Life on the road: Playing gigs to no one. Losing money. Sleeping on floors
James Byrne is no innocent when it comes to touring in bands, but he’s fired up about the potential in Irish music
James Byrne performing with Soak. Photograph: Joey Wharton.
James Byrne is excited about music again. The Dubliner has been working in music for as long as he’s been old enough to do so, as a radio presenter on Phantom FM, a self-taught drummer with Life After Modelling, Soak and Villagers and others, the owner of the Any Other City label, a band manager with Girl Band and Pillow Queens, and as a lecturer in the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (Bimm) in Dublin.
Byrne has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry and has resolved to remain anything but cynical.
“Working in Bimm has opened me to the idea that everyone does their own thing,” says Byrne. “You don’t necessarily have to love the music they make. The worst thing you can do is be cynical about bands you don’t like and that the best thing you can do is help them and be supportive.”
Working closely with the next generation of Ireland’s musicians has inspired Byrne to remain positive. “I’ve stopped comparing everything to the music I love dearly,” Byrne elaborates. “I can go home and listen to Bob Wills or Jimmy Little and I can play for it my son and it makes him happy. That’s what music is doing for me. I got back to the stage where I look at music the way I was when I was in my early twenties: everything is achievable, everything could be amazing if it’s done right. I’m much happier now working in music than I was five years ago where I saw the other side of it.”
Ignoring the hustle
That other side involved seeing bands on tour who were always “on the hustle” no matter how popular or high up on the bills at festivals they were. Byrne says he saw bands competitively berating others above them and allowing their egos to takeover backstage to the point where they lose touch with their audience.
“That energy of consciously trying to get ahead in your career doesn’t stop when you get a deal or you’re on a stage in front of people. I wasn’t naive enough to think it would; I just didn’t think it would be quite so obvious and so gross. I got really cynical about that. Thankfully the bands I work with aren’t like that.”
In Bimm, the lecturers are all actively working in the industry meaning that their experience is applicable to younger musicians. “I’ve been in bands since I was 16,” says Byrne. “I know what it’s like to killing yourself for a gig and no one comes. I know what it’s like to lose money. I know what it’s like to sleep on floors and tour in the car and then get a van and a shared hotel room where you can have a shower. And I’ll tell the students about it because I’ve done it and maybe it’ll sink in with them a bit more.”
Byrne says that he was initially sceptical about learning music in an educational manner, but he is now a “complete convert . . . If you’re an R&B singer, you don’t have to move to London to get a crack band of musicians, they’re here in Dublin,” Byrne suggests. “And they’re only 20 years of age.”
Byrne says talent’s never been an issue in Ireland but there’s fear and a lack of confidence in Irish media outlets in committing to supporting new artists. Radio stations in particular, Byrne says, wait for justification abroad first.
“I worked in radio for 12 years and understand you can’t take too many risks because it’s a business. But, I feel it’s not a risk as the music is good. There are Irish bands selling out venues, headlining festivals and killing it on Spotify. What analytical study do you need for your playlist meeting to own a band and support and break them? It means that bands have to look outside of Ireland for radio play for the most part.”
“I haven’t felt this vibrant about music since I was 19 since going to see Bobby Pulls A Wilson in the Funnel and National Prayer Breakfast when I was thought Dublin was the coolest city in the world, which I still think it is,” he says. “I want to help. I want it to take over. If you asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t have felt like this, I would have said ‘we’ve got to get out of here’, but I would say now it’s worth fighting for.”