‘More people see Irish music live in venues than ever hear it on Irish radio’

It’s the old chestnut – why don’t we hear a wider range of Irish music on Irish radio? – and it seems to be getting worse

When you switch on a music station, has it become even more same-y: a narrow merry-go-round of songs, mostly big international stars, over and over?

An age-old complaint: in a tiny country with a strong music culture, of all hues, but dwarfed by English-speaking music cultures west and east, Irish radio stations don’t play enough music of our own making.

Steve Wall, respected, thoughtful member of The Stunning and The Walls, raised his head above the parapet on social media recently, and got a bit of reaction.

“Just looking at my last @IMROireland royalty statements I noticed I get virtually nothing from @Live95Limerick. The last payment from them was just €1.05. Now maybe they don’t like us, but The Stunning have a huge fan-base in Limerick, regularly selling out the Milk Market, Dolans & the Mungret music festival. But Live95 doesn’t seem to reflect or acknowledge this. Most Irish artists are finding the same thing. You do a gig in a particular town but local radio often doesn’t play your music.”

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Many great stations do, he said, adding Live95 FM is part of the UK’s Wireless Group, along with several Irish stations including Cork’s 96FM, FM104, LMFM. “None of them appear in my royalty statements so our music must be the wrong fit . . . People want Irish music but commercial radio is letting them down because the playlists are often dictated by someone in the UK and Irish DJs have their hands tied.”

Many in Irish music are reluctant to speak out, but Wall says “I don’t give a flying f**k anymore about p*ssing people off. When the system is unjust there’s nothing to gain by not airing it. When they’re not playing your music anyway, what’s to lose? Irish radio needs a revolution & listeners & music promoters have to do their bit. If they don’t play more Irish, TURN THE DIAL to a station that does.”

Music lovers responded, decrying the “older hit parade crap cluttering the radio”, and stations “driven by advertising and jibber-jabber”, being “Sick of listening to same songs being played 5/6 times a day by diff shows”, how “I recently heard a Cher song from the 90s come on twice in 5 mins on separate stations”, and “tourists must find it v weird . . . famous for our music . . . bland US/UK pop on radio”.

Heavily playlisted

Accusations are that it’s hard for Irish bands and solo artists to get airplay unless they’re a big name or on a major label, and others don’t get a look-in, because Irish radio is heavily playlisted with international stars and nostalgia, and the best hope is a late-night play; that there’s a fear of anything outside a narrow music profile for fear listeners will turn the dial.

A radio insider backs this up, from the other side: “Commercial stations mostly play pop during the day, and many Irish bands don’t fit the genre. Radio supports acts well in pop genres, but there isn’t as much interest in trad, rock or indie music on radio any more.”

Longtime music professional Sinead Troy says some stations don’t even listen to new independent releases sent in; she gauges this tracking Yangaroo, which she set up to co-ordinate music distribution. “It feels like a tough time, and it also feels like most don’t care.”

While no one claims a divine right to be played, there’s a perception of resistance. Wall says: “It’s such a battle just to get your song played if you’ve a new release or tour. There’s nearly a condescension towards Irish music. Radio is playing lip service to Irish artists. It’s getting worse.”

Has it got worse? Just tune into any radio station, says Troy, who works across labels, management and activism. Wall posted a January 2021 Irish airplay chart, saying “the major labels (Universal, Warner, Sony) represent 95.5 per cent of it. Independent releases represent just 4.5 per cent.”

Not so says Brian Adams. He has a valuable perspective, after years as head of music in TodayFM, but stresses he’s not speaking on radio’s behalf. “It’s encouraging,” he comments, scanning one week’s airplay chart. “Most stations, national and countrywide, are hitting around 20 per cent Irish music and some well over that. There’s a good smattering of new Irish artists within the top-20s, from Cian Ducrot, Lea Heart, Lavengro and Chasing Abbey (Today FM) to Aimee, Wild Youth, Welshy and Gavin James (2fm) and Moncrieff, Robert Grace, (Red Fm) as well as the big names like Dermot Kennedy, Niall Horan. It shows there’s a path to radioplay for new Irish acts and songs when the style and quality is there.”

