- 05 Aug 20
A lot of anger has been expressed in recent days by musicians, and people in the wider music industry, about the impact of the Coronavirus on the ability of everyone involved in music to earn a living. The question must be asked: is this all part of a wider problem…
Until I retired from full-time employment about 8 years ago, I had spent almost all my working life, as well as vast swathes of leisure time, connected to music. That working time included stints with Polydor Records and CBS Records (now Sony), as well as 29 full years with Hot Press.
So I have ample reason to be grateful to the songwriters and musicians who in effect produce the raw materials without which there would be no music and no music industry and no jobs – for this boy, among many more. Music gave me a comfortable livelihood as well as endless hours of entertainment, stimulation, graft, debate, travel, challenges, reading, listening, writing and robust argument about key issues. (Was Mick Avory of The Kinks really a better drummer than Ringo?).
I haven’t always agreed with artists, nor they with me, but I have an endless parade of memories of great times with those I worked for and with, or simply met in the course of living the life, from Abba to Leonard Cohen, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Rotten, U2, Joe Strummer, Philo, John Sheahan, Eleanor McEvoy, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Mick Taylor, Mary Coughlan, Ronnie Wood, Christy Moore, Glen Campbell, Prince, Saint Sister, Cornerboy and on and on.
Along the way I had much learning to do, not least about reality. Early on I was puzzled to discover that artists had vulnerabilities and human frailties. It took me some time to cope with the fact that the stars I’d seen on stages enthralling vast audiences and exuding limitless levels of confidence could have some serious down time too.
LIVES CHANGED UTTERLY
I recall the kindly American country artist George Hamilton IV breaking down when I had to tell him that his concert at the National Stadium in Dublin had to be scrapped. This was the first time he’d had to cancel because of poor ticket sales and he saw this as the top of a very steep, slippery slope. Little did he know what later decades would bring.
I saw artists fret and frazzle over the lack of airplay for a new single or a lack of reviews or a failure to nab a spot on the Late Late Show. I saw Noel Redding fighting gallantly to rectify the injustices he felt were visited on him by the vastly-rich Jimi Hendrix Estate while he was earning £50 a week for gigs in de Barra’s in Clonakilty.
I was reminded that artists too had bills to pay, domestic issues to attend to, a wide network of music scene and media relationships to keep intact, while also finding the time to tour, write the next album, rehearse it, record it and promote it. (And, these days, pay for it and run the social media stuff too).
I came to admire the courage that comes with performing, taking risks in public with no guarantee of a positive reaction. I gazed, at times in awe, at the self-belief and determination of artists slogging away for years, getting nowhere commercially, but convinced that the guy coming over from the UK next week would be the open sesame to instant fame and acclaim. I saw lives changed utterly after the record company decided not to renew the contract.
And, of course, I met a few self-obsessed assholes, and could be accused of occasional bouts of assholery myself. (Only a few, mind).
But I became endlessly fascinated by music: its rich variety, the inventiveness of those who brought it into being and the creative work process in all its fascinating detail. I grew from being a mere Beatles fan and a child of the ‘60s to deeply appreciating the work of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Horslips, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Bjork, Altan, Shostakovich, Patty Smith, Steve Reich, Liam Óg O Floinn, John Coltrane and a mountain of others.
Latterly I lost bad-tempered arguments with musicians over the initial lust for free music (I was pointing out that it was the road to perdition; they were saying that I didn’t understand the internet), which sadly has led to the slave royalties paid these days by greedy conglomerates like Spotify.
That company’s CEO Daniel Ek recently decreed that artists “can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.” What a pity Mr Ek wasn’t around during earlier waves of slavery. He sure would have gotten more output from those lazy-ass cotton-pickers. Nor would he have been impressed with that idling Beethoven bloke only churning out a mere nine symphonies in a whole lifetime. Not good enough, Luddy baby.
But it’s probably too late to re-run the free music debate now, despite the well-meaning, if fanciful, promises from the powers-that-be in the music industry that “we can sort something out.” Like maybe getting all platforms to pay 2 cents per stream. Wow!
