Electric ambition

As Oxegen struggles to recover from bad press, John Reynolds' Electric Picnic festival is set to be the gig of the summer. By John Byrne


When millionaire promoter Denis Desmond sold the last of the 80,000 tickets for this year's Oxegen music festival, he will not have foreseen the PR nightmare the festival would turn into for his company, MCD. Pictures of burning tents dominated the post-festival newspaper coverage, punters complained on Liveline about the security staff and camping conditions, there was an alleged rape, a number of alleged assaults, 50 arrests, almost 400 drug seizures and three young people were killed while driving home from the event.

MCD tried aggressive tactics to limit the mounting bad publicity, but this backfired: for weeks they refused to give details of security measures at the festival, making them look evasive. The Oxegen.ie message board was closed down after fans aired their gripes on it. The fans went to the popular boards.ie website and complained further until MCD sent the site owners menacing legal letters.

Oxegen's troubles leave Electric Picnic – the "boutique" music festival taking place from Friday 1 to Sunday 3 September on the grounds of Stradbally Hall in Co Laoise – in poll position to claim best festival of 2006. Now in its third year, Electric Picnic is marketed as the Irish version of Glastonbury and its 30,000 tickets sold out well in advance. Last year, punters noted the friendly crowd, the courteous security men, the diverse entertainment (sports on big screens, live comedy, as well as a great music line-up) and how queries and complaints were dealt with efficiently on the festival website.

The man behind Electric Picnic is wealthy entrepreneur John Reynolds, owner of the Pod nightclub in Dublin, sometime Porsche driver, ex-manager of Boyzone and nephew of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. He is one of the most imaginative and fierce business men operating in Irish entertainment at present and, under his control, Electric Picnic will cement its position as one of the leading festival brands in Ireland.

Born in Longford just over 40 years ago, the entertainment and hospitality industry is in his blood. His father John and uncle Albert ran show bands in the 1960s. Young John was sent off to school in Rockwell College, and later to college in Dublin.

After university, John went to London where he was exposed to the club-culture phenomenon sparked by the raves and ecstasy boom of the late 1980s. He returned to Dublin and opened the Pod nightclub on Harcourt Street in 1993. With its stylish décor and snooty door-policy, it promised Irish clubbers the kind of high-end experience not seen in the country before.

Unfortunately for John Renolds, he was about 10 years too early, as one club veteran observed: "The Pod was too precious when it opened. The elitism that was present at the door in 1993/1994 would find willing victims today, but not back then."

But Reynolds, displaying a keen business sense that his uncle Albert would surely admire, soon began letting the commoners in and the Pod turned into one of the clubbing successes of the 1990s. He catered for students, gays, straights and ravers. He kept the Pod out of trouble with the police. He opened the Red Box venue beside the Pod, promoted nights in Ibiza and moved into large-scale festivals, bringing the UK rave festival Homelands to Ireland.

He put on two other festivals in Ireland this year: the Garden Party and the Midlands Festival. He also managed Boyzone in their early days with Louis Walsh (he still collects management fees – in 2004 he got over €43,000, according to the Irish Times).

Reynolds has a name for being intimidating. He is ruthless with business associates who annoy him. He runs his operation with an authoritarian fist – his staff fear his hot temper and exacting standards. Those who know him note his Calvanist work ethic (outside of that his interests are said to be music and football, and he's not a big drinker), his ambition and his sense of humour. He favours well-cut suits, keeps his shoulder-length hair immaculately preened and speaks in what one acquaintance described as a "cultured bogger" accent.

"You don't trifle with him," says one person. Elio Malocco, former legal adviser to the Irish Press, will know all about that. Malocco's men's magazine, Patrick, went out of business after John Reynolds took out a High Court injunction preventing publication of Patrick's maiden issue because it contained an article which was damaging, both personally and professionally, to John Reynolds.

But if John Reynolds has a tough reputation, some sources say that in recent years he has mellowed. One even suggested that the success of Electric Picnic has taught him that you don't always have to play the hard man to be a success. Given Electric Picnic's rising stock and Oxegen's woes, perhaps Denis Desmond and MCD will take note.