- 04 Apr 01
That’s the philosophy behind Cross Border Media, a label which has had a remarkable impact on Irish music since its foundation just three years ago. A special report by Colm O’Hare and Jackie Hayden
One of the most significant developments in the Irish music industry in recent years has been the growth of independent record companies. With the major multinationals largely ignoring new talent and generally reflecting an unwillingness to invest in local artists, the gap in the market is being filled by a handful of forward-thinking independent local companies. The advantages which small independent outfits enjoy, for artists, cannot be overstated. They are generally more in touch with what’s happening on the ground, can respond quickly to audience demand and can tailor their operations to suit customer needs.
Cross Border Media (CBM) is one of the most adventurous of the new breed of independent record labels in Ireland and is at the forefront of the growing independent sector. With a roster of acts on their books that includes Four Men & A Dog, Sean Keane, The Brothers, and Frances Black & Kieran Goss they have cornered a substantial slice of the home-grown music market and are making significant inroads on the international scene. Encompassing a wide range of genres – traditional, roots, folk, rock and country – they have proved that they are not afraid to take chances in an increasingly competitive record market.
Formed three years ago by Dublin-based journalist and musician Oliver Sweeney and Belfast-based Jim Heaney, CBM achieved significant success right from the start. Their first release, Four Men & A Dog’s Barking Mad, was awarded Album of the Year by Folk Roots Magazine in the UK and went on to sell over 25,000 copies. The band is now one of the biggest live attractions on the folk scene today, having toured all over Europe and North America.
CBM subsequently released critically-acclaimed records by Cran, The Brothers, Frances Black & Kieran Goss, and Draíocht. As they enter 1994 with growing confidence and optimism they have just learned that another CBM act, Sean Keane, has had his debut on CBM, All Heart No Roses nominated by Q Magazine in Britain among the five Best Albums of 1993 in the Folk/Roots Category.
CBM now stand poised to capture even wider markets as they enter into licensing arrangements abroad and more co-productions at home. They also have a publishing wing, Dog Music to take care of a significant aspect of the music industry.
An important development for CBM is the ability to license international artists for distribution and sale in Ireland, and to have their own acts issued abroad. To date CBM products have been issued in the US by Green Linnet and Shanachie and in the UK and Europe by Topic. This allows them to gain instant access to markets abroad and to expose their artists to wider international audiences. This is particularly important in the US where the mail order business is very strong, Green Linnet doing a large proportion of their business in this way.
Recent co-productions at home for CBM include The Afternoons album Homage issued in conjunction with Danceline, another independent label, and an EP by Hinterland in association with Synergy.
Releases planned for ’94 include a new Four Men & A Dog album, a solo album from Cathal Hayden (a member of the ‘Dogs’) and albums from Alec Finn, Cran and Draíocht.
Another exciting CBM venture is a forthcoming compilation album planned for release in early 1994. Featuring tracks from the entire CBM catalogue it will be entitled Crossing Borders, and it promises to be a tour-de-force of the company’s current roster. With the success of other recent compilations like A Woman’s Heart it is sure to make a significant impact on the expanding market for roots music.
Irish music has never been in such a strong position to prove itself in the international marketplace and Cross Border Media are well-placed to take advantage of this increasing demand for quality music. Watch them grow!
CROSS BORDER MEDIA – TAKING ON THE MAJORS
Within three short years, CROSS BORDER MEDIA has acquired an enviable reputation
for its commitment to quality music. JACKIE HAYDEN talks to co-founder and joint managing director OLIVER P. SWEENEY
Despite the continuing success of a varied slew of Irish musicians all over the world, with Enya, The Cranberries, Clannad, Van Morrison and U2 all recently featuring in the U.S. album charts, multi-national companies based in Ireland are showing less interest collectively in the wealth of talent developing all around them than ever.
Fortunately for the future artistic and economic health of indigenous Irish music and musicians, there are now several small record labels based in Ireland who, despite limited resources but blessed with crate-loads of energy for music they passionately believe in, are making most of the multi-nationals look decidedly lacking in the old creative endeavour department.
