10 things we’ve learned about Oxegen
What last night’s Oxegen announcement tells us about the Punchestown event – and the rest of the Irish festival sector
(1) If you thought the Longitude line-up was perfectly pitched for its target audience, take a look at what’s in the store for Punchestown Racecourse as Oxegen goes live. Kudos galore to the bookers who have got it spot on for the audience who now heart Oxegen. As we saw with sales for the show-that-dare-not-speak-its-name in that-venue-in-the-middle-of-Dublin last summer, there is a pretty solid market for this fare.
(2) They’re still billing it on their website as “Europe’s greatest music festival”, but past Oxegen patrons, men and women honed in the glorious Dutch Gold and vodka jousts on the red campsite of old, vehemently disagree with this. In fact, the amount of invective coming the festival’s way on social media channels is quite something else. Cop a look at the Oxegen Facebook page, for instance. There are many nuggets here but we love this one: “MCD, ye are honestly a bunch of f****** idiots. Ye wouldnt organise a Holy Communion. Stop calling it Europes favourite Rock n Roll weekend cos its not anymore.. ye fucked it all up!” Well, he wouldn’t be going to get his jollies with Calvin Harris. In fact, he won’t be one of the “festival fit” “revellers” who won’t “let the rain dampen his spirits”. (UPDATE: that Facebook post linked to above, the one full of negative comments, has now been taken down and a new one put up in its place. And guess what? Yes, it’s also full of WTF. As Mike Mc Grath-Bryan notes on the new post: “they took down yesterday’s pic with tons of truthful and considerate comments? O hai, u guyz. Why is there a guitar in the poster when there’s not a single instrument being used this year?”)
(3) What we’re seeing here, then, is a significant changing of the guard, something which has been coming down the tracks since 2009. Back then, it was as obvious as the nose on your face – well, to some observers anyway – that Oxegen was about to go pop and dance. That was the year when MCD spent big on acts like Blur, Fever Ray, The Specials and Nine Inch Nails, but the bulk of the Oxegen audience really wanted The Script, Lily Allen, Pet Shop Boys, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and The Saturdays, Snow Patrol, The Blizzards and The Coronas. It was even clearer in 2010 when Jay-Z, Black Eyed Peas, David Guetta, Eminem and Fatboy Slim dominated the post-match analysis rather than Arcade Fire, who played to a couple of hundred people on the main stage. By 2011, even the most dumbass hack in the pack was going “oh yeah”, especially when The National were paid a small fortune to play to less people than they played to in Whelan’s in 2005. The people wanted Beyonce, Ke$ha, Coldplay and, er, Amanda Brunker, not The National. In fact, as we know only too well, The National themselves felt Oxegen was a disaster and are no longer promoted by MCD in this country.
(4) It’s clear that the powers-that-be who control the chequebooks and who have to pay the bills also believed it was time for a rethink and a pivot away from what Oxegen traditionally was because that audience had by and large abandoned Punchestown. Of course, sponsorship – there’s a reason why the last two letters in the festival’s logo are coloured green – meant they kept the name, despite the huge change in direction. Then again, sponsorship is the main reason why MCD have a two-day festival with camping less than an hour outside Dublin to begin with. It all began with sponsorship: Oxegen’s predecessor Witnness was originally going to be the name for a brewery-sponsored comedy festival in Scotland before it was pulled into use for the first fest in Fairyhouse in 2000. If a drinks’ brand want to have their name associated with a two-day pop and dance fest pulling 50,000 teenagers to an Irish racecourse on a bank holiday weekend, then they shall.
(5) We said “MCD” there, but Oxegen and 2013 is also about the Live Nation takeover of the Irish music market via Festival Republic. Those who read the small print will know that it’s Festival Republic who are behind the licence application for Oxegen and not MCD. Festival Republic have also taken over from Diffusion Events as the name on the licence application for the Phoenix Park shows and we all know about Festival Republic’s bout of handwrestling over the Electric Picnic basket. It raises a ton of questions about the changing nature of the relationship between Live Nation and MCD, something which went up a notch when MCD’s Denis Desmond became a director of Festival Republic Dublin Ltd on November 26 last, as papers filed at the Companies Registration Office show. Are we seeing the final endgame of the Live Nation buy-out of MCD?
