Peter Noble has been at the helm of the Byron Bay Bluesfest for 20 years. What began in 1990 as a four-day indoor event at the Arts Factory site in Byron Bay, with a capacity crowd of 6000, is now a festival under big-top canvas that owns its own 120-hectare site at Tyagarah, 11 kilometres north of Byron Bay. It runs across multiple stages over the five-day Easter period with crowds in excess of 100,000 and has been nominated four times for Best International Festival at the US Pollstar Awards. Winning the Helpmann Award for Australia's best contemporary Music Festival in 2005 and 2006, and has been awarded Rhythms Magazine readers poll for 'Australia's Best Music Festival" every year between 1994 and 2010. In February, Noble won the fifth annual Rolling Stone Award for outstanding contribution to popular culture.
The Festival attracts locals who have grown up with Bluesfest, to international & first time visitors to the area. The Festival prides itself on being an all ages family event, with female attendances in 2008 (54%) and 28-30% of its audience being local. Bluesfest's history is parallel to Byron Bay's evolution into the iconic destination it is today. In 2010 Bluesfest moved to its permanent home at the the spectacular 120 hectare Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm 11km north of Byron Bay, one of the many milestones achieved in Bluesfest's 25 year history.
In December 2004, Kevin Oxford, a director and founder of the event, left the festival and sold his 50% share of the company to a consortium comprising Michael Chugg (MD of Sydney-based Michael Chugg Entertainment), Daryl Herbert (CEO of Melbourne based Definitive Events) and Glenn Wheatly (CEO of Melbourne based Talentworks), who ran the festival with founder Peter Noble. Noble bought out the consortium in 2008 and now owns the festival alone.
It was tough going in the beginning. Noble remembers his first Bluesfest.
“It wasn’t doing so well outdoors,” he says, “and that’s when a few of us invested, only to find out that things weren’t quite as rosy as they’d been portrayed. I had a record label that was doing okay, but that year we had rain of biblical proportions – it literally rained for 30 days and 30 nights – and suddenly it seemed like there was this bunker mentality in the company, let’s just hide and it’ll all go away.”
But Noble, mindful his investment could quickly sink, took action. A phone call to a supplier of pallets and duckboards, free tickets to volunteers to spread them, and a constant round of dropping hay on the ground to soak up water and the festival was able to go ahead.
“I thought I should have got a medal for what I did that year, and on the last night somebody punched me in the face because the final band played 15 minutes overtime.”
The next year they had several dry weeks beforehand only to have it rain for the entire five days of the event.
“You could say my first few years were baptism by water,” Noble says.
“In fact, that’s when people used to call us the Muddy Waters Festival.” Despite the capricious weather, it's the musos that keep visitors coming back.
Noble grew up in Sydney’s inner west, in the suburb of Croydon Park. His father, Len, was the head of the then Commonwealth Electoral Office (now the Australian Electoral Commission), while his mother stayed home with Peter and his older brother, Michael, who loved New Orleans and R&B music. In 1975, at the age of 15, Noble joined a band called Clapham Junction as a bass player and he left school a year later to becomea professional musician.
“I was the only Aussie in an all-Brit band,” he recalls.
“The Beatles were the biggest thing that had ever happened on the music scene, and after they performed in Sydney [in 1964] thousands of garage bands sprang up overnight, including Clapham Junction.”
After a stint as bandleader for Marcia Hines, Noble moved to Portland, Oregon, in the US to try to fulfil his dream of playing in a band of black musicians. He managed it for a few months, touring with Stormy Weather as a bass player, but it didn’t work out, so he headed back to Portland. A brief marriage had also hit the rocks, and Noble was short of money and needed a place to live.
“I was walking down the street and saw a sign that said ‘American Entertainment’, and on the spur of the moment I went in and said to the guy there, ‘I can book bands. If you give me a room, you don’t have to pay me. I’ll work for commission only’.”
It didn’t take long for Noble to realise he’d found his métier, and within months he’d booked his first big gig – bluesman B.B. King.
Noble returned to Sydney in the early ’80s and was soon promoting blues gigs around Australia. In 1990 he upped sticks for Byron Bay, where he fed talent to Bluesfest founder Keven Oxford (who left the festival in 2004). The consortium that bought into the festival in 1993, which included promoters Michael Chugg, Daryl Herbert and Glenn Wheatley, bowed out in 2008.
