At a time when the Australian music festival scene is in a slump -- the Big Day Out is long-gone, Soundwave folded late last year, Stereosonic is taking a year off -- the smaller, more local festival is thriving. The regional Groovin The Moo tour is growing each year, as are the likes of Festival Of The Sun at Port Macquarie, This That at Newcastle, Big Pineapple festival on the Sunshine Coast and the Unify festival in Gippsland, among many others.
Add to that list the Yours & Owls festival in Wollongong, quickly establishing itself as a must-do destination on the touring calendar for some of Australia's most popular bands, and invigorating the beachside town in the process.
"Within our community, we've always had a lot of support. Now it feels like that ring of people has gotten so much broader," festival booker Ben Tillman told The Huffington Post Australia.
"We're real people, we've done it all ourselves, it's not a big money thing and people know that. It's been a long slog and people respect that. Now, it's at the point where the lineup is so good, it has an effect outside our circle as well."
The festival, held in a leafy green park literally a stone's throw from a pristine stretch of the Illawarra coastline on the first weekend of October, grew out of Tillman's former business venture -- a cafe in the Wollongong CBD, which quickly became a hotspot for local music upon its launch six years ago. Events got bigger and bigger, until they became an outdoor mini-festival in 2014 headlined by Sticky Fingers, Dune Rats and Safia. The next year got bigger, expanding to two days with The Preatures, Cloud Control, The Rubens and The Delta Riggs. We were there last year to check out the action (read our review here) and found easily one of the most chilled-out, laidback and relaxed festival atmospheres that exists anywhere in the country.
For 2016, the third outdoor festival and the sixth anniversary of the Yours & Owls collective, the bar has been raised even higher. A full two days of music, across an expanded multi-stage location, headlined by the likes of The Living End, Ball Park Music, Hermitude, Ladyhawke and The Jezebels among 40 acts on the lineup.
"The first year, we banged [the festival] together in a few months, between deciding when we were going to do it and show day. Now it's a year long thing, we work on it every day for a year," Tillman said.
"We believe in it and are passionate about it, but the biggest difference in the last year is that we can be talking to someone [in the music industry] that we don't even know, and they know about it. Those conversations are getting easier."
Yours & Owls began as a cafe and tiny music venue, giving many Illawarra musicians their first gigs and helping nurture their careers. In that spirit, the Yours & Owls festival has a distinctly local flavour -- a decent smattering of rising local acts like Hockey Dad and Bec Sandridge, a swag of local artists contributing trippy psychedelic installations, market stalls of local food and wares, a crew of local workers putting the site together give it a distinctly hometown feel, and yet-to-be-announced plans for a 10-day "fringe festival" around the festival itself, which will include comedy, performances, food and talks.
"The local thing has always been important. We've always prided ourselves on nurturing and fostering the stuff going on here. That's a bit of a different mentality to the Wollongong of yesteryear, where everyone was looking outside of the area, so we went the other way and said there's lots of good stuff already here, so let's get that out there," Tillman said.
"We're proud to be from Wollongong. There's this rising sentiment of 'Gong pride,' whatever you want to call it. It's pretty cool. Wollongong used to be a dirty word, people sort of looked down on you, but now its a positive thing. You don't have to convince or explain why it's a good thing, it is a good place and a cool place."
The Yours & Owls festival will be held in Wollongong, NSW, on the weekend of October 1-2. For more information and tickets, see yoursandowls.com.au.