The Lost Weekend: How A Festival Featuring The Drones, Dinosaur Jr Went Down
Almost two years to the day since he pulled the pin on his fledgling festival, the founder of Brisbane’s Lost Weekend speaks for the first time about what went wrong and why punter apathy is the biggest threat to would-be promoters. Interview by ANDREW MCMILLEN.
Billed as a three-day camping event located at a conference centre 45 minutes south-west of Brisbane, a 2010 music festival named The Lost Weekend seemed a worthy contender for the interests of Queensland rock fans who couldn’t afford to head south for [Golden Plains](/articles/3892493). Headlined by Dinosaur Jr, The Dirty Projectors, Wooden Shjips and Nashville Pussy – among Australian bands like The Drones, Tumbleweed, Little Birdy and Whitley – the festival shared several of Golden Plains? bigger names. Unpowered camping ticket prices ranged from $166 to $207, for a two- or three-day pass, respectively. Hardly a princely sum, considering the ever-increasing costs of competing events on the annual calendar.
Alarm bells began ringing three months after the initial announcement. A month out from its debut, The Lost Weekend was downsized to two dates and [relocated](/news/3867687) to the Brisbane Riverstage due to apparent licensing disputes. The two-day ticket cost dropped to $150. A M+N news story [reported](/news/3867687) that organisers were determined to make the event in March the ?perfect end to the festival season?, and not another Blueprint?. And then, just days out, organisers pulled the plug citing [?insufficient time to achieve critical mass?](/news/3886294). Unlike the aborted [BAM! Festival](/articles/4000637), an overly ambitious camping event that was set to be hosted at the same venue, The Lost Weekend at least had the foundation of an appealing event by booking a strong, rock-centric line-up.
It also had festival promotion brains and experience behind the operation. Founder Michael Kerr, 38, had hosted the Sounds Of Spring festival at Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds in 2008 and 2009, and appeared to be slowly growing the event: the second year saw 14,000 fans take in artists like The Living End, Tex Perkins, [My Disco](/events/2001720) and [Giants of Science](/events/2001719) (the latter two in the midst of a rare dust storm). Yet as The Lost Weekend disintegrated, Kerr went to ground, and hasn’t publicly commented since the public failure of his latest festival attempt. Sounds Of Spring has yet to return, either.
I meet Kerr for the first time in March, two years and two days after the event would’ve debuted – if only he’d sold a few more tickets. He sips a hot chocolate while we sit at a cafe outside the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. During a wide-ranging conversation, I find Kerr to be quite upfront about his mistakes, slightly disdainful toward the unfortunate habit of Brisbane concert-goers to postpone buying tickets until the last minute, yet optimistic about the possibility to organise future events here in Queensland. He also laughs a lot, even though the topic we met to discuss isn’t particularly funny – or so I thought.
What was your original desire with The Lost Weekend?
There was nothing going on. Generally, you try to do events because nothing comes to Brisbane, and we miss out. So we got onto the guys at Golden Plains, and agreed to share some bands but not all, and grew from there. [Laughs] Just to make a good weekend. It was never going to be that large. Never wanted it to be that large. [I wanted it to be] something I want to go to.
So the Golden Plains connection was pretty integral to making it all work?
Yes, and no. We probably picked that weekend so we could [make it work], but if nothing happened there wasn’t a big issue. There were enough bands around otherwise to make it work. We did pick up seven or eight of their bands, but not all of them. And that was a deliberate thing we spoke about, because we didn’t want to just do what they were doing, and they didn’t want us to do what they were doing as well.
Why Ivory’s Rock [Convention Centre]? Had you looked at a few other locations before that?
We looked at a number of places; particularly it was a really good site. It had all the facilities, had an undercover amphitheatre, had everything; places for food stores, toilets, loos, showers. [It had] everything, everywhere to deal with; where everything else was getting port-a-loos and sleep in the bush. It had proper, flat, perfect camping areas. And no neighbours to disturb.
How did you come across it in the first place? I had never heard of it until The Lost Weekend was announced.
Neither had I, actually. Ipswich City Council, who actually were really supportive of doing something, and I originally spoke to them because I was interested in using the Archerfield Speedway area, and they said, “Oh, you should check this place out.” So I checked it out and it worked. [Laughs] Nothing will ever happen there now, though; they don’t want to do anything. They had a change in management and the new managers – it’s run by this religious organisation. The guru from India comes out and speaks there every couple of years and they have like 6000 grannies there. Well, not just grannies but all these people come and hang out there, and pay 500 bucks to hear him talk for five days.
