The story of how music works in a backroom sense is often about how it doesn’t work. How there is a slog that is not always joyful, that is soul-crushing and grinding. Caoilian Sherlock and Aisling O’Riordan have had their fair share of both in recent years. Both worked at the Pavilion in Cork, in DJ and production/PR roles respectively, when it was closed down in the summer of 2014 ( it reopened under new management, but closed in late 2015 again).
The original closure left a music community that was building itself up around the venue unmoored. With a lack of options for venues, some promoters looked to churches as gig spaces, others (including Aisling and Caoilian) to a flea market or bars. The pair also launched a new festival in conjunction with Makeshift Ensemble theatre company in 2014 called Quarter Block Party that takes place in February. Both also play in bands in the city (Morning Veils and The Shaker Hymn respectively) and work elsewhere (Cork Opera House and Sound Engineer / producer with Makeshift Ensemble).
A Fresh start
Sensing a need for a new strand of programming and events, the pair set up Southern Hospitality Board, a promotions company who they hoped would helped bring some life back to the city's gig landscape. They have since brought artists from Iceland, England, the US, as well as from Dublin, Limerick and Cork, Meltybrains? Peanut Butter Wolf, Dream Wife, Rozi Plain, Girl Band and Rusangano Family among them.
That the promotions game is tough is well known, but for Aisling and Caoilian, it had become too much. At the end of November, they announced that Southern Hospitality would go on “on a undefinable hiatus”, citing the homogenisation of the city, financial worry and industry resistance to bringing bands to the city.
“We want to stay creative and excited,” the statement said. “We want to dance and sing and we’re going to do that instead of sending emails and counting deficits.”
"We were getting a bit tired of having to be inventive…"
A few weeks later, Aisling and Caoilian elaborated on some of those sentiments and particularly, the lack of venues and spaces for artists to exist is a big worry for them. Putting on shows in a flea market, a disused cinema or a public park is fun, but it's also a lot more work than a traditional venue. You have to bring all the equipment in and then load it out after the show too. It's more expensive, harder to do legally and therefore happens less frequently – and a live scene doesn't get the space to develop.
"We were getting a bit tired of having to be inventive in what we're doing because there's nothing else to fall back on," says Aisling. "We've so few venues at the moment. There's no room to grow because you start out playing an illegal show in a BYOB space that shouldn't really be happening and then you try and do a bigger show and there's nowhere to go. In Dublin, you could go from 100 to 300 to 500 to a 1000-capacity space. Cork doesn't have that option. You've got Cypress Avenue, which is about 250, and then you've got Cork Opera House which is 904 seats. So you're either playing the same place all the time or trying to get big enough to play the Opera House."
They talk of the closure of Sample Studios and Circus Factory as spaces for artists in Cork which have been lost recently. Landlords see potential with no room for artists in the picture.
“There were a lot more spaces in Cork six or seven years ago,” says Caoilian. “Bands like O Emperor and Altered Hours came out of that. They were able to go to Crane Lane, then the Pavilion and build themselves up to the point where they go can touring. Local bars were able to support local musicians. To me, that just proves that by allowing spaces for artists, a night-time economy can be developed. So that makes it hard when there’s less going on to convince people about a city’s vibe.”
The pair found it difficult to convince booking agents to send their bands to Cork, a place that didn't show any signs that it could still host alternative acts in folk, rock, hip-hop and electronic music, as no shows of the kind with international artists were happening.
“With most UK and European agents, they see Ireland as Dublin and Belfast, ” says Caoilian. “It’s a thing that Cork people get criticised for – piping up to say ‘Cork’s here too!’, but we have to say it when it comes to music. A lot of agents have no clue where you’re talking about.”
“There were a couple of shows in the last year that we almost had booked and then we saw there were Belfast and Dublin dates announced,” says Aisling. “Then you email the agent and ask why our offer isn’t a part of the conversation.”
That resistance lead to a feeling of hopelessness.
“It makes way more sense for an artist to come to Ireland and play a few shows,” says Aisling. “Number one, it’ll make them more money. Number two, when a band make an effort to come here – Cork people respond to that. An example is This Is The Kit, who come here a lot, and by association Rozi Plain. They’ve done multiple shows and each time they’ve gained new fans.”
The decision to announce a break for Southern Hospitality was a public declaration for the pair who were tiring of the struggle, of making no money and lack of support.
Instead, they decided to focus on making Quarter Block Party a success. The next edition takes place from February 3rd to 5th in the buildings of North and South Main Street in Cork City. The programme features music, theatre, art, dance, discussions and performance. That includes experimental hip-hop artist Naive Ted, Dublin feminist post-punk band Sissy, Portland performance artist Allie Hankins and artists making public work responding to the area, which will include a poetry machine and a community dinner party.
“It’s an art project in itself to use this area that’s mostly unseen and to try and bring it to life,” says Caoilian.
Still, running a festival is no easy task, but Aisling and Caoilian say they have learned some lessons.
“We have lost our minds after the festival over the last two years,” admits Aisling. “But last year we were also promoting gigs the week before and after the festival. My birthday is the week after Quarter Block Party and I was too sick to get out of bed for both the last years.”
“I think we understand now that the festival is very much DIY,” Caoilian counters. For the first two years, we were putting ourselves up against the likes of Body & Soul and how they do things, which is ridiculous as we’re a team of four working part-time throughout the year.”
“We know we want to make it easier for ourselves, It’s a mindset thing – we can relax a bit about everything. That’s what we learned. It gets done.”