A Week In The Life Of… A Boutique Festival Founder, James Birrell

James Birrell

James Birrell is founder and creative director of Maroochy Music & Visual Arts Festival, a boutique festival in its very first year. The festival  mixes equal parts art and music, and is years in the making. James’ excitement at finally seeing it come to fruition was palpable as I spoke to him on the phone recently. It’s coming up to crunch time for the festival, which is Saturday, August 22, and all hands are on deck to help James’ vision come alive and make sure everything runs smoothly.

Job Description

I suppose, because it’s our first year, I’m across a lot of different things to do with the festival. But I’ve been mainly the creative director – envisioning the concept, but also creating the financials and budgeting behind it all. Dealing with all the various stakeholders – investors, the state government, the local council, as well as the police, and all those sorts of things. So, I’m across all the different management departments, and as the festival’s gone along, I’ve started to employ managers of all the different departments and passed it on to them.

The festival kind of started with me, and has grown into me passing responsibilities onto people. We didn’t actually start with a team – the team’s grown out of necessity for each area. Which has been a really interesting process for me.

Even though I do have a background in promotions and in DJing, although that was a long time ago, my career is as an urban designer and landscape architect. A lot of the approach of the festival has been about the user experience, and how the festival sits within the landscape of the (Horton Park) Golf Course. So I’ve spent a lot of time myself designing the site, and making the site look and feel special. That’s what I think is one of the strengths of the festival, is that everything’s really easy to get to, really well-designed and thought out. But then, of course, you’ve got the layer of all of the art and  the music on top of that.

I’m really excited about that, and where that’s gonna lead. It’s fifty percent music and fifty percent visual arts. One doesn’t trump the other, and a lot of punters aren’t used to that. I know for me as a festival punter, I’m not used to it. A lot of people don’t know what to expect, and we don’t even know how it’s going to be received either. I’m assuming it’s going to be received really well. And once people sort of understand it, and get that that side of the festival – that it’s literally an art gallery with international standard artwork in it, next to a beautiful amphitheater – where that can grow into the future is, I think, some really exciting space for us. It’s given us a different position within the Australian festival scene.

Its an hour and a half away from about three and a half million people. South East Queensland is such an interesting space, because we consider ourselves all of these different areas, and we’re smaller than Sydney or Melbourne, but when you really look at it, there are three and a half million people living within an hour and a half of our site. So as news spreads of this festival, I think we’ll grow quite nicely moving forward because of that point of difference, particularly in South East Queensland.

There’s always a few challenges. This week, we had to deal with some timetabling issues and changeover issues with a headlining act, and that sort of thing. Sometimes there are typos in contracts, and it gets two weeks out from the festival and some things need to change. So we spent about a day on organising those sorts of things.

We also had an Operations meeting, so we had the whole festival management team – site manager, production manager, operations manager, visual arts coordinator, security, traffic and transport manager, you know, that full team. We walked them through the site, talked about basically how everything was going to go, before bump-in starts. So, everyone is aware of everyone else’s position, and, I suppose, scope of work.

Street art by Gus.
Street art by Gus.

Organising more advertising, having a visual media sit-down. Because we’ve noticed that our digital’s really starting to work, and that’s converting to ticket sales, so we’re doing a final push on digital, moving forward. You’ve gotta keep your finger on the pulse with what’s working marketing-wise, and what’s not working. And you’ve gotta be adaptable, so we’re constantly reviewing that and adapting our strategies. Then we’re finalising the menu for the bars, and took a few of the stakeholders – Council and the land owner – through the site, and explained what we were doing.

We found out that the site – because it’s transitioned from a golf course to being a construction site, a demolition contractor for the site started on Monday and was unaware that there was a music festival happening on the site. So, that’s brought in a whole plethora of issues around workplace health and safety, and legals, that we’re working through at the moment. A lot of that is the operation of how the event is going to play out, particularly with the bump-in and the bump-out, and what impacts that has on that demolition contract are pretty important. Not to mention, on the day, when we’ve got thousands and thousands of people in a construction site – so that’s been a pretty interesting curveball to deal with.

We’ve got the launch party tonight, at The Flying Cock, and just dealing with our hard-copy ticket providers, and getting that promotion off the ground as well. So that’s today, and I’ve got an investor meeting today, as well.

And we’re also building the shipping container art gallery, so I’m popping off to the timber supply yard to get the timber for that, so that it’s ready on site tomorrow for our volunteers to build with.

LEHMAN - The Pace Of Life - Website Image
Shipping Container Gallery – The Pace Of Life (Kim Lehman)


Bringing the whole Operations team together on site, because we have done a lot of site works. We finished building the bars, and we’ve got the telegraph pole in the main amphitheatre for lighting. It’s really nice just to walk people through the site, and show them that the vision has started to come together, and seeing people’s reactions to that. ‘Cause it’s the first time that they’ve seen it physically, and to see people react in such an excitable way is really good, especially when none of the main infrastructure, like stages, are even in yet. So, I suppose that ‘s a big highlight to me. Because I think that one of our main strengths is that we have such a beautiful site, in the middle of Maroochydore.

It’s been three years for me, so sometimes it feels a little bit surreal. And I’ve done a lot of events over the last two years, about twenty-four different events. Particularly with the Night Markets in Ocean Street, and the Pop-Up bar. Whenever you pop up an event in an alleyway or that sort of thing, it kinda looks ‘okay’ when you’ve finished setting up. But when you get those people in there, and it starts vibing, that’s when it transforms. So I’m super excited to see how the Golf Course is going to transform into this wicked party. Once you put a bunch of humans together in an atmosphere like that, it becomes electric.

Do you think let your hair down and get into the partying yourself?
Well, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time planning, and I’ve got a super good management team around me – I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be having a good time on the day!

The stress levels are pretty intense, and the effect that that has on your health is not good. So that, for me, is a pretty big downside. It’s been months and months of poor sleep, and it’s a pretty high-stress job! I didn’t realise when I started that it would be like that. They say the first year’s the hardest, and we’ve bitten off a pretty big project, too – our version of starting small is probably a lot bigger than what we should have done. But it’s shaping up to be quite successful, so we’re pretty happy.

Words of Wisdom
Spend a lot of time scoping your project before you start, and always make sure you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s before you even start booking bands or anything.
But there’s always a solution to every problem. It’s just about bringing all of your stakeholders with you on the ride, and sometimes that can be very difficult, particularly when you’re dealing with government agencies.
But if you’re passionate about it, you’ll find a way.

Visit the Maroochy Music & Visual Arts Festival site here.

MMVAF maroochy music & visual arts festival

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