“Emotional roller coaster”: How Savannah In The Round is charting a path back to business for the live music industry

Savannah In The Round

Savannah In The Round headliner Lee Kernaghan.

From sweaty moshpits to crowded campgrounds, your typical live music festival isn’t exactly COVIDSafe.

But more than six months after the coronavirus pandemic brought Australia’s $15 billion live music industry to its knees, some businesses are beginning to dip a toe into getting things moving again.

Early next month Sound Australia will look to pioneer a new breed of live music in Northern Queensland, hosting three events in what has been touted as Australia’s first socially distanced country music festival.

Titled Savannah In The Round, the festivals will see thousands of Queenslanders descend on Cairns and Mareeba, a test that will inform how businesses and health authorities further plans to revive the broader entertainment industry in the coming years.

Crowds will show up to see acts including Lee Kernaghan, Casey Barnes, The Buckleys, SaltbushSix and The Roadtrippers, and if all goes well, much larger, albeit still socially distanced, events are planned for 2021.

“These small events will become a segue through to the main game next year. It’s allowing us to maintain confidence with our patrons, stakeholders and partners,” Sound Australia boss James Dein tells SmartCompany.

“We’ll come out of it with a great debrief on the model, what works, what doesn’t, and how we can improve things.”

The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on many industries, but those in the live music industry have been forced to create entirely new business models to keep business going in a COVIDSafe world.

Under regulations imposed by Queensland health authorities, Sound Australia has formulated COVIDSafe plans for each of its events, requiring groups of patrons to maintain distance from one another.

While those within groups are allowed to sit next to each other, requirements to keep groups separated have necessitated an overhaul of seating plans, ticketing systems and additional security and health measures.

Savannah In The Round: Pricey, but worth it

It’s the type of event that, at least at the moment, could only take place in Queensland — a state that’s had relatively low levels of coronavirus cases and, as Tourism Minister Kate Jones explains, has prioritised economic recovery.

“Major events like this pump millions of dollars into the local economy and support local jobs,” Jones said of the festival.

“Because Queenslanders have done such a great job fighting COVID-19, we can now start welcoming tourists back to our state.”

It’s all very pricey though. Dein says commercial viability has now become a multi-year goal rather than an event-to-event reality.

“None of any of this makes any sense financially,” Dein says.

From a financial perspective, the only thing worse than holding an event in a post-COVID world would be not to. After all, the industry has to get started again at some stage, and Dein doesn’t think there’s going to be a return to the way things were anytime soon.

“I love this quote, and I wish I said it first: ‘You could either shrink in the corner and pivot, or think on your feet and make something happen’,” Dein says.

“Sadly, I think there’s going to be elements of social distancing with us forever, or at least until such time as we get a vaccine for this particular pandemic.”

It’s been a long journey for the business, which lost a $150,000 investment in a now-cancelled multi-day event earlier this year.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Dein says.

“We’re all human. It doesn’t matter how much experience we have or how thick our hide is,” Dein says.

“What we’ve been able to do, in spite of it all, is keep our team together, keep ourselves motivated, and keep ourselves pushing forward.”

The current situation is better than expected though; Dein previously didn’t think he’d be able to hold any events in 2020 and is now relishing the opportunity to pave new ground.

There’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders though, with the success or otherwise of Savannah In The Round likely to set expectations among other businesses in the industry and health authorities, which will be watching closely to see whether their regulations are effective from a public health perspective.

“There’s a lot of will in Queensland to see us come out the other side, and we’re pleased to be the ones doing it,” Dein says.

NOW READ: Victoria’s live music scene offered $13 million in life support to keep “debts at bay”

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