One of these labels, which in a short space of time has built up an impressive catalogue of quality product and an equally enviable reputation for its marketing skills, is Cross Border Media, known to all and sundry as CBM.
Ironically, CBM came into existence almost by accident when Oliver P. Sweeney, already well-known in Irish music circles as a musician, an obsessive fan of a wide variety of music and a contributor to Hot Press for many years, saw an early performance by Four Men And A Dog at the Belfast Folk Festival and in his own words was “so overwhelmed by their remarkable tightness, their amazing musical skills and their great live presence that I knew there and then that this band had to be recorded.”
Sweeney’s enthusiasm was matched by Jim Heaney who had been so impressed by the same factors that he had decided to manage the band, and in due course, with the invaluable help of other like-minded people like Marian Shanley, the Cross Border Media label was born. “It was actually Marian‘s mother and father. Ger and Oliver Shanley who suggested to us that the company be formed. That gave us the impetus to go for broke and borrow the money to kickstart the venture: Oliver and Ger were a great help to us in the company‘s early days and without them we genuinely wouldn‘t exis.” That name was carefully chosen to reflect a philosophy transcending all political, geographical and musical boundaries that has since been admirably fulfilled by the range of artists who now grace the catalogue of prime releases assiduously built up by the Sweeney-Heaney partnership.
With the help of Trend Studios, who processed 150 CD’s in one week for radio stations, the debut Dogs/CBM album saw the light of day on 18th June 1991. Not only did the album register healthy sales throughout that Summer, but it was voted Folk Album of the Year in both Folk Roots and Q Magazine and helped quickly to establish both the band and the label as forces to be reckoned with.
It wasn’t long before CBM was offered its second release, the debut album from Cran. Initially it was issued on cassette only but when Sweeney and Heaney began to receive orders of 400 and similar quantities from abroad, a CD was swiftly scheduled. While the label’s mentors strenuously object to the assumption that it’s just another home for Irish trad music, Sweeney admits that the Cran album is the only album in their catalogue that might justify that epithet in the purist sense, all others exhibiting an eclectism that defies lazy musical categorisation.
Next up was the duet album by Frances Black and Kieran Goss, leading many fans and commentators to compare Frances favourably with her more famous sister Mary while marvelling at the spellbinding wit and songwriting skills of Goss. A track from that album played a key role in the success of the A Woman’s Heart project and opened the way for solo careers by both artists.
With three albums released to considerable acclaim and reasonable sales, Sweeney and Heaney began to realise that they had the makings of a serious business on their hands. After much deliberation and soul-searching Sweeney even decided to take a 5-year career break after teaching Irish for 16 years and set off into the big, bad world of commercial enterprise with emotions swinging between the elation of being free to shape his own destiny and the sheer terror of the task in hand. “While I really enjoyed teaching, and was very happy working in Beneavin with a marvellous bunch of people, I felt that I had to give this a real go, both because of its possibilities and also because Jim was being forced to take up too much of the slack. I’d never tell him this to his face, but Jim Heaney is the best in the world to work with. Despite appearances, he’s far calmer than I am!”
But the growing success of the label, the continued support of Heaney and a highly positive response to the CBM catalogue on Sweeney’s second, and more productive, visit to the New York New Music Seminar increased their confidence and they were encouraged by the fact that now people were calling them rather than they having to do the pursuing.
The release of their fourth album soon followed. Featuring Hot Press editor Niall Stokes and his brother Dermot, The Brothers’ Torch has since been licensed to several countries and more than vindicated their faith in the band and the material to the extent that a follow-up project is already well under way. Before long, Four Men and A Dog became the first act to have a second release on CBM, the decision to draft in a contemporary songwriter in the guise of Kevin Doherty proving to have been an artistic masterstroke and a substantial boon to CBM’s sister company Dog Music Publishing. “This year we plan to take serious steps to develop the potential of the publishing company. Kevin‘s songs on Shifting Gravel and the Draíocht material give us a good base from which to work.
