Talking Shop: Is St Kilda Festival worth it?

Originally a community festival that showcased local artists the festival is now promoted as the largest free festival in Australia. But why should 'largest' be the sole metric by which to measure its worth to the people of Port Phillip? 

The provocation for the discussion was that the cancellation of the Festival for this year and releasing the $1.7 million that had been budgeted gives a chance to consider its future.

This final Talking Shop drew guests Sarah, Robbie, Aidan, Ella and Judy together with PPP regulars Krystyna Kynst, Rhonda Small and Bill Garner. The participants brought long and diverse experience of the St Kilda Festival. Some knew it from the 1980s, others from their teenage years, one was a regular service provider and another a professional musician.

Those who had grown up enjoying the festival as teenagers said they now found it boring. The main activity for them, if they went at all, was not watching the bands but wandering about. As for most people attending.

Originally a community festival that showcased local artists the festival is now promoted as the largest free festival in Australia. If some local residents enjoy it, that is incidental to its main focus which is to attract visitation. Anecdotally, many St Kilda residents stay away, viewing the event as a massive intrusion. Complaints are commonly lodged with the local State member.

The big thing the St Kilda Festival has going for it is the location. The backdrop of the sea, especially at sunset, is spectacular. It is one of the few festivals over the summer holidays and features on the world's backpacker bucket lists. It is also a safe festival compared with many, especially with the ban on alcohol.

Drawing crowds of up to 400,000 people it is undoubtedly a success if judged only on that statistic.  But why should 'largest' be the sole metric by which to measure its worth to the people of Port Phillip? Is it too big? Does it in any way reflect the character of St Kilda or Port Phillip or is it just another generic music festival plonked down in a great spot? Do large festivals like this support or supplant local arts and culture? Except perhaps for headline acts, festivals are known among artists as chronic underpayers.

So, who is it for? Not for local artists or residents. Tourists. What about traders? It is claimed by some that this is their biggest day of the year. But which traders? Not the traders in Albert Park and Port Melbourne, Balaclava and Elwood. Acland Street may do well, but Fitzroy Street? And how many of the food trucks and stalls that are licensed are from outside Port Phillip? Ultimately, should a single day benefit to a group of St Kilda traders (many of which are also franchisees) be sufficient reason to spend $1.7 million?

Some may argue that the festival promotes St Kilda as a destination. Does St Kilda really need this promotion? And does that outweigh  all other considerations? One of the participants who did reside in an edgier St Kilda feels her life has been appropriated and sold to tourists. Now 'edgy St Kilda' is just a sales pitch, trading on a distant memory of St Kilda as 'cool' when everyone knows the cool places are north of the Yarra. 

Are we stuck with the present festival? Several spoke in favour of a much greater mix of music, including classical, and the substantial inclusion of other arts. And instead of one big festival could there be several smaller festivals, spread out across Port Phillip and throughout the year? This would also spread the benefit more widely among traders. Smaller festivals with varied programs would reflect our very different neighbourhoods. In other places in Australia and around the world such festivals attract visitors precisely for their local flavour. The St Kilda Festival has little local flavour, just a location.

Is one big spend best? Spreading the $1.7 million across Port Phillip and on many days instead of one big day could also benefit more traders. A series of smaller festivals could activate the communities that constitute the city. Shouldn't this be the main purpose of the spend? The monopolist festival has a lot to answer for in inhibiting rather than encouraging the growth of local culture because it does not allow space for something new to develop.

We have many types of musicians and artists across the city but the festival does not serve them. With a bit of imagination there could be dancing in the street, acts from balconies and in people's backyards, live music in public somewhere every night. Where is a Port Phillip City Orchestra? Could the small venues (which are also small businesses) that are the heart of the local music scene be supported and could the City's public venues be made more accessible and affordable?

The COVID future means the present character of the St Kilda Festival is unsustainable. 2022 will not magically see a return to what it was, with huge crowds packed together. Such festivals are dinosaurs. With physical distancing continuing indefinitely people will move into the streets with more outdoor dining which will provide another opportunity for distributed music and performance. We could use the $1.7 million to activate the community, not just bring in tourists.  Whatever, the COVID future means the present character of the St Kilda Festival is unsustainable.

Is $1.7 million a reasonable amount to spend on a single day's entertainment? It is a big whack of the City's budget. It represents $3 out of every $100 in the CoPP budget, compared to the 86 cents per $100 spent on social housing. But spread over many days, with a community orientation could be popular and deliver a more acceptable result. The money is still there as it has been quarantined following the cancellation. A starting point would be to integrate the festival within the general arts budget. This would create a new framework for justifying expenditure on the festival in relation to other cultural programs. Why should it have a separate budget line?

So who decides?  Who is determining the festival's current and future character? It seems there's a bit of an empire within Council with a team managing it from months out. How do we engage that body with fresh ideas? Raising the St Kilda Festival as an election issue is one way. Another is to demand a citizen say in the festival planning for 2022.

We ended on a call to action. It was decided to Zoom again with a view to developing a strategy. COVID creates the opportunity. Now is the time.