The festivals they are a-changin'
John Meagher on how the summer shows have been rocked by recession
Calvin Harris is a Scottish DJ and producer who broke Michael Jackson's long-standing record this week when he became the first act to have eight UK top 10 singles.
Granted, it requires far fewer sales to achieve this than it did when the King of Pop was in his pomp, but it does demonstrate just how popular the 29-year-old from Dumfries has become.
The timing could hardly have been better for MCD when, on Monday, it announced that Harris would headline Oxegen on the August bank holiday weekend – which is returning in slimmed-down form after last year's hiatus.
It soon became apparent that the rumours were correct: it would be a dance-oriented festival to feature such big-hitters such as electro-pop giants David Guetta and Example.
Many of the country's music critics – me included – were quick to claim that Oxegen's star had declined greatly since the days when it booked such stellar names as David Bowie (who subsequently cancelled due to ill-health), Blur and Beyoncé. But a cursory look at social media revealed far greater enthusiasm among young music fans, while a colleague mentioned how his 15-year-old daughter said it was the perfect line-up.
Music aficionados of an older hue did not have long to wait for a festival better suited to their tastes. On Thursday, the Electric Picnic acts were announced and the response was enthusiastic: Björk, Fatboy Slim, Arctic Monkeys and David Byrne are among the marquee attractions on August 30 to September 1 and there is no shortage of intriguing bands further down the list. Savages anyone?
For much of the year, it looked like there would be no Electric Picnic to mark its 10th anniversary, especially as its various promoters found themselves battling each other in court earlier this month – so Thursday was a good day for those of us who feel this annual three-day event in Stradbally, Co Laois, represents the benchmark for festivals in Ireland.
On the face of it, the Irish music festival is in better health than ever. Besides Oxegen and Electric Picnic, there's a new kid on the block, Longitude (July 19-21) – which for all intents and purposes is a Dublin version of EP – as well as popular smaller festivals like Forbidden Fruit in Dublin (June 1-2), Body & Soul in Westmeath (June 21-23), Sea Sessions in Donegal (June 21-23), Castlepalooza in Offaly (August 2-4) and Indiependence in Cork (August 2-4).
And, after a no-show last year, Slane is back with not one, but two concerts headlined by Bon Jovi (June 15) and Eminem (August 17).
But what's particularly apparent this year is how aware the promoters have become of the depleted spending power of the fans. With the country in its sixth year of recession, the prices of tickets have come way down.
Oxegen has returned to a three-day programme after poorer-than-expected ticket sales for its three-day festivals over the past few years and ticket prices – €129.50 for a weekend pass without camping – are way down on 2008, for instance, when "early bird" weekend tickets cost €197.
Electric Picnic has stuck with the three-day model, but has greatly reduced prices too. And organisers have taken the novel approach of rewarding those who previously attended the festival with cheaper-than-average prices: those who can prove they were at three previous Electric Picnics can buy a weekend ticket for €149.50, while those who were there just the once can buy tickets for €169.50. The normal price is €189.50 for those who purchase before May 27.
"It's a no-brainer," says a well-known music industry figure who does not wish to be named. "You've got to cut the prices of tickets or the punters won't come. The money just isn't there and a large proportion of those who attend festivals are young people who are either unemployed or out of the country having been forced to emigrate. Festivals did great business when there was easy access to credit but, believe me, people think long and hard before parting with their cash these days.
"The promoters have had to get wise, too. The days of paying half-a-million euro to nab a hot band off a rival are gone, especially when you consider that some acts were patently wrong for certain festivals." Arcade Fire at Oxegen in 2011 and The Killers headlining Electric Picnic last year are obvious examples of such misguided bookings.
Shane Dunne is one of the organisers of Indiependence and says sensible ticket pricing is paramount.
"We were offering early bird weekend camping tickets for €70. We can't give you the huge names that the bigger festivals can, but as anyone who goes to festivals will tell you the experience is about so much more than just the music. There's also a sense that some people like a smaller festival experience where you don't have to walk for ages to get about. Our capacity is limited to 5,000 people.
"We have had a lot of repeat visitors, and overseas customers, too. The festival is on the radar of people in Britain and on the continent and last year we had eight girls from Germany who drove over in a camper van."
Avril Stanley launched Body & Soul in 2010. "We were told we were crazy to do it in a time of recession and I suppose, in hindsight, we were. But we felt there was an audience out there who wanted a festival that was as much about a lifestyle as it is about music.
"Body & Soul is a key part of the Electric Picnic experience and I think it works really well as a stand-alone festival. It's family friendly and Ballinlough Castle (Co Westmeath) and its grounds make for a truly beautiful setting."
While some question if Ireland is big enough to sustain so many festivals in the short term, there's no doubt that the experience for the paying customer has changed dramatically in just 20 years.
"I remember going to Siamsa Cois Laoi in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork and the facilities were primitive compared to what you have today," says Tony O'Brien, who was the Irish Independent's music reviewer in the 1980s and early 1990s.
"It was a far cry from organic burgers and falafel wraps – you'd be lucky it there was a chip van there.
"And I remember being at Féile in Semple Stadium (Thurles) with my better half and to exit the ground you'd have to walk through a tunnel under the stand that would be lined on each side with gentlemen relieving themselves. Different times indeed."