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Festival City Stories 29 Oct 2022

The ‘Psychic Income’ Effect of Festivals

Artistic directors, producers and performers all leave their indelible mark on the festivals they’re a part of. But not every role associated with festivals is quite as visible. For Barry Burgan, the real work begins when the stages are empty, the sets have been packed away and audiences are long gone.

A “financial economist who specialises in infrastructure assessment”, Burgan has been examining the economic impact of festivals since 1986. It means he evaluates grand cultural events the same way he would look at physical infrastructure like airports, roads and wind farms. And when politicians are deciding how to distribute funding, Burgan’s work plays a major part in guiding them.

“If you’re doing a study on whether a particular road should be built, one of the things you’re going to put a value on is travel time savings or reduction of accident risk,” he explains. “Neither of those has a financial dollar value in itself, but the value that’s created from reducing traffic congestion is an important part of why that should be done.”

Extrapolating from the data he collects for five major events in South Australia, Burgan estimates that cultural festivals generate the equivalent of 1000 full-time jobs in the state each year. “The numbers indisputably say Adelaide is the premier festival city” in Australia, both in frequency and diversity of festivals and for every dollar of government spending there’s a return of $5 in tourism spend. But those figures still don’t capture some of the most important benefits.

Burgan has spent decades analysing the economic impact of festivals in South Australia, but his most vivid festival memories come from an entirely different perspective. When he’s not crunching numbers the economist enjoys playing bass in a jazz trio, and when a venue owner approached him about putting on a Fringe show several years ago it was the perfect excuse to attempt something more ambitious: a Blues Brothers cabaret show.

Like many festival performers, he was thrilled at the opportunity to try something completely different and his face glows as he recalls “driving home after one of my first Fringe shows. It was a balmy summer evening, and people were out everywhere –the vibe in the city was palpable…  You could feel how people enjoyed this.  And being a part of that as a performer is second to none.”

On a purely financial level he admits that performing with an 11-piece band doesn’t make the most sense, but adds that “there’s a term that economists use called ‘psychic income’. Basically it’s an income you get that is not related to the actual dollars… it comes from the enjoyment you get out of the experience.”

That psychic income is what powers this state, providing residents and visitors alike with bold ideas, new connections and fond memories that remain long after the house lights have come on. In the longer term, a rich calendar of cultural events has significant positive impacts on wellbeing and social connectedness, attracts more creatives to Adelaide and fosters innovative, forward-thinking communities throughout the city.

It’s why festivals are crucial to South Australia’s future. As Burgan puts it, “the cultural impact that a deeper creative sector presence has within an economy, within a social fabric – it underpins increasingly knowledge-based economies, educated communities, interested communities. So it gives opportunities for everybody in that context… I tell people I meet around the world that if they’re going to visit Australia and South Australia, then put some festivals on their agenda.”



This article is part of the Festival City Stories series, a collection of reflections about Adelaide made by the people who make this a festival place. The project was funded through the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Arts South Australia, Arts Recovery Fund, and delivered in partnership with the State Library of South Australia. 

Written by: Alexis Buxton-Collins

Photography by: Sia Duff

Festival City Stories

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