Destroy All Lines General Manager Chris O’Brien was in his early twenties when he saw Washington DC hardcore outfit Fugazi play in Melbourne. The 1000-capacity room had been oversold by 500 tickets, making for an all-round miserable experience, despite the excellence of the band’s performance.
Disappointed, the next night he drove 70 kilometres to Geelong and witnessed the opposite – the crowd only numbered 50, and while it made for a much more enjoyable evening, he was conscious that “the promoter is probably terrified because he’s losing so much money”.
O’Brien left the show mulling what he would have done differently if he were promoting the tour.
In the years since he’s had plenty of opportunity to put those thoughts into action, with Destroy All Lines becoming one of Australia’s most successful independent tour and event promoters, specializing in (but not limited to) heavy music.
Founded in 2003, Destroy All Lines has brought artists such as Deftones, Pennywise, Bad Religion, Refused and many more to Australia, and in 2018 launched touring punk rock festival, Good Things. In March it will debut the Slipknot-curated festival Knotfest in Australia.
Here, O’Brien discusses how the successful promoters are operating in 2023, Destroy All Lines’ less-is-more approach to social media, why he doesn’t believe in reducing ticket prices to entice presales, and more…
From the day you announce a tour to opening night, what’s the most crucial period in terms of selling tickets?
That launch window between announcement and your early bird sale and your general public on sale is absolutely critical. Because if you miss that window of engaging people, it's incredibly difficult to get them back.
You might get tens of thousands of people register interest in the festival – they'll sign up to get updates and to get their ticket alerts. If you don't capture them early on, and give them enough of a reason and convince them to buy a ticket, they can be quite difficult to get back in the fold.
So that's why we come out of the box really strong, whether it's a festival or a tour. But specifically for Good Things, there’s got to be enough upfront to convince people. So even if they're not buying a ticket straight away – maybe it's not their payday, and maybe they've got to save up a bit of money – we've got them. They're gonna buy a ticket at some point.
What do you do if you don't capture the audience’s attention? If 10,000 people sign up but only 500 early bird tickets are sold?
Cry. [Laughs] You do have plans [to combat that], but you certainly hope it never gets to that, where your sales are really slow.
It’s like trying to turn around the Titanic, to be honest. If you get out of the blocks slow, whether it's a tour or a festival, experience tells me it really doesn't matter what you do.
You can keep throwing as much money as you want at it marketing wise, you can keep adding more bands if you want. But once people have made up their mind, they've genuinely made up their mind.
You mentioned the lineup is important for encouraging presales. Are there other techniques you use?
We don't offer cheaper tickets or anything like that. I've never believed in that.
I don’t think it's fair that just because you're getting in first you deserve to get a cheaper ticket. It doesn't mean you're any more passionate than the person that's next in line. So no, not really. We’re purely artist driven. And it should be fair for everyone.
When launching a festival, what are the best ways to utilize your database?
So that's more specifically around the artists themselves. It's more content driven.
When we launch a festival, we always launch with a still image first, we don't launch with any videos – we really want people to be focused on the artists themselves and not get too caught up in anything too flash, and we find that gives us the best engagement.
And then from there, it's really all about getting the artists involved with the festival. So making sure that they’re being really creative, making sure our social media people always have new content so we're not just regurgitating the same stuff over and over again.
"When we launch a festival, we always launch with a still image first, we don't launch with any videos..."
And what kind of video content works best – live footage? Or the band chatting to camera?
It depends on the artist. We try and create a moment for each artist. So when people are viewing your video, it's not just rinse and repeat for every single artist. Every artist has to have their own voice and be creative.
So live [footage] doesn't tend to work as well. We put that into our promotional packages to give people an idea if they haven't seen an artist before what they're like live, but we really want the bands to be speaking directly to the punters.
So a lot of it's more competitions around meet and greets, or it could be a soundcheck opportunity. It's the band saying how excited they are to come to Australia and see the fans for the first time, or it's been a long time since we've been there. So really trying to connect one on one with the fans gives us the most engagement.
One of the trends at the moment is late ticket sales. How do you try and combat that?
Every promoter is different. Some promoters will discount tickets at the back end of a campaign to try and get as many sales as they can through, some will add a fourth band announcement, a fifth band announcement, a sixth band announcement.
But, as I said earlier, people have made up their mind by then anyway. So adding another 10 or 15 bands isn't really going to change their opinion on it.
You’re right, some events are coming home a little later, which is a concerning trend, because the last thing you want to be doing is throwing a hell of a lot of money on marketing in the week leading into the show, because all your content should be driving that.
The concept is, you've got all these people, you've got access to them because they've expressed interest in the event. So it's just a matter of being clever about how you keep reaching out to them so they don't get annoyed with you, so they don’t switch off.
We find less is more when it comes to that. Constantly pushing it down their throat all the time, we don't find works.