The origins of the next project actually can be traced back to a Dog’s gig in the legendary Connolly’s of Leap. As Sweeney recalls, “We heard a tape of this unbelievable band playing in the background. When we asked who it was we were told it was a band from Kerry called Draíocht. So on New Year’s Eve 1992 I phoned Frank Mulcahy from the band and when I told him we wanted to record an album with Draíocht he fell off the chair he was sitting on and broke it!”
Fortunately, sales of Draíocht’s album have long passed the point where they can cover the cost of repairing a chair! Not only did it sell well and receive glowing reviews both at home and abroad, but the band’s style further helped to expand the musical scope and perception of the label and dispel once and for all any notions of musical ghettoisation. “Also, the album cover has been nominated for a ‘Billie’ (design award) in Billboard magazine,” Oliver adds. “That‘s a remarkable development when you consider the very basic quality of sleeve design here not so long ago.”
With August 1993 came the launch of Sean Keane’s album All Heart No Roses which has since featured as one of Q Magazine’s Folk Albums of the Year. This was no surprise to Oliver Sweeney who, on first hearing Keane’s demos, knew that this was one album he would stop at nothing to acquire for CBM. “We’re now on our 4th pressing of the CD. Although we have a contract with Sean for three albums, I’d love to do about fifteen with him,” he readily admits.
In practice, Keane is a very good example of the complete turnaround in attitude to the business undergone by those coming from a folk or trad background. Whereas in the past there was often a self-defeating approach to the marketing and business aspects of music making, Sweeney believes that to-day’s musicians take a more positive, common-sense view, to their own advantage and the furthering of their careers.
“Sean had learned a tremendous amount through working with Arcady and Reel Union and by observing the success of his sister Dolores. He works hard, he’s totally devoid of bullshit and I think he can be one of the major attractions on the music scene in the foreseeable future,” he states unapologetically. He views the inclusion of a comparatively unknown Bob Dylan track ‘Abandoned Love’ on Keane’s album as further proof of the label’s eclecticism and desire to avoid the obvious.
Of course the competitive nature of the music business in recessionary times means that record companies become increasingly chary of taking commercial risks on artists who are not prepared to commit themselves wholeheartedly to making the project work to everybody’s benefit, but Sweeney is full of praise for his own roster of acts who are themselves breaking down all sorts of restrictive barriers so that there is no longer a fear, for example, of the once sacriligious synthesiser.
Another milestone for the label came late in 1993 when CBM linked up with Danceline Records to release the debut album by the highly-rated soft-rock outfit The Afternoons. That venture has turned out to be such a success that it is likely to be the first of many similar co-operative projects.
CBM’s most recent project is an album called Everywhere by Greg Trooper And The Flatirons. Those recluses who may not have heard of Trooper have almost certainly heard his songs since his work has been covered by the likes of Billy Bragg, Vince Gill and Steve Earle. This is his first album to be accorded an official release in Ireland and Bruce Springsteen fans should check out the small print where it denotes a certain E-Street Band bassist as the producer of some of the tracks. “We’re so convinced of Greg’s potential that we are about to begin work on another album with him. I think he’s going to be huge, and let’s not forget that another American, Nanci Griffith made her first breakthrough here. There’s no valid reason why Troop can’t do the same.”
Much CBM person-hours are currently being taken up with the co-ordinating of a special compilation album Crossing Borders drawing on the best of the label’s output to-date and prepared with the 1994 Midem trade fair in mind, although what promises to be a humdinger collection should go on sale to an impatient public in mid-’94.
Another project nearing fruition is an opus called The Blue Shamrock by the legendary Alec Finn. The contents are mainly Irish airs given a fresh outing on guitar and bouzouki. Sweeney is convinced that Finn is one of Ireland’s major talents and that he has a lot to offer in the area of film scores and related ventures. Although he believes that the new album will surprise a lot of people, it will also serve to confirm Finn’s stature as one of the living corner-stones of Irish traditional music.
Nor is that the sum total of CBM’s future plans. US-based accordion player, John Whelan has licenced his superb From The Heart album to the label. For a separate project he will team up with Frank Mulcahy from Draíocht, Jimmy Keane and the tireless Sweeney for a collection of original tunes for the accordion which Sweeney has tentatively, and punningly, entitled Boxing Clever. Further releases are also expected from The Afternoons, Draíocht and, of course, the unstoppable Four Men And A Dog.
