Rob Flynn met the stress-junkies who put their wealth, health and sanity on the line to run these events.
With niche festivals dropping like proverbial flies and authorities becoming less and less accepting of fringe events, rabble takes a behind the scenes look at some of Ireland’s more groundbreaking underground events and sees how they are surviving, or otherwise.
DEAF was a festival with original programming, inclusivity and high levels of integrity. The Dublin Electronic Arts Festival ran from the opulence of 2000 until gloomier times in 2009 and was a successful attempt at putting Dublin on the electronic music map.
Founder Eamonn Doyle explains the reasoning behind the festival, “I was running a small label at the time, D1, and there was a few other labels going around, Decal, Bassbin, Ultra Mack…one of the problems was that none of us were getting to play at the bigger festivals like Creamfields and Homelands, or even when Electric Picnic came along. So we decided to start our own festival….We wanted to showcase Irish talent alongside people on the same buzz as us in different cities around the world… but basically I just considered it as a good thing to do. It wasn’t for financial reasons or anything”.
Over the years, DEAF boasted some spectacular line-ups. In it’s final year, 120 events took place in a variety of venues throughout Dublin, “We did use all the existing venues” explains Doyle, “but we (also) managed to use non-traditional spaces like Dublin City Hall, and cathedrals and churches and karaoke bars and gigs in people’s houses. All sorts of odd places, barber shops and stuff”.
Yet, dwindling funding from the Arts Council and the complete loss of sponsorship from drinks companies, meant DEAF became harder to sustain: “We could have definitely kept it turning over but there’s only so many years you can keep asking people to do things for free…and people were still doing things for free, the actual artists were always really positive in their feedback so that wasn’t a problem. But we were losing money every single year”.
Another legendary Irish event now up on blocks is the Mantua festival. From its roots as an artist community in Co. Roscommon, Mantua took place from 2005 to 2008, taking in collectives such as the Alphabet Set, Kaboogie, The Rootical Soundsystem and Choice Cuts as it scaled up.
“We got kind of carried away with ourselves. Each year we’d figure that we could change our mistakes and it’d work better the following year”, recalls promoter Mike Cleary.
Mantua was certainly ambitious for an independent festival: in 2008 the lineup boasted the likes of Múm, Flying Lotus (who cancelled), Daedelus, and Chris Clark and tons of acts playing in five full size arenas. The event inspired episodes that were so uniquely Irish that they could scarcely be imagined to happen elsewhere.
In 2007, a part of the site was thrashed by a runaway tractor. The next year featured a Father Ted-esque cessation of music for mass on Saturday and Sunday. Only in Ireland.
Ultimately, it was financial troubles brought on by fence-jumping that took the festival down: “At some point everything went wrong. Our own naivety caused a lot of it. A lot of people got in for free, and we kind of thought people would be honest and just pay, ‘cos we didn’t really overcharge, it was like €70. People would come up to us after and be like ‘great festival thanks a lot’ and at the same time brag about how they got in for free…Any spare cash was just spent on booking acts and not on fancy stages and security.”
Those involved are still paying back debts from the event, over €20,000 of which is still outstanding. Cleary takes a philosophical approach: “Even with the financial strife, it’s not something I regret doing. I could be rich now and not having done it and I’d be thinking ‘why didn’t I do that?…Loads of folk who put in time, money and effort were often, if not always, left without a lot of thanks for everything they did…so a big retrospective ‘thanks’ and much love to all of ye.”
Similarly ambitious, was the Sliabh An Iarainn festival in 2006 & 2007 where international luminaries such as DJ Q-Bert and former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Fluer filled out a forward-thinking lineup. Promoter Liam O’Brien said the event was inspired by European festivals like Sonar and SAI was his attempt to, “do something for the Irish electronic music scene”. In the end, the familiar combination of non-paying punters and a deteriorating economic climate put an end to the event.
The most recent casualty on the Irish festival circuit is the Sibín festival. Having run successfully for the last four years, Sibín mixed a range of rock, reggae and electronic music in a one day mini-festival showcasing the best of Irish talent alongside bigger international acts.
Sibín was planned for a new venue in Wicklow this May bank-holiday weekend, moving from its home in Slane, Co. Meath. Legal documentation from the new venue was delayed, the promoters were forced to move the event to another location, The Factory art studio in Dublin city.
However, a couple of BYOB parties brought this new venue to the attention of the Gardaí, just weeks before Sibín was scheduled to take place. “The only reason the police got involved was because they didn’t want a ‘Bring Your Own Booze’ event”, explains promoter Mikey Soro. The Gardaí had the event cancelled on the grounds that the building did not meet fire and safety regulations, leaving the Sibín promoters out of pocket: “We had a couple of artists booked from the UK and further afield, one of them from Canada. We had to pay for certain things like tickets. So yeah, we lost a couple of grand anyway. We have a site now for next year, it’s much smaller and further away from Dublin”.
Mikey felt hard-done-by after this years events, but is adamant he won’t make the same mistake again and has some advice for promoters: “Anyone wanting to do raves or parties, make sure the building is fire-certed and make sure that you have all the fire and safety precautions in place so when the police come in you can go ‘look, fuck off”. Similarly closed down by the authorities this year was the ‘Great Friday’ festival in Limerick. The promoters hit a brick wall dealing with the Gardaí, who cited the lack of a dancing license as the reason for shutting the event down. “Sometimes it won’t matter how much you abide by the law, they will stop you just ‘cause they can” says one of the promoters, Mark Goodwin. “We were told that we would be arrested and our equipment confiscated if we went ahead. It sucks, but next time I run a festival, it will be a trek to get to in the middle of a forest so I can blanket the sound”.
Staying with the west coast, the Bump! Festival ran as a two day boutique electronic music festival in 2010 and 2011, pulling off impressively high standards of production on a relatively small scale.
In contrast to the Sibín and Great Friday, promoter Daniel Sykes has had good experiences with the Gardaí. “The authorities have always been really good (to deal with) and we have worked as hard as possible to do everything correctly with the right licenses and paperwork”.
Sykes and his fellow promoters have encountered problems: “The main issue we have had is venue owners. Unfortunately, both years we have had issues… in Bump 2010, when we had to turn the music off on the Saturday because there was a funeral taking place that the owner hadn’t told us about in the graveyard up the road…..then on the Sunday he had double booked a christening so it turned into a strange mix of people.”
This year, Bump! rebranded itself as a ‘Music, media and electronic arts conference’ taking place in several venues around Limerick city at the end of June.
The difficulties in putting on alternative festivals on an island inhabited by 6.4m broke citizens are crippling. But take them away and what are we left with?
Earlier this month, MCD struggled to keep 45,000 fans entertained at an event that had very little to do with culture, community or, frankly, music. It would be sad if music festivals in Ireland became synonymous with such events.
Punters need to dig a little deeper and support the events they believe in before we land ourselves in a ‘this is why you can’t have anything nice’ situation and all that’s left are giant fields of mud; the Swedish House Mafia; and drunk/stoned/stabbed teenagers.