Entertainment Festivals

Friday 21 July 2017

Comment: Is 2017 the year the music festival died?

There has been much grumbling this year about the calibre of bands booked for our major music festivals. Promoters claim our demand for an array of non-music activities, coupled with rising band fees, are to blame.

Swell time: The crowd at Electric Picnic's main stage. Photo: Damien Eagers
Swell time: The crowd at Electric Picnic's main stage. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Meagher

John Meagher

It sold out in just five minutes. Even those who were convinced that Electric Picnic tickets would be in demand when they went on general sale in March were stunned by the speed with which they were snapped up. And that was before a single act had been announced.

The festival, which began life as a one-day event for 15,000 people in 2004, has changed so significantly, it's hardly recognisable today. Come the first weekend in September, 55,000 revellers will be welcomed to the Stradbally Hall estate, Co Laois, where they will have a dizzying choice of bands to see and things to do.

And yet, I can't be the only one to have heard the repeated grumblings this year that the line-up isn't that special. Of the three headliners, the only one that gets my pulse going is the xx: they're responsible for one of the great albums of 2017 - I See You - but I'm not sure they're the sort of band who can truly command a main stage. As for the other two headliners - A Tribe Called Quest and Duran Duran - it's a case of, is that the best you could do? Headliners. Really?

And it's not just Electric Picnic. Longitude's headliners - Stormzy, the Weeknd and Mumford & Sons - are big-name pullers and the latter two are shifting units in a serious way. But look through the line-up and the reaction won't be much more than 'Meh'. Second on the bill on the Friday? That'll be Picture This, a local band who've admittedly done well on the live circuit in this country but have yet to release an album. Saturday sees Catfish & the Bottlemen high up the bill. And the least said about them, the better.

So, what's happened? How come some of the big European festivals have managed to entice A-list names and our two largest festivals are boasting line-ups that veer from pedestrian to fair?

It's a question that's worth asking as the summer festival season kicks off in earnest today with Forbidden Fruit in Dublin. And every week until well into September will see a festival - or several festivals - vying for your cash.

For the best part of €200 for a weekend ticket, is it too much to ask that the Radioheads and Coldplays of this world would be in the reckoning for the bigger of the festivals. And could the smaller ones be doing more to woo names with far greater wattage, too?

I ask a figure closely associated with Electric Picnic, and he's not impressed by my line of questioning.

"It drives me mad when I hear people complaining about the ticket prices, because there are so many aspects that cost a lot of money - it can be very expensive to book certain acts, and insurance is much steeper here than in the UK, for instance. I would say that when you consider that we create a mini-city over multiple days in the middle of the Laois countryside, the prices we charge are very reasonable.

"We've worked hard to make the Picnic the festival it's become," he adds, "and we'd never get complacent. You have to make sure that every aspect is as good as possible - from the line-up, to the camping and down to the food and drink offerings. It would be stupid to just assume that people will buy tickets simply because they were there before. You have to keep evolving and ensuring that a new generation will want to come, too."

That's fair enough. But surely new generations want big names, too? It wasn't so long ago that Beyoncé was playing Oxegen.

"Such people are living in cloud cuckoo land," says one promoter, who is not personally involved with Electric Picnic. "You'd have to spend at least a million [euro] to book one of those - and that's a very conservative estimate. You can't have all the trimmings of a festival like Electric Picnic and get A-list names and charge what you're charging at present.

"The promoter simply wouldn't see a return on their investment. Even the new crop would command serious money in today's market. It makes much more sense for MCD to cough up to one of the bands of the moment, the 1975, and have them at Malahide Castle in front of 35,000 people, than putting them on the bill at Longitude, for instance."

In an era when acts are making far less revenue from album sales and streams, this promoter believes they have to maximise their earning potential in the live arena. "As their album sales have declined, their asking price for big shows and festivals has shot up."

Could it be that in our obsession with having an abundance of choice at our festivals - comedy tents, cookery demos, discussion forums and so on - we've lost sight of what a music festival should be about in the first place? The music.

"Some people have completely unrealistic expectations," says Avril Stanley, the founder and director of Body&Soul, which takes in Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, later this month. "They want big-name headliners, and huge arts offerings, and lots of bells and whistles and they want cheap ticket prices. Well, something has to give. It's impossible for anyone to deliver all that."

Stanley believes it is harder than ever for festivals to make money.

"Band fees have doubled in the past six of seven years," she says. "You have to pay through the nose to get certain acts and that's why so many festivals are having to increase their capacities, and even then the asking price can be too much and festivals baulk at paying it."

On the face of it, Irish festival fans have never had it so good, and few are more attuned the scene in this country as Mark Graham. He is the author of the book A Year of Festivals, which chronicles his 12 months of attending three festivals a week. And, as part of his electro-dance band King Kong Company, he has performed at all the major festivals here - and many of the smaller ones, too.

"The ones that resonate most powerfully with me are those that don't feel as though they want to relieve you of your cash as soon as you walk in, where they charge ridiculous amounts for food and drink and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

Two decades ago, there was precious little choice for those who fancied a weekend of music. But all that has changed utterly.

"It's impossible not to be struck by the huge volume of festivals we have to chose from in this country," Graham says. "Not all of them are good, but those that are, are pretty special. The ones that work best and seem to connect most successfully with attendees are those that really know what they're about and offer something that bit different." And sometimes, he says, the ticket prices are simply too high.

"I think it was pretty straightforward for promoters in the past," he says. "You find a venue. Book bands that people want to see and hope the weather is good. Now, there's an expectation that there will be so much more on offer and that music is just one of several things that people can look forward to."

Graham says the nostalgia for the likes of Féile - where it really was just about the music, and (let's be honest) getting hammered - are misplaced. "I've been to festivals where it's just music and it does feel as though there's a lot missing. Our expectations have changed."

John Finn, co-founder of the Indiependence Festival in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, says the typical offering at today's festival mirrors our short-attention-span and instant-gratification culture.

"Years ago, you'd listen to albums from beginning to end," he says. "You'd play it over and over again. Now, you dip in and out. It's the same with festivals. You can't just put a bunch of bands on. You have to have different stages, and lots of different things to do.

"You have to be careful about how you spend your money and to try to find interesting acts that won't break the bank. And you have to make sure that those acts are a good fit for your festival."

Even the big promoters sometimes get that wrong. Chequebooks were waved at Arcade Fire in 2012 and they wound up playing to a small audience at Oxegen rather than Electric Picnic, once something of a spiritual home. And, last year, LCD Soundsystem's return was sullied when they played to a couple of hundred people from the main stage at T in the Park, Scotland.

"It's not an exact science," the promoter quoted earlier warns. "You can get it wrong and both those examples are proof that big-name draws on paper may not work in practice.

"Ultimately, if you want to get really big names, you've to cut back on the trimmings and try to increase capacity to about 80,000. That's when the figures are good enough to make it justifiable to offer the sort of money that the major acts can command."

@johnmeaghermuso

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