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25 years of Øya Festival: ‘It’s been a fun ride’

Øya Festival chief Claes Olsen has looked back on the history of the event as it prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer.

The 22,000-cap gathering, which is one of Norway’s leading festivals, will reach the milestone at Oslo’s Tøyen Park from 6-10 August, topped by  PJ Harvey, Pulp, Queens of the Stone Age, Gabrielle and Janelle Monáe.

Speaking to IQ, the Øya founder, owner and booker reveals that tickets are moving at an impressive pace.

“I think it’s the third best year ever at the moment, so I hope that we will be sold out.” says Olsen.

Since launching in 1999, Øya has hosted the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Cure, Lana Del Rey, Beck, Blur, Kendrick Lamar, Florence and the Machine, The Stone Roses, Björk, Kanye West and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

“Time flies,” says Olsen. “It’s crazy, but it’s been a long ride – a fun ride – and I don’t regret anything about it at all.”

“Everything was so strict in the 90s. If you listened to one kind of music, you couldn’t listen to another. There were so many unwritten rules”

Reflecting on the festival’s origins, Olsen says it was developed initially to help highlight the domestic live music sector, but has evolved its output through the years as the public’s musical preferences have become less tribal.

“We were friends running tiny, 100 to 300-cap venues in Oslo and saw this emerging scene of new artists that weren’t getting to play festivals in Norway,” he remembers. “There were very few festivals at that time and they were hard to get into for domestic acts, so the original idea was to showcase the scene.

“These acts would be selling 200-400 tickets each because it was a small market at that time, so we thought, ‘Okay, they’ll sell 300, they’ll sell 400, they’ll sell 500,’ and added it all up. But you can’t do that because it’s a lot of the same people buying tickets and the lineup was not that diverse.”

He continues: “There has been a slow evolution both of our own music tastes, and also the general perception of music. Especially in the 90s, everything was so strict: if you listened to one kind of music, you couldn’t listen to another, and there were so many unwritten rules at that time.

“That slowly changed for us, but part of the festival’s DNA is to still be part of the local music scene and so around 50% of acts playing the festival are still domestic. We’ve spent a lot of time booking them but also marketing them and putting in a lot of effort to keep them growing.”

“We had Sonic Youth as the headliner [in 2005] and that was a shift. After that, it became easier to book international artists”

Olsen regards the 2005 edition as a turning point in the festival’s history.

“We had Sonic Youth as the headliner, and that was a shift that got us more attention internationally,” he recalls. “After that, it became easier to book international artists, so 2005 was a particular highlight.”

Øya entered into an investment agreement with Superstruct Entertainment in 2018, with the festival’s senior leadership joining Superstruct’s management team. However, Olsen says it has largely been “business as usual” since the deal.

“I feel like everything we agreed upfront is what they are doing, so we have managed to retain that independent feeling, which is important for us,” he says. “We’re a group of people who are doing this for the love of the music.”

Alongside this year’s Thursday night headliner Monáe, other acts announced for the 2024 bill today include Jorja Smith, Jessie Ware (who performed her first ever show in Europe at Øya in 2008), Slowdive, Thee Sacred Souls and Seyi Vibez.

“You’ve got to be on your toes and deliver every year so that people keep coming back”

Olsen reveals a series of special events are also being lined up to mark the festival’s silver anniversary.

“In the first year, the festival was held in June, so we are going to do a couple of things in Oslo around the date in June, and then some special shows at the actual festival,” he says. “But most of the other stuff is business as usual – you’ve got to be on your toes and deliver every year so that people keep coming back.”

Week passes are priced at 4,169 NOK (approximately €355), while individual day tickets are 1,454 NOK (€124), while discounted weekly passes for 12 to 17-year-olds are already sold out for 2024. Organisers have also introduced premium Øya Pluss tickets, offering access to the guest area.

“We did it for the first time last year, instead of increasing the price of general admission tickets,” explains Olsen. “That has helped a bit, but of course costs are increasing a lot. So it’s not easy, but we have to work hard on other income streams.”

Olsen acknowledges, however, that being on the frontline in the Norwegian live business is far from straightforward at present – especially given the exchange rate.

“Since this is an anniversary year, we have tried to look backwards a little bit, but also be very current”

“It’s not been easy; it’s been really hard work,” he says. “We are in huge trouble with the Norwegian currency, so it’s super-cheap for people to come to Norway, but for us to book artists, paying in euros and dollars, is insane. Back in 2011, the dollar was 5 NOK and now it’s 11 NOK, so it’s more than doubled and that’s a significant change.

“Apart from that, we’re really happy with the programme; it’s very diverse. Since this is an anniversary year, we have tried to look backwards a little bit, but also be very current. That mix is super-important. It’s something that we have always done, but have maybe had a bit more focus on it this year.”

Øya has also maintained its commitment to gender equality, having achieved a 50/50 split between male and female artists on the bill since 2017.

“The first year where we had 50/50 on the headliners was 2010 when we had M.I.A. and Robyn,” he remembers. “It was hard but we had confidence about what was coming through and felt it would get easier. I think we have 56% female-led acts this year in the total, so it’s not a problem anymore at all.”