The CBM men are pleased with their achievements to date, and particularly with the quality and diversity of the music, and are highly charged up about the future to the extent that they reckon their catalogue could stretch to about 30 albums in another year or so. Both Heaney and Sweeney are full of praise for the back-up they consistently receive from their distributors Gael Linn, and single out Seamus O’Neill, Sean Garvey, Brian Adams and the redoubtable Seán Mac Domhnaill for special honours.
“So far we have licensed five of our albums to either Green Linnet or Shanachie in the USA. But I firmly believe that there is untapped potential for us in places like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and other territories in the Far East. To be honest with you, I think we’re only starting,” says Sweeney, and when you look at the man’s track-record, and that of Jim Heaney and the CBM story so far, I for one would not risk arguing with that confident assertion.
OLIVER SWEENEY – TOP 15 ALBUMS
(Current All Time Favourites!)
The Soul Of Many Places Iain Mathews (Elektra)
O’Riada Sa Gaiety Seán O’Riada (Gael Linn)
The Bothy Band 197 The Bothy Band (Mulligan)
Together Alone Crowded House (Capitol)
Precious Little Victories Carol Laula (Iona)
Barking Mad Four Men And A Dog(CBM)
Watching The Dark (3 Album Box Set) Richard Thompson (Hannibal)
Under The Wire Jerry Douglas (MCA)
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band The Beatles (EMI)
Peter Rowan Peter Rowan (Flying Fish)
Who Knows Where The Time Goes (3 Album Box Set) Sandy Denny (Island)
Live And Kicking Niall Tóibín (Livia)
GP/Grievous Angel Gram Parsons (WEA)
The Byrds Boxed Set The Byrds (CBS)
Last Of The Brooklyn Cowboys Arlo Guthrie (Rising Son)
DRAÍOCHT’S TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 1993
Harvest Moon Neil Young
River Of Dreams Billy Joel
Together Alone Crowded House
Best Of The Christians
Unplugged Eric Clapton
Red Shoes Kate Bush
End Of Part I Wet Wet Wet
Red & Blue Albums The Beatles
Chatterbox Máirtín O’Connor
PLAYING THE INTERNATIONAL GAME
We can compete and we intend to, says Oliver Sweeney.
“OVER THE last few years there has been increasing evidence of the vast potential which Irish music has on a world-wide basis,” Cross Border Media MD Oliver Sweeney comments. “From Enya’s incredible achievements world-wide, through Mary Black’s superb success in Japan, Australia and Britain on to the performances of The Chieftains, Altan, Clannad, Mick Hanly and 4 Men And A Dog – to name but five – in scooping prestigious industry awards, it has been proven again and again that the world is hungry for Irish music.
“This is what we have to focus on if the industry in Ireland is to remain vibrant. Which is why Cross Border Media is adopting an increasingly determined policy to open every door that’s possible on the international front. For too long there was an attitude that a small island like Ireland couldn’t really compete. In relation to music that has been proven utterly wrong. We can – and we intend to.
“There’s only 5 million people living on the island of Ireland. There’s 320 million in the European Union alone, and 5 billion in the world. And potentially Irish music is of relevance right across the globe because music has that capacity to speak to people of different languages, cultures and experiences. It is the universal language – and that seems to apply very particularly to the unique magic of Irish music.
“That is why we chose the name Cross Border Media. Obviously it has a particular resonance in the Irish context, with Jim being based in Belfast and myself in Dublin, but it is intended in its global meaning and its musical meaning also.
“That’s why we have set ourselves the objective of reaching across frontiers with our music in 1994 and beyond. We are interested in talking to people from the new markets opening up in the former Soviet states – there’s a very developed ethnic music culture in Estonia for example – but we can also look now to much larger territories like Russia and the Ukraine.
“Similarly, further South, there is a very steadily increasing awareness of, and interest in, Irish music in Japan, of course, as well as Taiwan – where a number of CBM records have been licensed – Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, among other areas. And when you consider the rate at which things are changing in China, we can look forward to incredible opportunities for Irish artists there too, over the coming decade.
