- 10 Apr 18
Creating thousands of jobs, generating millions for the economy, and propelling some of our best musicians onto the international stage – the live music business is an essential part of Ireland’s cultural and economic life. The time has come to stand up for it.
“Dermot Kennedy, Rejjie Snow, Hudson Taylor, Eden, All Tvvins – we’re only a few months into 2018 and we’ve already sold out an unprecedented amount of Irish shows.”
John Johnston, General Manager of the Olympia Theatre, is reflecting on the incredible stream of local talent he’s had the pleasure of hosting in the venue these past few weeks. It’s been a rough winter for businesses in Ireland, with the impact of the snow, yet the live music industry is thriving once again. And the trend isn’t just in the Olympia, nor is it confined to the capital city – all over the country, audiences are packing into venues to see their favourite artists (homegrown or otherwise) come rain, hail, sleet or snow.
Back in 2017, a report titled Let’s Celebrate – conducted by well-known industry expert Justin Green – highlighted the value of the music industry to the Irish economy. A comprehensive analysis of the live sector, the results of the report were truly impressive – even for us here at Hot Press, where we’d been banging on about the importance of live music for decades.
Taking a snapshot of a 12-month period from March 2015 to March 2016, the report indicated that 4 million people had attended Ticketmaster events on the island of Ireland in this period, generating €1.7bn of “net additional revenue” and €669m of net additional gross value in the process (this figure takes into account the money spent on food, drink, merchandise, accommodation and transport, that comes with attending events).
The report also gauged that 3.7m bed-nights were generated because of live music, and that 433,666 attendees at events in the Republic came from outside the country – showing how this sector goes hand-in-hand with the hospitality and tourism industries. In addition, it reported that for every €1 spent on a ticket, an additional €6.06 was generated within the wider economy.
“The figures in that report are astounding,” says John, “but they’re a reflection of the huge importance of live music to the wider economy – there are so many ripple effects from a booming live music sector.”
With the sector as healthy as it is, entrepreneurs, promoters, and even musicians themselves have felt emboldened to set up their own events and venues across the country. In Dublin city centre, Tramline, Piper’s Corner, Bagots Hutton and The Bowery are some of the exciting new venues to have popped up in recent years. Elsewhere, Kavanagh’s of Portlaoise has made great strides in becoming a welcoming place for artists from across Ireland and beyond; McHugh’s in Belfast has rebranded itself as a go-to place for touring musicians; Connolly’s of Leap has started to rival the more established venues in Cork as a haven for top-notch artists; and INEC in Killarney has continued to invest in what is a major top level facility in one of Ireland’s truly great counties.
All this is not a new trend, however. The fact that live music has gained in popularity – and profitability – in recent decades has led to encouraging investment in the industry for decades. Vicar Street and the Bord Gais Energy Theatre were built off the back of sold-out gigs in the ‘90s and ‘00s; Belfast was given a much needed arena-sized venue in the early 2000s in the form of the Odyssey (now the SSE Arena); and Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium have seen vast redevelopments in recent years, with investors safe in the knowledge that when it came to your Bruce Springsteeens, Coldplays and U2s – you’d get sold-out shows every time. We’re hoping that Pairc Ui Chaoimh will be the next success story when it comes to stadium-sized venues in Ireland.
The ground-breaking importance of the Let’s Celebrate report was that it laid things out in very forensic terms with clear numbers to back it up – the music industry matters.
The challenge, then, is for the Irish government to respect and foster that industry, in the same way that the industry itself has respected and fostered every fearless artist who’s ever picked up a guitar or a mic.
EMPHASIS ON PERFORMANCE
Speaking of fearless artists, we thought it right to ask a few of them about their experiences of live music in Ireland.
With the slow decline of album sales in recent years, musicians across the world have been facing an uphill struggle in terms of generating revenue. In many ways, this has led to them re-embracing what music was all about before “the era of the record” – namely, live performance itself.
“I think we’ve come full circle,” nods Pete O’Hanlon of The Strypes, “to the point where live music is now the calling card for musicians once again, in the same way it was before LPs were around. For better or for worse, if you really want to enjoy your favourite band, you have to go out and see them live.”
