Running out of Oxegen
Why the days of the catch-all music festival and rite-of-passage event in Ireland are over
‘Many live music fans have come to regard its musical mix, site infrastructure and lack of attention to detail as anachronistic in an era when festivals are about experiences to be shared with your social network.’ Above, times past: Leaving Oxegen in 2009. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
All cycles come to an end eventually. The news that the Oxegen music festival will be taking 2014 off, its second fallow summer in three years, will not come as Earth-shattering to Irish music fans or industry observers.
Few expect Oxegen to reappear in its current guise any time soon. The day of the catch-all music festival and rite-of-passage event attracting 80,000 punters seems over in Ireland.
Make no bones about it: Oxegen in its heyday was a huge deal. What began in 2000 as Witnness, before more mis-spelling took over in the shape of Oxegen in 2004, regularly attracted tens of thousands of Irish music fans to racecourses outside Dublin.
Like every large Irish festival before it, Oxegen had its glory days. And, like every large Irish festival before it, from Lisdoonvarna to Féile, those glory days are over.
The blame report from Oxegen’s organisers cites both financial demands from local agencies and a lack of available headline acts, though both claims are questionable.
In terms of the latter, there’s no shortage of acts given Oxegen’s recent retooling as a pop and dance event. It also seems strange to point the finger at the event’s bookers in this manner.
Financial demands too should be less onerous than before, seeing as the festival attracted an audience of only about 25,000 last year.
All of this merely serves to distract from the identity crisis that had been the festival’s biggest problem of late.
The event built its reputation on big arena rock acts such as Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol, the Killers, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In recent years it has become much more pop- and dance-orientated in order to attract a younger audience, thus distancing itself from its original fanbase. Yet, as last year showed, the pop and dance audiences are fickle (or perhaps don’t have access to the cash or their parents’ cash for tickets) and numbers were down as a result.
Pop and dance fans will still go to live shows – Oxegen 2013 headliner Calvin Harris attracted more than 30,000 people to shows in Dublin and Belfast last December – but they appear happier to do so in indoor venues. It seems that muddy fields such as those in Punchestown are best suited in these minds to livestock and sports rather than live music.
A bigger issue is that Irish music fans are no longer keen on large, catch-all events on an Oxegen-like scale. The Electric Picnic may be seeking to increase its capacity to 40,000 this year, but that is still only half the number of people Oxegen used to attract at the height of its popularity.
Instead of relying on Oxegen, Irish music fans now have a plethora of other events to choose from. The sheer volume of music festivals that take place in Ireland each summer is overwhelming.
An annual census carried out by this newspaper’s On the Record blog has shown that this number has increased each year since 2007. There’s no need for Oxegen when you can go to Body & Soul, Castlepalooza, Indiependence, Life, Westport, Groove, Sea Sessions or dozens of other festivals instead.
Stand-alone stadium shows
People also have the option of avoiding festivals altogether, if they wish, to take in stand-alone stadium shows by superstar acts. High-profile acts playing such shows here this summer include Garth Brooks, Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon and Arctic Monkeys.
Oddly, there is still room for big, catch-all festivals elsewhere. Oxegen’s former twin event T In the Park has always pulled great crowds in Scotland; tickets for the Glastonbury festival were snapped up quickly; and many European events such as Benicassim, Sziget and Exit continue to do robust business. Irish fans are travelling in increasing numbers to attend these events because they offer what cannot be had at home.
The evidence suggests Oxegen, as configured in recent years, is no longer fit for purpose. Many fans of live music have come to regard its musical mix, site infrastructure and lack of attention to detail as anachronistic in an era when festivals are about experiences to be shared with your social network.
Of course, as we have seen with the festival cycle of old, the tune may well change in time. But for now the days of 80,000 people spending a summer weekend traipsing around a windswept racecourse in Co Kildare are over.