So you're not going to email someone every week…
No. Let’s say the campaign lasts seven or eight months, we would send an EDM out maybe three times. The more times we send an EDM out, the less the open rate becomes.
Destroy All Lines’ email database stretches into the many hundreds of thousands. How important is that data?
It’s critical. It makes it easier for us to promote to [fans] because we know where they are.
Go back years and years, you didn't know where people were. Generally you had to throw a lot of money on street press or pole posters, street posters, radio, it was more of an overarching umbrella of just throwing all this money and hoping it hits enough people.
Whereas the smart promoters now essentially have all the access to that. But you’ve still got to give [fans] the product they actually want to see. So, you certainly can't get lazy with it. And there's more competition than ever, which means there's more money coming out of people's pockets.
So we've got to make sure that what we're delivering, people look at it and go, ‘I've got to buy a ticket.’
It’s well documented that the cost of putting on a festival has soared over the past few years. Presumably you can’t expect the fan to absorb the entirety of that cost by increasing ticket prices substantially. How do you absorb those costs and still make a profit?
It’s very difficult.
If I use Good Things 2022 as an example, between us announcing the festival and the festival happening, a lot of our line items went up by 20 to 25% in a matter of months, especially freight. All the trucking and getting access to labor and those sort of things was incredibly difficult, which means you just pay more.
So once you're on sale, there's nothing you can do about it. Your sponsorship deals are done, you've just got to almost suck it up. But we have had to put ticket prices up for all our tours purely because we can't keep absorbing it.
The tours themselves don't really get sponsorship either. So you are only getting the money from ticket revenue. The artists are taking their merchandise, which we want them to. We don't take any percentages or commissions from it, and nor should we because we don't deserve to.
So unfortunately, the punter is paying a little bit more. But in saying that, if they want to see high quality tours with good production and lighting and bands performing to their optimum, then there's a price to pay for that as well.
"Between us announcing the festival and the festival happening, a lot of our line items went up by 20 to 25% in a matter of months..."
How do you set a ticket price?
It’s not necessarily a mathematical thing. It's more about, what's the most you think a punter is going to pay for a tour? What's the tipping point here?
So generally speaking, you'll do a budget for a tour – here's what our break evens are, here's what we'll offer an artist. Sometimes you can get a deal done at that, sometimes you can't. If you can't get a deal done it means you've got to put the ticket price up a little bit.
There's a lot of internal discussions about once you go over the edge, and it's too much for people, then you're in a lot of trouble. So the science behind it is knowing your market incredibly well, down to almost a cent of what they're going to be actually willing to pay for a tour.
But that has certainly increased in the post-COVID era. It's increased significantly, I would say upwards of 25 to 30%.
What have you found to be the most effective way of building a community and audience loyalty? Does it largely come down to the artists you consistently tour?
It pretty much does. But then you've got to keep people engaged, you want them coming back to your website, you want them coming back to your social media platforms just to check in to see what we've got going on.
And we find that less is more with our socials. Because we have so many tour announcements – we're announcing at least two tours a week at the moment – we've got to be really super careful about how we go about that. And that every artist and tour has their time in the sun, and that they get the opportunity to sell their tickets and engage with their audiences.
And then once that time has passed, it's setting up all the events, especially through Facebook – the event profiles are really critical, because it's only the people that are in that event that can see what's happening. So really engaging them through those processes is really important for us.
What do you see the really successful promoters getting right at the moment?
They’re putting these incredible packages together in really good rooms, and they're spending a lot of money on production, and the lighting elements. So there's more money being poured into what the show actually looks like than ever, or that's my experience anyway.
And I think that comes back to what I touched on earlier about giving fans an experience that they walk away from the show going, 'How mind blowing was that, I've got to make sure I go to the next concert.' Or you could be promoting your shows at that concert and they know that anything that's coming through your company is going to be top notch.
So fan experience at every single level is absolutely critical at the moment. And that's what the top promoters around the world are doing.
"Fan experience at every single level is absolutely critical at the moment."
Where do you think the festival touring circuit is heading in the next 12 to 24 months?
I think the camping festivals are suffering. The weather is changing and a lot more unpredictable. So there's certainly a huge element of risk in the camping festivals.
And then you've also got, depending on where you are, 20 or 25,000 people that have effectively driven their car because most festivals are in the middle of nowhere. So it's not like they're getting a train there or a tram. There's no public transport. So you're driving. So having traffic management, especially over summer when you've got a lot of holidaymakers on the same roads, can be really difficult. It’s why we will never get involved in a camping festival.
We like to keep it at one day, in and out. People can rock up at 12 o'clock and be home by 11 o'clock or midnight. There's no danger of them being stuck overnight or anything like that.
Insurance has gone through the roof as well, it's a lot more expensive to insure festivals now as well. And you can't really get weather insurance. So, I think that [there’ll be] maybe less camping festivals.
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