July 11, 2004

Soundtracking the pulse of young Ireland's economy

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Louise is running around the office like a demented junkie. “Any tickets? Can you pull any strings?
I can’t believe I left it to the last minute,” she wails. Radio stations are inundated with callers looking for tickets.

Oxegen is sold out.

Meanwhile, John-Paul and Steph have been preparing for ages. They have checked the weather forecast, texted mates and e-mailed the gang incessantly from their “Prairie Dog”, cubicle-strapped, tele-jobs in the back office of some international bank at the IFSC.

The beer and other goodies have been stashed, the sleeping bags are packed, the cars are ready and it’s off to Punchestown for the weekend in convoy. Oxegen kicked off yesterday.

JP, Steph and 60,000 other partygoers are giving it socks for two nights, dancing to the finest bands this country has ever seen in one venue – from The Cure to The Darkness and Faithless to Groove Armada, from PJ Harvey to The Strokes, and taking in the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack and the Divine Comedy along the way.

On a more general level, no matter what your tastes, you can go to see almost anything you want on practically any night in Ireland. Our appetite for bands, concerts and festival weekends is phenomenal. Ticket sales have never been stronger, and according to the promoters, there is little resistance to price hikes.

Detractors complain about the outrageous prices of tickets, yet punters have not stopped paying through the nose.

Why has Ireland become a gig Mecca over the past few summers? Anyone old enough to remember the Feiles, the early Slanes, the Lisdoonvarnas, the Phoenix Park gigs or the Seamsa cois Laoi will know that we have always had live spectaculars, but this year’s range and quality suggests something on quite a different scale.

What has changed? Is it our desire to carouse? Is it just a function of having more cash? Have we become more hip?

Maybe it is a combination of all three and more.

Traditional economics does not bother itself with such trivialities as the economics of Oxegen, Slane and Marlay Park. But what if there is a direct link between the performance of the economy and the type of gigs that are held in the summer?

One might argue that festivals are a function of money, after tax income and full employment, but so too are the sales of golf clubs, green fees and the proportion of Gold Am-Ex cards to “normal” credit cards.

Doesn’t the exuberant sales of top-of-the-range Mercs also tell us something about what is going on in the economy?

Why does the sale of weekend Oxegen festival tickets and campsite passes tell us something more about the economy than the sales of golf clubs? Well, Oxegen is the economic equivalent of a crystal ball.

Its huge ticket sales this year serve as an ideal way to explore the significant link between the vibrancy of national partying today and the performance of the economy tomorrow.

Historically, economics – embalmed as it is in its heavy drape of Victorian Protestant morality – has frowned on partying. Traditionally, the reasons for places like Ireland were backward economically were put down to indolence, laziness and a fondness for the gargle.

Through this prism, it was easy to conclude that, the more carousing that went on, the more likely the country was to be poor.

This economic view of the world (still taught in our universities, where first-year students are told that humans go around actively “substituting work for leisure”) is also responsible for the dismissal of Latin countries as economic basket cases.

In reality, however, gigs such as Oxegen capture the vibrancy of an economy by telling uswhat its younger workers are up to.

Even though they might not recognise it today, the Oxegeners of 2004 will be the Audi-driving, golf-obsessed suburbanites of 2014. Like so many issues, one of the best ways to examine our appetite for gigs is through the prism of demographics.

Who are the Oxegen generation?

Where do they live? What do they drive?

How much is their monthly mobile phone bill?

The average music festival-goer is in his or her mid-20s.This means that, broadly speaking, the Oxegen generation was born in 1979.

That year was coincidentally marked by the biggest outdoor gig this country had ever seen: the visit of the Pope. The Irish baby boom peaked in June 1980, nine months to the day from John Paul kissing the tarmac at Dublin Airport. Cause and effect, anyone?

This generation is now the dominant demographic influence in Ireland. They are the people that all advertisers, marketing men and creative brand managers are focusing on. All ads are tailored to snaring them.

When banks are not ripping off students, they are obsessed with the Oxegen generation, the Pope’s children.

There are 605,000 of them in this country, and they are the battleground for all salesmen. As this column has pointed out before, the Pope’s children are also the first generation of Irish workers facing the very real prospect of being priced out of the property market altogether.

That said, maybe the Pope’s kids are the lucky ones. Most are a few years too young to care about houses just yet, and many have simply decided to opt out.

There are 1.9 million people under the age of 29 in the country. Most of them will find it impossible to buy property if prices continue to rise. Because houses and rents are so exorbitant, many of the 605,000 working Pope’s kids are choosing to live at home with their liberal parents.

They are choosing to spend their cash on goodies like Oxegen tickets rather than give it to a faceless bank via a monthly mortgage.

The perverted housing market (which is crippling 30-somethings born in the early 1970s or late 1960s) is prompting a spending splurge amongst the Pope’s kids in their early to mid-20s.

So it is not surprising that Ireland should have the highest penetration of mobile phones in Europe, at 85 per cent, or the highest proportion of houses with Sony Playstations, at an amazing 41 per cent.

Levels of DVD and video rental are three times higher per head here than in Britain.

Oxegen captures the trends in the spending habits of the Pope’s children, giving us a valuable handle on the likely vibrancy of consumer spending in the future as much as any other economic barometer.

Therefore, the more festivals and parties organised over the summer, the more dynamic the crucial demographic that is the engine of economic growth in the future.

While sales of golf clubs may tell us about what is going on in suburbia today, Oxegen being sold out this year tells us what is likely to happen in the shopping malls and DIY stores of tomorrow.

The next time you want to gauge the most likely future path of an economy, forget the dull stuff about GDP, tax takes and the like: just stand in the middle of a field in Kildare with 60,000 others and feel it.


  1. Paul Goggin

    Forgotten again

    The 18 to 21 age group!!!!

  2. Michael Clifford

    Doesn’t the exuberant sales of top-of-the-range Mercs also
    tell us something about what is going on in the economy?

    I attended a car auction in Dublin for the first time last
    week. I was flabbergasted at the amount of
    cars being sold as finance repossessions. No top-of-the-
    range mercs here. Renault Clios, VW golfs,
    and the ubiquitous Fiesta and Corolla. The cars of the
    middle classes. If you need a leading indicator
    of what is really happening in the Irish economy here it
    is…

  3. David Mc Williams

    Hi Paul, apoligies for the oversight, I’ll see what I can
    do next time.

    Michael, thanks for the comments particularly the
    observations on repo men knocking around the Dublin
    suburbs. Very interesting.

    Thanks again, David

  4. Gerard

    David,

    ‘……..the highest proportion of houses with Sony
    Playstations, at an amazing 41 per cent.

    Levels of DVD and video rental are three times higher per
    head here than in Britain.’

    I am sure that Greg Crister, author of ‘Fat Land’, would
    argue that these are indicators of what the obesity
    epidemic will do to our health service in years to come.

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