Karen Cowley, of Bray trio Wyvern Lingo, agrees. “We completely developed our sound doing gig after gig all over the country,” she says. “Our album tour was really our third leg around the country, but even in the years before that, it was all about playing as many festivals and venues as we could.”
Stephanie Rainey, meanwhile, may have gained viral success with the release of her single ‘Please Don’t Go’, but she still cites live performance as the bedrock of what she does.
“In the broadest sense, for any musician, live music is the best part of what we do. When you’re recording, you’re maybe second guessing yourself or calling everything into question, whereas when you’re doing something live, the show is everything, and the venue can dictate the type of gig you have. You learn to perform in mad environments or chilled out places. You learn about yourself as a musician.”
From this renewed drive towards performing, more remote parts of the country have been able to attract artists who previously might have stuck to the major cities. Mike The Pies – recent winner of the IMRO Live Music Venue of the Year – is a remarkable case in point.
“It’s amazing how somewhere like Mike The Pies has galvanised the town of Listowel and galvanised audiences,” says Stephanie. “Aiden O’Connor (owner), puts so much effort into making sure that every gig is packed out. People are now coming from big places like Tralee and Killarney to this small venue because of it. It’s brilliant.”
“For us, The Spirit Store in Dundalk has always stood out as a top-class venue,” adds Pete. “We started off playing in bars and pubs up and down the country, so we know most of the best places, and it’s amazing how many truly world-beating venues – and audiences – we’ve encountered here over the years.”
There’s also been a strange, yet important, re-appropriation of previously hallowed spaces as musical venues in recent years. Unitarian Church in Dublin hosts dozens of events throughout the year; Other Voices festival regularly uses places of worship as the settings for its magical performances; and the appropriately titled ‘New Sounds In An Old Place’ initiative hosts gigs in St. John The Baptist Church in Drumcondra.
“We’ve got our own upcoming gig in St. Luke’s in Cork,” notes Karen. “It’s interesting and encouraging to see how these spaces are being elevated as centres for music.”
It’s worth noting that both The Strypes and Wyvern Lingo spoke with Hot Press in the midst of international tours (Pete from Washington DC and Karen from the Belgian/German border). Going back a few years, The Strypes nurtured their fanbase while touring around Ireland, until it started to pay real dividends, allowing them to expand internationally. This is a path that countless acts have taken in this country, from Hozier to The Script, and it has led us to having some of most popular musical exports in the world.
The flip side, of course, is that hugely successful international artists can also rest assured that they’ll be well received when they come to Ireland. It wasn’t by coincidence that Ed Sheeran chose Whelan’s as the setting for his bespoke VH1 Storytellers documentary – he knew the venue personally from his busking days in Dublin.
Other acts have felt the same way about Irish venues that embraced them in their early days. It's one of the reasons why bands like The National, Arcade Fire and Nick Cave have pencilled in Irish dates on their upcoming UK & European tours – even if their other dates are in cities with far greater populations than Dublin. They, along with the likes of Carl Cox out in Ballinlough Castle, Taylor Swift at Croke Park, or the Gorillaz at Malahide, have been welcomed by Irish audiences in the past, and know about the country's insatiable appetite for live music.
Another benefit of the live music scene being so vibrant is that emerging artists can find themselves in world-class venues no matter what stage they're at in their career and work their from the ground up. Athy duo Picture This started off in The Academy back in 2015 (a prestigious venue in itself), and have now been elevated several times – from the Olympia in 2016 to the 3Arena the following year, and now, this summer, to the RDS Stadium. LCD Soundsystem sold out three consecutive nights at the Olympia Theatre in September, and the experience earned them a Malahide Castle date for June. Hot Press cover star Dua Lipa is currently playing two sold-out nights in the same venue this April, before an Electric Picnic appearance later in the summer – and by the time she returns to do her next headline show, she’ll no doubt be playing to a huge audience.
So what can we take from all of this? We’re not saying that every gig attendee should pat themselves on the back, safe in the knowledge that they’re doing their country and economy a huge national service. What we are saying is that all these elements – the venues, promoters, musicians, barmen, bookers, stagehands and set-up crews, right on through to the audiences – are vitally important. Even in the most adverse conditions, we happen to do live music in Ireland exceptionally well. Long may it continue.