“Everything we do at Cross Border Media has that international dimension in mind – and the success of this policy has been borne out not just by the number of licensing agreements we’ve entered into, but by the range of awards and accolades which have come our way from these international territories.
“Irish music has proven itself commercially as well as artistically successful, which of course is crucial. This is what we at CBM have to offer: great music of real artistic integrity which can also sell. So now you know why we’re optimistic about the future potential of the venture.”
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY
WHAT THE PAPERS – AND THE STARS! – SAY ABOUT CROSS BORDER MEDIA RELEASES
• This follow-up to their award-winning debut Barking Mad will be eagerly awaited by the growing following Four Men And A Dog have amassed in their relatively short existence. All and sundry can rest assured: they will not be disappointed with Shifting Gravel. The instrumental tracks are mightily powerful. Indeed everywhere on Shifting Gravel, the listener is amply rewarded and in different ways: the harmony vocals on ‘Struggle On’, the souped-up Louisiana treatment of Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walkin’’ and the supple musicianship of the band who play like their lives depended on it . . . Shifting Gravel comes highly recommended.
– Hot Press
• “Sean Keane is, perhaps, the finest male traditional voice of his generation”
– Q Magazine
• “Cran’s collective finesse and versatility makes for one of the most exciting albums of folk and traditional music to emerge from Ireland this year.”
– The Living Tradition
• “All Heart No Roses is one outstanding debut album. From Sean Keane – a talent full of his sister’s greatness and command of his craft.”
– The Living Tradition
• “Gets you thinking of The River, The Band or even Paul Brady’s Hard Station – the inference being that The Brothers favours a style that’s grainy and confessional and gets well into the notion of race and ancestry with a special interest in the little bloke who gets shafted on the bigger historical plain. Huge and mythical . . . altogether Torch is a pretty ambitious deal.”
• “Black and Goss harbour melodies that will find an audience in many a kitchen, bedroom and platform yet. Frances Black and Kieran Goss offers music to awaken the heart and revive the soul.”
– Hot Press
• “Greg Trooper’s music is sweet and funny, dark and passionate. He moves me.”
– Roseanne Cash
• “It comes as no surprise that Sean Keane has managed to gather the cream of traditional and folk musicians to assist him on his solo debut. All Heart And No Roses is a fine debut indeed. Given airplay and exposure it should see Sean Keane’s profile rise considerably over the coming months.”
– Hot Press
• “The Druid And The Dreamer is one of those albums which doesn’t hit you first time around but Draíocht’s debut gently wriggles its way into the brain on repeated plays. It’s well worth the effort.”
– The Living Tradition
• “Let’s face it, most of the successes of the recent past have come from small independent Irish labels – Mary Black, Mick Hanly, The Revenants, Lir and the A Woman’s Heart compilation among others. And now comes this highly impressive debut from The Afternoons.”
– Hot Press
• “Ordinarily, I have as much time for Irish pop/rock as I do for Albanian wedding marches, but JB said ‘Do it. You’ll love it.’ Now I’ll trust Johnny forever. The Brothers are eclectic in the way The Band was – you can’t pin down the artists they plunder, only the genres. And while folkies can embrace this, Torch is more like a score for Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train than something to file alongside Christy Moore. Great songs, a pub-rock feel that recalls the Brinsleys, and yet enough blarney to prove that it originated on this side of the pond. Probably the debut of the year.”
– Hi Fi News and Record Reviews
• “The Druid And The Dreamer is a highly refreshing debut indeed from this Kerry-based 5-piece acoustic/roots combo. Draíocht manage to blend Celtic mysticism and a jazzy rhythmic sensibility with an Irish trad background, in a way that is as effortless as it is impressive – and is occasionally breathtaking.”
– Hot Press
• “Away from the mainstream, The Afternoons have been experimenting, creating music that’s emotional, fresh and uplifting. Now they have just released a stunningly accomplished album Homage on Cross Border Media – one of the most sophisticated debuts ever released by an Irish band, which is already charming radio controllers and their listeners.”
– Evening Herald
• “Anyone who can write a song like Greg Trooper’s ‘Everywhere’ has got to be on our list of our finest contemporary songwriters.”
