- 13 Mar 08
It was a hot topic at the Hot Press-run Music Ireland event at the RDS last year and again at the recent IBI conference.
It was a surreal moment. The IBI broadcasting conference had been in full swing all morning. Everyone was getting hungry. We were just about to bring the Q&A stage of the Airplay for Irish Artists session to a close. Lunch beckoned. I put it to the floor: is there one final question? Willie O’Reilly, chief executive of Today FM, put his hand up.
“I blame you,” he said. He was serious too. But what was he talking about?
This. I was appointed to the chair of the IRTC in 1993. At the time, very little Irish music was being played on Irish radio and in particular on the big independent stations here. We had written and campaigned extensively about the issue in Hot Press. Now, as a way of tackling it head on, in my new role with the IRTC, I succeeded in winning the support of the Board, for the introduction of a 30% Irish music quota.
The first response of the Association of Independent Radio Stations – the representative body of the existing commercial stations at the time – was to make a complaint to the EC, on the basis that the measure was anti-competitive.
We knew, however, that there were quotas in effect in France and Portugal and that these were justified on the basis of language – and so we began what turned out to be a lengthy dance with the EC to establish the terms on which a quota could be introduced here and immunised against successful attack.
The chief executive of the IRTC (and now of the BCI) Michael O’Keeffe and I engaged in detailed negotiations with Brussels – and we prevailed in the end on the basis of a cultural exception.
It took some persuasion, but it was accepted eventually by the EC that music was an essential part of Ireland’s cultural heritage and its national resources – and therefore that it was valid to put measures in place to protect it. And we agreed a definition with the EC of what constituted Irish music.
It was generally regarded as a very good result for musicians, songwriters and bands. All that was needed now was careful implementation.
The hope was that a spirit of détente would prevail and that stations would make the effort, bring themselves up to the 30% and get on with life. But as far as enforcement was concerned, the big moment would come when the incumbent operators engaged in negotiations to renew their licenses for a second time – a process that began in 2002 or thereabouts.
If the 30% requirement was pressed home, then the assumption was that we’d be listening to radio stations today and marvelling at the amount of great Irish music on them.
The agreement with the EC occurred late in my time with the IRTC and so, as it happened, it fell to others to bring the measures into effect. Whatever course the story took in the interim, this much can be stated for certain: a sense of grievance has been festering again among Irish musicians and bands regarding the lack of exposure afforded to them, and to Irish music in general, on Irish radio – and especially during the vital daytime peak listening period. Lately, it has spilled over into the music industry too, with managers and record companies also expressing a sense of mounting dissatisfaction.
The issue was hotly debated at the Hot Press-run Music Ireland in October of 2007. The panel discussion at the IBI conference, at which Willie O’Reilly pointed the finger at me and said “J’accuse” was effectively a follow-on from that Music Ireland set-to.
What Willie had to say was that, in looking for a quota of 30%, I – naturally I was pleased that he gave me all of the credit! – had set the music industry and musicians in particular, against the radio industry. And he made the point that during the morning discussion a far more reasonable position had been advanced by Dave Pennefather of Universal Music, who had asked for even 5% of airtime for new Irish music. Dave had also offered the opinion that quotas don’t work – which was music to the radio industry’s ears.
It had been a long morning, and so I answered on the spot by appealing – I hope with some degree of success – to our broadcasters’ sense of pride. People who have been given radio licenses have a huge amount of power vested in them by the BCI. Why should they take their cue from stations in the UK, the US or Australia? Are we not confident enough in ourselves to want to create our own stars – musicians and bands who will go forward to take on the world from a position of strength because of the support and encouragement they have received from the Irish independent commercial radio sector? And with that, we adjourned for lunch.
But there was something farcical about Willie’s accusation and I want to address it here.
• For a start, in the early 1990s, the big urban commercial radio stations were playing as little as 3% Irish music. It amounted to nothing short of a scandalous disregard for Irish music (and RTÉ wasn’t a whole lot better). And that, not the quota, was what set musicians – and independent record labels – against the radio industry at the time.
