May 2017        

Culture and politics: the music industry

Eoghan O’Neill

The problem with the music scene in Ireland manifests itself in two forms: the pub-owner and the broadcaster.
     Live music has been given over to the publican, who dictates the music and the rate of pay of musicians. Chart music, the majority of it being foreign imports, is played every hour by all mainstream radio stations, apart from a few exceptions. Little air time is given to original local artists.
     The radio stations, like the pub, run on a profit basis. Accountants now dictate the songs that are played, rather than DJs, and the publicans have become the gatekeepers of live music. The problem, though, is not that there aren’t enough high-quality bands or musicians: the problem is that the ability to showcase original music is stiflingly limited.
     It all starts at the local level. Very few towns have venues, big or small, that don’t involve a pub. Having gigs in pubs also solidifies the image that pubs are the centre of cultural expression; therefore alcohol becomes a cultural expression. This feeds into the image of the drunken Irish and the whole youth binge-drinking culture, that the only way to really express oneself is to get drunk, which has serious ramifications for both physical and mental health.
     This isn’t to say that live music shouldn’t be in pubs, just that they shouldn’t be the only avenue available to artists, especially young artists.
     There needs to be a revolution in how we think about and organise music, and the arts in general, as a source of entertainment and income. The quality and substance of the charts today and the messages that are sent out are culturally and morally low. They become popular not because they are spectacular pieces of music or have sensational lyrics but because they have massive backing and huge amounts of money behind them, because the radio stations then play them non-stop until they reach saturation point. What gets played in the charts then gets played in the pubs and clubs by acts and DJs, until the next song on the conveyor belt gets churned out, and on it goes.
     Of course there are exceptions, but as a whole the music industry is run like every other industry in a capitalist society, to make a profit.
     The fact that mainstream music has been relegated to sub-standard acts being churned out, and the few genuine artists that “make it” revel in their success, are taken as evidence that hard work and dedication bring success. This is the myth that is propagated. Probability and reality, the cost of living, over time, removes the original artists from the local scene, and what is left are wedding and cover bands.
     A lot of struggling original artists have to subsidise their income by joining cover and wedding bands, as this is where the money is in live music. This then feeds down the line and stunts our cultural growth and vibrancy. Those who want to and who are making music are denied a proper platform.
     Even with advances in technology for sharing and getting your music heard, it is a difficult and all too often impenetrable industry to make a living from in the long term.
     It should be the duty of any government to ensure that the health and growth of its indigenous musicians, poets and composers of all genres are fully developed and supported, both at the educational level and the work level. The aspirations of so many talented people have never been fulfilled in Ireland because we lack the basic support structures for those wishing to create music for a living.
     “Making it” doesn’t have to mean getting that million-pound record deal but should be about the people who provide us with entertainment in our towns and cities around the country, week in, week out, making at least a living wage from the thing they love doing most. “Making it” might not be so difficult if that was the case.
     It isn’t too difficult to envisage a society where music is more democratically owned and directed by the makers of music, where originality, creativity and collaboration come first, before the ability to make a profit. Through schools, college and university courses, the establishment of cultural venues, large and small, subsidised by the Government and run by local musicians and organisers, could bypass the hold of the publican on our cultural expressions and could positively add to our deep cultural heritage.
     With complete democratic control over our public broadcasting infrastructure it would be possible to promote a much larger portion of original talent and content coming through a much wider music educational programme, raising the standard of our musicians and providing a living wage for those who wish to broaden our cultural horizons. Musicians will have to organise themselves into a union to protect their wages, terms, and conditions.
     Music and musicians can become a self-sustaining and vibrant industry, along with the many other artistic forms lacking in funds and support, but only if those involved begin to organise and fight for their position in our society. Opening up a dialogue on this would be a good place to start.

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