- 17 Dec 20
2020 will long be remembered as the time that the live music industry in Ireland was brought to its knees. Suddenly musicians – and those who work with and for them – were left bereft of income, and in many cases hope. After some serious lobbying, the crisis was acknowledged by Government and a beginning was made to the challenge of filling the cavernous financial gap created for far too many. While there is a long road still to travel, this might be the best possible moment to make the push to fully develop an industry that has too often been left to muddle its own way into the future.
Has a year ever seemed so long? Or so brutal? On the run-in to the publication of the Hot Press Annual this time last year, we were feeling buoyant. Why wouldn’t we be? It was the end of a tough year. But it was one which had provided a lorry-load of reasons to be cheerful.
In particular, the Irish music industry seemed to be in rude good health. Fontaines D.C. were our cover stars. They had delivered the Hot Press Album of the Year in the widely acclaimed Dogrel. I was getting ready to travel down specially to Mike The Pies in Listowel to see them in action in the most intimate setting imaginable for a band on the cusp of world domination.
There was a hum of anticipation for what 2020 might bring. Across the musical spectrum, Irish artists had been exceeding expectations. Festivals had been packed. The live scene was flourishing. If that momentum could be carried through into the new year, then come summer, we’d see a greater number of Irish acts than ever before being afforded main stage status.
There were major social and political problems to be dealt with: homelessness, addiction, a housing shortage, extortionate rents, a health system in a state of permanent collapse, the ongoing failure to meet environmental targets, the obscenity of direct provision, the looming impact of Brexit – and plenty more besides. But there was a general election on the way. Every political party was putting policies in place to address some or all of these core issues.
We were entitled to break occasionally into a smile. The portents were favourable enough to accentuate the positive: things can only get better. And they will. You might even have been able to sing it.
The economy was booming. Unemployment was at an all-time low. With lots of cash available, this was a moment when any prospective new Government’s hands might be forced; when genuine good might, to one extent or another, be written in advance into the outcome of the election.
Of illusions, we harboured none. Nothing would happen unless it was fought for. On balance, however, a feeling of optimism did not seem entirely misplaced. As the Van song says: “Let’s enjoy it while we can/ Help me share my load/ From the dark end of the street/ To the bright side of the road…”
With smart thinking and hard work, that’s where we’d be heading. Or so, in a euphoric moment, one might have imagined.
BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS
When the first rumbles about a coronavirus emerged from China in January 2020, people barely batted an eyelid. My antennae twitched, but not seriously. There had been novel viruses before – SARS and Ebola sprang to mind – about which the World Health Organisation had become extremely agitated. In July 2019, they defined an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a world health emergency.
Ebola was deadly, with an average of 50% of all cases resulting in mortality. In parts of Africa, infected people died in shocking numbers. We saw harrowing images on the evening news. But it didn’t touch us here. And subsequently, it appeared to have been effectively contained.
Gradually, the threat softened. Initial concerns dissipated. A vaccine was created. The disease hadn’t taken hold in Europe or the US. The crisis receded. Nothing to see here. Move on. Why would this fresh coronavirus be any different?
But it was.
For a start, it became clear pretty quickly that it was highly infectious. No one knows for sure where it started or how but it was first identified – and probably originated – in China. Neighbouring countries were at immediate high risk. So too were places that traded heavily with China, especially if that necessitated travel back and forth. Italy was one such. A world leader in fashion and design, a lot of its products are manufactured in China. Cases were identified there. It quickly escalated into an epidemic.
The bat was out of the bag.
The number of infected people was growing fast wherever cases were identified. Having had experience with SARS, they were better in Asia at imposing quarantine, and putting test and trace regimes, designed to limit the spread of the virus in place. Europe was woefully unprepared. So too, it would become clear, was the rest of the world.
I remember watching the news before the first case had been identified here in Ireland and the hope flashing through my mind that our island status might protect us. That we might be a lucky exception.
That was a forlorn ray, soon eclipsed by the inexorable progress of a silent, deadly enemy. The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic. The virus had arrived in Ireland. The numbers were rising. The Ireland .v. Italy Six Nations Championship game was cancelled. There were grumbles aplenty. That’s a bit much isn’t it!
The then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced a St. Patrick’s Day like no other.