The slave-owner mentality comes on top of musicians having already suffered the collapse of CD sales and the arrival of Covid-19. While the latter prompted many people to become understandably concerned about the plight of hairdressers, undertakers, taxi drivers, barmen, waitresses, dentists et al, there was an apparent lack of concern for musicians. This struck me as odd, as numerous organisations have benefited from the generous willingness of musicians to perform free, to help raise funds and/or awareness. As one musician told me only last year, she sometimes got three times as many offers to do free gigs as paying gigs.
But instead of looking for sympathy, musicians all over the world, from Wexford to Weisbaden, from Nicole Maguire in Cork to Richard Thompson in New Jersey, responded to the pandemic by using their inventiveness to create new opportunities to connect with their audiences. It’s impossible to estimate to what extent their selflessness brought broad shafts of welcome light into the lives of people living through all kinds of dark, negative, pressured situations.
We’ve welcomed the noteworthy Lockdown Sessions courtesy of Hot Press – supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht so that musicians can be paid – and the recent RTE television extravaganza Songs from an Empty Room which saw an impressive parade of Irish musicians perform free in support of Irish event production crew. You can’t access that quality of medication free through the Health Service.
And the thanks they get for this is people like the new Minister for Unemployment Heather Humphreys talking blithely, from her cosy position of privilege in a job as a TD that is guaranteed, more or less, for the next five years, about people – including musicians, it seemed – “upskilling”. Yeah, sure, Ms H, Mary Coughlan could retrain as a space technician by the end of the month, and we could easily imagine Glen Hansard undertaking sub-Arctic exploration while double-jobbing as an archaeologist. If he really cared, he could get that sorted by early Autumn. Better still, maybe a pile of musicians in real need could scoop jobs as ministerial drivers or upskill as “special advisors” for which there seems to be an endless need.
That she has clarified her position subsequently is encouraging: doing a few gigs will not affect a musician’s right to collect the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. The fact, however, is that with the exception of Michael D. Higgins, in his role as Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage in the 1990s, and more recently Paschal Donohoe, Irish government ministers have shown scant real, in depth interest in music. Some time ago, there was a failed attempt to fund a Music Board, which quickly fell by the wayside because of an insistence somewhere ‘up the line’ that it would have to be substantially funded by the industry. Had that happened then, a lot of what is happening now might have been avoided.
We’ve enjoyed a substantial increase in tourism over the past few decades, but to me far more was achieved by artists like The Chieftains, De Danann, U2, The Dubliners, Clannad, Enya, The Cranberries, Riverdance and others portraying Ireland as a stimulating place to visit than any other factor.
So maybe it’s time for musicians to get tough. Maybe what Irish musicians really need now is the fulfilment of the wishes of the late and wonderful guitarist Greg Boland, best known for his adventures with Scullion but also an exceptional session player, who wanted Ireland to have a strong Musicians Union capable of lobbying not just with the government, but across every area of the business, with real bite. Judging from the phone-calls, texts and e-mails I’ve got over the past two months, there’s a growing anger out there among musicians that could be harnessed and directed in a really effective way.
There is, of course, another element to the current crisis, and that is the way in which technicians, crew, agents, bookers, promoters and more have also suddenly had their livelihoods snatched from them as a result of decisions made by the State to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Some of these creative workers – like our musicians – are up there among the best in the world at what they do. They too are deserving of specific recognition and support from the Government. Their unique plight must also be given special consideration, if we are to have a music industry at all, after this craziness dies down.
So are professional musicians a dying breed? Might the current crisis do enough to destroy the vitality of something that is of enormous cultural significance to Ireland? The way this pandemic is going, that is a question that really must be taken seriously.
In the end, it’s for musicians – and those who work with them – to decide how best to use their collective power, especially the access and goodwill they generally enjoy with the media. In the meantime, I will continue in my semi-retirement to enjoy the wonderful work they create and rejoice that I lived through a time that spawned so much exciting musical innovation and made connections that have enriched my life.
I know who to thank.
– Jackie Hayden, August 2020