Back to Our Roots

It’s been well over twenty years since Keven Oxford decided to put together a festival of blues acts and share his passion for music with Byron Bay locals.

Since the late seventies, Keven Oxford, his wife Karin Woods, and their good mate Dan Doeppel were responsible for bringing an outstanding lineup of international and national touring artists to the north coast of NSW.  Regular shows at The Lismore City Hall, Ballina Theatre and The Everglades (now Byron @ Byron) treated locals to a calibre of music usually reserved for Australian capital cities.

In 1978 Keven and the team staged Byron Bay’s first outdoor music festival ‘Sunrock 78’ at the Globetrotters Caravan Park (now the Becton site at Sunrise Beach) an event that was headlined by Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs. Alongside ‘Thorpie’ and a host of familiar artists representing the old guard, the lineup included several Sydney and Brisbane punk and new wave artists. The festival was billed ‘Where The New Wave Meets The Old Wave and Washes Up In Paradise’.

During the eighties Keven, Karin and Dan were part-owner/operators of The Piggery-Byron Bay Arts Factory, an entertainment venue with a 1500 person capacity on a site that had once been part of a Byron Bay pig farm. The venue was split across two levels with a unique style of décor based on USA clubs that Keven and Dan had checked out on their many visits. With Americana artifacts such as a wall full of license plates and timber diner booth seating it was unlike any other music establishment operating in Australia.

The Arts Factory complex was a meeting place for artists and included a bar, restaurant and backpacker accommodation. Karin as licensee and operations manager was responsible for overseeing bar staff, restaurant and maintenance people. As talent buyer and manager, Keven utilised his former background working for record companies and in artist management to lure major international touring artists to Byron, putting the venue on the national map as a regular stopover for touring artists.

During its heyday Keven and Dan booked and promoted over 1200 major concerts by international artists as diverse as New Order and The Ramones.

As well they hosted countless Blues legends such as Bo Diddley, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy.  Byron Bay was still a small coastal country town and the Byron Arts Factory represented a coming of age for many of the north coast’s local youth who knew that if any Aussie band was touring, they could catch them at The Piggery.

In 1990 Keven decided to put together a bill of Blues artists to play a festival similar to those he had attended in the USA. The first East Coast Blues Festival began as a 6,000 ticket series of sold-out five-day indoor concerts at the Byron Arts Factory. Eventually the event moved outdoors to Belongil Fields in 1993 then to the Byron Red Devil Football Grounds in 1997. For 15 years Keven and Karin Oxford were both the creative and motivating force behind the award winning festival taking the event to annual ticket sales of over 70,000 in 2004. In 2003 Keven was named in an article in The Australian newspaper as one of this country’s Six Most Important Music Promoters.

After retiring from Bluesfest in 2005 Keven and Karin bought the Ponciana Café in Mullumbimby.


Janina Lace interviews Keven Oxford

JL: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

KO: I was born in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney in 1949. I’ve been with my partner and wife Karin for almost 40 years and we have two daughters aged 37 and 22 and two grandchildren. I have been actively involved in the music industry for over 35 years. I retired in 2005 after selling my 50% share of Byron Bluesfest to a conglomerate. I came out of retirement at the end of 2006 and bought a funky little Café and Bar in Mullumbimby. Basically somewhere I could hang out, drink coffee, listen to great music and discuss the big issues with friends while the world passes by.


JL:Are you currently involved in any current musical promotion?

KO: My last official Australasian tour was two and a half years ago with fellow promoter Adrian Bohm. We toured Grammy Award winning American singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. We feature music prominently at our café and it is the official Festival Club during The Mullum Music Festival held each year in November featuring Festival artists performing showcase gigs.


JL: How were you involved with the Byron Blues Festival?

