The story of the festival’s beginning
The Echo spoke to Keven and Karin Oxford about pioneering a regional music industry and just what it took to start one of the world’s leading festivals.
It has been well recorded that there is something undeniably unique about Byron Shire and so it’s no surprise these days that we are home to the Byron Blues Festival, industry- and peer-recognised and ranked alongside Glastonbury and Montreux as one of the world’s best festivals. Byron’s coming of age is intrinsically linked with this seminal event created twenty-five years ago by a rather unlikely crew of people with an even more unlikely vision for a festival: I mean who would think of staging an international festival in a little-known regional outpost? Husband and wife Keven and Karin Oxford and their friend Dan Doeppel were rock ’n’ roll mavericks with a finger on the counterculture pulse and a penchant for promoting when the Australian festival industry was taking its first baby steps.
‘Karin, Dan and I started promoting music here in the 1970s – we had a company called Live Coverage based in Byron Bay; we toured acts from the Tweed border to Coffs Harbour. We picked up international acts such as Blondie, BB King, Fairport Convention and Osibisa who were only doing capital cities… at the time there were no stop-offs for international artists in the northern rivers,’ said Keven Oxford who, along with Karin and Dan, created the early northern rivers music scene including the Byron Blues Festival.
‘They was pioneering days,’ laughed Oxford. ‘Dan and I used to get into our car go to the local truck stop – we’d score some speed off the truckers and go and do poster runs all night, up and down the coast!’
Keven and Karin Oxford firmly believe that the late Dan Doeppel was instrumental in setting Byron onto its creative path, yet little has been written or acknowledged in that regard. ‘There should be a statue of Dan at the roundabout,’ laughs Karin Oxford. ‘He was a humanitarian, a big soft-hearted guy who, unfortunately, had a drinking problem that ended up killing him. He left in 92 to return to the USA and never got to see what he was responsible for, the Byron Bay he helped create.’
Interestingly, the story of the international Blues Festival was forged in an international friendship – a surfing music lover from the central coast – Oxford – meets a US west coast hippy musician – Doeppel – transplanted straight from The Summer Of Love.
‘Dan and I had been friends since 1967,’ said Oxford. ‘He came out to Australia from the US in 67 with a band called Nutwood Rug to dodge the draft. We met at a midnight screening of Endless Summer in Gosford. I was with friends and we went outside to smoke some hash,’ reminisces Oxford, ‘and we ran into all these guys with really long hair, fringed jackets, beads and granny glasses. These guys were freaks. We were like – who are they? We were just surfers. We’d never seen dudes like that! But in the end we weren’t really that different from each other; a couple of them turned out to be surfers as well and the common thread we had was music (and drugs).’
In the late 70s, Doeppel was living in Byron Bay. He invited the Oxfords to join him, and they moved in a heartbeat.
‘We promoted a lot of regional concerts with international artists that culminated in Byron’s first festival, Sunrock 78, held at what was then called Globetrotters, the West Byron – ex-Becton – site. We put a few flat-bed semitrailers together for a stage, and created a mini-Sunbury by the beach on Australia Day 1978. We had Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs headline along with Sydney and Brisbane new wave acts. Our catch phrase: Where the old wave meets the new wave and washes up in paradise – we got nowhere near the amount of people we’d hoped for and lost a shitload of money!
‘We went back to Sydney with our tails between our legs and didn’t move back here until 1983 when Dan asked us to come back and help him manage the Piggery,’ said Oxford.
Dan Doeppel had bought the disused Piggery on the wrong side of the tracks in the early 70s for a paltry sum with the vision of repurposing it as an arts precinct. With the injection of Keven and Karin Oxford, who’d been involved in the Sydney music industry, the venue sprang to life. ‘You could see anyone from The Ramones to New Order, from Marianne Faithful to Midnight Oil. Rock, blues, punk, folk, jazz or kids’ pantomime – it was a really eclectic booking policy but it worked. We were there from 83 until the last shows in 92’. While one half of the town embraced their energy and ideas, there were other residents who wanted to close it down. ‘Nothing much has changed around here,’ laughs Karin, reflecting on the public pressure they experienced in the early days of Blues Festival and the Arts Factory. ‘They used to call the area bounded by the Brasserie (now Woody’s Surf Shack), the Rails and the Arts Factory The Devil’s Triangle!’
In fact there was a huge public meeting held to try to stop all live music happening at venues in town.
‘In those days Byron was a bit of a lawless town. There were only a few cops and a lot of drunkenness! Bringing in random breathalyser units had a huge impact on us. The local residents also had an impact.’
Although the Oxfords and Doeppel faced immense public and financial pressure in keeping the doors of the Arts Factory open, they fought back, taking more creative risks, the most outrageous being the first East Coast Blues Festival over the Easter long weekend of April in 1990.
Featuring an impressive lineup from the USA, including Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat, The Paladins, Smokey Wilson and Big Jay McNeely, alongside Australian acts such as Dutch Tilders, Phil Manning and The Backsliders, the event sold 6,000 tickets. Unlike Sunrock 78, this event had legs.
