- 22 Jul 21
“We have to make this happen, it has to work!” So says Catherine Martin, the minister responsible for getting all sectors of the Irish music industry up and running again. A former busker who’s shared a stage with Glen Hansard, she’s also determined to deliver on the Green Party’s promise of a basic income for artists and overhaul the country’s nighttime economy. Stuart Clark asks her whether we’ll be able to take those summer festival tickets down off the mantelpiece...
There were tears for all the right reasons earlier this month, as at least 3,000 people got to savour their first live music in seventeen very long months.
Unlike the James Vincent McMorrow show in the Iveagh Gardens, which was great but a Covid ‘pilot’ gig in name only, everyone attending Gavin James & Co. at Kilmainhaim was rapid antigen tested before being allowed onto the site which had a real Garden of Eden feel.
Politically overseeing the IMMA show was Catherine Martin, the Green Party TD for Dublin Rathdown and since June 2020 the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
A proud Monaghan native, she studied at Maynooth College before becoming an English and Music teacher. A card-carrying member of the Green Party for the past fourteen years, Martin is married to fellow Green TD Francis Duffy with whom she has three children.
Were you to have taken a Saturday stroll down Grafton Street during the early 1990s, there’s a good chance you would have heard her belting out ‘She Moves Through The Fair’ or one of her other party pieces.
The Minister therefore had a pretty good idea of what the Culture and Arts parts of her portfolio entailed before accepting it as part of the formation of government.
While the previous administration was justifiably criticised for being slow to come to the aid of a stricken music industry, Martin has subsequently presided over last October’s €1.7 million Songwriting, Recording & Album Release Stimulus Package, the allocation of which was somewhat mired in controversy; the altogether better received pilot €5m Live Performance Support Scheme, which kicked in around Christmas; and the €25m Live Performance Support Scheme proper, which grant-aided 237 organisations who are now busily assembling bills for events that under the terms of the awards must be staged before the end of September.
The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media also made it possible for 160 Irish artists to get a paid online gig courtesy of the Hot Press Y&E Lockdown Sessions.
Having invited everyone from IMRO, Martin Hayes and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to Screen Ireland, Events Industry Alliance and Denise Chaila to be a part of the Arts and Culture Recovery Task Force, the Minister in June announced the piloting of the guaranteed basic income scheme for artists and arts workers they recommended as part of the country’s Economic Recovery Plan.
There’s therefore lots to talk about as we sit down two days after the Kilmainham pilot gig in her Kildare Street office.
Stuart Clark: As a fan, what was your first gig attended and record bought with your own money?
Minister Catherine Martin: First gig would have been The Flying Pickets. Record was probably Siouxsie & The Banshees’ version of The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’. U2, of course, were also big at that time. Then it got very folky with The Bothy Band, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and Joni Mitchell. I absolutely adore Joni Mitchell’s voice and in the mid-‘90s, when I was in California teaching and managing a coffee shop at the same time, was fortunate enough to see her, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison playing together for one night only in San Jose. It was just extraordinary how my idols came together.
Had things worked out differently it could have been you up there on the Kilmainham stage.
(Laughs) Well, I was brought up in a family where we all either sang or there was dancing. There was the Irish language too. My Dad was an artist so performance was the norm in bringing us together. I went on to study it in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth as it was then called. I met a girl there called Laoise Kelly who’s a pretty world-renowned harper and we used to busk together on Grafton Street. I was also a member of the Chamber Choir. I love that style of music: Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is an extraordinary work, which I had the pleasure of singing in the National Concert Hall. I won an annual song contest at Maynooth with an original composition and sang at the bicentenary of the university. I still dabble a bit when I find the time.
You got to share a stage with Glen Hansard. How did that come about?
I taught in St. Tiernan’s Community School in Dundrum for about sixteen years. It’ll come as no surprise that I headed up the Green Committee. When we won our first (Green School) flag, I wanted to mark it because it was extraordinary work by the students. I like to think big so I rang around until I found Glen’s manager’s number and asked him to come out to raise the flag and maybe sing. And he did that. He was so incredibly generous with his time. These are students who don’t come from a privileged background and just have that raw talent. After the flag raising, he did a private concert where he jammed with the students. A few of the teachers stayed on as well and at the very end one of the students said to Glen, “Would you mind playing your Oscar-winning song with Ms. Martin?” So I played piano and sang with him on ‘Falling Slowly’ and I loved it. It was great.
Were you at Saturday’s Gavin James gig yourself?
