Last week, my Spotify Wrapped – the end-of-year gimmick that tells you what music you’ve listened to most often – informed me that my top-played artist for 2022 was The War On Drugs, followed by Cassandra Jenkins, Bicep, SAULT and Fontaines DC. I always end up surprised by what I’ve listed to the most, but some years you land on songs that you can’t switch off. With The War On Drugs this year, that song for me was I Don’t Live Here Anymore. With Cassandra Jenkins, it’s Hard Drive. I watched people broadcast their Spotify lists on social media and wondered about the amount of data the company has on us, especially when it comes to judging our moods and emotional cycles.
On Wednesday evening, after I scrolled through the data Spotify captured on me, I went to see Fontaines DC play the first of a three-night stint at Vicar Street in Dublin. The band was in full flow, a group of young men whose dedication to their craft and relentless commitment to evolving live on stage have paid off in a way that now sees them utterly in control, occupying a mode that can only be described as elevated. The sophistication of their offering was mesmerising. It’s hard to pick the best Fontaines DC song, but as the crowd screamed the lyrics to I Love You, I wondered if that track is their finest moment.
Before I left the venue, I bought a T-shirt for €30. If the band was to earn €30 from me listening to them on Spotify, I would have to stream their songs about 10,000 times. Artists earn on average $0.003 to $0.005 from someone streaming a song on that platform, an insulting pittance. The music industry – in most of its commercial forms – has maintained a structure through the digital age that is incredibly exploitative. It’s an industry that’s astonishing in its inequality and, as the decades pass, its hierarchy remains inverted, with the artists who make the whole thing function so often languishing at the bottom. What Spotify pays artists is objectionable. It trivialises the value of songs. And yet, I’m a hypocrite because although I buy records, I still subscribe to Spotify because of its convenience and variety.
Value of art
I then spent the weekend as I always do at this time of year, in Dingle, at Other Voices. With the Music Trail strand of the festival returning to venues around town, it’s an amazing opportunity to listen to and see new acts, and find the intangible through-lines that can tell a story about where contemporary Irish music is at, and what new influences and references artists are feeling their way through.
It can be hard to place a value on art, but the songs coming out of every room in Dingle are worth a lot more than $0.003. On Friday night, one of Ireland’s finest artists, Gemma Dunleavy, performed in St James’s Church, reimagining the love songs to her community in Sheriff Street in Dublin, flooding them in harp and soul. Later, John Francis Flynn, who like Dunleavy is a once-in-a-generation artist, delivered a performance that ripped up concepts, expectations and articulations of contemporary Irish folk music, drilling into the foundations of ancient sounds and rearranging their cobblestones, sending the audience into a trance as he played two tin whistles stuck together with tape borrowed from Benners Hotel across the road.
Around the town, when I asked people who they were most looking forward to seeing, one young Irish man’s name kept cropping up: Selló. The Clondalkin artist’s recent project, Sellotape, bursts open what is possible within his self-anointed genre of Gaelic drill. Like many contemporary Irish artists, across traditional music, folk, rap, rock and electronic music, Selló is constructing another new Irish musical identity in real time, slipping in and out of the Irish language, and allowing for opening points for Irish music history to drop in that are utterly unexpected, sampling Sinéad O’Connor, Lankum, and even reimagining Come Out Ye Black and Tans on the amped-up track, Come Ouu.
Bums on seats
Because the Other Voices ecosystem has always held creativity and not commercialism at its core, because artistic expression is valued over bums on seats (there are so few in St James’s Church anyway, that the festival’s main venue feels like a radical act in defying scale), because the experience the artist is having is prioritised, the outcome is something that feels quite distant from the “normal” music industry. One of the byproducts of this approach, is that attendees themselves engage with the music being made available to them in intimate settings in a respectful, often even reverential manner. The contrast between how music can be appreciated in real life at an occasion such as Other Voices and how it’s trivialised by Spotify is stark.
Treating artists fairly and with respect shouldn’t be notable. But it is. Paying artists a fair wage for a creative offering that takes a lifetime to hone shouldn’t be an afterthought but it often is. On December 17th and 18th, the annual Merchy Christmas market takes place at the Grand Social in Dublin, where artists sell their merchandise. If you’re a Spotify hypocrite like me, the least we could do is buy the T-shirt, as well as stream all those precious songs.