And then everything was cancelled. We went into lockdown. Bars, venues, restaurants and pubs were shut. Events, festivals, gigs were put on hold. Infection rates went up anyway. It had got into nursing homes. That was a complete fuck-up. The general view seemed to be: the less said the better. Deal with it.
At first, very few people grasped what was happening.
How long do you think it’s going to last? Hundreds of times, people asked me. I asked others in turn. A month. Just long enough to suppress the virus. Maybe six weeks. EP will be fine. We’ll have gigs back in September. The truth was that everyone was winging it. No one had a clue.
The body count grew. And plans were blown to smithereens. Every sort of plan.
ENTITLED TO HOPE
That was the beginning of April. This is December and it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Nine months on, however, we can now talk openly about the colossal damage inflicted, and the totally unjust, unequal nature of it. The early mantra was that we were all in this together. In practical terms, it was very different. For some, the monthly paycheques rolled in as normal. For others, the cupboard was suddenly bare.
Globally, it is probably true that aviation has taken the biggest hit. Our of the blue, it was as if planes had fallen from the sky. What had seemed like a permanently booming sector went into a nosedive. It wasn’t just a game-changer. It was armageddon time. Long-established companies bit the dust. Pilots started a new life as Deliveroo riders. You could agitate for a return to normal. But the virus was still raging. Freedom became just another word. Travel was off the agenda for most.
The damage inflicted on the live music, arts and events industry – and more specifically on musicians, performers, comedians, actors and others who get up in front of crowds to sing, dance, talk and throw shapes – may have been less immediately visible, but it was equally profound.
It was as if the air had been completely sucked out of the room. Privately, in houses and flats and apartments all over Ireland – and similarly in countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, the US, South America, Australia – musicians were gasping for breath. So were sound engineers. Lighting designers. Stage managers. Agents. PR whizzes. Tour managers. Roadies. The whole menagerie of live music business animals.
Their plans were in shreds. Income that had been factored in was gone, never to be regained. For whole segments of society, things were still spinning more or less as normal – but in this particular world within a world it was mayhem in slow motion. How do you pay the mortgage or support a family with nothing coming in?
It was genuinely hard to get your head around it. Or to know how to respond. Yesterday I knew where I was going. Today I have no idea. People were made redundant. Some businesses had to close their doors completely. It was a fucking disaster for musicians. A travesty. A nightmare. It is a freelance business, to a large extent, but normally, you feel that your destiny is – more or less – in your own hands. But this was different. Your livelihood was being taken away from you by diktat from on high. An order issued by someone whose income was unaffected. The injustice of it rankled. Anger mounted.
Tours were cancelled. Album launch dates put back. Money lost. Hope too. There were no other doors to knock on. Some people wanted to curl up in a ball in the corner, or go to sleep and never wake up.
It affected the biggest stars on the planet; the aspiring new acts ready to come bursting through; and everyone in between, of every vintage, type and stripe: the guy who sings in the local bar three nights a week and earns a decent crust as much as the individual artist or band on their tenth album who’ve seen better days but are still entitled to hope that there are future, bigger paydays in the offing.
People were dazed and confused for so long it wasn’t true. But, of course, it was.
DEPENDENCE ON THE MARKETPLACE
In Hot Press, we assessed the picture. Had the understanding and support of staff and contributors. Set about doing different things. We published monthly rather than fortnightly. Began the Lockdown Sessions that turned into the Y&E Series. Under that banner, we did 120 gigs supported by the newly expanded Department of Tourism, Culture, the Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. It was a brilliant journey that underlined for us – and for anyone who tuned in – the phenomenal depth of talent that exists in Ireland right now.
We published a very special issue celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the sad death of the greatest Irish guitar player of them all, the legendary, and greatly missed, Rory Gallagher. And we embarked on a very different adventure, bringing together 75 Irish artists to record videos of Van Morrison songs, as a way of honouring the man from East Belfast who had blazed a trail for contemporary musicians from the island of Ireland, earning a deserved reputation as one of the greatest songwriters of the modern era along the way.
The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins participated, recording ‘Rave On John Donne’ with musical backing from the man who created Riverdance, Bill Whelan. Some of the performances, and the accompanying videos, were (and are) astonishingly good. I don’t want to name names here, because everyone participated equally in what was a marvellously uplifting act of solidarity and of celebration. We wanted to create something enduring by which the year might be remembered. It is there now for posterity on the Hot Press YouTube channel – a colossal statement not just about the genius of Van Morrison, but also about the extraordinary calibre of Ireland’s contemporary artists, musicians and performers.
