Perfect Sound Forever

Irish music industry today

Damien Rice, photo by Robbie Fry

by Dave O'Connor
(July 2004)

A genuine sense of intimacy could be felt as Vicar Street succumbed to the music of Mundy last Thursday night. His close affiliate Glen Hansard once wrote: "The stars are underground... and the truth is flying overhead" and on yet another successful evening for one of the country's talented musicians, these words tell a interesting story.

As Ireland once again flourishes with fresh musical talent, the style of success is changing. The Irish music industry is not in a healthy state and needs a face lift. While Ireland is an out-performer in the global music market (Irish artists accounted for 2.3% of world CD sales in 2001), the domestic market is small. The support sector in Ireland is underdeveloped and it is difficult for young artists to break through into the international markets. Considering the above, it's no surprise that many artists are now taking the solo route, operating independently.

Mundy, for example, was a victim of the corporate crime. The musician, real name Edmund Enright, was once with Sony Records. Enright sold over 50,000 copies of his debut album Jelly Legs, and saw his track "To You I Bestow" featured on Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet soundtrack, while he also toured with the likes of Neil Young and Alanis Morrisette. In January 2000 however, Sony parted company with the Offaly native, forcing him into exile until (eventually) he established his own record label (Camcor), allowing him to release his second album 24 Star Hotel.

Reflecting on his experiences, Mundy feels that perhaps "more people will buy a record if they know the money is going directly to the artists and not into the pockets of the record companies." Ireland's musicians are now showing the determination to clear the obstacles thrown at them by an industry that has become renowned to put money ahead of music.

IrishUnsigned is a non-profit organisation established to ensure that there is a middle ground between the "music makers and the money makers." The company's CEO David Reid feels that the Irish music industry is almost without a structure of any meaningful kind. "While it all may appear to be a successful commodity on the International stage, Irish music is not a healthy business and there is a need to try and encourage a business or professional approach to the industry to it make possible for the future names to make the right decisions, without having to rely on leaving the country to make money".

Reid feels that the aim of the organisation should be to provide young and inexperienced artists with information relevant to their progress. A structured approach to the music industry is needed to enable Irish acts to develop through their own means by use of information as a key to accurate and effective decision making in the Irish and International music industry.

Another artist who has been through a lot is Damien Rice. The songwriter recently enjoyed the success of his debut album O, which has reached double-platinum status in Ireland. It took Rice almost two years to develop the album due to financial restraints. Until then, the only way Rice could get his music heard was through endless touring. Renowned for his "informal and pretentious" performances, the artist from Dublin started his career as the lead singer of Juniper (now BellX1), a loud-rock band from Celbridge on the southside of Dublin. The band signed with Polygram and although they only released two singles, they played at venues such as the Olympia and recorded at well-known studios Windmill Lane and Abbey Road.

Unhappy with proceedings, however, Rice quit the band and toured Europe. Eventually returning to Ireland to gig domestically. David Arnold, John Barry's successor as the James Bond music creator, offered Rice the use of AIR Studios in London, but strangely Rice choose to record the album in his bedroom. With the help of Arnold however, Rice began working on the album. Nearly two years later the album was completed.

Rice has seen O released to great acclaim in Britain, while he is currently on the verge of making a breakthrough in America.

Taking into account the journey taken by Damien Rice, David Reid's theory comes to the fore. While the band's style didn't suit Rice, had Juniper been under the proper guidance at such an early stage, perhaps a more successful route could have emerged, but again, what resulted was another artist turning his back on the record company and going his own way. Rice, like Mundy, operates independently.

With so many artists taking similar steps like Rice and Mundy, the question must be asked: where does the problem lie? Comparing the status domestically and abroad, the Irish music industry tends to read too much into success across the water- perhaps the success of Dundalk group The Corrs falls into such a category. There is a feeling that maybe "we're not making the best of what we've got." The problem begins when record companies sign new bands and hype them increasingly in an attempt to justify their investment. This is unfair to the artists and ultimately can work against the record company, as along with the growing number of bands comes lower standards, resulting in fewer newcomers being able to break out to a wider audience.

Another problem is the fact that the Irish music industry is often set-on old-fashioned musical values, and sometimes Ireland's traditional outlook can work against itself. Record companies tend to be conservative in their choice of artists, sometimes taking bands that are perhaps too obvious, leaving the more innovative acts out on their own. There is no shortage of local talent who can easily rely on their home audience each year, but can the chosen ones make the cut on the international stage?

Whilst overseas seems to be the main objective, opportunities ARE beginning to open up again at home. Outdoor shows are now very popular, with yearly events being staged at various venues throughout the country. Most well known is the annual concert at Slane Castle, while Ireland's only two-day music festival Witnness (now Oxygen) - is worth an estimated 100 million Euros to the Irish economy.

The problems stem from the area of finance and economic development. The Irish music industry plays a role that goes unnoticed. Maura Eaton from the Music Board of Ireland believes that music remains a hidden industry, stating that: "There is a lack of widespread understanding of its structure and complexities even though it is an employment intensive, export oriented industry, which has a vital role to play in tourism development."

The Music Board of Ireland, alongside Goodbody Economic Consultants, put together a report: "the Economic Significance of the Irish Music Industry," which stated that at 478.4 million Euros, the value-added of the industry represents just under half of one percent of GDP and exceeds that of industries such as newspaper and magazine publishing, for example. In November 2002, the report was presented to the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, John O'Donoghue.

With it was a twenty-nine-page report entitled: "Shaping the Future, a strategic plan for the development of the music industry in Ireland." It is a report which examines the issues and challenges facing the industry and identifies nine strategic initiatives which, once implemented, will lead to the further development of the music industry in the domestic and international marketplace and the maximisation of its benefit to the national economy.

The report states that the Irish music industry is one-eight the size of its counterpart in Britain, whilst the employment within the industry is roughly 8,000. In mapping out a plan of action, Eaton states that Irish artists take up 26% of the domestic market, which is good considering the current state the industry is in. The report recognizes that the music industry support sector in Ireland, including independent record companies and music publishers is small relative to the overall size of the industry. Also, it states that Irish artists have a relatively low share of the domestic record market. The fact that it is not considered to be a true industry must also be addressed in order to gain access to financial and support services.

As a result of the report, The Music Board of Ireland hopes to exploit the potential for further development of the music industry support sector and aims to increase the number of established artists seeking the services of the support available. They believe that Irish share in the domestic record market must be expanded. An interesting statement in the report is one that transpires with the views of IrishUnsigned- professional and business elements are needed with emphasis put on new coming acts.

What's needed is the data to illuminate the size and structure of the Irish music industry so it can be assessed where we stand and where we can go. The actions taken by the Music board are a head start in the process of mending the Irish music industry. There is product available in Ireland and while the latest pool of talent such as The Frames, David Kitt, Paddy Casey, Mundy and Damien Rice all show great companionship, there is a danger that artists will be left with no choice but to work alone.

For more information, see the Irish Music Centeral site

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