater became pretty treacherous. Sawdust, sand, or even completely revamping the apparatus (considering that these appear to be permanent fixtures) would go a really long way.
Production. It wasn’t bad by any means, just super simple. The Tipi Forest was well done and had a lot of fun elements working together to create a unique vibe, but even the mainstage headliners didn’t have much in terms of visuals. I didn’t feel like there was a personality to them. Tame Impala included some fun lasers towards the end, Childish Gambino had a unique stage layout that was really clean and elegant, and worked well for the church aesthetic he had, but I kept expecting more. A lot of people were asking me what festivals in the states were like – that they heard they were next level crazy – and I think the production plays a large part in that. Maybe I’m just spoiled, but I feel that for Australia’s biggest festival, they could step up their game to the next level by investing in some visual effects.
Bag Policy. I get not wanting anyone bringing in massive backpacks – that’s fine. But restricting it to the size of a piece of printer paper is kind of ridiculous. Most standard drawstring bags aren’t even that small. The temperature drops suddenly the second the sun goes down, and people need to pack warm clothes, food, and water inside something the size of an iPad. We were fortunate enough to have a camping spot less than a five minute walk from the entrance, but some folks had a pretty long walk and couldn’t go in and out as easily. Whether or not they enforced the size requirements also seemed to be kind of arbitrary, possibly getting a bag that was being brought in all weekend rejected at some point.
Unless of course, the purpose of this policy is to drive people towards paying for lockers, merch, and food & drink inside the venue, but I can’t imagine why the festival organizers would want that.
STOP LEAVING YOUR TRASH AND CAMPING EQUIPMENT BEHIND BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO LAZY TO DEAL WITH IT. THEY HAVE DONATION BOOTHS AT FESTIVALS NOW. YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD IF YOU DO THIS. Seriously.
Pushing in Crowds. Sorry, Australia I don’t know what it is with you and crowds. Bars, nightclubs, festivals, it doesn’t matter – everyone’s spacial awareness is really low on their list of priorities, if not just non-existent. It takes three seconds to say sorry, excuse me, or give a gentle heads up pat on someone’s shoulder instead of slamming your way through like you’re the Juggernaut going for a high score on an obstacle course.
The Silent Disco Cost Money. We already paid money to get into the festival, don’t make us pay to go see a set.
No Alcohol At The Campgrounds. I’m not sure if this is to try to limit the noise and partying, or to try to drive everyone inside to the bars. Why not both? It’s not like it mattered, since I saw no one getting searched on the way in, and no one inspecting the campsites for alcohol (sniffer dogs coming through would be a different story), but having the rule in place felt like a little much. It’s a music festival…people are going to want to drink at their campsite.
The Midnight. I was told about The Midnight by my neighbors at Electric Forest this year, who said they had stumbled onto their set while wandering around without an agenda. Praised as one of the best sets they saw that weekend, I was disappointed because I had missed out – until I saw their names on the lineup for Splendour this year. It was one of the first time slots on day one, but I’m glad I made the effort. Retro 80’s synth wave, complete with matching visuals and design. Oh and lots of sax solos. Cool stuff.
Dave. A friend here told me this was a “can’t miss.” He was right. I’m not sure under what other circumstances I would have seen the 21-year old UK rapper (not grime I was informed) from London, but that’s the thing about these multi-genre music festivals. I wasn’t expecting the crowd to be packed. He even pulled a fan on stage to help with his big track “Thiago Silva.” Dave has a bright future.
What So Not. I’ve seen the Aussie DJ a handful of times in the past couple years, but this is hands down the best. From his iconic remix of “Innerboom” to sing-a-long “High You Are,” to his rage ready collab with RL Grime “Tell Me;” the vibe, energy, and the crowd was perfect. All accompanied by his live guitarist and a special appearance by Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns, a killer way to close out the festival.
Childish Gambino. It’s really interesting to watch the evolution of Donald Glover’s career. I’m most familiar with him from his sketch comedy days on Derrick Comedy, his standup, and of course Troy on community. I guess a lot of people aren’t even aware of his previous work. I even remember him talking about writing raps on his phone during his Comedy Central special, “Weirdo.” So I’m not sure I really knew what to expect from a Childish Gambino set, which is such a dramatic rebrand that I almost think it’s a character he’s playing. A blend of R&B, rap, and high energy soul, complete with his gospel choir back up singers and five piece band. After having to cancel previous Australia concert dates due to a broken foot, he definitely more than made up for it.
Set Mo – Every once in a while you hear an artist and you’re not sure how you had never encountered them before. Easily one of my favorite discoveries of the weekend. They classify themselves as “sexy disco.” How fun is that?
Slowly Slowly. The high school sophomore in me was ecstatic. Early 2000s punk rock in the afternoon sun. Perfect music festival vibes. Listen to their song “Jellyfish” and tell me that’s not a jam.
- When I arrived at my first night, I initially went to the wrong check in and had a staff member walk me over to where my friends were camping. She even helped me carry my bags. Thought that was a nice touch.
- I was surprised we didn’t have to go through a metal detector, but maybe that’s just my American showing.
- Apparently, this was the first Splendour in a while not to have any rain. Considering how cold it felt at night, I can’t even imagine.
- Speaking of which, how was it so cold??? I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and these temperatures are not uncommon for us, but I still had to wear multiple layers at night just to fall asleep.
- Fire dancers, Amish acrobatically ringing bells, stilt walkers, and drum circle flash mobs were just some of the pop up shows around the festival.
- I guess fan clacking has made its way to Australia too. Cool.
- The Winery is the most efficient way to drink at Splendour. Sure, it’s still overpriced, but you can grab a $45 bottle of rose to split with some friends (or whatever, drink it all yourself) and feel way better than spending $12 on a watered down vodka soda that basically sobers you up while you drink it.
- Right, Chance the Rapper cancelled. How do you not talk about THE headliner not showing up? I didn’t buy my ticket specifically to see him, I feel that Splendour handled it as well as they could. Everyone was informed through the app and social media Saturday afternoon and large signs were posted directing Sunday ticket holders how to proceed with a refund so they should desire. Once upon a time I may have been skeptical about how real it is when a performer cancels due to a sudden illness, especially an overseas act. but considering how many high profile artists have been taking their own lives in the last few years, I have no criticisms towards it and I hope Chance is getting the rest he needs.
Winter in Byron Bay is a really nice time of year. Sure it rains from time to time (and when it rains, it definitely pours) and can get chilly at night, but the days are warm, sunny, and clear. I came here back in March just because it was the next stop people made while traveling up Australia’s east coast. Four months later and I haven’t left. It sounds like that happens a lot to people here.
Splendour really makes an effort to lean into that vibe. Much like Byron Bay, it’s chill, it’s friendly, it’s fashionable – this odd combination of luxurious and laid back. I felt content just wandering around the festival grounds with no agenda, popping into a tent or a set for thirty minutes just to see what was going on and every once in a while take the opportunity to stop and chat with someone for an extended period. Hearing about other sets made me wish I could have been more places at once (SZA, The Lumineers, and Ocean Alley to name a few), but with festivals at a certain point you just have to follow your heart and trust that you’ll end up at the right place.
Having been doing this for almost two decades now, Splendour seems to have a pretty good grip on it’s identity. A little something for everyone. You want to go shopping, you want to take pictures for Instagram, you want to sample cuisine, you want to explore, learn, dance – you’ll find it there. Oh, they also have some killers musical acts. Earlier this year they were able to secure a permanent residency at the North Byron Parklands, and this only further solidifies them as an Australian fixture. Next year is the big 2-0. Should be a good one.