Golden age of Irish music


The big guns may be cribbing about illegal downloads and declining sales, writes Jim Carroll, but in fact this is a golden age of Irish music

THERE ARE two sides to every story. Last week the major record labels suffered a setback in the High Court when their moves to stop internet users illegally copying music came unstuck.

Mr Justice Peter Charleton ruled that he was unable to grant an injunction against the internet service provider UPC because Ireland had not correctly implemented European Union directives on copyright protection.

Afterwards, industry reps fumed about the outcome. Dick Doyle of the Irish Recorded Music Association lobby group said it reserved “the right to seek compensation for the past and continuing losses from the State”. But there’s another side to the Irish music story, and it doesn’t involve courts, legal eagles or EU directives. And this is a good news story.

Contrary to the image that the majors presented in court, the domestic music industry is robust and vibrant. Much of this is occurring away from the gaze and control of the major labels and the record industry’s permanent establishment. You could say we’re seeing something of a golden age as new bands and releases come to the fore like never before.

Last weekend, for instance, the annual Hard Working Class Heroes’ festival of new Irish music saw 100 bands playing in various Dublin venues to local fans and international delegates. There was no talk of doom and gloom as bands played and punters applauded.

No deals may have been done as a result of just one showcase gig, but acts played their way on to the radars of labels, publishers, festival bookers and journalists.

Another reason to be cheerful: the number of new Irish releases is on the increase and the quality is far better than it has ever been. You could easily rattle off a list of home-grown albums from 2010 that more than hold their own with anything released elsewhere.

Be it albums from acts who’ve had chequered careers to date – Cathy Davey, Republic of Loose, The Redneck Manifesto – or albums from newer acts such as RSAG, O Emperor, Shit Robot, Not Squares, Strands, The Cast of Cheers, Meljoann and Adebisi Shank, 2010 has been another outstanding year for diversity in the field of Irish rock and pop.

That’s before you mention those acts who’ve overcome the problems that have traditionally stymied Irish acts when it comes to sales and breakthroughs abroad.

This has been a good year for Villagers (nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for their Becoming a Jackaldebut), Two Door Cinema Club (huge sales and sold-out live shows throughout Europe for the Bangor trio), Imelda May ( Mayhemshows her initial breakthrough was no fluke) and The Script (it may be slick rock-pop, but it’s selling huge amounts home and away).

While some of these acts are supported by major labels, many have always gone their own way or, after frustrating relationships with a major, are now happy to declare their independence.

It’s interesting to compare the situation now to a decade ago. In 2000 there just wasn’t the same spread, standard or number of Irish releases. Acts like JJ72, The Frames and David Holmes were the high-profile standard-bearers, and the singer-songwriter boom was in full swing, but there was little activity below this level. Yes, there was an underground scene in Dublin in particular, with bands like The Redneck Manifesto beginning to take their first steps, but that scene was still a nascent one back then.

The biggest change in 10 years is that the barriers to have disappeared. In 2000 it was still considered a novelty if a band took the DIY route to record, manufacture and distribute their EPs or albums. The know-how of self-releasing was not as easy to come by as it is now. Many will remember with a smile how the telephone numbers of cheap, reliable record-pressing plants in the Czech Republic were once considered highly valuable commodities by those self-release pioneers. Most acts were still holding out for that elusive major label deal.

Now the bulk of Irish albums are self-released. It’s no longer a talking point. While you could lament the fact that we never managed to set up a self-sufficient Irish indie network, the music gets out regardless.

But are the sales there to match the huge bump in releases?

The major labels will argue at great length that online piracy means music sales are down; the new breed don’t require huge sales to keep the show on the road. They’ve done their sums and realise that if you keep costs under control you can get by on a fraction of the sales that were once considered necessary.

As for piracy, most bands are happy to give away a tune to act as a taster or flyer for the album or upcoming tour. Some, like The Cast of Cheers, are happy to give away their entire album. (Indeed, their excellent debut, Chariot, is well worth downloading.) The days of relying on music sales alone are over.

Given that Irish music shops have been decimated in recent years, acts know that the trick is to get people to come to the live shows. If the fans come to them on the back of a free tune, they may well spend some cash at the merchandise stall, cash that goes directly to the band to help fund the next release. It’s the carrot rather than the sticks favoured by the major labels.

It will be interesting to see if the scene continues to progress at the current rate. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the case, because there’s no end in sight to the procession of new bands. Anyone who caught Squarehead, Jennifer Evans, Planet Parade, Funeral Suits or Cloud Castle Lake playing at Hard Working Class Heroes will already be anticipating strong debut albums from all of them.

Then there’s the matter of foreign forays and seeing which acts can emulate the likes of Villagers, Two Door Cinema Club, Fight Like Apes and Lisa Hannigan by getting attention elsewhere. The talent is certainly there: we just have to wait to see if they also have the determination, drive and ambition to back that up.

Five changes for the better in 10 years

1 The DIY ethicRecording and releasing your own album has never been easier. Why wait for a label to put out your masterpiece when you can do it yourself?

2 The gigging infrastructureSupportive venues in Galway (Roisin Dubh), Cork (Pavilion, Cyprus Avenue), Limerick (Dolan’s), Dundalk (Spirit Store), Kilkenny (Set Theatre) and Dublin (everywhere from Whelan’s to the Workman’s Club) mean bands can plan, book and promote national tours.

3 Alternative mediaMusic blogs, online forums and radio shows on local stations dedicated to Irish music (take a bow Cathal Funge at Dublin’s Phantom FM, Colm O’Sullivan at Cork’s Red FM and Rob O’Connor at Waterford’s Beat FM) mean acts don’t have to rely on Ireland’s traditional music media for coverage.

4 Quality controlA huge increase in quality means there’s no need for token gestures for Irish music any more. Talk about radio quotas for Irish music misses the point when acts like Cathy Davey, Republic Of Loose and Bell X1 are among the most played records on the radio. Are those seeking radio quotas doing so because their acts don’t get radio play?

5 The internetThe internet means equal opportunities for all when it comes to showing off your wares. Yes, the major-label act may have a bigger marketing budget, but Soundcloud, Bandcamp and MySpace welcome everyone, regardless of how much they have to spend or where they’re coming from.