Indie-pendence is a boutique music festival held in Michelstown, County Cork. Referred to in the past as one of Munster’s premier festivals, it has gained such popularity as to now be considered one of the country’s best known festivals whilst remaining true to its independent roots. With a long track record of helping unknown bands raise to notoriety and allowing dwindling (or otherwise commercially retired) bands a chance to shine once more, this three day camping festival promises entertainment whilst cocooning its revellers in its alternative, welcoming embrace. But where did it all begin?
We have to take a step back in time to the early 90’s, a leap that commands respect, to witness the seeds of the festival’s infancy. Independence evolved from Deer Festival, originally a bank holiday celebration for the local community which provided quality (and eclectic) local entertainment. Billed as “A weekend of Arts, Venison and Music” it was run by a local committee and patronised by the community. Deer Festival set out to deliver everything its audience desired in a fun, free, live music festival divertissement.
Early examples of Deer Festival show its quintessential Irishness with opening ceremonies in July ’93 being handled by none other than then Taoseach, Charles J. Haughey. Local press at the time describe “a plethora of entertainment”. Highlights included Bagatelle and Frances Black. “Rock Star” Rob Strong, father of Andrew Strong of ‘The Commitments’ fame headlined and Aslan, known for their song “Crazy World”, were the most popular act. Not bad for a local small town festival.
Deer Festival offered plenty of interactive entertainment such as busking competitions and ‘Beat On The Street’ hosted by some of Ireland’s top radio DJs of the time such as Simon Young, Larry Gogan, Tony Fenton and Ray D’Arcy. Other novelties included art exhibitions, pub dart competitions, helicopter rides, a flower show, a fiddle and music box workshop, treasure hunting and, most entertaining of all, a “Bartenders race” involving a bartender running 200 metres with a pint of Carling on a tray! I wonder what the prize was.?!
Beamish and Crawford were prominent among the early sponsors but the festival was also partially funded by volunteers raising money via bucket collecting. Former festival chairman, Martin Lane, remembers such community spirit; “My fondest memory – which I will take to the grave – was when ten thousand people stood in the town square in the lashing rain for two hours watching Mary Black. If fifty people left, it was a lot.” Such a moment in time is universally inspiring.
Mr. Lane went on to say that “the committee turned down the opportunity to have The Cranberries play live in the square because, at the time, no one had heard of The Cranberries”. It wasn’t until a year later in 1994, when the festival had already become known as the Michelstown Music Festival that The Cranberries broke their jam cherry in the mainstream with their hit single ‘Linger’.
1994 also saw the return of Bagatelle and a performance by Don Baker, whom Bono is said to have lauded as “one of the best harmonica players in the world” which is saying something!
Boyzone hit the stage in 1995, suported for two years by boyband Remix. Another band which maintained the status of festival favourite for several years were The Memories, although, they were soon overshadowed by Jerry Fish and The Mudbug Club. According to the Anudou (a local Michelstown paper), Frances Black also played “a beautiful version of the The Bangles’ Eternal Flame.” All the ingredients for a super carnival atmosphere.
The Michelstown Music Festival also gave ode to local music. Snatch got billed to play along side the headliners. A touch of indulgence was provided by Deer Festival hosting a Venison banquet at £25 per head. Similar to this years Electric Picnic where revellers were allowed to hang up their ponchos, don their wellies and slip into a black tie or ball gown to dine in style and forget they’re in the middle of a field for a few hours before returning at the end of the night to the main stage all for a mere €150 per head (of which a percentage is donated to charity).
Festival donations were assisted by an “Are you Sound For A Pound?” fundraiser in the locality. Artists would come to play after their show at The Boran. “The after parties were often more tiresome and full-on than the festival itself” according to Mr. Lane. “Many of the local residents would often give up their homes to let artists and bands stay over”. Now that’s community spirit!
Brian Kennedy, The Bogus Brothers and Picture House headlined in 1998 which was also the first year that the Festival charged an entry fee. Between many attendees opting to remain outside the barrier (dodging the fee) and many local residents voicing disgust at festival goer’s noisiness and unruly behaviour, though, the year was not commercially successful.
The Michelstown festival was starting to struggle at this stage but for the sake of the entertainment and income it provided local businesses and people it was decided to keep it going for several more years with a break in between. After securing new leading sponsorship by Guinness, the festival was able to continue for another spin.
Other familiar names to have played in the festival’s early days were The Saw Doctors, OTT, Paul Harrington and All2getherwho were billed as “Corks new boy band sensation”. Providing “no less than twelve free gigs”, Michelstown Music Festival strived to provide the local community and visitors alike with the very best of Irish entertainment. They succeeded, almost to their detriment, by sheer determination.
In an attempt to develop and rejuvenate the festival whilst keeping it free to the public the committee aptly headlined contemporary artists. The year 2000 saw Jack L take to the stage. Aged twenty six, one critic dubbed him ”a mixture of all the great male singing voices of the 20th century” and compared him to Sinatra, Jim Morrison and Tom Waits. Also headlining in 2000 was short-lived R&B pop artist Samantha Mumba who was quoted as considering “Puff Daddy a real bit of eye candy”.
