The growth of the Irish live music show Other Voices is not a typical example of small business expansion. However, there are valuable lessons to be learned for any startup in looking at how this small, relatively low budget, TV production managed to become an internationally recognized brand in just 15 years. The producers recently brought their entire production crew to Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, for the first ever recording of the show outside of Ireland in its 15-year history.
While the show itself has been hugely popular and commercially successful for RTÉ, both in terms of viewership and advertising revenue, the business model has to some extent been more in the "labour of love" category for producers Philip King, Tina Moran, and music producer, Aoife Woodlock. The decision to record an episode in Austin, Texas, however, may be the beginning of a new era of expansion for the show and its creators.
A matrix of funding coming from the Department of the Arts, the Department of the Taoiseach, RTÉ and tourism agencies is what made Other Voices Austin possible. "In our 15 years funding has always been difficult and there's always a shortfall," says King. The show's producers were approached by potential brand sponsors in the past, but they chose not to go down that road, "because the relationship with the music might be affected," says King. "There's a commerciality attendant to this which becomes editorial."
Despite this, the show has just entered into an agreement with Eir Broadband (Eircom Ltd). "We decided this sponsor was a good fit as Eir are delivering high-speed fiber optic internet to Dingle," he says. "We're in the business of transmission and are enabled by greater connectivity. Eir is helping to make the west of Ireland more audible, visible and considerable. It's like rural electrification was in the 1940s."
King also attributes part of the recent expansion of the brand into the United States to an initiative by the the American Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O'Malley. Creative Minds is a programme set up to engage creatives from Ireland and America – artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc – and encourage more collaboration between the two.
“What Kevin O’Malley is doing essentially is bringing creative people of all kinds together to talk about the remarkable resources shared by both Ireland and the US,” says King. “Not only does this convergence lead to more artistic collaboration, but also discussions related to surrounding economic issues such as Foreign Direct Investment, currency differences, taxation, and so on.”
Then there was the enthusiasm of Aryln Studios owners Freddy and Lisa Fletcher for the project. Arlyn is a world-famous recording facility where legends such as Frank Sinatra and Kris Kristofferson, as well as more contemporary acts such as The Strokes and Coldplay, have all made music. Given the logistics involved in moving an entire TV production crew from Ireland to Texas for three days of pretty constant live music recording, King had initially suggested to the Fletchers that they consider using local production crews to minimise costs. "Freddy convinced me otherwise," says King. "He said the show needed to have the same kind of feel and production values in a recording studio in Texas as it did in a tiny church in Kerry. He was right."
Where culture goes, commerce follows
More recently, the city of Austin has capitalised on its musical heritage through efforts to position the capital of the Lone Star State as a music technology hub, a model King believes could be emulated in Ireland. “This city has several elements coming together that we could learn much from,” he says. “Austin is built upon the intersection of tech and music. People in local government here sat down a decade ago and decided they wanted their city to be the place where that intersection would happen. They went about it strategically and that’s why it has been successful.”
Many of those in Ireland’s creative community have left over the past decade in search of greater opportunities elsewhere. “We need to do whatever it takes to bring these people back,” stresses King. “New Irish businesses are developing quickly, but are finding they cannot attract and retain talent.”
Central to Austin’s success in attracting and retaining creative people is the protection and nurturing of its music scene. “If you can provide the conditions necessary for creative people to feel like they can sit down and go to work, you’ll have the kind of atmosphere needed for creating new IP, not just manufacturing it,” says King.
Ireland -Austin links
Economic links between Austin and Ireland have never been stronger. Since the opening of local offices for the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and a new consulate two years ago, the economic, social, and artistic links between the two regions have been continuously expanding.
"We were delighted when we heard Other Voices was coming to Austin," says Adrian Farrell, Consulate General of Ireland in Austin. "There are already centuries of history connecting the two regions. We already have a lot in common, particularly a love for great music. Relations have have developed more rapidly in recent years. The Other Voices recordings will expose new audiences in Texas to incredible Irish performers and vice versa. Ireland and Austin are both centres for tech, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. Two Austin-based tech companies have announced major investments in Limerick in recent weeks. The Other Voices performances will help to further promote Ireland as a great destination for investment and tourism. The event also brought Texan and Irish people together to discuss the possibility of future cultural and business engagements between Ireland and the Lone Star State."
"Now was the right time for Other Voices to come here," says King. "This is a real zeitgeist moment."