That sounds interesting?
The manager at the time wanted other things to go on there, and he pushed really hard to get events in. He’s gone, and the new management don’t want to do a thing.
So they don’t like the idea of a rock music festival?
They don’t like the idea of anything else. It’s their little land just for them.
As you know, after you, BAM! Festival [tried to go there](/news/4046812). It’s interesting to know nothing at all is going to happen there now.
Nothing’s going to happen out there.
So the original desire was a three-day camping festival?
What kind of numbers did you need to make it work?
A couple of thousand. That’s it.
How close did you get?
Didn’t even get halfway. The worse thing is, afterwards – everyone I spoke to, “Oh I was gonna get a ticket, I just hadn’t got around to it.” And you know? gonna doesn’t pay the bills. [Laughs]
I’ve come across that kind of mentality before. I’ve heard people say it’s more a Brisbane thing.
It is a big Brisbane thing. One of the people who brought out one of the major bands [for The Lost Weekend] was like, ?What a shock – something didn’t work in Brisbane.? [Laughs] Which is why a lot of bands when they tour, Brisbane falls off the list. You get bands doing Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth instead of Brisbane. We’re lucky to get Radiohead, very lucky.
I’ve heard that the accepted wisdom is that Brisbane people don’t like pre-buying tickets. They’ll show up on the night, but obviously that’s too high a risk for promoters.
It is high risk. It’s got a big ?turn-up-on-the-night? mentality, but if someone’s going to buy on the night for everyone who says he’s going to, only one-in-three actually will. ?It’s raining,? or ?My friend rings up and wants to do something else?, or ?I just forget,? or ?I’m watching a movie? – things always happen. Until someone’s committed their dollars?
Do you have any theories on that kind of Brisbane mentality, why it happens here and not elsewhere?
[We’re] just laid back and don’t care. Part of the reason is people don’t think things will sell out. And then when something does sell out in Brisbane everyone’s up in arms. It’s like – well, buy your ticket. [Laughs] The Radiohead thing, people cracking up that they couldn’t get a ticket, as a recent example. Well, where were you when they went on sale?
Tell me about your history in concert promotion. Did you do Sounds of Spring?
I thought so. That grew quite remarkably between years. I went to the last one at the RNA Showgrounds. That had a lot of people.
It did have a fair few more people that the first year. That was the second one we did there. First year we just on oval two, on the other side. And I put more people in than the council or police would have liked me to do. [Laughs] But it would have worked if the bar people didn’t stuff up so badly.
The first year, was that the one where it was pissing down rain all day?
Yeah, pissed down rain the first year. Wind storms the second year.
That’s right, dust storms! But that venture worked for you, right?
The first year it did really well. Second year, we spent about 50 percent more going onto the main oval and making it larger.
And booking more bands.
More bands, but it didn’t get 50 percent more [income]. It only went up about 25-30 percent on numbers. The [Brisbane City] council stuffed me around, because we originally announced at Victoria Park, across the road. It was all good until about three weeks before and there was a problem, so I met with 10 council workers onsite. Everyone was happy, just waiting for the paperwork to come through. A day before I was announcing, “No, you can’t use it.” I had to go to the RNA in a desperate situation, so they screwed me; changing venue cost a bit more, as well. Had I got those numbers in Victoria Park, it would have been a huge success financially but instead I lost a bit of money.
The second one lost a bit of money?
So organising that kind of thing it’s not just you; you set up a public trading company?
Yeah. You set up a company for each of them.
And you have a staff of a few people?
Me, and then I employ people to do particular jobs when I need them.
Consultancy type stuff?
Yeah, so I paid someone to do all the admin and deal with all the stuff, and someone else did all the publicity. Someone does all the production. Someone else does this, someone else does that.
Was Sounds of Spring your first event?
The first on that scale.
What interested you in promotion, at what point did you decide to do it?
Probably a frustration that there wasn’t anything going on and I wanted to go to something. [Laughs] I knew people, so I made a few phone calls and there was lots of support, particularly from the local Brisbane bands, where I started. Everyone said, “Oh yeah, we’ll do it for sure.” A few more phone calls and I had a line-up.
