- 03 May 21
It has been an extraordinary and in many ways painful experience having to effectively shut down a business, while so much great music is being made by Irish artists. Bren Berry of Aiken Promotions reflects on the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the lives and livelihoods of everyone in the music and entertainment industry.
Life during the COVID pandemic has been a total joy for me and my family. We jump out of bed together at 6am every morning without a worry in the world, refreshed and full of gung-ho after a sound night’s sleep. Then we salute the sun before heading off for a family jog around the neighbourhood in matching Lycra gear.
I actually have no idea what my family do in the morning as they are always up hours before me. I’ve always been a night owl, like most of us in this business, but the added existential angst worrying about the collapse of our business and our possible impending doom does not make for a good night’s sleep. I love books but my brain is mush these days and I squeeze in a lot of my reading between 3am–6am when I wake up a googley-eyed ball of anxiety most nights and have no memory of much of it!
My wife and I have been on a health kick and we are in amazing shape thanks to some wise dietary advice from the great John Cooper Clarke’s Da which I read in the Salford Bard’s excellent memoir: “All the vitamins you’ll ever need are in the head of a beer”. We have assumed it’s also true for wine and gin and cake and biscuits and chocolate and crisps!”
Our daily prison yard walks with our dog Blu just about keep us on this side of insanity and they usually start off with my kids saying. “What kind of shoes and trousers are you wearing Dad?” “These are my new proper walking shoes and trousers that I bought in the Great Outdoors actually!” “Yeah, as if you’re walking up Everest instead of up to the park for coffee and a cake!” Am I the only person who goes on walks around Marlay Park and manages to put on weight at the same time?
I’ve also never been more creative as I find existential angst, the complete closure of our business and the idea of possible imminent death or serious illness while being stuck at home is really inspiring. I’m in week four of a creative writing course for beginners and for this week’s assignment the teacher said “I know some of you are writing novels so include a scene from that if you like.”
A novel!?? The only thing I’ve written this year was last week when I woke up in the middle of the night with an incredible idea and quickly wrote it on a piece of paper before I fell back to sleep and forgot it. I woke up the next morning remembering I had a genius idea during the night and excitedly picked up the note from my bedside table. It was just four words: “I am a hammer”. That’s actually an Eddie Bannon joke but it sums up my brain at the moment.
STRAIGHT TO THE ARTISTS
I also had a weird dream that night that all Irish radio stations recognised how difficult it is for Irish musicians at the moment and decided collectively to be supportive and to play Irish music exclusively one day a week and 50% of the time every other day of the week. But that’s just too weird - why would we play music by our own people and champion our own music and culture?
While the future is so uncertain I guess it’s a natural tendency to be nostalgic and to look back while we have the time and that can actually can be a good, healthy thing in some ways. I hook up with old friends and band mates every Friday night for drunken Zoom calls.
Our mate Barry lectured us for not having any evidence of our old band Revelino on the world wide web and kindly offered to build us a band website and out of that grew the idea of remastering our debut album and releasing it on vinyl. We released it in October on John Lennon’s 80th Birthday and it went straight to No 1 in the Irish Indie Charts which was hilarious and brilliant. It really was such a joy and a relief to be part of a small but positive news story during such a horrible time as all five members of the band are still involved in the music business.
I fell in love with the band again and feel a renewed pride about the music we made and the amazing years we shared together. We lived in the back of vans and rehearsal rooms and studios without windows for 16 years so we’re like human cockroaches and we’ll survive this. Our singer Brendan has been sitting on his debut solo album since last year but it will be released in June and is a really brilliant record. I’ve always been a massive fan of Brendan’s songwriting and the first single 'Old Man Superman' is an amazing song which was inspired by the incredible story of the Skilled Veteran Corps in Japan. It’s a song for the time we’re living through.
On a more serious note, I think many of us realise that working in this business is a privilege really – the long-running joke in the industry is that ‘It beats work!’ but Patrick Freyne summed it up perfectly in his wonderful book Ok Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea when he said that when he was in a band he “worked hard, harder than our friends who had real jobs”. It can be exhausting and I realise that I was a bit burned out and jaded but I’ve obviously had a lot of (unwanted) down time to refocus and recharge my batteries.
