Why I won’t be going to Oxegen this year

Every­one has their own per­sonal hor­ror sto­ries to share about Irish fes­ti­vals, and most of them directed at Oxe­gen, but last year took the bis­cuit for me. My wife and I were get­ting food after Paolo Nutini’s set and she popped off to the toi­let. Nor­mally at a fes­ti­val like Oxe­gen, we’d always go together, but she said she’d be fine and insisted I not do the usual man-standing-around-at-entrance-to-women’s-toilet rou­tine. So, I con­tin­ued to queue. As she was mak­ing her way to the toi­lets towards the back of the main ‘arena’ she was tripped from behind, falling face down into muck. Her face was then held down in the muck by what she remem­bered as a young scum­bag for what felt like a minute as she fought to breathe and fight him off. She man­aged to get rid of him but as she was try­ing to get back on her feet – as plenty of peo­ple looked on, a big crowd was mak­ing its way through the Main Stage area after Paolo — another joker came and put his boot to the side of her and pressed down forcibly. After a strug­gle as he and his pals laughed away whilst con­tin­u­ing to hold her down to the ground with a muddy boot she even­tu­ally got free and went to one of the two secu­rity guards stand­ing nearby, who basi­cally told her where the first aid tent was and when she asked where the water and dis­in­fec­tant was so she could at least wash her face, one of them shrugged. “I dunno,” he replied. Mer­ci­fully my wife is ok, she wasn’t seri­ously hurt but she was shocked and felt humiliated.

If I was there when this hap­pened I’d prob­a­bly still be in jail today for GBH. I was only around the cor­ner and I’m still kick­ing myself for allow­ing her to head off on her own. I’d also have hap­pily been barred for life, or arrested for berat­ing the secu­rity and ask­ing why none of the happy fes­ti­vals goers for whom the pro­mot­ers proudly declare “it’s your fes­ti­val” would not come to her help. That not a sin­gle per­son would come to the aid of a defence­less girl is beyond me and it just about per­fectly sums up the audi­ence Oxegen gets.

I don’t know if I’d call it lucky or unfor­tu­nate, but since Féile 90 I can safely say that I’ve been to prac­ti­cally every ‘major’ fes­ti­val and large-scale musi­cal gath­er­ing in Ire­land, and more than my fair share of Glastonbury’s, Donington’s (includ­ing the dodgy Mon­sters of Rock days when we all had loads of hair and didn’t need such lux­u­ries as a “sec­ond stage” and toi­lets), Reading’s, Bestival’s, Hyde Park Calling’s and what-have-you in the UK, a cou­ple of Euro­pean gems and quite a few flops both as a punter and as a work­ing jour­nal­ist. I’ve even had a hand in a cou­ple of fes­ti­vals myself down through the years.

I can hon­estly say that last year’s Oxe­gen was THE sin­gle worst fes­ti­val I have ever been to. As a fes­ti­val ‘expe­ri­ence’ this teenage waste­land is with­out equal. Since it moved from Fairy­house to Pun­chestownm changed beer com­pa­nies and rebranded itself from Witnness to Oxe­gen it’s always been a rather unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence by virtue of its bland, dirty and utterly unat­trac­tive site. Pun­chestown may have a decent lay-out, but it’s hardly rolling green hills and attrac­tive nat­ural odd­i­ties. Its long walks over gravel and con­crete, lack of ancil­lary ‘fea­tures’, gen­er­ally poor sound and lack of pleas­ant relax­ation areas (aside from the VIP area of course) makes it one hard slog. Add in bands not being suited to either the fes­ti­val itself, or the par­tic­u­lar stage they’re on, and then ancil­lary stuff like a dread­ful selec­tion of drinks, the fact it ALWAYS seems to rain and ‘the kids’ on the piss (and piss­ing every­where) and you get a bad old days fes­ti­val. No mat­ter how many mil­lions are spent on upgrad­ing the CCTV, or adding a big Stone­henge yoke at the gate, or adding teepees and trib­ute bands to the camp­site, it’s always been a decid­edly unpleas­ant experience.

But strangely, there was always a pull to go, largely because of some incred­i­ble book­ings – Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addi­tion, Orbital in a tent, Brian Wil­son, Sigur Ros, The Who, Blur, Jay Z, Fever Ray etc etc. But after this year I can safely say that I, my fam­ily, and quite a few of my friends, will never, ever attend “Europe’s Great­est Music Fes­ti­val” again.

