The Young Star Who Says Virtual Events Are Not the Future - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because in-person festivals still beat the virtual kind.

  • Australian Holly Rankin is a dual threat, as alt-pop performer Jack River and as a concert festival promoter with a focus on sustainability.
  • Rankin believes in-person gatherings will return post-pandemic, and that Zoom meetings and gatherings are a poor substitute.

Jack River’s big lockdown indulgence was a mailbox.

The platinum-selling recording artist is not only an emerging alt-pop star but also one of Australia’s youngest festival promoters, with a focus on sustainability. The annual Grow Your Own Festival in her tiny home of Forster, New South Wales, sparked Electric Lady, a movement that has her curating all-women stages and festivals.

The coronavirus has put a pause on all of that. So as the 28-year-old settles in front of the Zoom camera for an interview as Holly Rankin rather than Jack River — she adopted the pirate-inspired moniker at age 17 to “feel badass” — she reveals that she’s gone decidedly low-tech to ride out the pandemic. The buzz online has been “tripping” her out, so she got a mailbox so that fans could send her letters.

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Grow Your Own Festival in Forster, New South Wales.

With COVID-19 sidelining an estimated one-third of the world’s population, the typically overbooked Rankin has found herself unusually still. Even as the pandemic has inspired many to pivot virtually — see the massive Global Citizen “Together at Home” event, DJ Jauz’s virtual world tour, at-home concerts by John Legend and Alicia Keys, and Australia’s own Isol-Aid social-distancing festival series — Rankin is not diving in.

[There’s] something obviously very human and magic about the live world we’ve already created.

Holly Rankin, aka Jack River

It’s not that Rankin doesn’t support such events. She recognizes the good they bring, especially during a time when many people are feeling lonelier than ever, but she also identifies as an introvert who isn’t drawn to doing live things from her own home. She anticipates normalcy on the other side of this. 

“On a festival level, I don’t think music going on live [streams] will be a thing,” she says, sitting cross-legged on her carpeted floor. “I personally am not going to get involved in starting an online festival or wanting to take my tours online or anything, because it’s just something obviously very human and magic about the live world we’ve already created.”

This magic is something that Rankin has created for her hometown of Forster (population 14,000) over the past five years. The Grow Your Own Festival is about building enthusiasm not only for local musicians — combined with top national talent — but also local farmers, who get a chance to show off their wares.

Daphne Nguyen

Holly Rankin, aka Jack River

Source Daphne Nguyen

The festival drew 4,000 people in 2019 and was projected to draw 6,000 this year, which made pushing the event back a difficult decision. “As a young promoter that’s dealing with a small festival, I think it would be irresponsible to run it early, because I have a lot of risk in that festival and we put in so much love and money,” Rankin says.

This meticulous thinking and concern for the environment is something that can be traced back to Rankin’s youth, when she fell in love with the idea of music’s impact and wrote all her school essays about it. “I was a massive dork and was always on the school representative council and doing that kind of thing,” she says. At 13, she was picked to be on the UNICEF Youth Advisory Panel, developing an interest in sustainability.

Rankin started her bachelor’s degree in science with a focus in sustainability at Newcastle University, but she felt that music, which she had been practicing since childhood, would be the more effective route to enact change. “Every movement in history has the songs it’s tied to and these people who creatively speak about important political issues,” she explains. “It does not seem that politicians get much done. It’s always driven by these movements.” With her music, Rankin has found popular and critical acclaim, including three Australian Recording Industry Association Award nominations.

Climate awareness is married to her music in an unmistakable way, whether it’s her song “Constellation Ball” or in casual conversation. “I had figured out that she was a bit of a geek for climate activism within about the first 30 seconds I met her,” says Johann Ponniah, founder and director of I Oh You, Rankin’s label in Australia. “So many of Holly’s ideas, and you get it from growing up in more regional areas of Australia instead of one of the capital cities, is this idea of taking things from a local size and taking it to global size and remembering that there is so much good talent in your own backyard.”

The issue has taken on a special urgency in Australia, given the recent devastating wildfires there. The embers have cooled, but most Australians remain housebound due to the pandemic. Shyla Raghav, vice president of climate change and global strategy at Conservation International, says it’s a chance to take a step back and assess. “In the past, everyone would look at changing your behavior as a huge sacrifice,” Raghav says. “Now everyone is experiencing that firsthand and recognizing that we actually have the capacity and ability to make those changes and to see the opportunity in those changes.”

Rankin still meets weekly via Zoom with a group of fellow environmental activists. After a period of what she describes as banging their heads against the wall in terms of the movement, she’s looking forward to restrategizing and resting. She’s also working on an album — and studying online for a law degree.

But if you’re looking for a live performance, you’ll have to wait until it can be done in the flesh.

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