One good thing is that I’ve fallen in love with music all over again. Re-releasing Revelino helped that and I’ve got the vinyl bug again too. My job relies completely on musicians (and comedians too!) and they have been financially crippled by this pandemic. I still have a job (a pretty amazing one really) and a wage so Karen and I have made a conscious decision to use as much of our disposable income as we can afford to buy Irish music and Irish books. The financial model for music payments and royalties to artists is broken but that’s another conversation – meanwhile, we buy Irish music exclusively every Bandcamp Friday as all the money goes straight to the artists.
It’s been an amazing year for Irish music most notably for Irish women (on and off stage!). The last live music event I was at before the first lockdown was Other Voices in Ballina thanks to our buddy Aoife Woodlock. Denise Chaila blew everyone away that night and she has had an incredible year along with her Narolane family. It’s brilliant to see so many women making amazing music and thriving despite all the challenges and limitations musicians have had to endure during this pandemic. The list of incredible acts in Ireland is endless and I don’t have the space here for such a long list but two of the many new acts I really love are Pillow Queens and CMAT.
BUZZ OF OPENING THE DOOR
The last comedy show I was at was Tommy Tiernan at The Philharmonic in Liverpool - what a night and what a year for Tommy and his wonderful conversational chat show. We promoted Steve Martin and Martin Short in the 3Arena the night before lockdown was announced. It was amazing but it was an anxious night and I couldn’t really relax and enjoy it to be honest.
I’ve had the incredible privilege of working at Vicar St since we opened our doors in the summer of 1998 when Peter Aiken somehow had the idea that I was employable and offered me a job as part of his team. Harry Crosbie designed and built an amazing venue in The Liberties which adds extra meaning to it for me as my Ma was from The Iveagh Buildings. We’ve had an incredible 22 years and I’ve loved being part of it. It’s heartbreaking being closed but we had a very brief window of opportunity to turn the lights on at Vicar St in December thanks to the LPSS Pilot Scheme.
Unfortunately, it was behind closed doors but it was incredible to see so many of my brilliant work-mates and the artists we work with even if it was only for a very brief time. Even without the magic of an audience it was very apparent that a great building is made truly great by the artists and people who work and perform there. We produced the Vision series which we are very proud of and which we feel really captured a moment in time in our industry. Every single performance was breathtaking and captured beautifully by our incredible production team and the good folks at Tenth Man.
Making it was a very bittersweet experience though. Much as it was so beautiful to be there at Vicar St with everyone, we all had a heightened awareness that it was a very temporary thing and we would soon be turning off the lights and closing the doors again indefinitely. We remain closed and in darkness (as does our whole industry) so we all hope that the new LPSS funding is rolled out urgently for our devastated artists, businesses and workers and their families.
So, I’m still stuck at home with my family but we’re keeping well and we’re good together. It’s tough going but it’s even tougher for kids and we have to hold the space for them as much as possible. I miss my brilliant colleagues at Aiken Promotions and at Vicar St. I miss the vast array of incredible musical and artistic talent in this country and from all over the world. I miss the build up to a gig and the buzz of opening the venue door as the audience starts to arrive and the place comes alive with the electricity of anticipation.
I miss Whelan’s. I miss The Button Factory and The Workmans. I miss the 3Arena and the Grand Social. I miss The Sugar Club and Liberty Hall Theatre. I miss the NCH and the BGET and the INEC and the TLT. I miss the road. I miss nearly missing the train to Cork and I miss pints of Beamish and Cyprus Avenue and Live at The Marquee and the Hi B! I miss Galway and the Roisin Dubh and Neachtains and Leisureland in Salthill. I miss Limerick and Dolan’s and the UCH. I miss the Ulster Hall in Belfast and The Nerve Centre in Derry. I miss The Spirit Store and Cleere’s.
I miss every damn venue in Ireland and all the people who work and perform there. I miss the Iveagh Gardens, standing side of stage watching some of the best musicians in the world or sitting by the Waterfall surrounded by incredible comedians from Ireland and all over the world. I miss trips to gigs around the world and I miss my colleagues around the world too. I miss traipsing around The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the comedy clubs in London, New York & LA. I really, really miss heading across the road for a few pints of Guinness in The Thomas House after an amazing gig to a full house at Vicar St. We all miss that.
- 'Music Industry in Ireland: Where To Next?' is a special feature in the current issue of Hot Press, running to over 20 pages, featuring music industry professionals as well as artists including Moya Brennan, Jess Kav, Luka Bloom, Fia Moon, Kneecap, Gavin Glass, Mick Flannery, King Kong Company, Mary Coughlan, Rosie Carney and many more.