Does Irish Music Need One Voice?

A concert at the recent Féile an Phobail in Belfast. (Photo: Féile an Phobail)

Does Irish Music Need One Voice?

The restrictions on live music are frustrating and perplexing for musicians and they point to larger issues, writes Toner Quinn.

The frustration over the lack of planning for live music continues to grow. Minister Catherine Martin held another meeting yesterday (18 August) with a number of organisations working within the live events sector, and yet no date was set for a full reopening. It appears that the Minister’s plan for reopening the music and entertainment sector was rejected at the beginning of the month by Government.

The situation has become not only frustrating but also perplexing for musicians. If there can be safe events held in Belfast, why not in the rest of Ireland? 

It seems that when faced with the wide variety of events in the music sector, and a sense that there are too many unknowns, the politicians and their health advisors have taken the ultra-safe, and fatalistic, option and just said no to almost everything. There are some music events taking place at the moment, but the audience is extremely limited in comparison to the size of venues. It means that we do not have a functioning music sector.

In one sense, the politicians have no excuse. There are live music events taking place in other countries and they have been proven to be safe. But what makes it slightly easier for them to say no is that there is no single, established strong voice for music in Ireland, one that represents musicians in particular.

It is reported that there were fifteen different representative organisations in attendance at the meeting yesterday. A single demand did seem to emerge – to ‘name the date’ when the live music sector could reopen, but pandemics are not tackled by cliff-edge demands. They are dealt with gradually, by slowly building up capacity safely, like the GAA and the hospitality sector have done. Now we are waiting for a ‘roadmap’ and whether Minister Martin will be allowed attend a particular Covid sub-committee, when the focus should be on progressive work on the ground. Electric Picnic may have done more damage than good by announcing it was going ahead with 70,000 people and forcing a negative decision from authorities.

As well as the 15 organisations that attended yesterday, there is also a Live Entertainment Working Group set up by the Minister and which includes fourteen organisations, some of which are the same as attended yesterday.

But even within this large group of bodies, there is still no direct representation for musicians. And among musicians, there are different demands. Consider the dissimilarity between a traditional singing recital at the Willie Clancy Summer School and an orchestra at the National Concert Hall, or a jazz gig downstairs at the small Black Gate venue and a main stager at Electric Picnic. The Irish music sector has never really figured out how to represent all of its disparate interests and activities in one organisation.

Music in Ireland does not have a single strong voice, and the pandemic has shown that it needs one. A number of the organisations running campaigns at the moment only emerged when the pandemic arose. They don’t have signed-up memberships, policies, staff, and a track record of networking and negotiating in political circles, which is clearly what you need when a crisis comes. The Musicians’ Union of Ireland, which is affiliated with SIPTU, still appears to be small and has been generally absent from public discussion during the pandemic.

Despite all these challenges, the collective industry has launched a significant and impressive campaign and has pushed the issue of live music to the front of media discussion, and it therefore must be occupying politicians’ minds too. Live music will return, but huge damage has been done to the sector and to the livelihood of musicians. It is sad to think of young emerging musicians in particular who have been robbed of the opportunities they need to develop.

The question is: what have we learnt from this? Before the pandemic, musicians had no job security, low pay and could not afford a home – that hasn’t changed – and their income had been further reduced by streaming companies; now their profession has been desecrated and they are even more reliant on the state. After the pandemic, there will be other challenges. Unless musicians organise themselves into a united voice, they may be smiling on stage when live music returns, but their future will remain uncertain.

Published on 19 August 2021

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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