- 30 Apr 19
Ian Doyle on the decline of song clubs and their importance to musicians.
For those of us who sold our wares in the ’90s and noughties, “the song club” featured prominently. Run by music fans or budding songsmiths, payment consisted of petrol money from a cut of the door, and whatever merch you could sling. I cut my teeth playing one such venue in Wexford called the Pinion, a dark dungeon of a venue with shitty gear and shitty beer. It was a release valve for the disenfranchised, where local music fans would DJ (the more obscure the better), and local bands played (the louder the better). Bands like Scheer – I still have my cassette of the Schism EP – and Revelino regularly held court, issuing masterclass whoopins to us local wannabes.
When the Pinion packed it in, it was replaced by a folk club, which for the most part consisted of songwriters playing to songwriters. The same rules applied for the travelling “guest artists”: petrol money and merch. Similar nights popped up all over the country, forming a network of venues with regular nights that you could “tour”. At one such night, a visiting musician commented that it was great that you could play Cork on Monday; Kilkenny on Tuesday; Wexford on Wednesday; and Dublin on Friday. To which an audience member shouted, “Yea and ye can pick up yer dole on the Thursday.”
They functioned as incubator units for some of Ireland’s most accomplished artists. I first witnessed the raw talent of Conor O’Brien in a song club, just before he released his Becoming A Jackal EP. I saw a shy James Vincent McMurrow shortly after releasing his first album. He was like a newborn foal trying to find his feet. The handful of people present that night knew they had witnessed something special. I saw a very young Hozier play at one such night in Dublin and the rest, as they say, is history.
And this brings me to my Soapbox moment. Song clubs represented a readymade listening audience that musicians could tap into, without having the financial risk of running their own gigs. They provided the opportunity to test the waters and your mettle, learn your craft and fuck up. The emergence of Spotify, and changes in how we consume music, have significantly reduced the ability to cover costs on the road, particularly for young musicians starting out. Song clubs are no longer viable. Something needs to fill the void, and whatever that is needs to be funded and actively supported.
I was recently a guest performer at a series of gigs hosted by Wexford Arts Centre, funded by Wexford County Council and curated by writer Peter Murphy. The gigs, called Cursed Murphy’s Laboratories, consisted of a series of shows where artists, musicians, writers, poets and actors from across the country did their thing to an appreciative audience. The burden of risk was removed from the shoulders of the performers by support from the council and the arts centre. The series was a huge success and sold out every night, which made the whole event financially viable.
Every county has both an arts officer and an arts centre (every county does not have a Peter Murphy, but that’s a different article altogether). Surely it’s possible to do something similar in every county and establish a network of performances spaces, where people can perform again to a listening audience for petrol money?
The Man Whom’s new album The Dancer From The Dance is out now.