Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh says her Covid-19 job at Tesco helps meet the bills

‘Being a national treasure for 27 years doesn’t qualify you for much on paper’

In the parallel universe that used to be our former lives, Electric Picnic would have been taking place last weekend.

The absence of live music is an inconvenience for most of us in a year that time forgot, but a disaster for musicians.

Six months after the lockdown was first imposed, there is no prospect at present of a return to live music on any significant scale.

Faced with a lengthy lay-off, Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh got a job in the customer services department of her local Tesco in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim where she lives with her musician husband Paul Magahey and their two teenage sons.


“When Leo stood on the steps (in Washington in March) and said indoor gatherings could be no more than 100 people, it put the nail in the coffin for a lot of my work. Boris wasn’t too far behind,” Ms Kavanagh said.

“Basically that meant that my entire year’s paid work went. A whole year without earning is not kind to anybody.

“I went from doing 30,000 to 40,000 miles a year down to using one tank of diesel over a few months which was bizarre.”

She has the same financial obligations as everyone else, but stressed that she was working in a bank when she won the Eurovision in 1993 at the age of 25 with In Your Eyes and only became a full-time singer after that.

“We still need to feed ourselves. It doesn’t matter how well you are known. Being a national treasure for 27 years doesn’t qualify you for much on paper,” she jokes.

“They (Tesco) were looking for people. It was down the road from me. It made sense. You might as well being doing something useful.”

Ms Kavanagh has done two temporary stints in the customer service department in Tesco.

“I enjoyed the distraction of it. I am not good if I’m not busy.”

Red hair

Did she get recognised? “I got a lot of that. The old red hair doesn’t allow you to get away with anything. People did ask me, ‘what are you doing here?’ and I say, ‘well, there isn’t a lot of singing going on’.

“This could go on a lot longer for musicians and artists whose jobs may or may not come back. Where are the outlets for us to do what we do?”

She said when she started singing she was gigging and working and doesn’t see “any big deal about it”.

“Some people live to work. Others work to live. Sometimes your work will be wonderful, feeding your soul all the time and earning your money. I’m not destitute yet. We are not super-struggling or anything.”

She sees other musicians and singers having to take other jobs to pay the bills if the pandemic does not lift soon.

“It is very possible that people will have to supplement their incomes just the same as anybody else with a business that may or may not be viable. Eventually the arts will recover in the sense that people desperately want to go back to live music.

“I don’t think people will ever stop wanting that. What would the world be if people were not able to play live? There was nothing wrong with the job in Tesco. I just miss singing.”

Her husband is also a musician, but fortunately he also has a career as an architectural photographer and professional drone operator.

Many musicians, who like Kavanagh depend on the live circuit, are contemplating a longer lay off than most imagined.

Pandemic Unemployment Payment

On this side of the border the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland (MEAI), an ad-hoc group set up to campaign for the livelihoods of the estimated 35,000 people who work in the industry, is calling for the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) to be extended into next year for their sector.

MEAI co-founder Jackie Conboy said the public would be surprised to find that many household names in the industry have been financially devastated by the pandemic.

“When you see loads of people in a room and all the lights and the whole production and then you hear that artist on the radio or the television, you think they are making a fortune, but they are not.”

The MEAI has one overarching demand. It wants the PUP to be paid in full (€350 a week) into the middle of next year or whenever concert venues are able to open without social distancing.

Mr Conboy, a lighting man, is one of 11 people employed by Irish country singer Mike Denver.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Denver who is one of the hardest working men in Irish showbusiness.

His band plays between 150 and 170 concerts a year. Seventy per cent take place in hotels across Ireland, others at summer festivals and there is a two-week residency in Spain every year.

“For guys who have been out on the road four or five nights of the year, it is a huge thing to be sitting at home and wondering about what is going to happen. It is a lot of livelihoods that are affected by this. There is no vision of where we are going.”

The Stunning

Steve Wall of The Stunning said the level of anxiety among musicians is increasing with every week of the lockdown.

“There is no end to it. We keep seeing more and more gigs being cancelled,” he said.

The last gig that The Stunning did was on December 28th. They cancelled 20 shows in March.

“We did a lot of gigs for charities, but at this point, the artists themselves are the charity,” he said.

“Most people in the industry are doubtful you will be able to have 1,500 people in a room by March next year.”

He believes the Government must come to the rescue of the non-subsidised music sector as it has done for the section of it subsidised by the Arts Council.

“That sector gets all the funding. The largest part of the industry is the non-funded sector and that’s the part that generates all the money. Everything has stopped. These are the people over the years who have taken all the risks.”

Dave Browne of the 90s band Picturehouse has been making a living in recent years with his wedding band the Controversial AllStars. The band does between 80 and 100 weddings every year along with corporate gigs.

Mr Browne said musicians are dreading that the Government will phase out the PUP and leave people like him on the equivalent of jobseekers allowance (€203 a week).

“There is a tsunami of pressure coming that I don’t think people are quite aware of and the mortgages,” he said.

“The thing about us is that we want to work but we are not allowed to work. To get music back to the level of what it was won’t happen before 2022.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times