Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

You know it’s summer when festivals fall apart

The Ravelóid festival demonstrates that some still think putting on a music festival is easy

Níl sí ag teacht níos mó

Mon, May 16, 2016, 08:52


What do you do for a living? While I’ve no idea exactly what you do (I have a picture in my head of the OTR reader but let’s not go there), you’ve probably spent time learning the ropes, getting good at your job, making mistakes, making sure you don’t repeat those mistakes and generally taking the time to do the job properly to the best of your ability. Regardless of whether it’s a job where you work to earn money to have your real life or a job which you embrace heart and soul, it’s something you’ve spent time getting to know. You wouldn’t expect a newbie to walk in the door tomorrow, step into your shoes and be able to do the job at the same level as yourself. They probably wouldn’t even be allowed give it a lash off the bat anyway because it takes time to become good at something.

Yet there are some times when people think they can do the job without any practice whatsoever. Every summer without fail, you get people thinking they can be Peter Aiken, John Reynolds or Denis Desmond. You get people who believe they can put on a festival like Cillian Stewart or Shane Dunne or Avril Stanley or Trevor O’Shea. You get people who know absolutely nothing about live music having a go because, well, it must be easy if the likes of Knockanstockan, Sea Sessions and Life can happen year in and year out.

Sadly, the back pages of OTR are littered with people who thought putting on a festival was easy. Every summer, they come along and every summer, there’s at least one casualty where someone thought it was easy until reality intervened. Be it the extraordinary demise of Darryl Downey’s Killarney festival last summer or the Light Colour Sound festival where light, colour, sound and fees proved to short demand, an eventful festival flop is as sure a sign of the Irish summer as Galway and Mayo not winning All-Irelands. Sorry Galway and Mayo peeps.

Last week, the Ravelóid festival put up the white flag. Una Mullally’s piece on the festival fills in some of the lines around “the high-profile Irish language music festival which was part of the 1916 commemoration programme”. Unfortunately, it was a festival which was so high-profile that all of the ads and promotion could only persuade 1,600 people to buy tickets and “production factors” meant it was postponed.

“Postponed” means the event may well happen again, but you have to hope that some lessons were learned by organisers Conradh na Gaeilge, Nós and Glór na nGael. The main lesson to be learned from this episode is that you need to sell enough tickets to cover your costs. Una’s piece states that the festival costs were €600,000 (it’s not stated if this was total costs or costs less talent) and the event had a 5,000 capacity. Ticket prices were €99, €114 and €129 and, at an average price of €114, you needed to sell 5,263 tickets to break even, which was just not going to happen. Even at the €129 price point, they needed to flog at least 4,651 to break even, which was a high expectation.

The festival organisers leaned on the tax-payer for funds so it will be interesting to see if they hand back this money or if these funds have already gone by the way. If it’s the latter, will the money they received for Ravelóid from the tax-payer be recouped from other funds and grants which they’ve received? After all, it wasn’t the tax-payers’ fault that the event didn’t go ahead.

The blame report, per Una’s piece, seems to centre around a change of location from Newbridge House in Donabate in north Dublin to Ardgillan Castle in Balbriggan, which necessitated a big jump in security costs. At that stage in March, it was clear that the festival’s costs were vastly more than budgeted but yet, despite knowing that their break-even point as unrealistic, the organisers continued to promote the event, sell tickets and trade away. No explanation is given for this in Una’s report – there is mention given of an anonymous events company though we assume that the final say lay with the organisers rather than the events company they hired. There is a quote from one of the organisers, Tomaí Ó Conghaile, to the effect that “maybe the first year was over ambitious”. Yet “we still believe the concept is a very valid one, we think we can do it again.”

One has to wonder what the acts who were booked for this event have to think about it. Some of them, Delorentos and Ham Sandwich, were also caught up in the Killarney Festival fallout last summer, while The Riptide Movement were involved in the Light Colour Sound festival in 2014. When a festival like Ravelóid unfolds in this manner, it understandably makes bands and their reps think twice about taking a chance on a new festival in the future. There’s a reason why bands stick to the tried and proven promoters and that’s because they are tried and proven. Every well-meaning new festival which goes to the wall because of bad planning, over-ambitious expectations or an inability to realise they can’t sell enough tickets to meet their costs is doing the rest of the new festivals a huge disservice.

It’s a tough business and one which requires nerves of steel and deep pockets. Remember, it’s also a summer when there are still tickets on sale for superstar, blockbuster, bold-print-names like Beyonce and Rihanna. If these acts are finding it tough to sell shows, it throws the problems of the rest of the sector without access to such big names into sharp relief.

Inevitably, there will be other festivals this summer which will also unravel in this way. There are just far too many similar sounding events with similar line-ups on the summer calendar to go around. You may think an Irish language event was one to be reckoned with, but the ticket returns showed that USP wasn’t going to wash. Perhaps the people who tick the box on the census form to say they speak Irish are fibbing after all and have no interest in their native tongue.

Again and again, you’ll see well-meaning folks or complete and utter dreamers who should know better trying their hand at being live music and festival promoters. Again and again, it just won’t work. Like we said in the first paragraph, you wouldn’t expect a newbie to come in and do your job without a bit of an initial learning period. So why do so many sill persist in thinking that live music is a different beast and that anyone can walk in and put on a big show?