NSW

The high cost of free Sydney Festival concerts

Thousands of people were due to arrive at The Domain on Saturday night to see The Flaming Lips perform a free outdoor concert as part of the Sydney Festival.

The crowd at Sydney Festival's free outdoor concert in the Domain.
The crowd at Sydney Festival's free outdoor concert in the Domain. Photo: Edwina Pickles

But questions remain over the cost and suitability of The Domain as a large-scale music venue, with calls for a permanent outdoor venue to be built in western Sydney. 

"The cost of setting up a stage, toilets, all of the equipment that needs to be brought in to stage an outdoor concert is very prohibitive particularly when it's only for a fairly short-term event," according to Sydney Festival board member David Borger​.

Questions remain over the suitability of The Domain as a large-scale music venue.
Questions remain over the suitability of The Domain as a large-scale music venue. Photo: Edwina Pickles

He said The Crescent in Parramatta would make an ideal permanent outdoor venue, with good acoustics, a natural amphitheatre and proximity to public transport.

Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels​ has called for a permanent stage to be built in The Domain, arguing it was costly to stage free concerts because of the lack of infrastructure.

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"That comes at a real cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it a safe environment, to provide the facilities," he said in 2014. "It's a big thing and there is no income against it."

A 2011 report into Sydney's cultural facilities estimated the cost of erecting stages, temporary fencing, toilets and other temporary facilities at $730,000, with a further $200,000 on for each event. It said the bulk of the cost and risk of the outdoor concerts was carried by the Sydney Festival.

The report also said outdoor concerts in The Domain cost 117 per cent more than similar-sized concerts in Melbourne.

A 25-year plan for the redevelopment of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain, released in 2014, proposed the building of a permanent "sound shell" in The Domain. But former prime minister Paul Keating said it would turn the area from a garden and congregation space into an arena primarily for use by concert promoters. 

"Given all the places in greater Sydney pop music concerts can be held, why should the trust be bending over to facilitate this kind of abuse?" Mr Keating said.

Mr Bertels revealed in August there was a running joke in the Sydney Festival office about the free concerts, which also include Symphony in the Domain on January 16 and Opera in the Domain on January 23.

"Every new director comes in and says, 'Can we get rid of the 1812 Overture at the end of the Domain concert?' And, you know, eight directors in no one's managed to get rid of it. So it's going to be there forever."

​In the past, Mr Bertels has pointed out that free events come at a cost and certainly music fans elsewhere will pay for the privilege of seeing The Flaming Lips.

Tickets to the band's concert in Melbourne on January 8 costing $99.90 plus fees and charges, tickets for a festival in Auckland where the band will play were priced up to $NZ229 ($215).

The Flaming Lips will also perform at to the MONA FOMA festival in Hobart on January 15 where a one-day pass costs $100 plus booking fee.

Anthony Steel, who was Sydney Festival director in 1995 and 1996, said The Domain concerts were kept in the festival at the insistence of sponsors.

"What I call the face-painting side of the Sydney Festival has continued up to now," he told Fairfax Media in 2005. "But my aim was to get rid of that sort of thing, ditch those two performances in the park [Jazz in the Domain and Opera in the Domain] because to my mind, they had absolutely no place being in an arts festival.

"But the representatives of the major sponsors were on the board, so that was that – we were stuck with it."