Sound the same

But an experienced music publicist points out that while RTÉ Radio 1 supports Irish music, over the past year very few Irish acts are in the top 50s plays on stations such as 2fm, Today Fm, FM104, and they’re mostly on major labels. “The change has been creeping in over the last few years, but with commercial stations now playlisted 7am-7pm it has changed the face of Irish radio. Long gone are the days where Tony Fenton, Ian Dempsey, Fergal D’Arcy would get excited about tracks and champion them, then other DJs in the station would be swayed and they might get playlisted, which meant you could possibly chart the artists or at least create some excitement. Now you channel surf and a lot of stations sound exactly the same. They’re losing their own identity, which is what presenters brought to the table with their own music choices. Not only are they not supporting Irish music, they’re killing their own medium.”

Troy echoes this, drawing a distinction between DJs and radio presenters, with the former hired for their music expertise and the latter for their personalities. “We’ve lost the DJ, no one is fighting for music.” So “the same 10 or 15 Irish artists can get all the airplay.”

Music is both a creative endeavour and a commercial business. In 2015 Imro estimated the industry was worth €470m, with 9,030 direct jobs, from management to sound engineers.

But a key point from the radio station insider: “Commercial stations. The main aim is in the title. It’s to make money. Radio often gets confused with music industry. But commercial stations’ objective is not to sell music or break bands, it’s to sell ads. They’re actually in the advertising industry. Music is the product, but they have to play what the audience wants to hear.”

“Build it and They Will Come” is a concept that has no place in that reality.

Adams echoes this. “Every decision made and song played has to be balanced against the primary imperative of commercial radio, to keep and increase audience. By and large the prevailing genre for music radio is pop, usually a mix of pop/dance-pop, RnB, and rock/pop or acoustic/songwriter pop. I think Irish radio has been hugely supportive of new acts in theses genres over the last 10, 20 years, from Gavin James to Dermot Kennedy, The Coronas, Kodaline, Soule, Hozier. However, there also seems to be unfair expectation of radio from some quarters, that anything Irish deserves a place on the airwaves because of its nationality and I think this is a dangerous road to follow. Any song and artist should be played on merit only and because it fits the genre of the station/programme. I’m proud we succeeded in this on many levels over many years in Today Fm, from acts such as Villagers, Bellx1 and Lisa Hannigan right up to the Academic, Lyra, Gavin James. Irish music excels in some genres, particularly storytelling-songwriters like Damien Rice, Hozier or Dermot Kennedy and we shouldn’t always be afraid of that but embrace it. Also, in fairness, 2fm has supported the new Irish hiphop and RnB scene over the past few years.”

A number of people make the point BAI rules on playing Irish music have not been updated in decades. Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers & Authors (IASCA), which Troy and Keith Donald initiated, called for a uniform definition of Irish music for broadcasting (there isn’t a clear one), saying it would increase new Irish music on all radio stations fairly. Even the radio insider suggests a quota of independent artists rather than Irish music generally, would be effective. The publicist agrees, suggesting stipulations for playing Irish artists “on prime time and not just during the night or on specialist shows to tick a box”. The publicist pitches directly to stations. “They’re finding it tough like everyone in media. Some heads of music are presenters too, so they don’t have enough time to listen to music. I suppose that’s why a lot of local stations look to the nationals to see what they’re playing and not deciding for themselves. Even before Covid stations were finding it difficult and many have lost their specialist Irish shows over the last few years, including Galway Bay & WLR.”

But how important is radio to bands these days anyway? Isn’t streaming where it’s at?

Live performance

Most Irish artists are not on major labels, and self-fund recording. Streaming pays musicians a pittance, so earning is mainly from live performance. Radio royalties are welcome, and radio also increases a band’s profile, which feeds into live audiences. “It’s a catch-22. If radio isn’t playing your music it’s hard to sell a gig,” says Wall. “It’s also a matter of pride. And Irish artists are spending their money here,” on recording, distribution, gigs. “If they can’t even get on radio there’s something wrong. Covid highlighted [reliance on live] so much. You take away the live, and you’ve nothing left.”

Troy explains why radioplay is still important: “If you’ve a song played on Irish radio, your team comes out of the woodwork. Labels listen to what radio plays, it builds momentum, you get a gig in, say, Whelans. With radio play, you can sell out, the industry notices, there’s talk about you. You can grow, get gigs. In Ireland, building an artist professionally and supporting other areas like live shows/promoters, it’s all about radioplay. It’s hard to get out of Ireland (and start international following) without it. When it works it’s magnificent.”

“More people see Irish music live, in Irish venues, than ever hear it on Irish radio,” says Troy. “The only people taking risks on all genres of music are artists and live music promoters, along with organisations like First Music Contact. Music needs an audience to grow, whether radio or streaming, but as far as I can see neither are invested seriously in it. Where would all our well-known Irish bands like U2 be if they were starting out now?”