Crowd computing: Oxegen


There’s a science behind festival behaviour – from who you fancy to rowdy groups and festival food, writes MARIE BORAN– and it’s worth bearing in mind before jumping into a fight or forking out cold, hard cash for cold, hard French fries


Research shows we can predict whether crowds are likely to be volatile before they gather, says Dr Bryan Roche, researcher and behavioural psychologist at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. But we cannot tell precisely when a riot will begin unless we are observing a crowd from within – and mass behaviour can change second by second.

The interesting thing about large crowds at music festivals, football matches or protests is that they already have a shared culture, even if they’ve never met before, he says.

“Groups almost never gather in a normative vacuum. Fans at a rock band reunion concert will turn up in the same gear, so there is already an understanding,” says Roche. There can also be particular symbols or handshakes that are common to a group, and observing this culture lends itself to predicting crowd unrest.

“There is almost always a cue that only group members know about. At a neo-Nazi gathering, a heil Hitler salute often precedes unrest, but crowds will only respond to the leader, and they can collectively tell who this is; they will usually be at the front and surrounded by protectors or bodyguards.”

Without even realising what is happening, the people at the back follow these cues, says Roche, which might explain why the Mexican wave never works if you are standing near the back in a small group. Even animals recognise and respond to this kind of group behaviour, he adds.

This behavioural research has found that no matter how violent a riot looks, it is never really out of control. “There is no evidence for the concept of the out-of-control mob. Most riots have some order to them, but if you can stop the rapid spread of fear and anger there wouldn’t be a riot.”

The same feelings that drive a crowd to riot are the ones that keep them together. When people talk about getting lost in the music at a gig, it is partially because of the sense of euphoria and togetherness that comes with sharing the same experience, says Roche.

Meeting your match

You may be more likely to meet the girl or boy of your dreams at a music festival but this isn’t down to the so-called beer goggles effect, when drink helps make things look better. It is more attributable to emotional motivation, says Dr Richard Piech, social neuroscience researcher at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.

“You are attracted to something because you are motivated to do so. Food looks more attractive when you’re hungry, but you wouldn’t claim it looks different; you just want it more and it tastes better,” he says.

When alcohol is consumed, however, a small amount of research shows that maybe we’re not quite as good at telling what is and isn’t symmetrical – an indicator of attractiveness, says Piech.

This perception of symmetry is related to facial attractiveness. Piech says that facial recognition is hardwired in our brains from birth and that an area in the brain known as the fusiform face area is dedicated to this.

“Babies are attracted by objects resembling human faces. Something with two dots for eyes and something resembling a mouth will attract their attention.”

Another thing common to all of us is the perception of symmetry, and this is one of the components of perceiving how attractive a human face is, says Piech.

“There are certain ratios that are perceived as being particularly attractive. This is related to the top and bottom of the face or how high or low the eyes are set. These factors are true for people on average, but there is a lot of room for personal preference.”

The thing to remember is that you are more likely to meet your match when emotionally motivated to do so, and environments such as music festivals can enhance this.

Nothing exceeds like excess

Overindulgence in alcohol affects health in many ways, including dehydration and nausea, so we must be aware of how long it takes for the body to process it, says Prof Joe Barry, head of the department of public health and primary care at Trinity College Centre for Health Sciences.

“Alcohol is metabolised by the liver, and the body gets rid of one standard drink per hour. This standard drink is half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine,” says Barry.

If you drink faster than this, you get an accumulation of alcohol in the body, says Barry, who notes that most people will drink more quickly than the body can process, leading to intoxication.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, he points out. This means it dehydrates the body, so drinking a pint of beer when thirsty is not equivalent to drinking a pint of water.

The artists at Oxegen have proven to be a thirsty lot. During this year’s festival, collectively, they will consume large quantities of liquid, of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic kinds.

On average, the performers will down 3,000 cups of coffee and 60 litres of fresh orange juice, according to Oxegen’s organisers, along with 75 bottles of vodka, 136 bottles of Merlot, 50 bottles of champagne and 203 cases of lager.

The acoustic sweet spot

The Great Ballcourt at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, in Mexico, is 166 metres long, but its unique acoustical properties mean a whisper carries clearly from one end to the other. This is arguably one of the sweetest acoustic sweet spots in the world and goes to show that sound moves in mysterious ways, as Dr Charlie Cullen, principal investigator at the Digital Media Centre at Dublin City University, explains.

One of the big things about sound is that we dont perceive it equally; different frequencies sound louder at different volumes, says Cullen. This is why heavy bass seems to bleed through from neighbours’ parties.

Finding your sweet spot at a gig depends on whether you’re at an outdoor gig, indoors or in a tent, says Cullen, adding that sound waves travel like water, crashing against tent walls and resonating inside the closed area. This is one of the many factors that sound engineers need to take into account when creating ideal sound levels at music festivals.

“Metallica used to hang huge curtains on the wall behind them. This gave huge absorption and produced more volume at less resonance.”

Outdoor arenas are different again, and use what are called delay towers. These towers act as speakers to compensate for the dissipation of sound with distance says Cullen. However, electricity moves faster than the speed of sound, so this relayed music needs to be delayed before it reaches the ears of those farther back in the crowd.

Cullen says air temperature plays an important role. “Sound travels at 344 metres per second at 20 to 21 degrees Celsius. In a tented stage, live sound will change quite markedly as the temperature rises from body heat, because sound travels faster as the air heats up.”

Given the complex properties of sound, the acoustic sweet spot is quite commonsense. “The place where nothing is too loud. Somewhere not too near the speakers,” says Cullen.

Festival formula

What makes the perfect music festival? Is there a magic formula? Yes, in fact there is, says Jim Carroll, Irish Timesmusic journalist and festival veteran. He says that many elements combine to make the ideal experience, from the weather (preferably dry) and the number of Portaloos (preferably many) to what kinds of food you find there.

“Everything down to the food is selected depending on the kind of audience,” says Carroll. “If you look at the kinds of food sold at Oxegen, this will typically be comfort brands. This demographic is looking for brands and food they recognise, such as Spar or Domino’s.” He adds that stalls selling more sophisticated food were tried in previous years but were passed over in favour of the festival staples of chips, burgers and pizza.

Even the soil type and time of year are considerations, because festival organisers take into account rainfall and drainage on the campsites, he says.

Music is obviously the biggest part of any festival, but the perfect formula doesn’t mean having the dream combination of headliners, per se, says Carroll. It is actually down to having more acts than is physically possible for one person to see. The element of choice is all-important.

This feeds into creating the line-up for the huge festivals like Oxegen but also niche festivals such as Body & Soul. The selection process will be very different.

“A boutique festival will go for acts most people haven’t heard of, and niche festivals such as Forbidden Fruit will go for not-quite-mainstream acts.” So the perfect festival depends on the individual. If nobody else has heard of the bands, you’re in hipster heaven.

With plenty of big names, Oxegen hits a certain demographic. “For many post-Leaving Cert students, it will be their first weekend away from Mammy. It’s considered a safe environment and almost a rite of passage.”