Muddy waters

Fri, Jul 13, 2007, 01:00

Jim Carrollcompares media reports of anti-social behaviour at Oxegen with his own experience - and readers' reports - of the festival

THE biggest music festival in the land has been put to bed for another year. While 80,000 people at this year's Oxegen had to contend with acres of mud, bad weather and Snow Patrol - among other problems - it was difficult, too, for the 1,000 or so production staff working behind the scenes. For them, the mud and weather were another set of obstacles in the battle to keep the show running to schedule.

This writer spent the festival behind the scenes observing the process involved in turning a racecourse into a festival site to hold a crowd equivalent in size to the population of Limerick. Emergency routes, car-parks, toilets, stages, security, crowd control and artist dressingrooms are all meticulously planned and mapped in advance.

"Worst rain for 130 years"

On the site, Sophie Ridley is the event controller. "While we've had the worst rain for 130 years, there are a couple of primary considerations that you can actively plan for like traffic management, law and order, site management and the usual looking after people things. We put the park and ride facility in place in Goffs, for example, because buses get priority on the roads to the festival and we can then keep the traffic away from the site."

"It's always tough when it rains because your best-laid plans have to change, but you just have to get on with it," says the festival's production manager, Duchess. "The trick is to keep things moving. Once you can get around the site, you can get stuff and people to where they need to be."

"Not a boutique festival"

Over the past year, promoters MCD held regular meetings with the local authorities (including representatives from the county council and emergency services), Health Service Executive, ambulance and fire services and gardaí to coordinate every aspect of the event. Once the weekend begins, plans and procedures must be communicated to staff around the site and updated as changes occur.

Changes were apparent inside the racecourse this year. "We're trying to have a range and variety of experiences on the site," says Ridley. "There's lots of added things, like the Centra supermarkets and the Sonas food villages on the campsites.

"Audiences might be looking for more things, but Oxegen is still a rock'n'roll gig. We're not a boutique festival, and the kids like it that way."

According to production manager Duchess, Oxegen 2007 has been in the planning stages since Oxegen 2006 ended.

"We started by reviewing the previous year. We pick up on what we might have overlooked, we address things that might need changing and then, we start planning for the following year. It's never the exact same from year to year and you have to be flexible. It might look like the same field, but it's never ever the same show."

Staff watch the 17 monitors

The scale of such planning can be seen inside the event control room. A map covers one wall, detailing among other things a multitude of interior and exterior routes and circuits and the location of all the security watchtowers on the site.

One event controller points out the different emergency routes linking the site with a specific closed-off back-road which could get an ambulance to Naas hospital within five minutes.

In another corner of the room, there are a number of staff closely watching the 17 monitors carrying footage from the different closed-circuit cameras around the site (the camp-sites have separate cameras). There's also a Garda control van outside monitoring feeds from different cameras around the racecourse. All footage is recorded and stored.

On Sunday afternoon, the talk in the control room is of traffic and messages are already appearing on the various arena screens warning the audience to expect long delays when they leave the festival.

"There are over 50 acts per day"

The busiest area backstage is probably the grandstand where the artist dressingrooms are situated. Agnes Murray has been organising dressingrooms for promoters MCD for over 20 years.

"There are over 50 acts per day and each one gets an individual dressingroom," she says. "We've always tried to give each band their own room and lockable space for the day. The whole thing with the dressingrooms is more about hospitality these days, making sure the bands can hang out together and relax."

Getting the acts from their dressingrooms to the stages requires a fleet of mini-buses and a small army of artist liaison people to co-ordinate all the comings and goings. The best and quickest way to get around is on a golf buggy. There were more than 100 of them in use at Punchestown, zipping artists and support staff around.

Whiskey, condoms, Coca-Cola

Much has changed since Murray's first festival gig. "Féile was my first festival," she remembers. "Back then, the bands wanted whiskey, condoms and family bottles of Coca-Cola. Now, we're buying fine wines and champagne for them and we don't get asked for condoms any more.

"People have become more selective. It's very much vodka this year that is the popular drink, people are requesting Grey Goose or Ketel One. They're also looking for more healthy food options. You see the word organic again and again on the riders which you never saw up to three or four years ago."

The media reaction

Despite the well-laid plans, however, some things seemed to go wrong - and not just with the weather - and again the event attracted complaints from a number of dissatisfied customers. This week, RTÉ Radio One's Liveline show, some internet forums and other print media have carried allegations of attacks, car tampering, tent slashing, drunkenness and anti-social behaviour. These stories will be familiar to anyone who recalls the fall-out from the 2006 event.

But despite people ringing radio stations and writing about such incidents, the complaints have not been matched by reports to the gardaí, which calls into question the reliability - and the extent - of some of the coverage.

According to a spokesperson at Naas Garda Station on Wednesday morning, "no complaints or reports of any incidents" arising out of Oxegen have been received there to date.

"We will investigate complaints"

Head of Garda operations at Oxegen, Supt Garda Tom Neville, expressed his satisfaction with the policing and security arrangements at the event. "We will investigate any complaints made, but I have not had complaints," he told The Irish Times. "I would ask the question, did these people report the incidents to gardaí?"

Gardaí had been busy at the event itself. Figures released by Naas gardaí on Monday showed there had been 94 arrests at the festival. These included 52 arrests for public order offences, 20 arrests for drug- related offences, 20 arrests for driving offences, one arrest for car theft and one arrest for theft. Meanwhile 56 festival-goers required hospital treatment over the weekend.

MCD appeared to acknowledge there had been problems, by expressing their disappointment that "a small minority of attendees had their Oxegen experience spoiled by a few individuals who showed no regard for other festival goers". MCD too have urged people with reports of violent or anti-social behaviour to contact the gardaí and have asked people with comments and complaints to contact them.

"Nothing you wouldn't expect"

The On The Record blog on the Ticket website received many comments post-Oxegen, but most balanced criticism with praise. One contributor, Alan, said he had "a great weekend", though he felt that "the amount of mud people who seemed more interested in throwing mud at innocent bystanders than seeing any bands was unfortunate but, by the very nature of the event, unavoidable".

Another contributor, John, felt that some elements of the crowd were not there for music. "Daft Punk were excellent, as were My Chemical Romance and Sinéad O'Connor. It's a pity that every gobshite seemed to be there, and they got more and more lairy as the day went on."

After the event, the reviews will take place and planning will begin all over again for next year. Of course, many of the MCD staff who worked at Oxegen last weekend are still in Co Kildare a week later. However, they are likely to see a little less mud - and a little less hassle - at this weekend's Barbra Streisand show at Castletown House.