• For better or worse, by that stage, the IRTC had already allowed the big urban stations to go the classic hits route. It would have been impossible, when I became chair of the IRTC, to force stations to take on a ‘new music’ quota. But it was my view, and the view of the Board, that they could take on an Irish music quota and that this would at least ensure that Irish musicians would be heard on Irish radio, and that songwriting royalties would accrue to Irish musicians. And the view was also that to fulfil that quota they might well have to extend their playlist to encompass new Irish music. Hallelujah…
• For the record, it makes no sense whatsoever to suggest, as Willie did, that stations would be playing more Irish music if the quota had been lower. If certain stations are averaging 20% when there is a 30% quota, then the near certainty is that they’d be averaging 10% if there was a 15% quota.
• Some startling facts emerged during the course of the discussion. There has been some concern over what qualifies as Irish music, with rumours that some stations are operating a ‘Granny rule’ that allows Oasis or The Beatles to be considered Irish. Well, for one thing, it was confirmed that the mere fact that a track is recorded in Ireland qualifies it as ‘Irish’. Thus, the entire new REM album, recorded in Grouse Lodge, will fulfil radio stations' requirement to play Irish music. “I’m speechless,” Steve Wall, who was a member of the panel, said in response. I imagine that will be the reaction of Irish musicians in general.
• Feilim Byrne provided Neilsen Music Control’s analysis of the proportion of total audiences reached by Irish music. Because so much of the Irish music is played in late night slots, and at the weekends, according to Neilsen, Irish music reaches only 5% of total music radio audience. That means that there is a bias of 19 to 1 in favour of the exposure afforded to ‘international’ music.
• What about the statement that quotas don’t work? The IBI chairman David Tighe, chief executive of Limerick 95 Live, who is a very bright and successful radio man, actually volunteered the opposite observation on the evening before the IBI conference. When the original provision requiring independent commercial stations to devote 20% of their airtime to news and current affairs was introduced, there was consternation among many of the applicants, who had played music from one end of the day to the next during their pirate days. But the new stations had to take the quota on board. And what they discovered was that this was a key element in what made local radio attractive, and gave it roots in the community. The result, as David Tighe explained, is that independent radio in Ireland is far more distinctive – and as a result is in a far stronger position – than UK commercial radio. The fact, in other words, is that quotas can and do work if they are effectively managed.
• In the music sphere, the best example of this is in Canada. There the requirement extends to 35% of daytime radio plays. To qualify as Canadian music, a track has to fulfil two out of the following four criteria:
* the music is composed entirely by a Canadian
* the music is, or the lyrics are, performed principally by a Canadian
* the musical selection is recorded wholly in Canada, or performed wholly in Canada and broadcast live in Canada.
* the lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian.
Much like the relationship between Ireland and the UK, because of the proximity of Canada to the US, the belief was that the Canadian music industry was under severe threat from its dominant neighbour, and indeed from the UK. The quota has worked extremely well in sustaining Canadian music and the radio business there has not suffered as a result of the quota. And there is no reason to imagine that the same effect could not be achieved here.
• What about the argument that there isn’t enough good Irish music to justify a 30% quota? It’s a hard argument to sustain when you look at acclaimed and popular bands and artists like Ash, The Frames, Bell X1, Damien Rice, Damien Dempsey and Fionn Regan and examine just how little airplay any of them – and indeed dozens of others – got over the years. Ireland is awash with great talent. There are dozens of records of real quality being released every month.
Of course radio stations shouldn’t have to play anything sub-standard. But over the next few months, the question is this: will new singles and albums by La Rocca, Pugwash, Ham Sandwich, Autamata, Brian Kennedy, Oppnheimer, Laura Izibor, The Brilliant Things, Julie Feeney, Gemma Hayes, Director, Dirty Epics, The Blizzards, Fight Like Apes – I’m not trying to be comprehensive here, but you get the picture – all be given the Rolls Royce treatment by Irish radio? I’ve heard a lot of these records, or snatches of the ones that are in the making, and there’s lots of great stuff on offer. Will Irish youth stations pick up on SuperExtraBonus Party now that they’ve bagged the Choice Award? Will they continue to support The Coronas? And, you know what? Those acts really represent just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m not pessimistic. Revelations about Kylie qualifying as Irish notwithstanding, I got the feeling at the IBI conference that there’s enough people in Irish radio who care about the responsibilities that go with their role. Which leads me to believe that there is cause for genuine optimism.
Here’s to better days…
Further Information & Discussion
Radio directors say they’re behind Irish acts