In 2001, Michelstown staged David Kitt, Jullet Turner and The Walls. 2002 brought another of Louie Walsh’s flash-in-the-pan pop creations, SIX, to the expanding festival. Alongside SIX were Irish indie rock band The Revs
who played their ironically named first single, ‘Louie Walsh’ which blatantly targeted the master of Irish manufactured pop music himself. Water off a duck’s back for Louie, I’m sure. Remaining true to more traditional musical tastes, (despite the ever younger audience) Mary Black played to her dedicated fan base. A comedic spin was provided by nights hosted by Dermot Morgn and Pat Shortt.
The most memorable acts to grace the Micheltown stage included Dani Minogue (at her career’s height in 2003) and Jerry Fish and The Mudbug Club (supported by Cork band The Buds and The Berries) but it was 2004 that marked one of the festival’s most successful early years with a crowd of 40,000 being treated to Coolio (of Gangster’s Paradise), The Commitments and Kool And The Gang. These are regularly mentioned when one speaks of the Michelstown festival of its pre- Independence incarnation.
Although Dani Minogue drew crowds, the festival ran at a loss in 2003, amounting significant dept according to chairman, Martin Lane. “We got into dept of €60,000 in August but we had it wiped out before Christmas”. This suggests that the committee already had access to reasonable resources.
There has always been a shadow of controversy surrounding the departure of Michelstown Music Festival and the birth of Independence. It is speculated that there was strong disagreement within the ranks of the Michelstown Music Festival organisers. The rather innocent intention expressed by Martin Lane was to change the concept of the festival and bring it into the 21st century. Organisers appeared to want to stick to the standing tradition but others on the committee pushed to change various aspects of the festival, including location, ticketing and headliners.
Shane Dunne, booker, promoter and co-founder of Indei-pendence festival maintains that “lots of local businesses at the time did really well out of it. Unfortunately for the people behind the festival, not every business that benefited was willing to sponsor it to the level it needed”.
Independence launched in 2006, headlining The Proclaimers, Sultans Of Ping and The Franks And Walters showing that the festival offered a platform for emerging Irish artists.
In 2008 it was still a free festival. It was still held in the centre of the town in New Square and was billed as Irelands only free music festival. Eventually, the festival moved further afield, firstly to O’Connell park for two years and finally to Deer Farm where it has been held the last three years.
2009 saw the festival expand into a ticketed event. The moving to Deer Farm in 2010 marked its first year as a camping festival. Consisting of five stages, Deer Farm covers 40 acres and is well situated in the valley to the south of the Galtee Mountains close to Mitchelstown Caves, making it an ideal spot to host an annual boutique festival with cinema and comedy tent to boot.
The addition of camping brought in an extra thousand tickets and over one hundred acts. In 2010, acts included Ash,Scroobius Pip, Whipping Boy, The Coronas and Therapy. 2011 brought in bigger names such as The Editors as well as a much larger selection of artists.
Meeting with Shane Dunne, I asked him a few brief questions on his initial take over and the future of Indie-pendence.
In brief, what is your history of Independence festival?
Basically, it was a small festival in the square in Mitchelstown and it wasn’t making any money. Myself and four other buddies decided to take it over and help its marketability to help it out financially.
How did you decide on a venue to host the festival?
Being from Mitchelstown myself, I decided to hold it in Deer Farm as the space was available and it’s close to home.
What did you do before you got into the festival game?
I was a working as a microbiologist for the department of agriculture. I was in a good job that paid well and had a good pension, etc. but I gave it up for the love of music and to try something different.
Who has played there over the years?
Some of the big headliners were The Editors and Bell X1. The Coronas were the surprise act this year; they’re always a good stage-puller. Ham Sandwich played in the beginning.
What do you think makes people come back each year?
The acts that play each year. It’s hard to say who drew the best crowd but we had some great acts this year such as The Frank and Walters, local bands such as The Vincents, Scrupulous Pip, Public Enemy and Walking On Cars.
How difficult was it to get it off the ground?
It is incredibly hard to organise and run a festival. I would not recommend it to anybody unless you know exactly what you are doing. It’s very difficult. We have made so many mistakes along the way but we just picked up the pieces and carried on. You need a lot of patience.
What do you look for in good production?
Regarding production, we don’t really have a huge budget to expand so we keep it fairly basic. It’s mainly about the music.
Fun Loving Criminals were a no-show this year. What happened there?
On the Sunday Morning I got a voice mail from The Fun Loving Criminals’ agent asking me to call him as soon as possible because The Fun Loving Criminals had to cancel last minute due to a medical situation. These things happen.
What would you like to see in the future?
In the future we would like to maybe see it grow to a capacity of 10,000 but that entails a lot of extra work, cost and license agreements etc. For the moment we are happy as is. We would like to have more things added to the festival in the future to incorporate different elements such as bigger instalments and production, possibly more stages.
Any advice to people who want to get in to festival organizing?
Don’t do it unless you know exactly what you are doing.
It seems Indie-pendence has come full circle. Originally starting off in Deer Farm, moving onto New Square in Michelstown town centre and on to O’Connell Park for a short stint only to finally arrive back home in Deer Farm once more.
Indie-pendance Festival remains one of Irelands best and most loved independent festivals while remaining one of the cheapest. Ticket prices continue to be €20- €40 cheaper than most other festivals around the country. Long may it last!