Following the cancellation of major festivals industry-wide such as This That, Coastal Jam, Music in the Vines, Falls Festival and Dark Mofo (although the last two are temporary), the independent cultural giant that is Untitled Group is homing in on what the team describes as its 'non-negotiables'.
It's a category of event that economists would describe as having 'inelastic demand', but more experiential and fluid as organisers pull out all stops in pursuit of 'unmissable' status for their festivals, which partly depends on how memorable the last edition was but also the lessons learned, fresh creative ideas, and line-ups secured for the next instalment.
What that means in practice is holding discussions now with prospective headline acts for 2024-25 festivals to follow what has just been a record summer for ticket sales at Untitled Group. On Boxing Day it also meant non-stop work after wet weather to pull off Beyond the Valley (BTV) in the regional Victorian area of Hesse.
"On Christmas Day in Victoria I believe we had 50mm of rain and that wreaked havoc on our festival site," says Nicholas Greco, who co-founded the group with Michael Christidis, Christian Serrao and Filippo Palermo.
"But we are such a dedicated team that everyone got in the next day; we had to rebuild things, work out how to dry out muddy sections, and we spent the next 48 hours non-stop fixing everything to the point when customers arrived on the 28th and the music started playing, no one could really tell how chaotic the last 48 hours had been.
"But that's kind of what we love, that's the magic that goes into this. There’s chaos – it’s organised chaos – but we just want the customers to have a great New Year's Eve."
Greco tells Business News Australia that between BTV and Wildlands festivals held in Queensland, WA and South Australia, in addition to side shows, Untitled Group sold 150,000 tickets.
The co-founder says 85,000 of those sales were for Wildlands including an inaugural New Year's Eve celebration in Brisbane, followed by festivals in Perth and Adelaide, as well as 35,000 sales for BTV which was first held in 2014.
"The festival market we’re seeing as a whole is quite tough at the moment. We’re seeing a lot of festivals fall over, but the non-negotiable festivals and line-up packages are selling extremely well," he explains.
"It's a term we use a lot in the office, and it’s something we realised in 2022 when we booked Nelly Furtado for an exclusive performance. That was a non-negotiable moment for Australia; they weren't going to see her anywhere else, and they’d grown up listening to her for 20 years.
"This year it was the combination of RÜFÜS DU SOL, Peggy Gou and Central Cee all together across the New Year’s festivals, where the production elements, all of the creative, people having all their friends attending, were able to tie in together to create a real non-negotiable package for people."
Greco says RÜFÜS DU SOL bringing in 2024 in Brisbane was a major hit for the festival run.
"We looked at the stats, and about a third of tickets we saw people flying in from interstate and overseas this year for that show," he says.
That event didn't necessarily have to take place in Brisbane, but it was the easiest way to make the scheduling work as Untitled Group also has a touring business that brings in international acts from overseas.
Untitled's touring business has been bolstered in the past 18 months by an expansion into Asia, servicing the markets of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and India. Over the recent period, that business has run 13 international tours.
"One of the driving factors behind this expansion was the logistical advantage of Asia's proximity to Australia," a spokesperson for Untitled said as part of the group's founders' nomination for the Australian Young Entrepreneur Awards 2023, which they won in the Arts & Culture category.
"Getting international artists into Australia has become increasingly challenging, making it more attractive for artists to tour in Asia and then come to Australia or vice versa. This makes it a better prospect for artists to include Australia in their tour schedules.
"While we have primarily focused on bringing international acts into the Asian market, it also services our domestic booking agency, Proxy."
Proxy's booking agent clients also fed into the the recent domestic festival run with 15 artists including Airwolf Paradise, Forest Claudette and Torren Foot, as well as four of the group's management clients - STÜM, Boo Seeka, Lastlings and Chiseko
"STÜM closed out the dance set and he closed the festival at Beyond the Valley, and then we put up the tour last week for him and he sold 7,000 tickets instantly," Greco says.
"Being a totally independent business and one of the very few left, it’s critical for us to create this ecosystem around us where different verticals feed into the festivals."
Untitled Group's marketing agency Underscore is another one of these verticals that has played into this strategy, running influencing campaigns all around the country for its festivals, while the group's UGLY vodka distilled from rejected apples is sold at the festivals in ready-to-drink cans.
"We’re excited to get ugly RTD cans on shelves hopefully in the next few months – we sold 55,000 cans at BTV," Greco says.
"The first event we had those cans out was Grapevine, and that was a good test run, and then we went back to the distillery, changed a few things on the flavours, adjusted a few things, and we brought those into BTV - they all sold out. They were received really well.
"It's been really cool to see how far the business has come from Beyond the Valley, the first year when we didn’t have any of this,, and we look around and there's one of our artists playing on the festival, and patrons are drinking one of our UGLY vodka cans."
What Greco also enjoys about this ecosystem is the fact 'it keeps everything within Australia'.
"We've seen it with artists that can have these big moments at festivals and headline shows – the world is watching over New Year’s because there’s not much happening. A really big moment can have a ripple effect overseas, and it can land other opportunities for artists globally," he says.
Looking ahead, the company is leveraging another Australian event with global clout through its Australian Open Finals Festival, which Greco says will run on the 25th, 27th and 28th of January and is 'on track to sell out'.
"We've programmed a lot of DJs that are playing over the next two weeks," he adds.
"We’re very deep into planning and programming for the new year’s run again. There’s a lot of big artists that we’re talking to – a lot of conversations that we started even months ago because everyone has to work a lot quicker and a lot earlier these days."