Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The Irish music festival scene’s annual health check

Coachella and a grand stretch in the evenings means the festival season is on the way so where do things stand for the Irish summer gigs and events?

Tue, Apr 14, 2015, 10:27


Some signs that the summer music season is upon us? For a start, there’s a proper grand stretch in the evenings which can only mean some sort of summer is on the way. Then, there’s the fact the Coachella buzz is in full effect, when all eyes swivel west to a polo grounds in the Colarado Desert to take in the sights and sounds of celebs, bros and the beautiful people at play – and there was also some music. The summer music festival fashion spreads can only be days away. Oh, hold on.

Back home, the runners and riders have assembled for the annual summer steeplechase. We’ve already seen the early bankers like Ed Sheeran line up and sell out, though it’s odd to recall the palaver over The Script selling out Croke Park in less than an hour when you could purchase tickets for their show there on Ticketmaster this morning. As we noted at the outset, The Script selling out Croker was also hard to picture so perhaps they found some extra seats or worked out that Script fans are small in height so you could get more of them on the pitch or put only 6,500 tickets on sale instead of 65,000. Anyhow, there’s a strange non-OED definition of “sold out” going around here.

Elsewhere, there seems to be a lot less bigger shows on the schedule than in previous years. Last summer, for instance, you’d the Arctic Monkeys, Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Kings Of Leon and Macklemore all holed up in Marlay Park, in addition to the three day Longitude festival. This year, the SoCoDu park welcomes Longitude back for its third outing but the only other shows on the schedule feature the excellent Paolo Nutini and the execrable Avicii, which is a bit of a drop off in numbers. We know that the residents kicked up a stink after last summer’s excess (and the local council reviewed their concerns) so perhaps this has had a bearing on the number of shows MCD are hosting in the park.

Then again, it’s worth noting that summer 2015 will be a fallow year for many stadiums, arenas and fields which would previously have featured temporary stages and big crowds. There are no shows this festival season in the Phoenix Park (second quiet summer in a row there) or Malahide Castle (it’s a while since any promoter used this lovely park) or the RDS Arena (which is due to be redeveloped next year), three venues which used to be going at full pelt in previous years. Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens is fully kitted out (it has a smaller capacity than others mentioned here), though AC/DC are the only act heading to Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium. It’s worth noting that there are still tickets on sale for the Foo Fighters’ bash at Slane Castle (and there’s a lot of ads going around for this one too).

There are some possible reasons why we’re seeing a dip in the big show razzmatazz this summer. One, the promoters have ran out of money and have decided to stop promoting because their backers or bankers are not prepared to stump up the cash for the mad fees they were paying out and have told them to dial it down. Two, the acts prefer to stick to the easy-peasy festival circuit where they can pick up large fees for very little effort. Or three, we really are running out of new acts who are capable of pulling thousands of people under their own steam. This latter development is something we’ve written about here many times before and regular readers will welcome the fact that we’re not to rake over old ground. Suffice to say that anyone who expected the live side to usurp the record side in developing blockbuster, best-selling acts didn’t really know what they were talking about.

On the multi-act festival front, meanwhile, it’s largely a case of as-you-were at this stage of the game. The well-established usual suspects have announced their line-ups and will be hoping that a mixture of these attractions, brand reputation, goodwill and weather (the big conundrum for any Irish festival promoter) will be enough to get by. As the summer progresses, operators like Forbidden Fruit, Life, Vantastival, Sea Sessions, Indiependence, Castlepalooza, Body & Soul, Groove and Knockanstockan will be vying to be in the headlines for the right reasons rather than for, say, not paying bands or, worse, getting bands to pay to play.

Sadly, there will be one or two events which end up in the delinquent promoter box. As we saw with the Light Colour Sound fallout last year, there’s always one, which is a pity because it means there’s less willingness by bands and punters to put their trust in new operators and ensures caution on the part of those who want to put on a festival. That said, the festival season always brings out newbies who want to give it a try and make like a big shot so it will be interesting to which of the new arrivals we’ve heard about will actually happen and which, indeed, will hang around for the years to come to join the established cast.

We’ve left someone out, haven’t we? The Electric Picnic, as usual, acts as the full stop at the end of the Irish festival season and has already set out its stall for what to expect in 2015 with a solid but far from spectacular line-up, increased capacity (it’s about as boutique as Lidl these days) and the all usual fun of the fair. But seeing as the Festival Republic event has no competition in the domestic big box festival department any more since its shareholder MCD 86′d Oxegen (even the website has finally given up the ghost – it’s no longer even the greatest music website in Co Kildare), it’s kind of a slam dunk. The event should sell out – the new ticket price sructuring helps, as does the word of mouth about the event which means it’s now way more of a mainstream event than it was at any previous time – and everyone will go home happy.

Hmmm, it’s all become very predictable, hasn’t it? We reached peak festival season a few years ago and it feels like we’re running on the spot a little with how it all plays out year in and year out. There haven’t been that many interesting new developments, bar a move in some quarters to more micro events, and you get the feeling that some ennui has set in about festivals about many who’ve gone to events every summer. They’ve gone beyond being just a rite of passage to becoming very lucrative, commercial events for some operators.

Sure, there will always be newbies who flock to those fields in search of kicks and thrills and their excitement is contagious, but those who’ve been before know how it will unfold. They know what will happen from the moments the gates open, they know the various corners of the site like the back of their hand, they know all the acts who’ll be playing (no surprises in that department at all) and they can probably already write the reviews and post-event news reports, complete with copious mentions of revellers, at this stage. You can understand why many punters may choose to take a break in 2015 and come back in the hope of something new in 2016.

The question for the festival and summer music sector is what exactly is something new. How do they move forward, shake things up and attract those who clearly want something else – or do they just keep doing what they’ve done for the last decade, especially now that economic boom times are back? We keep hearing that there’s a gap in the Irish market for certain kinds of festivals – a big dance event, for example, or an indie-heavy fest like Primavera – but none of the established players have rushed into that gap which gives you pause for thought about the budgetlines behind such a move.

The current rash of festival mania has had a good run since Witnness kicked things off back in 2000 and the Electric Picnic emerged in 2004 so it’s probably time for a change and a re-up. But between the lack of new headliners and the lack of competition in the market, it’s hard to see where that change will come from. Perhaps, when the money is counted and the acts are paid, it will become obvious that Irish punters are happy with their lot, yet trends and fads and fashions do operate in cycles. Just ask anyone who turned up at Coachella at the weekend wearing last year’s clothes.