Lost in a field
Electric Picnic, the most talked about Irish festival, is done for 2013. What’s next? (Photo by Brenda Fitzsimons.)
So Electric Picnic 2013 is over. The pop-up media-magnet festival even created headlines when it did something as rudimentary as sell all of its tickets. But for this year, you can stick a neon fork it in, it’s done. And now, the aftermath.
Overall, I must admit that I found this year’s festival underwhelming until Sunday came around. There are four reasons for that. The first reason: this was my eighth Electric Picnic. I missed the first one and the 2009 edition. When you attend a festival eight times, things are going to start to become familiar. I could map out the site by heart, even including the positioning of certain food stalls. Sure, there have been a couple of recent additions, Red Bull’s area, the Trailer Park etc., but there are hardly any surprises. Arriving on site is a bit deja vu all over again. And I know this comes up every year, but I still think the hole left by the thisispopbaby tent has yet to be filled.
The second reason is festival fatigue. When you’ve spent the past few months at South By Southwest, Canadian Music Week, Forbidden Fruit, Body & Soul, Glastonbury, Longitude and Oxegen, you start to get a little weary. Throw in some Phoenix Park shows, No Way Back, a few O2 gigs, and whatever else comes up in the Olympia, Vicar Street, Whelans, The Academy, 10 Days In Dublin and more, the reverberations from another drum soundcheck get a bit much.
The third reason is the Glastonbury effect. This year was my fifth Glasto, and like all years, it ruins every other festival in a field. It is completely unfair to compare other music festivals to Glastonbury, but you can’t really help it, especially when so many festivals are knocking off elements of it. Most contemporary music festivals are derivative of Glastonbury and therefore inevitably feel smaller, less authentic, more sparse, less friendly and less of an adventure. That’s why more and more I’ve tried once a year to go to a festival that is nothing like Glastonbury, or isn’t pitching itself as such. Lake of Stars in Malawi, SXSW in Austin and Airwaves in Reykjavik are great festivals – because they don’t try to replicate anything else. Comparisons of Electric Picnic being “Ireland’s Glastonbury” are laughable. It’s a really nice festival, but there are as many crew on site in Somerset as there are punters in Stradbally.
The fourth reason is my boredom with the festival aesthetic. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine said “If I see one more CD hanging from a tree I’m going to…” actually, I can’t repeat the end of that sentence, but you know what I mean. The things I found most visually interesting at this year’s Picnic bucked that aesthetic; a maze made from washing machines, Bjork’s visuals and stage set up, The Knife’s stunning dance show, the prosecco bar, basically anything that didn’t feel crafts-y. The vast majority of that pseudo-crafts-y-fauxhemian-hippie aesthetic has been at Glastonbury for years, but there it feels real, and you don’t mind it because there are so many other nutty set designs and areas going on. But for me, that aesthetic is stale. I’d love to see something futuristic, or something that didn’t borrow from something in existence. Plenty of set ups at festivals have managed to break out from the constraints of flags, things hanging from trees, willow branches and carved wood over the years; thisispopbaby’s tent, Lost Vagueness, NYC Downlow, Block 9, Shangri La, Red Bull Electric Ballroom, Arcadia, and it has to be said, the main stage at Body & Soul this year was really quite beautiful, and to be honest, I kind of don’t mind Body & Soul immersing itself in that aesthetic because it always has, but when everyone becomes a derivative of a derivative, surely it’s time to change it up?
So, with those four disclaimers as to why I won’t be giving Electric Picnic five stars this year, here are my other thoughts. Actually, there’s a fifth you have to take into the equation – I was working all weekend. That meant no boozing, no LOLing around with mates, no meeting hilarious randomers in the campsite. You have a different experience when you’re working at a festival, but it also affords you a decent perspective on what’s going on.
Lisa O’Neill, Daithi, Bjork, Savages, Ellie Goulding, Tiernanniesaur – all great.
Awful, shouty, tuneless lairy rubbish that would almost make you yearn for The Vaccines. I’m actually insulted on behalf of music that these lads are given the privilege to tour.
Cook played some really bad tracks. No one needs to hear Kernkraft or some crap cover of ‘Get Lucky’.
Boring by-numbers reggae.
Sunday’s triple whammy of awesomeness
David Byrne and St Vincent was AMAZING. The Knife’s show was one of the bravest, most interesting, and emotional things I’ve ever seen on stage. Absolutely mind-blowingly fantastic. Le Galaxie played the gig of their lives at midnight on Sunday. Phenomenal.
