There are a lot of theories about why people have stopped going to Sleaze, a once legendary party which used to attract around 16,000 revellers.
This year only 6,500 people turned up, which is 2,500 fewer than its organisers at New Mardi Gras expected. As the annual October party is a major fundraiser for the following year’s Mardi Gras festival, the poor turnout means the next season is in serious trouble. As a result New Mardi Gras has announced they would have to pare back the four-week festival and cut costs -“ and events -“ wherever they could.
Some say there are too many competing parties on the same weekend, with a lot of blame directed at the hugely popular Toybox party at Luna Park. Some say partygoers are turned off by the focus of Sleaze marketing as a fundraiser for next year’s Mardi Gras, rather than as a great party in its own right. Others claim the ticket price of $120 per person is far too expensive. And a lot of people believe punters just aren’t interested in attending big parties any more.
Mark Goggin, general manager of Mardi Gras from its heyday in 1996 to 2001 (one year before it went into administration), believes falling crowd numbers at Sleaze can be blamed on a number of factors.
The crowd built up to 16,000 I think at its highest point, and it dropped off from 1997, almost a thousand a year, Goggin said. I think it was due to ticket price.
This period also saw the birth of a much more sophisticated club scene. By the end of the 90s Sydney’s gay clubs started to compete and provide credible party alternatives, Goggin said. It became a much more competitive market for dance parties.
And New Mardi Gras didn’t sell Sleaze as the must-go international party in Sydney, Goggin said.
I think that’s fundamental to the position of Mardi Gras these days. Mardi Gras doesn’t aspire to be the best international gay event in the world. It’s saying, -˜We want to be more grass roots, we want to be in touch with the community, give us money because this is fundraising.’
But that F-word can be the kiss of death. Every time we used the word fundraising in the lead-up to Sleaze it killed off a couple of thousand tickets, Goggin said.
People hate that message. They hate the begging bowl approach to entertainment. They want to know that if they’re spending their $120 they’re getting their money’s worth.
One partygoer who was turned off by the F-word was Andrew Osborne, 32, who skipped Sleaze and went to Toybox the next day with his boyfriend Rohan Ely, 24.
The impression I got from it was that they were trying to guilt us into going to Sleaze, Osborne said. They said unless you go to Sleaze, Mardi Gras will be cancelled. I think it was a bit insulting because a lot of people support Mardi Gras in other ways, by going to other community events, rather than just going to this one dance party. It was a bit offensive.
Osborne was also turned off by the price of tickets and because he felt Sleaze had lost its focus.
Originally it had a more sleazy edge to it, but over the years that got squeezed out and it became the poor cousin to Mardi Gras, he said.
The man currently steering New Mardi Gras, Marcus Bourget, said he had no regrets about selling Sleaze as a fundraising event
I think it was a very responsible thing we did to say it was a fundraiser. We reported a $304,000 loss at the end of last year, and that was always going to have a major impact on this year’s Sleaze. I think one of the strengths of this board is that we’ve been very clear and honest in our communications.
Bourget admitted price sensitivity was an issue. I’ve also heard it said that some people didn’t engage with our marketing. I thought the marketing was fantastic, but maybe there’s an argument the message could have been simpler. I’ve heard that said. Other people just wanted to go to another party. Certainly Toybox raised the bar in terms of production and we have to strive to improve our own production values.
So what’s so good about Toybox?
It’s the party to be at, partygoer Osborne said. The lighting is spectacular, the music is consistently good, and the venue -“ Luna Park -“ is amazing.
When it comes down to it, it’s a much better party.
Andy Schouten, who organises Toybox with his partner Brett Bush, was surprised by suggestions they were trying to sabotage Sleaze by holding their party the next day.
It’s always been produced as a recovery, and Sydney is the town of the recovery, more than any other place in Australia and possibly the world, he said.
When New Mardi Gras first got started, Bush, a graphic designer, volunteered to spend his summer designing all the artwork (the campaign with the rings and the butterflies) for the festival. And they donated $5 to New Mardi Gras from every ticket sold to the Toybox party they held the day after Mardi Gras 2005. After the last party they donated money to other gay charities, BGF and ACON.
Schouten said he hoped to strengthen Toybox’s partnership with New Mardi Gras in 2006.
We have a long history with Mardi Gras and a strong association with New Mardi Gras, Schouten said.
Stephen Craddock, the man behind Big Queer Nation, Homesexual and the marketing for this year’s Sleaze, believed the party’s poor ticket sales could be put down to people being less interested in going to massive parties.
There’s a general softening in the market for large dance events. It seems people are going to smaller venues, firstly because they don’t get lost and lose their friends, and also because it’s more intimate. Those big huge scary halls can really put people off, Craddock said.
So what’s next for Sleaze? Mark Goggin said he believed it would only continue if it was reinvented, to compete with the Toyboxes and Fag Tags.
Marcus Bourget said the organisation would have to take in the reality of falling attendance but did not see why they couldn’t have a very successful Sleaze next year.
From the feedback we’ve had this year a lot of people want us to do it. Which just goes to show a great party doesn’t require 15 million lasers. If you’re there with your friends and there’s good entertainment, and you look after your patrons and address their key issues, people respect that and will continue to support Mardi Gras.