Building a city on rock and roll

The rise of Yours & Owls

How UOW grads built the Yours & Owls Festival from the grassroots up, and its impact on the city’s culture.

Adam Smith, Balunn Jones and Ben Tillman (l-r) are reminiscing about a huge party that unfolded around them in 2008. They recall the holes in the wall from potato guns, the fireworks going off in the hallway, the loud music pumping from massive speakers and the sight of blue and red lights flashing through the windows. The police were there to break up Ben's 'barn' party of more than 600 people. Not for the first time.

"We called them barn parties, because of the shape of the house I shared with some other mates," Ben says. "Word started to get out and they just got bigger and bigger. Hundreds of people would rock up. And then the police."

It was to be the last barn party after Ben was hit with a hefty fine for disturbing the peace. "We were uni students and didn't have lots of money, so my solution was to throw another party," Ben says.

This time, Ben did it by the book. "I talked to a bunch of clubs around Wollongong and floated the idea of a party that combined local art and live music. The local gay club was keen on the idea and that's how it all got started."

That party was so successful that not only did he raise enough to pay the fines, he was encouraged to throw more parties and was asked to regularly book a venue with local talent. It was the start of something that would continue to grow during his time at uni, along with his friendship with Adam and Balunn. While Ben and Balunn studied psychology and Adam studied economics, all three learned some very valuable life skills.

"I remember a pretty definitive moment when one of my lecturers said, 'hand in your assignment, or don't. It's up to you'," Adam recalls. "That's when I realised success was totally in my own hands." Ben agrees: "I think uni teaches you how to learn and how to be an independent person who can think and navigate their way through life. I guess that independence is what led us to do our own thing and be our own bosses."

Setting up base

After uni, while most of their friends moved to Sydney or Melbourne, the boys looked at the local music scene in Wollongong and saw huge potential.

"We loved the relaxed lifestyle," Adam says. "But more than that, we wanted something of our own, so we looked into opening a venue." Balunn adds: "We wanted to create something that gave back to the community, and the idea of 'yours and ours' came up." Add in a play on words and their new café/bar/art gallery/live music venue, Yours & Owls, was born.

A cafe was an interesting choice for three who freely admit to disliking early mornings, yet Adam believes this willingness to throw themselves into each venture is an important element of their success. "You've just got to go all out. I think it's the fastest way to learn. You'll make a big mistake or you'll pull off a big win, either way you're going to learn a hell of a lot."

Yours & Owls quickly gained a reputation for not only fostering local artists and musicians, like Hockey Dad, but for helping to build Wollongong's now vibrant cultural scene.

It's these humble beginning that Chris Gibson - Professor of Human Geography at UOW - believes is fundamental to the rise of Yours & Owls. "The beauty of a grassroots community approach is that you develop a loyal audience within your niche, so you have much less risk and you've developed trust with punters over time."

After four years of early mornings and countless shows, including mini festivals on the grounds at UOW, the three men - still keen to promote the local music scene - sold the café looking for their next challenge.

The Yours & Owls Festival

That next challenge was the Yours & Owls Festival in Wollongong. In its first year Sticky Fingers, Safia and Dune Rats, pulled a crowd of 3,000 punters. 2015 saw them expand the festival over two days with 8,000 people coming to see The Rubens, The Preatures, The Delta Riggs, Cloud Control and, of course, a good dose of local talent.

The 2016 saw an impressive list of local, Australian and international acts, including Hermitude, Tkay Maidza, Living End, Client Liaison, Ball Park Music and Big Scary perform on two stages over two days to over 10,000 fans. The festival also garnered acclaim for the fact that 50 per cent of the acts were female led, including local singer-songwriter Bec Sandridge.

It's a figure that Ben thinks says more about the abundance of female talent in Australia than the festival itself. "It was never our intention to do that in the booking. It's just a reflection of the talent out there." Balunn agrees: "We could pursue any number of bands. These are just the ones we thought would, collectively, put on the best show."

Now in its fourth year and supported by a strong Fringe Festival to further boost the cultural pull of the region, the 2017 edition of Yours & Owls will see the likes of The Presets, At The Drive In, Safia, Illy and Northlane headline a list of more than 70 acts over the NSW Labour Day long weekend.

Each year the festival has attracted more and more visitors, which is something that Balunn says will benefit the whole region. "The nice thing is it's developed a reputation that's good enough to attract people from outside the area and that's when you start to see the reputation of Wollongong as a cultural hub extend outwards."

Yet, rather than setting their sights on creating the biggest festival possible, it's the festival's boutique nature and the relaxed beachside location of Stuart Park that Adam says are key ingredients to the success of the festival. "People are always searching for some authenticity and when something becomes too big or too commercial, which can happen with those really big festivals, they lose that edge." Ben adds: "What Wollongong has over bigger cities is that it's small enough to maintain that community, village vibe. For us, and the punters, that's the appeal."

These are insights that Professor Gibson has found to be true through his own research. "Every event will have its sweet spot, where it's prosperous, economically viable, but still able to foster a good vibe, which is so important."

The team behind Yours and Owls sit in front of a graffiti covered wall. Photo: Paul Jones  

Beyond the mighty dollar

Festivals and events are big business, even in regional and rural areas that we assume would be dominated by farming. "Agriculture is obviously really important to rural Australia," Professor Gibson says. "But it turns out, regional festivals and events are more significant than agriculture in terms of the economic benefit."

With such a huge impact it would also be easy to assume that the bigger the festival, the better for the local area, but Professor Gibson's research uncovered another hidden truth. "What our research, from more than 2,800 regional festivals shows, is that a big festival that hasn't developed from grassroots brings big risk. What works best are lots of little festivals. It's like the fizz in the lemonade of the local economy and cultural scene. Ballarat alone had 85 festivals in the one year of our study."

This event 'fizz' is something the boys from Yours & Owls see in Wollongong throughout the year and something they help to ensure doesn't go flat.

Balunn says: "You've got a lot of small events happening throughout the year, and that all culminates in bigger festivals. But without those smaller events, like Ben booking gigs at the UniBar and around town, that end result would never be as strong."

This hard work, and that of other local events, hasn't gone unnoticed with Adam seeing a renewed appreciation among policy makers for the importance of the community events sector. "The last year or two, people are really embracing it. Local authorities are embracing it. I think they can see that it's not only an economic benefit for the city, but it's having a positive effect on the vibe and culture of the place."

Professor Gibson - who has released a book detailing the history of the hugely successful Parkes Elvis Festival - agrees: "It's important that we understand both that these events generate economic activity, and that in its own right is worth supporting, but also that they bring substantive cultural benefits that enrich the life of our place above and beyond anything you can put a dollar amount on."

The after party

Ben, Adam and Balunn have seen the music and creative scene of Wollongong develop to a point where young bands and creatives can flourish, and the boys hold high hopes for the region's future beyond Yours & Owls.

"I guess we'd all like to see Wollongong gain a reputation as one of the strongest live music scenes in Australia, and it's certainly headed that way," Ben says. Adam adds: "There's still a way to go, but the more of us working together, the better our chances."

Professor Gibson says nurturing events that bring a community together can make regional areas a more attractive place to live. "If you can support a diverse festival and event sector, you provide a more vibrant cultural life that keeps talented people in the area. People have a greater sense of satisfaction and wellbeing in life as a result of these events."

Balunn, for one, believes Wollongong is just getting warmed up: "Creative industries, along with innovation from places like the University, is booming. There are so many opportunities for young people coming out of uni to establish themselves and make a life here. Now there are more reasons to stay, like we did, and keep the party going."