- 22 Oct 12
Earlier in the year promoter Vince Power engaged in a very vocal spat with the BBC when the broadcaster used money from the UK licence fee to promote the London Hackney Weekender, featuring huge acts like Jack White, Deadmau5, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran and Florence + The Machine. Power felt it fundamentally damaged his ability as a commercial promoter to successfully present the same acts to a ticket-buying public. Why should a publicly-funded body, he questioned, be allowed to queer the pitch for commercial promoters?
The Hackney Weekender wasn’t a celebration of anything in particular. It wasn’t an off-shoot of some other event. Just a chance to stage a massive free bash. You could argue this type of thing supplements rather than replaces what commercial promoters do. That’s not an argument Vince Power will give much credence to. He’ll argue the cash concert-goers would spend on tickets will simply go on something else if they feel they can see acts of this stature for nothing. For the majority of music fans a gig is only one element of a night out. They’ll have a few drinks, maybe go for something to eat, get a taxi home. They’ll spend this money whether the gig is free or paid. If they’ve gone to a free gig they’re not going to have enough left in the tank to do it all again for a paid show a few days later.
It’s an argument playing out on a smaller scale in Belfast where Jim Heaney, who has been promoting folk and roots gigs under the guise of the Real Music Club for 14 years, is taking issue with the free concerts staged by the Open House Festival. Over the last decade-and-a-half Jim Heaney has brought artists such as Steve Earle, his son Justin Townes Earle, Billy Bragg, Janis Ian, Roger McGuinn and Loudon Wainwright to the Errigle Inn. These are risky undertakings for a promoter with a passion but no safety net. The Open House Festival has been around for over a decade too. In its time it has welcomed acts like Seasick Steve, The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, The Low Anthem and Bob Log III to Belfast and has brought some of the North’s finest roots acts to the stage too. So this isn’t a question of good guys versus the bad guys. More of good guys versus the good guys – and for as long as the Open House Festival was simply an annual event Heaney sucked it up and kept his opinions to himself. Thinking, I suppose, he could weather any short term fall in audiences and keep going for the other 51 weeks of the year.
Then, in 2011, it was decided to limit the festival’s funding and it became untenable to stage the event on the same concentrated scale, i.e. taking over the Cathedral Quarter for the best part of a week. Confronted by the prospect of a much smaller festival the organisers instead decided to spread Open House over the entire year. This means, from Jim Heaney’s point of view, practically every gig he promotes under the Real Music Club banner has opposition from a competitor not under the same pressure to watch the bottom line, one whose advertising budget and staffing overheads are guaranteed a full 12-months ahead.
Despite being based in Belfast both organisations have been hugely important to the roots scene in Ireland. What happens if Open House damages the Real Music Club, then has its own funding withdrawn? That’s an outcome neither organisation would welcome.
In a society where music is increasingly seen as without value, it’s essential anyone with a commitment to the sounds we love has a regular income. Bakers aren’t giving out free loaves and diesel is nudging ever closer to €2 a litre – and no matter how romantic our ideals, this is the ecosystem that musicians exist in.
That’s why we need to support good promoters like Jim Heaney, like Nigel Martyn, like Dublin’s Paul Lee and Karl Geraghty at the Workman’s Club. Promoters who work hard and take risks – and pay their artists.
In a scenario where everyone’s motives are pure, how can we reach some way of working together so that publicly funded promoters and commercial independents can co-exist? That’s a tough circle to square and doing so is going to take some inventive thinking. The alternative doesn’t bear considering.