After countless summer music festivals were cancelled during the pandemic over the last two years, there’s a sense that young people – and the odd oldie too – can’t wait to get back amongst it in the moshpits and on the dancefloor.

But after COVID-19 forced many managers and experienced hands out of the hospitality and entertainment industries in search of more stable employment, the festival landscape is very different today than it was pre-pandemic.

Dr Phillip Wadds is Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the Faculty of Law & Justice at UNSW and has spent the last decade researching issues of public safety related to Australian nightlife and music festivals. He is concerned that a number of factors are combining that heighten the risk of harms to young revellers this summer.

“There is real concern where you have a group of young people going to their first major events after being contained for a really long time, and then you've got everyone else who haven't really experienced a full festival season in years,” says Dr Wadds.

“On top of this, the sector has faced major issues relating to their staffing – with many experienced staff and managers leaving the industry during the COVID years, taking a whole lot of professional and life experience with them. Post-pandemic, staffing hasn’t returned to anywhere near the number that the sector needs.”

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Dr Wadds says that in light of this, extra care needs to be taken by not only staff, but festivalgoers themselves to ensure a smooth and safe return to music festivals that we may have once taken for granted.

“The reality is that we need everyone at a festival event to be part of improving safety and reducing harm – from patrons, staff, security and those working in medical and support roles,” he says.

“We need staff to know what to do if and when something is reported to them, we need security to know what to look out for and to intervene early and pro-socially, and we need patrons to look out for one another.”

For his part, Dr Wadds will be attending a number of the upcoming summer festivals as part of his research into the effectiveness of harm reduction training at festival events.

“We know that staff working at these events play a critical role in the experiences people have while there, and so we want to make sure they are trained in best-practice approaches to harm reduction to make sure festivals are as harm-free as they can be.”

Blowing off steam

In previous research into music festival safety prior to COVID, Dr Wadds noted that many festival events had become more concentrated periods of excess in response to the sky-rocketing price of alcohol in pubs and clubs and the imposition of restrictive changes to laws governing nightlife in places like Sydney.

“Hyperregulation of nightlife has seen a lot more people seeking the kind of pleasure and release that may previously have been found in traditional forms of nightlife. In our research, participants reported saving up all year and really going really hard at festivals in ways that can make them more conducive to harm.”

This, together with the concerns about a new cohort of young adults about to go to their first major events, has contributed to a heightened sense of anxiety about the upcoming festival season, and a real need to ensure those staff working events know what to do if things go wrong. The dangers Dr Wadds is concerned about include harms relating to drug or alcohol intoxication, sexual assault, and injuries and health problems caused by dehydration and surging crowds. Dr Wadds has observed that these different types of harms often go hand in hand.

“While most people who attend events have a great time free from issues, unfortunately festival events can be, and often are, the site of significant harms, including those relating to excess drinking and drug use and sexual assault,” he says.

“There are a number of environmental factors that can shape those experiences including the high prevalence of intoxication, poor natural surveillance and low lighting, large crowds, but also the adversarial nature of policing which means that people don’t want to report issues. This leaves the culture unchecked in a way that can facilitate more significant harms.”

What you should know before you go

Dr Wadds said that there is a lot of material out there to help staff and festivalgoers to navigate their festival experience and help everyone to have a great time without harm.

For anyone intending to go to any of the various music festivals this summer, Dr Wadds recommends taking the Party Safe quiz, put together by the Australian Festival Association, which not only tests your knowledge about best practice harm reduction, but gives sensible advice where that knowledge could be lacking.

He also recommends the DanceWize webpage which has a range of harm reduction advice for promoters, volunteers and party-goers.