And it wasn’t financed by big money or private investment. The first Blues Festival was done on little more than a wing and a prayer. In fact the idea itself was more of an impulse than a hard-won plan.
‘Every year beginning in the mid 80s we’d go to the States and do these buying trips for our venue and gather ideas and we’d always take in a festival or two.
‘At one festival in San Francisco I had this brainwave and said to Dan, “Why the fuck can’t we do a smaller version of one of these in Australia?” There had been no festivals since 1983 since Narara and there had been a big gap in between – we had a great venue and thought it might just be possible. I had a friend in the US who was a major booker – he was one of my closest friends,’ reflects Keven, ‘and he said I have a ton of acts I can supply you. My sister was the group manager for Continental Airlines so we also had cheap airfares. Karin and I had American Express cards, and I swear to god that’s how it came together. That was the synchronicity of how it happened; we sold 6,000 tickets and had to go way over our capacity.’
The Arts Factory, a onetime pig slaughterhouse, had become the creative birthplace of what was to be one of Australia’s leading festivals. Although the event was successful, the Oxfords and Doeppel continued to face mounting pressure from a community who were now upset at the new ‘tourism’ that the Arts Factory and the new enterprise of the Blues Festival were bringing to town. This was in the days, laughs Karin, ‘that you could fire a cannon down Jonson Street during winter and not hit a soul!’
‘We continued at the Arts Factory until 92, getting more pressure from certain sectors in the town. The cops’ phone would run hot; all the residents had to do was call and make complaints. We got hit by a NSW Licensing flying squad from Sydney, who turned up at the front door, and we had a full house going crazy with American blues legend Albert Collins standing on the bar playing his guitar at the back of the auditorium!’ Karin laughs. ‘I’m in a rubber outfit, and these guys turned up with video cameras, videoing everything that went on, and that culminated in our losing our 3am licence and being cut back to midnight. After further licensing and resident pressure we decided reluctantly to close down the Piggery. It was a drag, because we’d done over twelve hundred major concerts and three sold-out festivals there. The next obvious step was, in 1993, to take the event outdoors – to go to Belongil Fields – and that was an even bigger gamble.
‘I was on the phone trying to find circus tents; that sort of stuff was pioneering back then, now there’s a gigantic industry that supports festivals, but it wasn’t in place then. I’d phone up carneys to try to get a tent they weren’t using.’
In 1994 local record store owner Clide Cue and current festival owner Peter Noble bought in to the event. ‘Unfortunately, Clide was a very ill man and only lasted one year; we ran it with Noble until selling in December 2004.’
Keven reflects, noting the challenges that face events such as Bluesfest haven’t really changed since the event’s inception.
‘That same antagonism exists today – the anti-festival movement – when we were at Red Devil Park we pissed off a lot of people, the traffic was abysmal, people would come up and make threats, it was a tough gig – we were trying to do something that we thought was beneficial to the area – yet there was a certain sector of the community that hated it.’
Both Keven and Karin are still amazed that they managed to seed and create a festival that has grown into a massive international identity in a sleepy seaside village.
‘It should have been impossible in a small coastal town in northern NSW but the secret ingredient was Byron Bay. It was about the town, it was the place. We’d be driving down the old two-way tarred Pacific Highway with an artist and they’d ask where’s the freeway? We’d get to Byron and they’d go: shit… this is fantastic! And good news spreads fast: they’d go back and tell other artists and then they would come and do it. The best thing we ever did was treating people right when they came here. I spent half my time in the audience,’ says Keven. ‘I got into this thing because I was a music fan. Promoting is a strange world. Promoters these days are often bigger than the event. But we never bought into that; it was always about the music and the fans.’
Reflecting on the beginnings, Oxford is philosophical about the festival now solely run by former business partner Peter Noble. ‘Festivals are dynamic things and business partnerships, like many relationships, don’t last forever. It was our life and our baby but when it ceases to be fun it’s time to leave.’
It was the festival’s massive growth that created the greatest pressure. ‘It takes over your life,’ says Oxford of running a big event such as Bluesfest for fifteen years. ‘It was either feast or famine. It was an internationally recognised and nominated event and we walked the red carpet. When the festival got into the millions of dollars to stage, you go: shit, if this goes south we’re fucked. Fucked forever!’
Karin rolls her eyes at the most vivid memory: ‘the stress!’
Keven continues: ‘We’re immensely proud of what we’ve created but none of that defines anybody; it’s part of the journey; we’ve had incredible success in our lives. We’ve had amazing adventures that have made us the people we are because we have gone out and taken huge risks, and that’s the difference. It was the love and the passion that drove us. Our accountant used to say, “Why don’t you go and take this money and put it on black at the casino – festivals are an intangible thing, there are no bricks and mortar…”.’
With Byron Blues Festival turning 25 this year I guess you could say the accountant was almost right, except they didn’t put the money on black. They put it on blues.