How Music Works: Culture Ireland - helping artists take the next step

As this year's submissions deadline looms, Christine Sisk, director of Culture Ireland, talks to Niall Byrne about the difficulties of funding, where the money goes - and why

Roaring success: Galway band  We Banjo 3  - 2015 benefactors of Culture Ireland funding - during a recent tour of Japan. Photograph: We Banjo 3

Roaring success: Galway band We Banjo 3 - 2015 benefactors of Culture Ireland funding - during a recent tour of Japan. Photograph: We Banjo 3


Right now, there are artists around the country scrambling to fill in their applications for funding from Culture Ireland, which closes its latest round of funding submissions at midnight tonight.

The financial assistance the organisation offers to artists enables them perform and present their work on international stages, with the aim of developing their careers into one that is longer-lasting. Culture Ireland money goes towards the costs travel and accommodation of performance and touring – but not production costs.

Things re a little different this year for Culture Ireland, as an extra allocation of €2.5 million has been provided in addition to their existing €2.5 million funding, which is to go towards grants that to mark the centenary of 1916.

But, as Culture Ireland director Christine Sisk points out, that extra allocation can be tough to manage in a single year.

“It doubled our money for this year, but you don’t double your staff or all that goes with. It doubles the amount of claims and payments and it means doubling your effort to try to get promotion and publicity.”

Recent years have seen yearly funding go from €2 million in 2005 rising to €7 million in 2011 during the boom and back down again.

Recent 2015 benefactors include I Draw Slow (performance at the Folk Alliance in Kansas – €5,000), We Banjo 3 (a tour of Germany and US – €8,000), Crash Ensemble (US tour – €25,000), Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (concert in the Barbican, London – €26,000), The Irish Chamber Orchestra (US tour – €40,000) and The Gloaming (touring in Mexico, UK, Australia & New Zealand – €10,000).

“We made a decision about two or three years ago when funding was cut that we couldn’t try and continue to help everybody,” says Sisk. “What was happening was if you needed €10,000 to tour Australia, but we offered you €2,000, you’re not going to be able to make that work. There’s no point in giving five people €2,000 and then force artists to try raise money via a Fundit campaign, a loan or borrow from family.”

Three strands of funding

Culture Ireland’s work is threefold: direct grants to artists, funding for international showcase festivals and bringing new audiences to Ireland to see artists first-hand.

Sisk points to Tradfest as a recent example of the latter, along with Hard Working Class Heroes and the Choice Music Prize. Culture Ireland funds the cost of the attendance of international industry to spend time here and catch the acts in their home.

“Celtic Connection is on in Glasgow at the same time of year,” says Sisk. Interestingly, a lot of presenters [industry] came to Tradfest and didn’t go to Glasgow which is normally a big draw.

“As a result, Tradfest are talking to the Milwaukee Irish Fest about showcasing Irish artists there to promote the festival at home so more people will be interested in coming to see our artists in future.”


In recent How Music Works interviews, there have been suggestions that the Irish music industry needs to work more cohesively. Prompted by last year’s IMRO-commissioned Deloitte report, the idea of establishing a Music Office is one idea that’s been given some airing.

Sisk says that industry fragmentation is a distorted perception, citing the working relationships between Culture Ireland, IMRO and the Irish music export office First Music Contact / FMC (read their How Music Works interview here) on the international stage.

“We are very integrated,” says Sisk. “All of the export financial support goes from ourselves to FMC in terms of indie and rock music. IMRO showcase bands at Tradfest and other events we’re involved in. I don’t think that fragmentation is there.”

She suggests that the Music Office idea has a doomed precedent in the form of the Music Board, which ran for three years from 2001 to 2004 and didn’t seem to know itself why it existed.

“[Irish music] is not going to be helped by a government wrapping a board around it. It’s going to be helped by incentives, like the support that FMC can give and the financial support from Culture Ireland.”

Sisk cites FMC as a resource that is woefully under-funded that should be addressed first. With an operational fund of €90,000 per year, from the Arts Council, FMC is a resource office for musicians, it promotes and facilitates artists at the international showcases under the banner Music From Ireland, it runs Hard Working Class Heroes annually, set up as a portal for bands and until funding ran out last year, put on a tour of emerging bands around the country. They do all this with one full-time staff member (Angela Dorgan) and some part-time staff.

“If you look at what they do out of a not-well resourced office now, think what they could do with more staff and funding. I wouldn’t be trying to invent anything else.”

International Showcasing

The international music showcases include festivals such as South By Southwest (SXSW), Eurosonic, CMJ, The Great Escape, Canadian Music Week and Iceland Airwaves.

Those showcases are more costly to fund but they are filled with industry seeking out new talent. The selection of bands is normally picked by the festival after submissions from the artists. Once the artists are selected, FMC takes over and administers the Culture Ireland fund to the artists and promotes the Irish showcases to industry under the banner Music From Ireland.

Last year, the cost of accommodation and flights to get artists to seven such showcase festivals totalled €85,000, an investment that can be hard to quantify in returns in the short-term.

At this year’s SXSW, artists including The Academic, Saint Sister, Cian Nugent, September Girls and Rusangano Family may make some connections with booking and touring agents, but the results may not immediately present themselves. Sometimes, it does immediately, as Sisk remembers from first-hand experience from We Banjo 3’s gig at Womex in 2013.

“The band were had just finished their set and there was a line of people waiting at the side of the stage with offers for gigs, and they were just firing dates at them,” says Sisk. “You wouldn’t really believe it if you didn’t see it.”

Culture Ireland regularly re-evaluate the showcase festivals they fund. Reeperbahn in Germany and Folk Alliance in Kansas are two newer showcases that artists can now get assistance for.

This week, The Young Folk, The Young Irelanders, We Banjo 3 and Marc O ‘Reilly will travel to Kansas for Folk Alliance in an attempt to promote Irish artists in the middle of America, as opposed to usual east coast cities.

“[Kansas is] not as saturated with fantastic artists like in the east coast of America,” says Sisk. “Outside that manic competitive market place, we just found that so refreshing to go where there’s a real interest in bringing the artists there.”

Direct funding through application

The majority of Culture Ireland’s work comes through direct funding applications from artists. While showcasing is often the first step of the ladder, direct funding opportunities follow. Culture Ireland are there to help artists make the next step up

“Say a band at one of the international showcases like SXSW got an opportunity to do three gigs in LA, we may be able to help,” says Sisk. “Maybe next time, they’ve secured a tour of 40 venues and now have a US booking agent, and it’s commercially viable, then we shouldn’t be funding any further.”

“If an artist comes back after that or down the line a few years later, then you have to wonder what we can do for them – maybe they’re in a bad deal somewhere or not charging enough to cover costs – that’s beyond our control. We may cut them loose after a while because we don’t want to have a dependency.”

Advice on applications

Culture Ireland prioritises major English-language markets: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; major developing markets including China, India, Russia and Brazil and global cultural centres such as Paris and Berlin. Sisk offers a few pointers for artists applying for direct grants:

“It has to make economic sense. Don’t try to do one gig in LA. You have to build a tour around a long-distance trip. If you’re going out and paying five grand to rent a space and hope for the best, you need good local support, a promoter on the ground, an agent to guarantee you a fee, a box-office split or something along those lines.

“You need a good local promotion strategy to fill the houses. We’ve seen that kind of speculative application damage people. They never go on the road again as they’re paying off debts.”

“We haven’t got a wordy application form. What we need to know are the venues, the promoter, how you intend to make it work and your budgets. There’s no point in inflating budgets either because we know how much it costs to fly to London for example.”

- Click here for details about funding from Culture Ireland

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