KO: I founded the East Coast Blues Festival in September 1989 while booking and managing The Piggery Byron Arts Factory. The first Bluesfest was held at Easter 1990. I took the event outdoors (to what is now Belongil Fields) in 1993.  In 1994 I took on partners and then co-partnered the event with Peter Noble from 1995 until I sold in December 2004. I produced the festival for 15 years.


JL: Where did you get the inspiration from to create the Byron Blues Festival?

KO: I was always a fan of Blues and Roots music and on various trips to the USA in the mid-eighties I started to attend the summer Blues Festivals. In 1988 I was sitting on a hill at a Festival in San Francisco listening to John Lee Hooker and Bobby Blue Bland playing to an ecstatic audience and it struck me that nobody was doing this kind of event in Australia, especially for this demographic.

Back home I had a 1500 capacity venue in Byron Bay at my disposal, I had great contacts to book artists in the USA and my sister was Groups Manager of Continental Airlines, which meant cheap airfares. There was a weird synchronicity surrounding the birth of the event. With the help of my wife Karin, my friend and partner Dan Doeppel, an American Express card and some talented friends who helped me with artwork, etc we managed to pull the first one off by selling almost 6000 tickets.


JL: How would you decide which bands/acts to book?

KO: Producing a Music Festival does have its benefits and travelling the world attending other Festivals and checking out talent is one of them. The criterion for booking a Festival artist for me was watching an audience go crazy over them. It’s always a pretty good indicator when choosing an artist. The rest is relatively easy, just put a responsive audience in front of them and the rest is history. I always fancied myself to possess a good set of ears when it came to talent and it paid off for me many times such as introducing artists like Ben Harper and Jack Johnson to Australian audiences.


JL: What difficulties did you face in the beginning?

KO: In 1990 there was only two other major music festivals held in Australia. The Maleny Festival in QLD and The National Folk Festival in the ACT. The last Australian Festival held prior to mine was Narara held in 1984, so it was a big risk to even consider doing something like this. Promoting any kind of music event is risky; promoting a Blues based event was really brave…or crazy. Technology was also basic and a fax machine was considered high-tech. I bought an Apple II Computer and with a tech savvy friend we did the entire event artwork, publicity and merchandising on equipment that would be considered prehistoric now.


JL: What are some of your most memorable work experiences?

KO: Standing in the middle of a packed audience watching and feeling them get off on something that you and your team have put together is a reward that very few people get to experience. I felt that at every Festival I produced, every one was memorable. I always went into the thick of our audience to experience it from their perspective.

One particular occasion stands out above all others when it comes to memorable experiences. It was having the last Festival I produced in 2004 nominated in the American Pollstar Industry Awards as Festival Of The Year alongside Glastonbury and The Monteux Jazz Festival. The first time an Australian Festival had ever been listed in such illustrious company. Even though the eventual winner was Glastonbury just being nominated and attending was an endorsement that you have done something worthwhile.


JL: Do you still attend the Byron Blues Festival?

KO: No I don’t attend the Festival. Even though I founded it and produced it for 15 years it’s not the same and wouldn’t feel right. It’s like attending your High School Reunion, there’s people there you wouldn’t want to bump into.


JL: What do you think about the rise of festivals in Australia?

KO: Music, Arts and Literary Festivals play an important role and are a definite benefit to any community provided that the home of those events is not compromised. They do provide employment and one would hope that some of the profits are distributed throughout the shire, but it’s a divided community in Byron regarding the larger Festivals, there’s those that want them and those that don’t. I think the Yelgun site for Splendour In The Grass is perfect for large events and they have done an admirable job of providing the perfect festival environment. Of course there’s always someone who’ll disagree, but I think it will impact minimally on the shire.


JL: Do you have any involvement with the Mullum Music Festival?

KO: I’ve known Glenn Wright producer of The Mullum Music Festival for some time and we regularly sit around in my cafe and talk music festivals. I’m not involved with Glenn’s event apart from my café being the venue of the Festival Club during the weekend. He has established a great little event and is conscious of letting it grow organically keeping the townsfolk onside. Like myself Glenn operated a club (Sydney’s Harbourside Brasserie) for many years and that’s the perfect groundwork to go on to larger events. He also runs a great record label (Vitamin Records) with an incredible roster and has a good ear for talent. All those ingredients help in producing a really good music festival.