Not only did my wife suf­fer a hugely unpleas­ant time, my sis­ter was threat­ened by a group of nasty girls for hav­ing the audac­ity to sing along to Arcade Fire and a good pal – a rather well-known jour­nal­ist and pho­tog­ra­pher as it hap­pens – had the liv­ing crap kicked out of him on the Sat­ur­day night because he had the audac­ity to chal­lenge a lad who had stolen his food; food he had just paid for in the main arena where thou­sands had gath­ered for Muse. He went after the guy who robbed it who fell, and next thing all hell broke loose as he was blamed for trip­ping the food thief! One ran­domer loafed in sup­port of the food thief knock­ing my friend to the ground and kick­ing his glasses into his face caus­ing cuts, then four more lads – com­pletely unre­lated to any of the other par­tic­i­pants and totally unpro­voked — reigned kicks and punches in, injur­ing him quite badly. Such was his fear he had to get the Gar­daí to bring him off site.

It’s telling that the slew of ads in the last few weeks and the main mail-out image fea­tured few band names, but rather a sea of damp peo­ple at the main stage cheer­ing in the day­light under the slo­gan “it’s your fes­ti­val”. Well, the ‘share­hold­ers’ can fuck­ing keep it.

Oxe­gen has never been about the music and it’s cer­tainly not about the ‘expe­ri­ence’ the same way as Glas­ton­bury, Besti­val, Elec­tric Pic­nic, Body & Soul at Ballinlough or any­thing that could mar­ket itself with­out list­ing any band names. It’s a piss-up, plain and sim­ple. Aside from the inci­dents that had a direct impact on me, there was def­i­nitely more to it last year than just Heineken and smug­gled in Buck­fast. There was a gen­uine air of men­ace through­out the site, and as is my thing at fes­ti­vals, I walk every inch of the site. As some­one who’s worked in the music busi­ness all my life I love fes­ti­vals, and I love explor­ing them.

There was always a gang of us who went to the Big O, but over the past few years that big gang has been reduced to just a hand­ful of hardy souls. A 250 quid ticket is gen­uinely no prob­lem to a lot of peo­ple I go to gigs and fes­ti­vals with. They’d pay €100 (and have done) to see any of the big Oxe­gen bands do shows on their own. I think Oxegen’s biggest prob­lem is that the peo­ple, the music lovers, who used to make up the lions share of the audi­ence – at Witnness and at the first cou­ple of Oxegen’s – just won’t go any­more. And that’s down to the crowd it gets now. “It’s your fes­ti­val” they say. Well, it’s not. It’s ‘share­hold­ers’ want to go on the piss; it’s for peo­ple who’ll hap­pily queue for an hour at a big name fast food or pizza stand instead of an Irish trader with a hand­made sign and deli­cious grub; it’s for peo­ple who have never held a music mag­a­zine in their hands in their life, who rarely buy music, and who only go to one gig a year and that gig is in Punchestown.

The oft men­tioned ‘iden­tity cri­sis’ has been with Oxe­gen since day one and in the past two years I think pro­mot­ers MCD have recog­nised this with their TOTP book­ings such as Lady Ga Ga, Bey­once, Jessie J, The Script, David Guetta, Black Eyed Peas, Kesha etc etc. Very few peo­ple sing along to Arcade Fire when they’re pissed and very few there this year will have one iota about the mas­sive impact of Screa­madel­ica. It’s thrash the share­hold­ers want, and next year the pro­mot­ers should just cater for this and just turn the Big O into T4 at the Beach. Their other book­ings, the ones might attract gen­uine fans but who attract a few hun­dred strag­glers into a tent can and should be cor­ralled together into some­thing like Lat­ti­tude, which was pen­cilled in for Belvedere in Mullingar not-so-long-ago but never materialized.

I had the plea­sure of watch­ing Blur from the side of the main stage with Alan Yen­tob from the BBC in 2009. Prior to this we’d walked through the site and he gen­uinely could not believe his eyes. We talked about pre­vi­ous fes­ti­vals, and bands that had played, and when we came to The Who, he was aston­ished they had done it. Betcha Pete Town­shend was too when he looked out at thou­sands of peo­ple wait­ing for the theme tune to CSI. Teenage Waste­land indeed.

 

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