No, I had another event in Mayo (the launch of the Westport – Where Visitors Feel At Home report) I had to be at – but everything from the testing to the performance side of things went very smoothly. It was all positive comments afterwards. I was at the James Vincent McMorrow gig in Iveagh Gardens, though, which like the test events before Christmas – I went to the one in the Concert Hall and there was another in the Abbey Theatre – was extraordinarly emotional. You could feel it in every note James sang. You realised just how much you and everyone else is missing it. Then it went to the next stage of thinking about every single person that makes the event happen and the jobs it provides.
If anything good has come out of this it’s that people are no longer treating music as something that comes out of the tap for free.
That’s the key lesson that I hope has been learned. We must value the arts in terms of what they contribute on an everyday basis to our economy and to our well-being. As I say, it’s not just the singers but those who make the events work backstage. A light has been shone on this…
There was an angry reaction early on in lockdown when the Minister for Social Protection, Heather Humphreys, essentially told out of work musicians and crew to retrain.
That message certainly never came from me as Minister with responsibility for this area because that is not something I would expect anyone within it to do. Again, it comes down to the value you place on music. As Minister for Arts and Culture, I’m the person who has direct engagement with the sector and, through it, I hope it’s very clear that’s never anything I’d ask or even think of seeking.
There was also an indoor test gig on June 26 at the INEC in Killarney, which Christy Moore headlined.
Yes, there were two hundred at that. Social distancing, but you could be in your pods of six at a table. It was a very positive experience for the musicians as well. Christy said it was the most important gig of his life and that’s something coming from Christy Moore. It just shows you how much it means to them to be back playing live.
Do you see it as being two different time-frames, or can indoor and outdoor gigs return in tandem with each other?
I’m conscious that we need to test the two. We talk about outdoors and that’s fine with Irish weather in the summer, but inevitably in the autumn and winter outdoors will not really be an option. So that’s why I’m piloting both. We don’t want another autumn or winter of silence.
What models did you consider before green-lighting the Kilmainham and Killarney test gigs?
With the group we’ve brought together here at the department, we’re looking right across from Barcelona to London. Festival Republic of course would have done the big ones in the UK. We’re behind them in terms of re-opening and now, unfortunately, watching where the Delta variant is going. The Iveagh Gardens was really about the first reopening of live music: the logistics of how to get in/get out and make it a success. Last Saturday in Kilmainham was teasing it out more with the antigen testing which, like I say, went really well. We’ll do more and more pilot gigs until we get to the stage where we can reopen – and reopen for good.
One of the things they’ve successfully trialled in the UK, which we haven’t here, is a DJ gig. Have you examined how Cream’s April event in Liverpool went?
Doing a pilot gig for dance? Well, that’s what I intend to do as well. As I said, I’m determined that all sections are piloted because we have to find a way to reopen clubbing and support our DJs and get them back working and doing what they do really well. So there will be a pilot dance gig. The venue still has to be decided, but it’s been signaled to my cabinet colleagues that it’s happening.
Could you put a time frame on that?
Well, I would have hoped the end of July but now with the Delta variant, I don’t know, it may go into August. Let’s see with the ramping up of the vaccination rollout. But I’m determined that it will happen as soon as it’s safe to do so.
You got soaked yesterday campaigning for your Dublin South Bay by-election candidate, Claire Byrne, who like your now ex-Lord Mayor, Hazel Chu, is in favour of a Nighttime Mayor. Is that official Green Party policy?
Hazel as mayor served on the Nighttime Economy Task Force, which is something we negotiated into the Programme for Government. I was the lead negotiator and Claire Byrne has been a huge advocate and contributed so much to this. It’s a sector that we really need to make sure we protect and sustain. Over a hundred stakeholders engaged with the Nighttime Economy Task Force. There’s great value in it not just from a cultural point of view, but for the economy as well. The Task Force report has landed with me. It’s very obvious from the stakeholder engagement that there’s demand for diversity and flexibility of new venues; modernisation of licensing laws; and changes in transport options. There’s a lot there that I’ll be bringing to my cabinet colleagues shortly.
Licensing laws are key. What would your ideal be?
It definitely needs to be overhauled. Because, as I say, it’s a sector that has immense value and we need to sustain and build it. But that would lie under the Minister for Justice remit, so that’s something I’ll engage with them on, when I bring this to cabinet. But it’s obvious from the engagement of the stakeholders in this Task Force that something needs to be done, and I agree with them that it needs to be overhauled.
Festival Republic, who you mentioned earlier, have moved Electric Picnic back to the end of September. Was that done in consultation with yourselves?
Well, it’s up to the promoters to make that decision. I’ve seen they’ve moved it back. Let’s see what happens.
Where do we need to be in order for the Picnic and other major concert events to go ahead?
