Why we'll always have the Blues

Peter Noble, with wife Annika, head up Byron Bay Blues Festival.
Peter Noble, with wife Annika, head up Byron Bay Blues Festival.

"THE business model for music has changed," the man who heads up one of Australia's largest festivals says.

"Bands can't live on record sales any more," he says. "They have to tour."

Peter Noble, the boss of the Byron Bay Blues Festival, should know.

He has been in the industry since the '60s, playing, managing and promoting, here and overseas.

At Easter, he will bring Paul Simon and Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant to headline at the five-day Bluesfest, near rolling hills just south of the Queensland border.

Other acts that will appear include Santana, Ben Harper, Iggy and The Stooges, the Steve Miller Band, Madness, Bonnie Raitt, Wilco, Rodriguez, Jimmy Cliff, the Dropkick Murphys, Rufus Wainwright and Allen Toussaint.

Fewer than half the of the bill for the five-day festival have been announced. Traditionally, Bluesfest rolls out its "artist announcements" from September.

"It adds a bit of drama, yeah," Peter says, "but it really is more about making sure the acts are signed, sealed and delivered.

"I'd wanted Paul Simon to be in the third artist announcement, but because we had not finished negotiating with his management, it became a separate announcement a week later.

"It's the way it works."

And it is a waiting game.

Take Robert Plant.

"I chased him for years," Peter says. "We came pretty close to getting him last year, but he couldn't make his touring schedule fit."

As it turned out, the timing is perfect. Plant, who was voted in 15th in the 100 greatest singers of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, and his band the Sensational Space Shifters, have begun adding Zeppelin songs to their live playlists.

"Plant had refused to play them without Led Zeppelin," Peter says. The band called it quits in 1980, after the death of drummer John Bonham.

In 2007, the organisers for a one-off, single reunion Zeppelin concert in a 20,000-seat London stadium were inundated with 20 million applications for tickets. Scalpers were reportedly selling them for more than $10,000 each.

Paul Simon was different.

He shares the same management as Bob Dylan, who played Bluesfest in 2011.

"We get quite a few acts like that - word of mouth, recommendations."

Bluesfest does have a reputation for treating its artists well.

To be invited to play the festival is considered a privilege - and highly competitive.

"It's hard sometimes because there are so many outrageously good Australian bands and artists," Peter says. "We get thousands of applications every year."

The music business is changing, and it is partly because of the internet. It allows new bands to find audiences more easily, but it has few answers about making music pay.

It is a blessing as well as a curse.

"Because acts can't make the money they could with record sales, they have to tour," he says.

"And make no mistake, touring is hard. I know. I've done it."

Peter not only managed band tours, he also played bass, at one time leading a band for Marcia Hines in the '70s.

"It's no fun pulling up somewhere in the middle of the night, dog-tired, and just looking for a shower and somewhere to sleep, day after day," he says. "It's tough. But bands learn to play on the road."

Touring steels and tempers them.

It turns good artists into better ones, and, at times, into great ones.

Easter's 24th festival is a milestone for 63-year-old Peter.

It is the father-of-five's 21st year as its director. However, it has not slowed him down.

He wants to have the festival's 120ha Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, just off the Pacific Hwy about 11km north of Byron, declared a koala sanctuary.

And he is hoping to host an indigenous festival - called Boomerang - late next year.

Peter also began talks with the new Byron Bay Council so he can use the purpose-built Bluesfest site for more varied events.

"I'd like to see us hosting a Shakespearean festival, for example," he says, waiting for the inevitable gasp.

"Yeah, people seem to think we're about big, noisy events, and that's not the case at all."

But he is considering putting together a straight edge event - a no-alcohol, no-drugs, punk music "for kids who are into tattoos and vegetarianism".

Last week, he and wife Annika, who also have a home in Peregian, flew to Bali to kick back and prepare for the run-up to Bluesfest, which starts on March 28.

"But I'll be working while I'm there," he says, laughing.

And then there are four more Byron Bay "artist announcements".

"Watch this space."



  • WHEN: March 28 to April 1, 2012
  • WHERE: Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, next to the Pacific Highway, 11km north of Byron Bay, 54km south of Coolangatta on the Gold Coast
  • PARKING: On-site within an easy walk of the venue
  • 2013 ACTS (so far include): Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Ben Harper, Santana, Iggy and the Stooges, Madness, Steve Miller Band, Supertramp's Roger Hodgson, Yes's Jon Anderson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Joan Amatrading, Wilco, Dropkick Murphys, Luka Bloom, Chris Isaak and Robert Cray
  • MORE INFORMATION: bluesfest.com.au.


The festivals and the crowds they can draw ...

  • BLUESFEST: 105,000 people over five days
  • GLASTONBURY, England: 525,000 over three days
  • ROSOKILDE, Denmark: 440,000 over four days
  • READING, England: 261,000 over three days
  • COACHELLA, California: 225,000 over three days

Topics:  bluesfest 2013 byron bay music festival peter noble robert plant

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