JL: Is there any one person or band that has most influenced you?

KO: Bands or artists, too many to nail down to one. If I was to name one inspirational person it would be my wife Karin. We’ve been together 40 years next year and we’ve worked side by side in almost all of my projects. I can honestly say that Bluesfest wouldn’t be the event it is today without her. She introduced the Green Festival concept to it long ago back in the nineties. She helps find the right path through this treacherous world every day. Without her my life may not have turned out the same.


JL: Do you play any musical instruments?

KO: I always played a bit of guitar and tried my hand at bands but I traded in any professional aspirations I had many years ago for the other side of the stage. I’ve had cervical spinal problems over the past few years that culminated in an operation that’s left me with limited use of my left arm and hand. Millions of guitar players can now breathe a collective sigh of relief that I no longer pose a threat to them.


JL: Have you ever performed in public? If yes, were you nervous?

KO: Yes I have performed in front of audiences and have addressed crowds of over 10,000 people. Yes I did get nervous but you usually can’t see past the first few rows because of the lights so it’s not so bad. A strong drink and a deep breath before you go on always helped me overcome any stagefright.


JL: What are your passions/inspirations/influences?

KO: I’m obviously passionate about music, but it doesn’t stop there. Human rights, animal rights, the fate of our fragile planet, when do you stop feeling passionate? I’m inspired by stories of personal triumph over tragedy, by film, art and of course again, music. My personal influences are just as varied. Growing up I had an older friend who worked in the local library. In 1964 as a 15 year old he pushed Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Ken Kesey on to me, which obviously led me to Bob Dylan. It was very potent stuff for a fertile juvenile mind. I was well versed in the BOHO lifestyle by my late teens. His name is Peter Purdon and his influence had a significant impact on me as a young man.


JL:What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?

KO: Huge family outings and long drives as a very young boy. We used to pack up my dad’s old Cheverolet and join our cousins in driving into the country for weekend family picnics. Sometimes they’d be six or seven carloads. Driving to Windsor or to the Hawksbury River. Nobody does that anymore.


JL: Bet you didn’t know?

KO: I come from a family with a very strong sporting background on my fathers side. My dad played first grade cricket for South Sydney and my Grandfather, Uncles and cousins played representative Rugby League for NSW, QLD and Australia. I was kind of like the black-sheep of the family. I discovered music and surfing at a very young age and although I played High School, football and cricket big things were expected of me in sport, but that never happened.


JL: Do you have a favourite or inspirational place?

KO: I like driving to San Francisco along the coast through Big Sur. Done it many times, always sensational.


JL: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

KO: Never believe your own hype!


JL: What do you love about your current job?

KO: I don’t work much at the Café, more like hang out. What’s not to like about that?


JL: How does your work and life overlap?

KO: I moved to the northern rivers to raise my kids in a healthy environment and hopefully remain employed. I found myself working harder than I ever did in the city. So now I get the time to enjoy just how beautiful it can be living here.


JL: How important is new media to your business marketing?

KO: Extremely important. I remember typing (on a typewriter) for hours and then correcting mistakes, using Letraset to do ad layouts. My first brick mobile phone in 1990 weighed about 2kgs. Computers and the internet were a miraculous change in how we approached marketing the festival. Email made it instant, research became so much easier with Google. And now with social networking the sky’s the limit. We have a dedicated website and Facebook page for the Café and that’s enough for us. We’re also wired for free customer wi-fi. We could probably do more but it does take time to keep up with it all.


JL: Something you couldn’t live without?

KO: My family, and our animals 2 dogs, 2 horses, 1 Eclectus Parrot, oh yeah and music of course.

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