Most people going to festivals that don’t hang everything on a superstar line-up talk are all about “the vibe”. Irish people are all about the vibe. I’m no rocket surgeon, but my equation for what constitutes an Irish festival vibe for punters goes something like:
You can add some variables to that equation, most of which revolve around visual stimulation; people dressed up in a quirky manner, good lighting, a stage looking cool, etc. Vibe is for people in their 30s and older. You don’t need a vibe for festivals or concerts kids go to, because they’re already excited. They’re not jaded. They’re there to see their heroes on stage. There wasn’t really a vibe at the Picnic. There were some definite festival moments; The Knife, David Byrne & St Vincent, Bjork (if you were close enough), the birthday fireworks, and Le Galaxie at Body & Soul midnight on Sunday had the best atmosphere of the three days. But there wasn’t an overarching vibe that the crowd could latch on to because the crowd was rather fragmented. The only place people really congregated constantly all weekend was Casa Bacardi, which has always drawn a big crowd. It has a vibe. Trenchtown just looked like a bunch of random stuff strewn around an area of the woods. Body & Soul only got jammers on Sunday night. The Main Stage stopped and started in terms of crowd size. Considering festivals are about collective experience, there wasn’t a consistent or particularly noticeably steady one all weekend. So, let’s talk about…
Everyone is going to hate me for saying this, but there was a lack of sophistication amongst the Picnic crowd. There, I’m an asshole, I said it. Longitude and Body & Soul’s stand alone festival were full of people you’d think would be the Picnic crowd, but they’re not the Picnic crowd anymore. There were plenty of groups of young lads with stuff written in marker on their arms and face (why do people do this? Who can we blame for people wanting to turn their bodies into what looks like a primary school pencil case? Harry Styles, maybe?), there were plenty of drunk and otherwise inebriated heads in their 30s, there were plenty of families, there were plenty of people in their 30s and 40s having a last blast of the summer, there were plenty of lovely people having a great time, there were plenty of people into the music, there were plenty of people who were just as satisfied to sit outside the tents in the sun and chat instead of actually going into the gig. But the bulk of the crowd were not in their 20s. Emigration, and the end of the Picnic as a hipster-touchstone is probably the cause of that. It might be a bit of a stretch to say the Picnic isn’t cool anymore, but it’s definitely not as cool as it once was.
The Picnic needs to evolve. Sure, there will always be a ready-made audience keen to head to Laois at the end of the summer, and hosting a festival year in year out that becomes familiar is always going to end up a bit jaded, but it needs a shot in the arm. One of three things will happen: organisers will look at the bands that pulled in big crowds; Fatboy Slim, Ocean Colour Scene, Kodaline, and mainstream the festival more, OR, it will continue to be a festival with two identities, with one part serving those who want to sing along to mediocre indie and get blotto in the campsite, while also trying to facilitate those for whom Miriam O’Callaghan hosting a review of the papers is a highlight, OR, it will reinvent itself more in a creative way with new areas every year, and realise that the bells and whistles of the Picnic are what also makes it special for those who don’t actually travel to Stradbally for the bells and whistles. The latter option is probably the least likely. The market gets what the market wants. There’s a gap for a large festival that isn’t like Oxegen, and the Picnic is filling that gap for the mainstream, while smaller festivals focus on their own niches. Strangely, the Picnic’s crossover into the mainstream – the bulk of cool people who used to go aren’t living here anymore or are going to other festivals, and the bulk of people who thought the Picnic was too cool for them are now going to the Picnic – will probably make the Picnic more successful and a more viable festival model. The people who will continue to attend the Picnic are the people who are still here and have a few hundred quid spare to actually go to it. The organisers know now that they can get 35k+ people to go, and they’d be stupid not to aim the festival at that demographic.
This all may seem like I’m being harsh on the festival – I’m not, it was fun. The crowd seemed relatively trouble-free, the queues for the bar weren’t stressful, the toilets were generally sparkling all weekend, there was some great grub – Kinara, Rathmullan House, the corn dog stand, there was a wider range of booze for sale, the Mindfield programming was excellent – particularly the Arts Council Literary Tent, the sound, lighting and production values all round were really commendable, I only had one argument with a security guard which I think is a record, and as always Irish acts excelled. But there was something missing, something that made the whole thing feel a little flat. Hey, maybe it was ‘vibe’ after all.
To get a new perspective, and snap myself out of my own experience, I rang one of my best mates Ben, who is 21. This was his first Electric Picnic. Here’s what he said: “I thought it was amazing, pretty unique vibe. I thought it married the whole small festival feel with big festival acts quite well. Seeing stuff like David Byrne and St Vincent, John Grant, Arctic Monkeys – stunning people to see live, but then you’re still able to go hang out in Body & Soul and see a DJ playing the Peace Pagoda stage. It was a really nice festival to be at. The crowd was kind of weird, actually. I think there were a lot of people who just go to festivals regardless. There were a lot of younger people, people at Disclosure, Hudson Mohawke, there was a lot more messiness than I expected to be at it. I was surprised at the number of people under, let’s say, the age of 23 there. But then you have all the Body & Soul people and I guess the ‘typical Electric Picnic crowd’ types. It was good.”
There you have it.