The festival’s sustainability efforts, meanwhile, have seen it honoured at both the European Festival Awards and A Greener Festival Awards. Examples of its environmentally responsible practices include running the event entirely free of fossil fuels, using renewable power for 98% of its requirements, and hand-sorting waste to ensure that 75% of it can be recycled.

“Our sustainability work is something we started back in 2004, so it’s actually the 20-year anniversary for that.” notes Olsen. “We try to push the boundaries of what’s achievable and be a frontrunner when it comes to sustainability, and also in a broader way with equality and being a safe space.”


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“It’s important to be a role model”: Øya gears up for 20th year

Norway’s Øya Festival will next week mark its 20th anniversary with the biggest event to date, according to festival founder Claes Olsen.

Øya Festival (Øyafestivalen), held since 2014 in Tøyen Park, Oslo, has sold out every year since 2004, when it was headlined by the Streets and Air and attracted 38,000 visitors. For 2019’s event, on 6–10 August, the Øya team have boosted capacity to 20,000 per day at the festival site – with more than 100,000 visitors expected over the course of the event, including at Øyanatt (Øya Night) club shows at venues across Oslo.

“We’ve had record sales this year,” says Olsen, who reveals full-week tickets sold out before the summer. “Saturday day tickets, with Norwegian headliners Karpe, sold out before Christmas,” he adds, while “Wednesday, with the Cure, James Blake and Blood Orange, sold out months ago; Friday, with Robyn, Christine and the Queens and Girl in Red, sold out weeks ago; and we only have a few hundred tickets left for Thursday, with Tame Impala, Erykah Badu and Sigrid…”

Part of the increase in capacity for 2019 was necessitated by soaring artist fees – 30% over the last two years alone, reckons Olsen – but it has enabled the festival to book arguably its most impressive international line-up yet, complemented by a strong contingent of Norwegian talent.

Olsen, who is also Øya’s lead booker, attributes the festival’s run of back-to-back sell-outs to “believing in our own profile” – booking acts the team want to see, rather than “desperately chasing trends” – as well its progressive attitude towards the issues of the day, including sustainability and gender parity among staff and performers.

“It’s important to think about the future and not be too nostalgic about our history”

For the third year in a row, Øyafestivalen has a gender-balanced bill (49% women this year, 48% in 2017–18), which “proves that we can sell tickets with lots of amazing female acts all over the line-up”, says Olsen, who adds that 65% of the festival’s volunteers are female, along with more than half of its staff. (As is Øya’s CEO, Tonje Kaada.)

Olsen says that while festival bookers “spend a lot of time talking about this issue” (gender parity), it’s “not too difficult to manage it, or to sell tickets or anything. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re heading in the right direction – there are more and more female artists coming through and, especially among the Norwegian acts, there are a lot to choose from.”

As for staff, Olsen says even 20 years ago, “as a group of friends doing the festival voluntarily alongside other jobs, it was important [to us] to be a professional organisation and always recruit the best people – and naturally lots of them were female. But you need to be conscious of it and not overlook it; it’s important to be a positive role model and get new people on board, rather than scaring them away from getting into the music industry…”

On sustainability, meanwhile, the festival has been run on completely renewable energy since 2009, and all food is organic, with almost 40% of the 100,000 portions of food sold being meat free. Additionally, all food packaging is compostable, all beverages are served in reusable cups – a reduction of 90% in plastic use since 2016 – and over 60% of the festival’s waste is reused for new products.

The event’s “environmental- and climate-friendly operations, food and drink that’s gone far beyond sausages and beer, and social consciousness in addition to all the music” were among the factors that impressed Superstruct Entertainment, James Barton’s private equity-backed festival group, enough to invest in Øya in 2018, Olsen’s fellow co-founder, Linn Lunder, told DN.

“We always recruited the best people, and naturally lots of them were female. But you need to be conscious of it”

How has that deal – which saw Øyafestivalen and Superstruct invest in each other, with Olsen and Lunder acquiring an ownership interest in Superstruct – affected, positively or otherwise, Øya 2019? Not much, according Olsen, who says the first year has been “mainly been getting to know each other better, with new festivals coming aboard”.

However, he expects the Superstruct network – which now includes Denmark’s Down the Drain, Flow Festival in Finland and several ex-Global events in the UK, among others – to include “more collaboration in future years”, especially in coordinating artist booking.

Other than handing out a big 20th birthday cake to the first people on site, Olsen says Øya’s 20th year – unlike, say, Glastonbury’s 40th, which saw festival founder Michael Eavis join Stevie Wonder for an impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ – will be a low-key affair.

“We’re keeping it a little bit quiet; we don’t have it on the posters or the ads, for example,” he says. “We feel like it’s important to think about the future and not be too nostalgic about our history – and I don’t think people really care that much about it when they’re buying tickets anyway. Besides, every festival is better than the last year anyway…”

Øya Festival 2019 takes place Tuesday 6 to Saturday 10 August.


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