(6) Another question: will this line-up sell? The thing is Irish audiences traditionally rely on radio to get ‘em into a groove with a band. Look at how, for example, The Black Keys took off like a rocket once Irish radio stations got behind the last album. There are countless examples of this trend, from homegrown acts to imported singer-songwriters. The problem with the line-up from a promo point of view is that Irish national radio doesn’t really play as much of that new-school electro, pop and dance as you’d think. Someone like Duke Dumont, for instance, has had a massive smash in the UK with the awesome “Need U (100%)” (indeed, even old feckers like OTR have been raving about it), but you’re unlikely to hear it on your radio beyond a few clued-in locals and regionals like Spin. The traditional way of pushing Oxegen – ie big ads in the Oxegen-friendly papers, blanket ads on the radio and, er, that’s it – may need retooling (and new tools) on this occasion.
(7) Actually, on second thoughts, my favourite anti-Oxegen tirades are coming from the lads (and lasses) who wanted and thought that the Kings Of Leon, Muse and Green Day would be headlining. “Jaysus, do any of them even play instruments?”, “where are the real bands?” and “rock’n'roll weekend me hoop”. Behold, readers, a generation gap appearing right in front of your eyes – and that’s before we consider what my peers in the press have to say (or not say, as seems to be the case in many instances) about the line-up. Yes, old age is setting in amongst those who hack for a living too.
(8) It’s also worth bearing in mind that Oxegen 2013 will also be operating with much lower budgets than in the past. After all, when you factor in the 37.5 per cent drop in capacity and knock-on reduction in gross take (which will apply right across the board as you surely can’t charge the same sponsorship or vendor fees for 50,000 as you did for 80,000 unless you’ve Roger Sterling doing the selling for you) and also add in the increased security requirements that Kildare County Council will probably insist on post-Swedish House Mafia at Phoenix Park, you’re looking at a tight enough profit margin. The seven million or so in maximum gate receipts is a far cry from the 17 million they would have been able to count on in the good ol’ days. That’s another reason why we’re talking DJs and pop acts.
(9) So what does this all mean for the Irish festival landscape in general? Well, I’m glad you asked that question, Miriam. What we’re seeing is a divide-and-conquer approach to audiences. If you’re into Guetta and Harris, you’re going to Oxegen. If you’re into big-box indie acts like Phoenix and Foals, you’re going to Longitude. If you’re looking for something else, the choice is infinite out there. With the exception of our heavy metal friends (bring back Day of Darkness now!), everyone gets looked after in their own little niche in the brave new world of Irish festivals. Oxegen tried to stick the indie and pop and dance and rock tribes together like had been the case since the glory days of Feile when Denis Desmond first learned you could make a small fortune from camping festivals, but found that that just didn’t work anymore hence the strict breakdown by genre you’re seeing for the summer of Thirteen.
(10) That said, there is an exception to the rule and that will come out to play tomorrow night. The Electric Picnic remains the oddball in all of the above thanks to the various on/off rumours which have accompanied the event all year long. People just don’t believe it anymore when the promoter insists to the paper of record that the event is going on. But Melvin Benn was right and the event will be going ahead on its usual weekend, regardless of the outcome of that court case (unless it has been settled off-the-plinth and one party has bought out the other). The Picnic remains the one event on the Irish music festival schedule which has always been a true tribal gathering because of the acts it books, the atmosphere created down in Co Laois and the general vibes you get with that mix of punters. Will this year’s event, the 10th run-out for the festival on Thomas Cosby’s lawn, live up to that billing? As with everything which lies ahead this summer – from the festivals to the hurling – we’ll just have to wait and see.