That same year, Noble’s record label, AIM (the first independent Australian record label to win a Grammy with Terrance Simien in the Cajun music category in 2008), provided a windfall.
“Festivals are not an easy way to get rich,” Noble says.
“Nobody has any idea of the overheads involved in putting something like this on, and the amount of things that can go wrong. I’ve almost lost my shirt several times, and it was years before I could pay myself more than $500 a week but I had AIM, which was doing well and that really supported my family.
“I was offered this rap record through overseas contacts, and when I heard it my first thought was, yuck – and I just chucked it to one side.”
Fortunately for Noble, he reconsidered.
“It was Tupac [Shakur],” he says. “Of course I hadn’t heard of him – not my scene but it seemed everybody else in the world had, and that was how I made some serious money.”
But it wasn’t straightforward – the money came not just through Australian record sales, but also through a settlement with Universal Records in the US after Tupac’s death in 1996. The company wanted to take back the entire estate, and weren’t keen on the idea of an Aussie record label retaining Australian rights.
“I settled for a ridiculously low amount,” says Noble, “but it did buy a nice house in Byron back when local real estate was still cheap – we call it ‘the House that Tupac Built’.”
The “we” Noble mentions includes his life and business partner of 15 years, German-born Annika Oman, 48, the festival’s general manager.
Bluesfest CEO Peter Noble and partner Annika Oman. Picture: Russell Shakespeare Source: News Corp Australia
“I first met Annika because her husband was one of my friends, and he became my best friend,” he says.
“My second wife and I were godparents to one of their children, and they were godparents to one of ours, so even though I was attracted to her I was a gentleman and that was that.”
Oman’s husband died 17 years ago. Noble, who had separated from his second wife, started dating Oman nine months after her husband’s death.
“It was devastating for all of us,” Noble says, “and for me it meant a lot of soul-searching but in the long run I wasn’t willing to stand by and let somebody else snap her up; she is such an incredible person.”
Mixed emotions flit across his face and just for a moment he seems pensive, almost wistful. Then he laughs, a loud, booming laugh that fills the office: “They say if you want an efficient office, marry a German, and by god, they’re right!” Between them, Noble and Oman have five children and five grandchildren.
So what does it take to be a successful festival director? “The most important things are to be creative and to work with integrity,” Noble says. Beyond that, though, are the qualities that perhaps those of us who are more risk-averse don’t have in such abundance. One is nerves of steel; another, as Noble puts it, is “having a hide like a rhinoceros”.
“One criticism that used to hurt me a little was [from] the people who said that I wasn’t running a true blues festival,” he says.
“Right from the start, I knew the audiences for pure blues were finite, and I could also see the audience for a wider range of music was growing. If Bluesfest was to survive it had to reach out to that wider audience, and in turn introduce that audience to the blues. So to that criticism I say, ‘yes – I’m guilty’.”
It was Ben Harper’s first appearance in 1996 that confirmed to Noble he was on the right track. “We all saw the audience it brought us – and then many years later, what do you get? A collaboration between Harper and blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Fantastic.”
Noble won’t be drawn on his favourite artist, but there have been numerous friendships formed. The Queensland blues duo of Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson has clocked up 23 festivals in a row, and the pair’s regular appearance and growing international fan base reflect Noble’s commitment to Australian acts.
We’ve also kept a family atmosphere going with things like the busking competition,” he says. “A young man from Merimbula [NSW], Kim Churchill, won it in 2009 with his great mix of folk, rock and blues, and now he’s one of the stars at this year’s festival. Local school bands also get a chance to perform, and the smaller tents give first-timers a go.”
There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes action as well, including a stoush with Byron Shire Council when it attempted to change the shire’s multiple major event policy to allow only two major events a year, which could have placed Bluesfest in jeopardy when its consent expired in 2020. One year later (and, according to Noble, thousands of dollars in legal fees), Byron Council received a directive from the NSW state government that blocked the council’s planned changes. Now, with a new council, permanent approval for the festival is pending. “Byron can now continue to do what it does best and be a leader in the arts,” he says.
“We want the site to be used [beyond a single once-a-year event],” adds Noble. “It’s here for the community, not just for Bluesfest.”
Bluesfest has become, under Noble’s directorship, a wonderfully diverse and colourful colossus – not dissimilar to the man himself.
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