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Dark Mofo is just the start of a cancellation-fest


September 25, 2023 — 7.30pm

Dark Mofo’s announcement last Friday that it would not be staging its 2024 event triggered an anxious response in the festival sector.

David Walsh’s eclectic and controversial winter festival has unintentionally served as a barometer for the COVID-vulnerable industry. It was the first festival in Australia to announce in March 2020 that it wasn’t going ahead due to COVID concerns. This recent decision is yet another worrying, though unsurprising, indicator of the health of the festival industry.

Dark Mofo in Hobart is the latest major Australian festival to be cancelled.

Dark Mofo in Hobart is the latest major Australian festival to be cancelled.Credit: Christopher Pearce

The announcement arrived hot on the heels of the cancellation of This That, a music festival scheduled for later this year in Newcastle and Sandstone Point in Queensland, featuring a solid line-up of Australian acts including Gang of Youths, The Presets, Peking Duk and Alex Lahey. It was also cancelled in 2022 due to a “a combination of issues”, including labour shortages, difficult economic conditions, and “ballooning” insurance premiums and infrastructure costs, alongside predicted extreme weather conditions.

If anything, the impact of these issues has only worsened in the past year.

Last month, as the director of Newcastle Writers Festival, I attended a meeting with colleagues from Australia and New Zealand held on the eve of Byron Writers Festival. I observed that “the festival model is unsustainable” in the current economic climate. No one disagreed. The mood at the meeting in the church hall in Bangalow was sombre. We had been discussing the steep and relentless rise in costs – catering, staging, travel, accommodation – when most of us are yet to experience a return to pre-COVID audience numbers.


The most recent Creative Australia Audience Outlook Monitor, released in August, showed that only around four in 10 arts organisations had rebuilt their audience to 2019 levels.

The impact of the pandemic lingers. The intellectual, emotional, and logistical investment in festival programs that were never realised has taken a toll. The drying up of essential government COVID support, which temporarily bolstered festival coffers, has hit hard.

Audiences are also unpredictable. The Audience Outlook Monitor showed that last-minute decision-making persists, with 13 per cent of audiences reporting they booked the last event they attended on the day of the event, 22 per cent in the week leading up to it, and 15 per cent one to two weeks before. These statistics are panic-inducing for a festival organiser.

There is also an exodus from the sector of experienced production and programming professionals who have had enough of the mediocre pay, short-term contracts, and ongoing funding uncertainty. And as we saw with the muddy mess that was the 2022 Splendour in the Grass festival and the recent Burning Man quagmire in the US, climate change and the increasing regularity of severe weather events is also of grave concern to festival organisers. As I’ve said before, we’re one east coast low away from annihilation.


Why do all levels of government need to urgently pay attention? It is well-documented that festivals are key drivers of economic activity and tourism, especially in regional areas. It’ll be a bleaker than usual winter in Hobart without Dark Mofo. Businesses will suffer.

I travelled on a packed plane to the festival in 2022. The guy seated next to me was wearing a bright blue faux-fur coat and travelling with a group of five friends. They were planning to party non-stop for a long weekend. My group of eight friends dined out most meals over four days. We would have spent $15,000 once flights, accommodation, meals, tickets, shopping, and car hire were added up.

More significantly, artists lose out when festivals are cancelled or falter. Festivals provide a platform for emerging artists and invaluable opportunities to make industry connections. Emerging regional NSW writer Cadance Bell largely funded the promotion of their debut book by recycling plastic bottles (publishers have limited promotional budgets, especially for debut writers). Cadance emailed me after this year’s festival to let me know that they had been offered a writing gig on a new book-to-screen adaptation. I had programmed them alongside award-winning writer Craig Silvey, and it was a conversation over kebabs after their event that led to the gig. I have no doubt these kinds of qualitative impacts happen across the sector.

Festivals also strengthen communities. Given the alarming documented rise in psychological distress during the pandemic, festivals have been instrumental in bringing people together and facilitating connection. Remember the euphoria of returning to your first post-lockdown festival? Research we commissioned this year from the University of Newcastle showed that 95 per cent of survey respondents believed that attending our April event had a positive impact on their wellbeing.


Wendy Harmer has described writers’ festivals as the new churches. If only they, and other festivals, enjoyed the same level of government largesse.

Rosemarie Milsom is the founding director of Newcastle Writers Festival and a former journalist.

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