Deal or no deal? The Irish bands who are taking the good-ol’ label route

After years of Irish bands taking the do-it- yourself approach to releasing music, things are changing. More acts are signing with international labels -- and record companies are splashing the cash again

Walking On Cars

It’s the night after the Brit Awards, that annual hooley for the British music industry. You’d expect all of those record company big kahoonas who’d partied long and hard the previous evening to be sitting at home, ordering a takeaway and putting their feet up.

Instead, on this dreary February night, there are up to 40 record company bosses and senior executives in Cork venue The Pavilion to watch Walking On Cars. The Dingle band were in the middle of an A&R scrum with dozens of labels keen to sign them. In the end, they went with Virgin EMI.

But Walking On Cars are not the only Irish act who've found themselves in the record label spotlight in the last few years. Last October's appearance by Hozier at the Hard Working Class Heroes festival saw the biggest gathering of A&R managers and label scouts in years on Irish soil. The Wicklow singersongwriter was signed to Rubyworks, who then licensed his releases to Columbia in the United States and Island for elsewhere.

In the past 18 months, an increasing number of Irish acts have signed noteworthy deals with international labels. Acts such as Soak, Tvvins, Rosie Carney, Bleeding Heart Pigeons, Gavin James, The Riptide Movement, Hudson Taylor and Daithí have all found favour to one extent or another with record and publishing companies.


Established acts such as The Coronas and Delorentos, with multiple albums already released, have also been snapped up. There has even been a deal for a singing priest from Co Westmeath. Fr Ray Kelly's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah attracted 37 million YouTube views and a record deal followed. It's not over yet either; there are a couple of other Irish acts, such as The Academic and Leaders of Men, who are very much in play with labels.

Of course, it’s not the first time that there has been such a flurry of interest in Irish acts. Many bands were signed in the futile search for “the new U2” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Louis Walsh's successful heavy-lifting with Boyzone and Westlife sent many labels looking for Irish pop acts and deals followed for such makeweights as OTT, Bellefire and Six. More recently, there has been a relatively reliable stream of successful acts from here – Snow Patrol, Two Door Cinema Club, The Script, Imelda May, Villagers and Kodaline – all of whom are aligned to international labels and have found audiences beyond Ireland.

But what’s striking about the current interest in signing acts is that many thought the days of labels going mad spending money on new bands were well and truly over. Since the late 1990s, the record business has seen a collapse in revenues brought about by changes in how fans buy and consume music. Whereas once there were five major labels, consolidation has reduced that number to three. The boom times appeared to be over.

Willie Ryan is an Irish barrister who has been involved in negotiating deals for many Irish acts, including recent deals for Hozier, Walking on Cars, Nathan Carter and The Coronas. He puts the current signing spree down to how the record industry has finally sorted out its house.

"Once the EMI situation with Terra Firma and Citigroup had settled and the industry saw rising revenues from legal digital services like Spotify, confidence began to return to the market. Labels could start to plan and they were prepared to sign acts."

Labels also need to increase their market share and it's hard to do this through simply exploiting your existing catalogue. New blood is required, which is why so many acts here and elsewhere have begun to see talent scouts and label reps at their gigs. The Dublin-based offices of labels like Universal and Sony have also got into the swing of the A&R game again.

It’s a significant change in the mood music of recent years. This writer wrote a piece four years ago about how successful Irish acts were beginning to move away from a reliance on record labels. In 2010, taking the DIY route with self-released EPs or albums was the norm, not the exception.

Thanks to the internet, the means of recording and distributing music were open to all, so new bands and releases were able to come to the fore like never before. The domestic music industry was in a healthy and vibrant state and much of this was occurring away from the gaze and control of the record industry’s permanent establishment.

However, there comes a time when outside help is required if the bands want to have a significant breakthrough beyond Ireland.

Jim Lawless manages The Coronas, the Dublin band with a huge domestic following. They sold out shows this summer in Dublin's IMMA, Cork's Live at the Marquee and Galway's Big Top and have released three albums to date.

“We moved to London and put ourselves in the shop window there,” says Lawless. “We sold out the Oslo in Hackney in two days, and labels came along and asked ‘who are this band? They’re not on our radar and they’re selling out shows, there’s something here’.

“We were at a point where we felt we could approach a label and go ‘look, we’ve done this ourselves, but we need some help and expertise outside of Ireland’.

Lawless believes that the art of developing a band has changed for the better. “Labels have to work at A&R now, they can’t sign everything and see what sticks. The lack of money forces them to focus.”

It’s worth noting too that Irish acts are not being signed simply because they’re Irish. Unlike the next-big-thing clamour of the old days, no one is coming to Ireland looking to sign the next Hozier.

In a world where talent scouts are looking at promising acts from all over the world, Ireland’s proximity to the labels’ power base in London would not be of much use if the acts weren’t up to scratch.

“It does comes in cycles,” says Lawless. “There was a time when there were so many Irish bands and then it went quiet for a few years and now, all of a sudden, you’ve loads of Irish bands again. But labels are not signing them because they’re Irish; they’re signing them because they’re good.”

The acts who are seeking to get signed are savvier too about what – and who – is required to help them with their task. Ryan notes that he’s seeing “acts looking for lawyers and accountants before managers”, and Lawless talks about how the overall attitude has changed. “Bands are realising there’s a lot of hard work required and they’re figuring out if they’re prepared to do that.”

Some acts, of course, will continue to successfully fire ahead under their own steam without any outside help. But for acts seeking a dig out from a label or publishing company, the good news is that those entities are back, they’ve got money to spend and they’re looking to do deals.