How Music Works: how to make money from music while staying true to yourself
Cian Boylan, jazz pianist, composer, arranger, producer, studio co-owner and lecturer, talks to Niall Byrne about taking the multi-disciplinary approach
Cian Boylan: “It can be very difficult to make a living in music, particularly if you’ve got a deep focus, or single vision in what you do”
When I met Cian Boylan last Friday, his week already included trips to Germany and London, work on an orchestral score for Bronagh Gallagher’s performance on The Late Late Show that night and he was hoping to squeeze in some studio work before the end of the week.
Boylan, like most professional musicians these days, has to go where the work is, and has adapted to a multi-disciplinary career in order to make it viable in the long-term.
The piano is the backbone of Boylan’s career and has led to work with the likes of Jerry Fish, Van Morrison, Cathy Davey, Imelda May, Duke Special, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Westlife. Boylan wears many hats, including arranging, scoring for film, lecturing at BIMM College (Advanced Music Theory), producing, directing music for stage and co-owning a studio.
“It can be very difficult to make a living in music, particularly if you’ve got a deep focus, or single vision in what you do,” says Boylan. “For me, the way I can survive is by having different tranches of stuff to do. It’s trying to find income wherever you can while trying to remain true to yourself as an artist.”
When the sax was king
Boylan took an interest in jazz piano when he was just six and returned to the instrument after a brief foray into saxophone, the instrument of choice for pop music of the day on hits such as Careless Whisper and artists such as Sadé.
“It was the 1980s and the sax was king,” he laughs.
Boylan’s third-level education avoided music in favour of a business degree in Trinity College Dublin. “I didn’t want to study classical music and there was no Newpark or BIMM yet where I could explore jazz more thoroughly.”
Later, under the tutelage of Don B Ray, an experienced film composer and supervisor who worked on US TV shows such as Hawaii Five-O and Rawhide, he was thrown in the deep end and asked to write for a string quartet within the first week. A few weeks later, he was asked to write a score for an orchestra.
“I got a really big kick out of doing that,” he grins. “It becomes mathematical. Scoring for film is all about hit points, working out the number of bars, getting the tempo right. Sometimes it’s not about melody, it’s about mood.”
Not surprisingly for an arranger who is comfortable working with large ensembles, Boylan is an advocate of studios.
“There’s been a lot of talk about musicians recording in their bedrooms and the old ways of recording in a studio not happening as often but in my experience, that’s changed. A lot of artists are realising they need to go into a real studio if they want it to sound like those great records. That they need to hire an arranger and they need a real string section or brass section to play on it.”
Boylan cites Bronagh Gallagher’s new album and his role as an arranger for it as a case in point.
“She loved those girl bands from the 1960s and 1970s where they recorded in great studios with big string sections, great arrangers and there’s just no other way to do that.”
Boylan is clearly enthusiastic about arranging and comfortable in an old-school recording environment. So much so that he he now co-owns Camden Recording Studios with Bressie, which occupies the former Pulse College studio on Pleasants Place in Dublin (Pulse has since moved to Windmill Lane).
“I had been doing a lot of stuff from home and was feeling the limitations of that,” he says of the decision to run a studio. “The aim is to get real musicians in there to record together.”
A century of Jazz
Despite being largely a backroom operator, Boylan occasionally takes centre stage with music of his own. His next live outing is with his eight-piece New Orleans jazz-inspired band Toot Sweet and the Shadowman at Down With Jazz Festival in Meeting House Square, Dublin, on Saturday June 4th.
The music the band play is inspired by the Meters, Dr John, the Neville Brothers and a tour of the US in which Boylan visited New Orleans which ties in with this year’s festival theme. As Ireland celebrates its centenary, Down With Jazz’s fifth edition will celebrate the origins of jazz, which first appeared in recorded form in New Orleans just after 1916.
One hundred years on, jazz can mean a lot of things. Generally accepted to mean improvised music, the definition of modern jazz can also be extended to include hip-hop, electronic, classical, world music and even trad. Boylan reckons it’s down to people from different backgrounds exploring disparate sounds, which echoes jazz’s origins.
“The origins of jazz in New Orleans in Congo Square go back to slaves playing music together which was a melting pot of Caribbean, African and European music. That cross-influence happening in in jazz in Ireland now with different people moving here and playing together.”
With a lot of talk about the appropriate level of respect for the arts in Ireland at the moment, Boylan agrees that Irish music needs more support in order for it to continue to flourish.
“I’m just back from touring in Europe with Camille O’Sullivan. The treatment you get at the venues is amazing. It’s not just down to people, as we’ve great people here. It’s down to funding. It’s the ability to be able to be looked after in terms of accommodation, food, venues. We can’t afford to do it here.”
Boylan says the limited amount of grants and bursaries available to artists sets most up to fail here.
“If you’ve got 900 people going for a grant that four or five people get due to funding levels, pretty much everyone is going to be unsuccessful. It’s very disheartening to spend two or three weeks putting a great amount of work into an application and get refused. Sometimes it feels like the funding is dependent on the strength of your application as opposed to artistic merit.”
Despite these cultural obstacles, Boylan’s varied career keeps him busy and working in music, without having to resort to the thing that he says is unique to Ireland.
“We’ve got so many amazing musicians in this country and a lot of them make their money from playing weddings. It’s not like that in most other countries.”