And yet we could see all around us the extent of the havoc being wrought by the lockdown. Gradually, people in the live music space began to get organised. The economy was not as badly hit as the economic forecasters had predicted. Money was – and is – cheap to borrow. Ireland is regarded as low risk. The new government, formed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party had figured out that extensive supports were essential to prevent the complete collapse of a huge range of businesses.
The live music industry made its case. Musicians made theirs. If the first item on the agenda in every organisation in Ireland is the split, this was no different. Separate groupings got stuck in and made diverse arguments, with varying emphasis. The government was listening. As the Minister with responsibility for the arts, culture and tourism, Catherine Martin was listening too. Funds were made available. There was nothing that could ever compensate for the loss of purpose, or for the time stolen by the pandemic – but an important step had been taken. A precedent set. The arts, and music in particular, are of huge national importance – not just creatively, and as a form of artistic expression, but also as an employer, and as a driver of wider economic activity and growth.
It is an essential part of how we sell ourselves – how we present an attractive picture of Ireland – to the world. It is at the heart of what we are. That now was, at last, being recognised.
The initiatives which were funded, and the decision-making processes, have since been the subject of considerable controversy. Long-standing fault-lines have been exposed.
The emphasis within the Department of Tourism, Culture, the Gaeltacht, Sport and Media was to act quickly. There is no doubt that they got that part of the equation exactly right. They needed to minimise bureaucracy. It was important to come to decisions quickly. A lot of activity has been enabled through the different schemes they put in place, where otherwise an entire industry would have remained frozen. They put money into a significant number of musicians’ pockets.
For everyone involved at a higher level of decision-making it was a learning experience, in unfamiliar country. These were pilot schemes. This much we can say for sure. Senior public servants are very conscious of the importance of getting the mechanisms right. But that takes time.
The State is used to dealing with subsidised areas of the arts and culture. What’s indisputably positive is that the old distinction as to what might be worth supporting has been challenged; and that popular music is no longer seen as an industry that must be condemned entirely to the control of, and dependence on, the marketplace.
We need to build on that.
WELL-HONED POLICY MAKING
As a first step, it would help if the decision-makers within Government – and within the public service – were given honest and well thought-out feedback on this year’s scheme, to enable them to make the best possible decisions in terms of how the next round of supports should be dispensed.
Every year, organisations that give grants – whether it is the Arts Council, the BAI, Enterprise Ireland or the Film Board, to take just a few examples that impinge directly on the arts and culture sector – have to make desperately difficult decisions, which mean that some people feel left out. That is in the nature of these processes.
However, prejudice and discrimination should have no place in that. All sectors of the industry – and of the art and craft of music – should be treated equally. Blue sky thinking should be encouraged. But no one should be excluded simply because there is a perception that they are unfashionable or don’t fit some imagined masterplan of what will sell. The musician in the corner of the bar who had been earning a reliable €500 a week for his or her work – but who has been sitting idle all year as a result of Covid-19 – is part of the picture. It is an extreme example but it illustrates a point.
In the past, a snooty view of the arts had dismissed popular music as low brow or commercial. All the money went to classical or opera. In Hot Press, we have always known that this is wrong. We have consistently made the case that contemporary music should be afforded the same importance as film. That it should be supported and nourished. That ways should be found of encouraging its development as an industry. That Ireland can – and should – be turned into a Mecca for musicians, producers, songwriters and more. That if we keep the best at home, and attract top professionals and businesses to the island, we can make Ireland one of the great global centres for music production, songwriting, film music and more – and that this will benefit musicians and crew at every level.
In this regard, new opportunities have been created by Brexit. We are well placed to make big strides over the coming ten years, starting now, in all forms of popular culture – including television and other branches of the media, as well as music. If, that is, we have the vision and pursue it effectively.
It may seem like – in fact it is – a strange note on which to end any meditation on what has been the roughest, toughest, most debilitating year for the arts – and for music in particular – since I first strapped on a guitar to make a noise many moons ago. But I still believe that with the right kind of engagement, smart thinking and well honed policy-making, the coming years can be the most creative, productive and economically rewarding ever, for music in Ireland.
Remember the mantra that we heard when Covid-19 first arrived on these shores? We’re all in this together. Let that be the real guiding principle from here on and we can move mountains.
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