That’s where the vaccination rollout is key but also the hospitalisations and the ICU numbers. As I said, we’re tracking the UK in a very different way now; seeing what happens with the Delta variant. But with the pilot events, we’ll do more and more events in July and August, if needs be, until we can increase the numbers and reopen. At the weekend we had the larger pods with only one metre of social distancing. You’ll see more and more numbers in sport and in music with these pilot events.
It’s hard to tell where we’ll be in September, but do you think it’ll be a mixture of digital passports and rapid testing?
I wouldn’t like to see something that discriminates, and I think the vaccine passport would discriminate. I see antigen testing having a role, that’s why I really pushed to have it in that pilot at the weekend. You can see how well received it was. It could be that pod system at a greater level. It could be bringing down the social distancing. Everything needs to be explored to get it back open and open for good (claps hands to emphasise).
Would you be apprehensive about events where people are staying over, and potentially drinking more, which is where the guard tends to drop a bit?
Unlike at the Iveagh Gardens, the bar was open at the weekend and that worked. Look, I trust the fans in many ways because they’ve been starved of performance and I think we’ll all come together as lovers of music. Everyone needs to be saying to themselves: “We have to make this happen, it has to work!” And then we’ll have the festivals back for good.
Would you be aware of the fact that an event like Electric Picnic requires at least a six or seven week build?
I can’t guarantee now on July 5 where we’ll be in September, but I’m very conscious of the lead-in time needed. There’s uncertainty there and it has to be safe and it has to open for good.
Are you surprised by the number of groups and organisations that have been knocking at your door in relation to music?
The commercial sector never had to knock on this department’s door. I got that €50m which is unprecedented in support in the budget last year for that sector. The truth is they need it, and that’s what we’re doing with the Live Performance Support Scheme, with the promoters organising the pilot events and working with us. Even if we get to the stage, hopefully in the near future, where they don’t need support, I would like to keep that door open. It’s invaluable for a minister in this field to have that engagement and work closely with them.
The industry people I’ve spoken to say that, at the very earliest, global touring won’t be back to normal until 2024. Do you envisage further live performance support scheme payments?
In the National Economic Recovery Plan, there’s provision for the supports to remain in place if social distancing continues. It’s simply not viable if social distancing is in place. It’s simply not viable if they can’t travel abroad. I’ve signaled that to my colleagues. I have that wording in the National Economic Recovery Plan.
So it’s all down to the percentage of normal capacity that can be achieved.
You need about 80% capacity before you start making money on these gigs. That’s what you have to take into consideration so there will no cliff edge for tours and there will be no cliff edge for the arts.
Can you tell us more about the piloting of the guaranteed basic income scheme for artists and arts workers?
We are pro-universal basic income and have been since the first meeting of the Green Party. Again it’s about not casting adrift, but placing a value on this sector. It was the number one recommendation of the Arts and Culture Recovery Task Force. I’m delighted that I got agreement at cabinet last month. It’ll hopefully be a three-year pilot and really give the sector the support it needs. What we want to do is help creativity. I’ve established an oversight group and I’m hoping they’ll report to me by the end of July. I’ve asked for it by then.
How do you envisage it working?
We have the Department of Finance, the Department of Social Protection and ourselves [involved]. There are so many different ways it could work but the main part was getting the basic income guarantee pilot over the line.
Is there a model elsewhere that’s caught your eye?
They’ve had one in France since the 1930s. You can work so many hours or days in the year up to a certain amount and still get paid that basic income. That’ll be something the oversight group will look at. I’m sure there’ll be engagement with Social Justice Ireland. They’d be another group we engage with and, you know, we’ll see what happens.
Have you any further plans that will be seen as a step forward for the industry?
I think there’s real potential in bringing our tourism, our sports, our Gaeltacht and our arts closer together and maybe greening them up at the same time because recovery will be green for all sectors. Recommendation no. 10 in the Arts and Culture Recovery Task Force report is the greening of the industry, helping them reduce their carbon footprint. I’d like to maintain the unprecedented funding of €130m for the Arts Council that I secured. Post-pandemic, I’ve signaled at EU level that, when the time is right, I would like a Concert of Remembrance, and a Concert of Celebration, where you put the arts front and centre. Similar to a Live Aid-type event, you could see it beaming from Dublin to Berlin to Paris.
One of your Task Force members was Denise Chaila who appeared recently on the cover of Hot Press with President Michael D. Higgins and one of his Bernese mountain dogs. Did that strike you as being significant?
Yes, it did. She’s terrific, isn’t she? I think maybe she doesn’t even realise what she’s doing to inspire women and encourage diversity across the board every time she takes to the stage or appears in a photograph. She’s a magnificent advocate as well as a very talented woman. Young girls can’t aim to be what they cannot see. So, the more Denise Chailas out there the better, I say!