That must be an exciting time, to take something that’s small and then get the ball rolling, and make it bigger and bigger.
Yeah, a lot bigger than I expected the first year.
Very stressful. The first year I was site manager – [I did] everything, so I lived there for a week before. We didn’t get the PA up until nine o’clock that morning. We were still setting it up when we opened the gates because of all the rain. And the production guy’s going, “At what time do we pull the plug?” I said, “When there’s no one else standing outside, wanting to come in.” [Laughs] It’s very expensive things to put on.
We’re talking hundreds of thousands, not millions?
First year was under a million, but closer to a million than hundreds of thousands. The second year was close to a million-and-a-half.
That’s the entire production and all the bands?
That’s everything, police, security, insurance.
How do you manage that kind of sum? Do you have a bookkeeper who takes care of it, or was it you?
[Michael points to himself and smiles]
Holy shit. That’s the part that gets me. That seems like a huge amount of responsibility.
You have to have these cash-flow statements and know where money’s coming from and where it’s going on every day. It’s almost a full-time job.
And you did that for two years?
That’s all I did for two years. Then I decided it was too easy, so I decided to do The Lost Weekend in the middle of the year. [Laughs] Sucker for punishment.
How do you look back on it all now? The festival would have been two years to the day, two days ago.
Hindsight’s a great thing, but honestly if I went back, I’d probably try to do it again. I’d do it a bit different, but not hugely different. I still want to do something.
Are you still trying to do something?
There’s stuff in the pipeline. [Laughs]
I’m not surprised. You seem like the kind of guy to do that. When Lost Weekend moved from Ivory’s Rock to Riverstage, in the press release it mentioned a ?licensing difficulty?. Was that a euphemism?
It was part of that. It was also lack of sales, so a bit of both. Brisbane people don’t like to travel. It’s crazy.
When you moved it from Ivory’s Rock to Riverstage, was there a loss associated with that?
It actually lowered the cost of running the event. The hope was, if it lowered the cost, it would also increase sales. But it didn’t.
So you needed a fewer numbers to make it work at Riverstage.
Yeah, a few less. I don’t know, what do you reckon was wrong with it? Why didn’t people buy tickets?
I was keen from day one. I loved the line up; it was pretty rock-focused and I’m a rock kind of guy. You hit all the right notes for me.
Probably part of the problem was it was a bit indie out there, and a bit rock. It was trying to cover too many bases. I probably would have been better off trying to stick to the real out-there bands, or go the real mainstream; keep it at Gyroscope and Dead Letter Circus and Children Collide, the sort of straight down the middle triple j. The whole Brian Jonestown Massacre tour wasn’t huge. It didn’t do as well as they’d hoped all around the place.
Were you trying to get bigger names in, once you saw sales were not doing so well?
It’s throwing good money after bad. [Laughs]
So that must be disappointing, to have this thing which you think is great, and which people seem supportive of, but not to see sales come through.
I was honestly shocked. I couldn’t work out why. I had heaps of discussions with another promoter, heaps of discussing why, how, what, what can I do, where do we go. And we even spoke about just canning it and breaking it all up and doing all individual shows everywhere. We discussed every option, for weeks, of what to do. [Laughs]
?I’ll probably do something smaller and try to build it up slower.?
When it was cancelled, when the announcement came out – tell me about that day. What happened that day?
Oh, that’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made, because a lot of people had put their faith in it, and I had to say, “Nup, we’re not doing it.” There were no options to do anything else at that stage. I emailed all the bands and everything first, and gave them notice as much as I could, and pulled the plug. The next day was actually my son’s birthday, so I turned off the phone and didn’t look at the emails and went off to his birthday party. [Laughs*] I tried to pay laser force and 10-pin bowling, feeling like crap. [*Laughs]
Wow. How’d you go?
I reckon I did alright. [Laughs*] Felt good running around shooting all these 10-year old kids. [*Laughs]
Forgot about it for a little while. A few people were pissed off about it, but most of them are fairly understanding, and happy to do stuff in the future.
Did people direct their anger toward you, in email and phone calls and stuff?
Yeah, but what can you do?
They would have hoped that you put the event on regardless, even though you’re going to lose a shitload of money?
