Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

No Oxegen left in the tank

There’s more to the demise of the music festival than “lack of suitable headline acts” and “financial demands by local agencies”

A total wash-out: no Oxegen campers in 2014

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 13:47


The carelessness with which Oxegen has been treated is clear when you click on its website. There, staring back at you from the top of the page, is the claim that you’re looking at the website for “Europe’s Greatest Music Festival”. Let’s face it, Oxegen has not even been Co Kildare’s greatest music festival over the last few years.

Like the festival, the website probably won’t be around for much longer. At the weekend, promoters MCD announced that the event would not be going ahead this year due to a combination of a “lack of suitable Headline Acts” and “financial demands by local agencies”. This time, unlike 2012 when the festival also took a break, there was no attempt to claim that the festival was doing a Glastonbury. This time, there’s no sign of the festival returning in its current guise. This time, Oxegen’s goose is well and truly cooked.

In order to analyse the who, what, why, how and when of Oxegen’s demise, you need to do a few things. Leave aside for a start the usual ridiculous online and offline chatter which this decision has provoked. In all honesty, there’s unlikely to be 25k Oxegen fiends rocking up to Stradbally to see old people acts like Portishead and OutKast this summer. That and other uninformed, ignorant comments only serve to deflect attention away from the real reasons why Punchestown will be for the horses this summer.

Instead, let’s poke and parse that terse statement (akin in its brevity to that of Manchester United washing their hands of David Moyes) because it just does not stack up. For a start, “lack of suitable Headline Acts” is a pretty damning statement which casts some aspersions on the promoter’s bookers. There are loads of suitable Headline Acts out there. Are you really telling me that MCD’s team of bookers could not persuade agents who already work closely with the company to give them acts for a 25,000 capacity festival in Ireland?

Are you really telling me that the dance and EDM acts who were Oxegen’s bread-and-butter last summer are not available on any weekend in July and August, especially when most of them will be jetting between Ibiza and Las Vegas and would be happy to pull into Ireland for a few hours and a five-figure sum? Are you really telling me that Oxegen, an event which has moved up and down the July/August calendar during its run, could not book a bill? C’mon, pull the other one.

After all, there is definitely a market for the acts that Oxegen specialised in last time out. Case in point, 2013 headliner Calvin Harris, who came back to Ireland four months after his Punchestown date to sell out Dublin’s O2 and Belfast’s Odyssey in tandem with Tiesto. There’s a bill which can pull around 30,000 people no sweat. What about the other dance acts that regularly visit here and pull huge 10,000+ audience, such as Hardwell, Avicii and David Guetta? There’s no lack of suitable Headline Acts for Oxegen.

More to the point, though, there is an apparent lack of an audience for the kind of event which Oxegen had become. The promoter’s carelessness (that word again) with its money-making event since 2006 and changes in the Oxegen-going demographic meant the rock and alternative rock fans who flocked to first Fairyhouse and then Punchestown ever summer from 2000 felt increasingly alienated from the event. The nadir for many was probably 2011 when The National played to a dismally small crowd but the writing was on the wall long before then.

Oxegen’s dwindling audience seemingly wanted dance and pop so that’s the way the festival decided to go. But, as we saw last year when the festival planned for a 50,000 capacity event but ended up with an audience less than half of that number, that audience also strangely turned its back on Oxegen. The reputational damage which the festival has suffered over the years ensured that chickens came home to roost. If your festival is increasingly seen as a rite-of-passage event for the post-Leaving Cert tribes, don’t be surprised if you can’t attract an older audience who are not prepared to put up with that kind of thing to see their favourite bands any more. After all, they can go elsewhere in Ireland (festivals like Indiependence have clearly taken up the alt-rock Oxegen slack) or abroad to do that.

Even the people at Punchestown itself knew it was time to call time. The Leinster Leader report the venue’s Sales and Marketing Director Liam Holton saying that “the importance of Oxegen to us has been diluted” and “it’s not on the scale or significance it used to be”. Game up, time to move on.

Then, there’s the matter of “financial demands by local agencies”. This probably relates to something which MCD director Caroline Downey said at a conference two years ago when she blamed the Gardai and Kildare County Council for Oxegen 2012 not going ahead. Downey called the costs involved with Oxegen “outrageous” and claimed that “they insist on a huge amount of guards that do nothing actually when they’re down there, because the security do the bulk of it”.

While I can see why the costs involved with an 80,000 capacity festival like Oxegen would be high or even excessive, I would imagine that they’re certainly not as high for the 25,000 capacity event which Oxegen has become. Surely Downey and her work colleagues have the negotiation muscle and moxie to bring those fees down seeing as the audience and market has collapsed?

It beggars belief that one of the most successful event promotion companies in the land can’t get itself a better deal on those terms. Those agencies and service providers will surely drop their prices because they realise that having a festival in the area is better for the local economy than not having any festival at all. Plus, you surely can’t charge the same money for a 25k festival as you would for a 80k event when you require less manpower (less gardai standing around with their hands in their pockets) and local agency services.

There is, of course, a much bigger picture beyond the statement and cancellation and that’s the whole Live Nation dovetail with MCD. As we have seen, Live Nation are playing a much bigger role in MCD’s business affairs after the company was involved in the €60m re-financing of Denis Desmond’s business affairs following the paying off various outstanding loans to Bank of Scotland (Ireland).

Given that Live Nation have now, to quote the Sunday Independent report, “registered a charge over Desmond’s Gaiety Investments’ stake in the LN Gaiety joint venture as part of a “loan agreement”,” you can be sure they’re taking a close look at what’s going on with MCD, Oxegen and its other events and festivals.

This is interesting on many different fronts. For a start, there must be some bean counters at Live Nation HQ scratching their heads about how a festival which claimed to be attracting 80k full houses only three years ago has now collapsed. You wonder what value Live Nation applied to Oxegen when they were doing due diligence and kicking the tyres on MCD’s assets. It would be fascinating to see the memo on the fall of Oxegen which the business affairs department have surely prepared for Live Nation chief bottle-washer Michael Rapino. What does he make of MCD’s carelessness with their marquee event? Perhaps I should keep an eye on lorries in Dublin 3 for that? Perhaps I should buy some Live Nation shares and rock along to the AGM to ask some questions?

There’s little doubt that Live Nation are already playing a significant part in how MCD proceed. For instance, the company are not doing any shows in Dublin’s Phoenix Park this summer, despite the fact that at least one of the acts playing at Marlay Park, Kings of Leon, were initially mooted for Dublin 8 rather than SoCoDu. The huge costs and losses associated with last summer’s underperforming run of shows at Phoenix Park, coupled with the reputational fallout from the Swedish House Mafia show at the same place the previous summer, has meant the Park has fallen out of favour with MCD. Was this a move initiated by Live Nation as part of the company now overseeing Desmond and MCD’s affairs? And what other business moves will Live Nation take now that they’ve bailed out Desmond? Interesting times ahead.