Oya 2019: Sights and sounds from Oslo’s music festival, with lessons for Indian Organisers

Oya 2019: Sights and sounds from Oslo's music festival, with lessons for Indian organisers

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Oya Festival in Oslo, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe. Its line-ups, like those of Primavera Sound in Barcelona, continue to amaze fans year after year.

At Oya, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, among the acts I watched that put up immensely memorable performances were The Cure and Tame Impala; Norway’s homegrown heroes Sigrid and Karpe; and Mitski, Robyn and Christine and the Queens, three artists whose current releases were in review aggregator Metacritic’s Best Albums of 2018 list.

Also on the bill were four out of the 12 acts nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize — Fontaines D. C., Nao, Idles and Slowthai. Another nominee, Black Midi cancelled at the last minute. Considering that most festivals are programmed a year in advance, that’s a pretty impressive testament to the taste of owner and head of booking Claes Olsen, who puts together Oya, which takes place in the first half of August.

Oya, in fact, is known for featuring bands before they break through to the mainstream. As Chris of the Christine and the Queens said during her set, she had played a smaller stage a few editions ago (she first performed there in 2016).

Maja Brenna

(Above image: At Oya 2019. Photo by Maja Brenna/Øyafestivalen)

While the prospect of seeing such a stellar collection of international talent in one place seems highly unlikely in India, at least in the near future, I’m happy to report that in terms of stage management and production, some of our music festivals are as well executed as the best of the West. There were, however, two aspects in which Oya stood out.

The first is in its eco-friendliness. A day before the event, the organisers emailed those attending as part of the international delegate programme — I was invited to be a part of it by Olsen and Music Norway and presented a talk about the Indian music industry — asking us to pack waterproof clothing because the weather forecast predicted rain.

“The festival will NOT provide disposable ponchos, yet another bit of our commitment to reduce our footprint and reduce plastic waste,” the message said, telling us clearly that their responsibility to the environment was non-negotiable. It’s another matter that people were selling them close to the metro station near the grounds, which reminded my co-presenters and me of India.

Some of the ways in which Oya is working to reduce its ecological impact, as elaborated in the festival guidebook, is the use of “zero emission electricity” by stopping the use of diesel generators, connecting to the grid and running mainly on hydro power; ensuring that 90 percent of the food sold is organic; and recycling over 70 percent of the waste, including that from the portable toilets which is used for “district heating in Oslo”.

There’s of course the undeniable carbon footprint of flying in artists, crews and equipment from around the world but this is also somewhat alleviated by the fact that three Scandinavian fests are held during the same August weekend: Oya in Oslo, Flow in Helsinki and Way Out West in Stockholm. These events share a number of acts, thereby reducing their economical and ecological costs.

Hearteningly, a few Indian festivals have been working to become more and more environmentally conscious. Free water stations, biodegradable tableware, reusable cups (and charging attendees for each additional one) and waste segregation are an increasingly common sight as such events. Some like Echoes of the Earth in Bengaluru position their sustainability as a selling point. While we might be some years away from festivals being “zero-waste”, as Oya aims to be, that seems like a distinct possibility.

On the other hand, an area where Indian festivals continue to fall short in comparison to their western counterparts is gender diversity. At Oya this year, female acts made up nearly half the line-up, including nine of the 24 headliners, if we take the definition of a headliner to be an artist who closed a stage on a particular day. To me, the festival belonged equally to Sigrid, Robyn and Christine and the Queens as to The Cure, Tame Impala and Karpe, each of whose sets blew me away.

The big names that left me a tad underwhelmed were James Blake (maybe because he would have been more suited to a different time than the 6.30 pm slot he played) and Erykah Badu (whose exceptional voice couldn’t mask the impression that she just wasn’t feeling it that day).

The line-up of the highly anticipated landmark 10th instalment of the Pune edition of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender was revealed shortly after I returned from Oya. While reactions have been mixed, the inclusion of Opeth, Nick Murphy aka Chet Faker, Kodaline and Kokoroko were hailed. But only one of them, Kokoroko, features female members and overall, only 23 percent, or 13 out of the 56 names revealed so far, are solo female or female-fronted acts.

To me, the festival belonged equally to Sigrid, Robyn and Christine and the Queens as to The Cure, Tame Impala and Karpe, each of whose sets blew me away.

A few additions to the roster are likely to be out soon, which means that in all probability, promoters Only Much Louder will match the 25 percent proportion they promised and fulfilled in 2018. Similarly, 31 percent or six out of the 19 acts announced this week for the 2019 round of Magnetic Fields are women. This indicates that they will keep up their record of making certain that roughly a third of their bill is female.

Weekender and Magnetic possibly have the highest proportion of female acts out of all Indian music festivals, which means we’re a long way from matching Oya or Primavera Sound in gender balance. One could argue that Norway has a far more mature music industry than India. Indeed, the Oya festival guide also tells us that Oslo is the “live capital of Scandinavia”, with “twice as many yearly shows as Stockholm and Copenhagen combined”.

I’m sure the organisers of most Indian music festivals will say that there are simply not enough international female artists that are affordable for our market, or that there’s a limited pool of festival-friendly domestic female acts. I hope that they realise that the only way the scene can grow is if it changes and evolves, even if that means pissing off thousands of metal fans who, going by the comments on social media, can never be satisfied. I’m not saying they should get Taylor Swift, but perhaps they could start with Tash Sultana.