Sunday 21 January 2018

Out of Oxegen: End of the Punchestown event has left a gaping hole in the festival calender

Where will the 80,000 disenfranchised youngsters – hell-bent on their rite of passage – turn to now that the Punchestown event has folded up its tent?

Oxegen revellers enjoying the music and mud. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Tanya Sweeney

Folks of a certain age have long known the drill by now: mucky portaloos, inflatable hammers, falafel stands and a general sense of wild and carefree abandon. Since time immemorial (well, since Féile), the Irish festival has been a rite of passage for anyone who ever bought an album and wanted to cut free from the tyranny of youth. At the centre of the Irish festival family for over a decade has been Oxegen, formerly Witness.

For one weekend in July, the idyll of the Irish countryside was smashed asunder as various tribes convened and sought to find themselves and/or lose themselves in a soundtrack of pop, rock, electro and indie.

Well, Oxegen may have made you the person you are, but today's fun-seeking youngsters may end up having a rather different coming-of-age experience.

After a fallow year in 2012, and a dance-heavy revamp in 2013, Oxegen has now been cancelled, with promoters MCD issuing the following statement: "It is with regret that MCD announce that Oxegen will not take place this year due to lack of suitable headline acts which, combined with the financial demands by local agencies, make it no longer viable to stage the festival in its current form."

Cue much reading between the lines as to what qualifies a 'suitable' headline act, and speculation on how financially demanding certain local agencies are. MCD, incidentally, could not be reached for comment on either. The consensus appears fairly singular, though: 'suitable artists' or not, the writing has been on the wall for Oxegen for quite some time.

The whys and wherefores of running Oxegen are one thing, but the more pertinent question is, if Oxegen has finally had its day in the sun, now what?

Have Irish crowds actually moved on from wanting to convene with 80,000 of their kith and kin for a weekend of mud and musical this, that and the other? Will there be 80,000 disenfranchised and panicked youngsters hell-bent on getting their rite of passage experience elsewhere, and hoping to get their kicks at other music weekends? Certainly, a strain of indie fan hoping to enjoy Slowdive and White Denim at Electric Picnic now appears to be fretting that they have to share their sumptuous Stradbally experience with a group of GAA-jersey clad Lily Allen fans.

Are musical tribes such that when it comes to indie zealots and chart pop/dance fans, never the twain shall meet?

'I think Longitude may be the new Oxegen," asserts Angela Dorgan, CEO of First Music Contact and organiser of the Hard Working Class Heroes Festival. "It has a similar type of line-up that Oxegen has always had."

It's probably worth debunking that myth from the outset: tribal lines were never that entrenched; not really. Just as there have been forty-something music fans willing to make the pilgrimage to Oxegen, so too have the Che Guevara flag-toting chillseekers rocked up to Stradbally and barely made it beyond the car park. Still, the notion of 'us' and 'them' remains.

There's no denying that the Irish festival landscape has changed, for better or worse. Slane 2014 is a no-go; the Phoenix Park cluster of outdoors gigs has also gone by the wayside. With a whole slew of new gunslingers on the block, it's been a question of adapting to change for promoters, and quickly.

Herein lies the rub: while indie and rock fans will be endlessly catered for with 2014's festival offerings – and it really is an embarrassment of riches – it's fairly slim pickings for dance fans this summer.

"If you're a fan of dance and hip-hop, you'll certainly feel Oxegen being missing from the summer," notes Dorgan. "It'll be disappointing for local dance and hip-hop musicians too, as festivals were the one opportunity you got to meet the international industry figures."

Rather, dance fans are migrating to Europe for their festival kicks. Ultra Europe in Croatia – a spin-off from the Miami Winter Music Conference event – always does brisk business, as does Tomorrowland in Belgium.

"They've been going abroad in their droves," notes John. "The Irish turnout at Creamfields in the UK in 2013 was pretty huge."

Indie fans, too, hear the siren call of European festivals like Barcelona's Primavera, Portugal's Porto or Belgium's Pukkelpop; all well-organised, artist-rich, pocket-friendly weekends where the chances of enjoying a pint and some live music in the sunshine are likely greater than at home.

As to what the future holds closer to home, it's clear that Irish punters are warming to the idea of a smaller-capacity festival event. Weekends like Body & Soul, Castlepalooza and Indiependence have been fostering a 'small but perfectly formed' vibe for years; and now, the payoff has been magnificent.

Certainly, the time-honoured festival experience – the sort of physical endurance feat that put hairs on the chest of countless Irish teenagers down the years – is no more for the time being.

Whether the Class of 2014 will be any better or worse off for missing out on that experience, only time will tell.

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