Yeah. But the thing is, if there’s not enough money to pay everyone, putting it on’s worse. At least they had the chance to organise a show and get some money, and either cancel their tour or whatever they needed to do. It’s a bad situation, but I couldn’t in good faith say, “Yeah, turn up and play and, oh by the way, there’s no money. I’m not going to pay you what you’re owed.” [Laughs]
In the days that followed the announcement, what was on your mind? What were you doing? Did you have bills that you had to pay, and that sort of thing?
Oh yeah, there was still some stuff to clean up and do, but I just left it for a few days, went away.
Do you think that was the right thing to do?
I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but it was the thing I needed to do to survive. [Laughs*] I visited some family and a few people sort of contacted me, were worried that I was all right, but most people were pretty good in the end. People were disappointed, but no one hates me – Well if they do, they haven’t told me. [*Laughs]
Why did you agree to talk to me now?
I don’t know. [Laughs]
Are you okay with this? Are you regretting it?
Yeah, I don’t know. You asked and I thought, “Why not?” I thought about it. There’s nothing to say. In the end it comes down to – which people in Brisbane know – if you don’t buy tickets, things don’t happen. And whenever someone says, “Oh, we never get any good shows”, I go, “Well, guess what? When there is, do you buy your ticket straightaway? Bad luck.” [Laughs]
What did you learn from the experience? What would you change when you promote your next event, whatever that might be?
If I do something else I probably won’t put as high stakes on it. I’ll probably do something smaller and try to build it up slower, which is always what I intended to do. But if people ring up and offer you a band, and you go, ?Oh yeah, that’s really worth it?, and you make it work, and you end up spending far more than you intended to. [Laughs]
We looked at doing something that would have been in May this year. And it was all going ahead, but in the end, I just couldn’t get the bands right so I canned it before it even got going.
That seems like a wise decision. That sounds like something you’ve learned.
Yeah, that’s right, so it’s just about managing it right.
Any regrets? You said if you could go back, you’d do it again much the same?
I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. One thing I know in life is, you can never tell what you’re going to do until you’re put in a situation. So you can never tell how you would react in someone else’s position or anything. I reckon I’d probably try to do it again. And probably a few people would tell me I’m an idiot for trying to do it again. [Laughs]
Is there much money in this kind of thing? When it comes to the end of the day, do you make much of a win on it?
It’s a lot more money to lose, than to win. If you’re selling out all the time, you do well. Big Day Out [reportedly] made a huge loss this year, and they’ve been around for 20 years. Yeah, the risk is – like I said, those sort of figures – and a million dollars is a little event. [BDO] spend that on one band for each show. So it’s a gamble.
Is it addictive? You got burned by this situation, but you’re still looking at doing new things.
Yeah, it is addictive. There’s nothing like sitting back and going, “This is what I did.” I’ve got a couple of canvas prints of photos from the first Sounds of Spring on my office wall. It’s really good in that aspect, but who knows? Who can read the future?
What kind of numbers did you do on that first year [of Sounds of Spring]?
The second year?
Maybe I’m confusing it with Soundwave, I remember that it was busy.
It would have looked busier because we set up to look fuller. Part of the thing is, it’s got to be a good atmosphere. Had the whole thing been wide open, you would have gone, “Oh, it’s empty.” You would have noticed the main stages were all on the one side and pushed up so everyone was sort of in that area, and the other half of the field was pretty much empty. [Laughs]
Clever. It worked.
We pushed the stages forward, closed up in wherever we could. I don’t know; it’s pretty good honestly. It took Livid [Festival] years to get to those sorts of numbers. The first one, they had 1800 people at it.
Did you pay much attention to the BAM! Festival thing when that was happening?
Yeah, I looked at it. It’s pretty bad. [Laughs] I told the venue not to let them have it. I said, “There’s no way it’ll work.” It was the same ticket price I was charging, for two bands you knew of, unless you were right in the local scene.
Yeah. That was a weird decision.
Where I had international bands, known bands – big bands, and couldn’t sell enough tickets.
How many did you sell?
Just under 1000.
I do want to see Ivory’s Rock someday. I would like to see something happen there.
It’s not going to happen. There’s another venue I’m looking at, up north. It’s a 3,000 acre horse-riding property and he’s got a natural amphitheatre and he’s already built a stage at the bottom of it.
We’ll see how we go. [Laughs]