– Billy Bragg
AN ARTIST FRIENDLY LABEL
Colm O'Hare talks to Jim Heaney, joint managing-director of CROSS BORDER MEDIA, and finds out what advantages they can offer their artists.
Jim Heaney is joint managing-director of Cross Border Media. He formed the company with Oliver Sweeney three years ago, initially for the purposes of releasing the debut album by Four Men & A Dog. As their manager, he had experienced the usual frustrations of trying to score a suitable record deal for his charges.
“I was manager of ‘The Dogs’ at the time and we were looking around for a record deal for them,” he explains. “None of the majors could offer us a package that suited us, so eventually myself and Oliver got together and decided to go it alone and put the record out ourselves. People said at the time that we were crazy, that we’d lose our shirts and all that, but we went ahead anyway. Thankfully, it’s worked out really well so far. The album, Barking Mad was a great success, eventually winning an award and it’s still selling in respectable quantities.”
Heaney still manages Four Men & A Dog, who are now a huge attraction on the international folk/roots circuit and are currently working on their third album for CBM. However neither Sweeney or Heaney were prepared to limit themselves to a single-act label.
Spurred on by the success of that initial release, CBM expanded to take on more artists and have released almost ten albums to date, with more set for release in early 1994. Up to now they have been involved in mainly acoustic/roots type music but this is not necessarily a permanent policy.
“So far, all of the albums we’ve released, have been by artists that both myself and Oliver have liked and were familiar with,” says Jim. “But that’s not to say we wouldn’t sign anyone we thought had potential, even if we weren’t personally knowledgeable about the type of music they played. Obviously you have to strike a balance but in an ideal world artists should be commercially viable as well as artistically sound.”
Since the company has taken off, Jim has observed that CBM no longer has to search around for prospective acts to become involved with.
“People are coming to us now with offers of deals, instead of the other way around,” he says. “In fact we’ve been approached by some big names in the business, asking us to take them on and release their material, but we wouldn’t take on anyone unless we could agree on terms that suited us both.”
One advantage of a comparatively small record label is the individual attention given to the artists and musicians involved and CBM takes great care to maintain good relations with their stable of artists. Jim feels this is vital to the success of their operation:
“We are an artist-friendly label,” he stresses. “Our record contracts are more like a marriage contract in that we are willing to work in the best interests of the artists at all times. What’s good for them is good for us and in this way only, can we succeed in the long term.
“That’s not to say we don’t operate on commercial grounds,” he adds. “We have to remain a viable entity and every penny we make goes back into the company.”
Is there a danger that a small independent like CBM might become too big, losing the very qualities that made it attractive in the first place?
“It’s something we’re very conscious of,” says Jim. “But our policy has always been to walk before we could run. As each act becomes self-financing, covering the initial recording and promotional costs, only then would we consider taking on any more financial commitments. For example we’ve just had some licensing money come through recently, allowing us to reinvest in the company.”
Jim is confident that the strength of the current artist roster should see CBM remain healthy for a long time to come. As the bands and artists make forays into newer territories and markets, the sales can suddenly be given a dramatic boost – this has happened several times already.
“One of the strong points with our roster,” says Jim, “is the fact that our albums have a long shelf-life. They don’t date as quickly as some of the more fashion-conscious pop material and are not subject to the whims of the market. At the end of the day,” he concludes, “what CBM have to offer is great music – nothing more, nothing less.”
You can’t argue with that!
JIM HEANEY’S TOP 15 ALBUMS
Shifting Gravel Four Men And A Dog
Fog On The Tyne Lindisfarne
From The Witchwood The Strawbs
Crosscut Saw The Groundhogs
Bat Out Of Hell Meatloaf
Time To Time Gerry O’Connor
The Tain Horslips
Ordinary Man Christy Moore
The Squire Alan Hull
Bullinaminguase Roy Harper
Red Pump Special Rab Noakes
Rough Diamonds Jack The Lad
New Boots & Panties Ian Dury
Pretzel Logic Steely Dan
Slipstream Sullivan Brothers & Quiver