How Music Festivals Are Stamping Out Sexual Assault

CCTV, on-site counsellors, more security and cultural change.

What you need to know
  • Sexual assaults have been reported at several music festivals and concerts in recent times
  • Festivals, venues and bands are working hard to create cultural change
  • Falls Festival is increasing its network of CCTV cameras to watch crowds
  • Festivals are investing in counsellors, security and messaging

Tens of thousands of music fans headed to the Falls Music and Arts festivals around the country last December and January, flocking to watch some of the world's most popular alternative acts like Flume, Fleet Foxes, Liam Gallagher, Angus and Julia Stone, and The Kooks.

But deep in the sprawling grounds of the festival, behind security fences and gates, the fans themselves were being watched too.

As obsession with popular music festivals has ballooned in recent years for Australia's Triple J-loving youth so too, sadly, has the reported incidence of unacceptable behaviour.

Harassment, groping and sexual assault are grabbing all too common news headlines following large events -- Falls and Laneway in the summer, Splendour In The Grass in the winter, an ever-growing array of regional and smaller festivals dotted in between.

Groping and sexual assault incidents were reported at Falls Festival's Tasmanian date in Marion Bay in recent years, five in 2016-17 and at least three more in 2017-18. It led to an extraordinarily blunt statement from organisers in January 2017, who said they were angry about the incidents.

"We have an obligation and a duty of care to our patrons to do everything we can to keep them safe at our events, and this is kept in mind during all stages of the planning process," Elise Huntley, general manager of both the Splendour In The Grass and Falls festivals, told ten daily.

Huntley said her festivals employ an army of CCTV cameras in moshpits and in various locations around the festival grounds, watching crowds for bad behaviour and safety risks.

"These are installed and monitored to assist with patron safety. Footage from cameras may be used to assist in identification of offenders," she said.

Falls had also invested in increased security and medical staff, including counsellors, psychologists and GPs on the ground, Huntley said.

Crowds at the Laneway Festival in Sydney in 2014 (AAP Image/CrowdSpark/JENNY NOYES)

Sexual assault and harassment in the Australian entertainment industry is nothing new, according to Helen Marcou, a Melbourne-based music activist, one of the organisers of the successful Save Live Australia's Music (SLAM) movement, and a leading figure in the Victorian government's pilot program to spur new safety policies in the state's venues.

However, even before the #MeToo movement, and especially after, the spotlight has been thrown starkly on how musicians, venues and festivals need to work harder to create safer spaces for fans to enjoy themselves.

"We can feel it,"  Marcou told ten daily.

"This all happened before #MeToo, it was out of control.  We need to make a safer and enjoyable culture for people, as a community response and not just women doing all the work."

Recently artists have led the way in pushing for change, led by Australian bands like Luca Brasi and Camp Cope repeatedly calling out bad behaviour at their concerts.

Camp Cope, a Melbourne band consisting of three women, started their own campaign 'It Takes One' to raise awareness about assaults against women in music, recruiting Australian acts like Frenzal Rhomb and The Jezabels to speak as part of a powerful video.

The Camp Cope campaign spurred the launch of a dedicated phone line at the Laneway Festival for music fans experiencing or witnessing bad behaviour, and saw Australian bands including Thundamentals, DZ Deathrays, Alex Lahey, Ecca Vandal and Bad Dreems take to stages at Falls Festival in January wearing shirts bearing the message 'THE PERSON WEARING THIS SHIRT STANDS AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT AND DEMANDS A CHANGE'.

More recently, The Smith Street Band recently posted an emotional message on social media after allegations of sexual assault at a recent under-age gig in Melbourne, saying the news had affected them so deeply they would be taking a break from playing live.

The group's frontman, Wil Wagner, detailed the lengths the band goes to in order to stamp out potential for such acts, including banning crowd-surfing, briefing security staff about what behaviour would not be accepted, and placing safety posters around the venue.

Katie Stewart, general manager of Laneway Festival -- which has hosted the likes of Chet Faker, Tame Impala, Gang of Youths, Chvrches and Violent Soho in recent years -- said the It Takes One phone service was a major plank in how her event kept fans safe.

Stewart told ten daily no serious incidents had been reported via the phone or text line, but the initiative helped start conversations about unacceptable conduct.

"We wanted to push it out to our audience, to make our patrons more conscious of their behaviour and feel like they can speak up if they see anti-social behaviour," she told ten daily.

"We identified a proactive need to be working in this space and having conversations with our switched-on audience. They're mature and sophisticated, so we make sure we’re clear on what we stand for and what we expect from our patrons.

It’s equally about having a conversation with the audience, Stewart said

"The hotline flows on and sparks a conversation at the event, and we hope it makes people more aware of the behaviour around them, and makes potential perpetrators reconsider their behaviour," she said.

The festival also worked with U.K.-based intiative Good Night Out to train security and venue staff on how best to respond to those who have experienced, or report, sexual assault.

"If you don't have the initiative and policy to back it up, it can fall a little flat. It’s important to push the message but you need to back yourself with what you stand for," she said.

Good Night Out works to provide sexual assault training, guidance and policies to venues. The initiative's founder, Bryony Beynon, said festivals could be doing more to address such behaviour.

"The question is how do you give volunteers, staff and others the confidence to tackle it, and make it socially unacceptable behaviour?" she said to ten daily.

"You've got this option for reporting, but what happens when people report? You need to make sure the staff answering those calls know what to do and say, how to give people clear helpful advice, know what responses might be harmful."

Beynon said Australian festivals had worked hard in sending messages that bad behaviour was unacceptable, but needed to work harder to ensure that message sank in.

"There's a bigger role in terms of broader cultural questions, like how you create an environment in a festival where the message is clear that harassment and assault will not be tolerated and will be challenged. There needs to be thought about things like, what is the imagery and language on the promo material? Is it about fun and creativity, or is it about getting rowdy and drunk as possible?" she said.

Crowds at the Laneway Festival in Sydney in 2014 (AAP Image/CrowdSpark/JENNY NOYES)

"That messaging does feed into the types of behaviour at festivals. Elsewhere, what is the gender balance on the lineup? That sends a broader message about who has power, who should be listened to, and that links to social attitudes around violence, assault and personal boundaries."

Huntley said there was still work to be done, and she committed Falls and Splendour to working harder with the authorities, government agencies, health and welfare services along with industry peers to stamp out sexual assault in the music scene.

"We need to continue to make all the necessary changes and improvements required to eradicate bad behaviour," she told ten daily.