The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ireland has embraced the 21st century with open arms of change, but are artists in modern Irish culture still struggling in the digital age?
Irish musicians have always struggled. Not the manufactured boy-band, created for profit, for whom integrity is second to sales, but the touring, busking, pleading musicians. This breed have their talent and confidence decimated in the age of the X-Factor. Instead of running to the nearest venue to see actual live acts, people gather religiously around a television screen. They watch young people have their self-belief stripped away, discarded in the wasteland of broken ambition. It is only a program, but it hard-wires our brains to believe that this is how we should be entertained.
These days, ostensibly, it is easier to get talent recognised. Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, and social media means that you can discover and purchase new music from your couch. You might think, with modern software like Pro Tools, a musician has ample opportunity to create, publish and promote. This is certainly true, though it is also a source of the problem. In a flooded market, nothing sounds like a demo anymore and everything is produced to perfection.
Here in Ireland, back in the 70s and right through to the 80s, Irish bands struggled to make it. Some waited years to release an album, some never got a record deal and, often, bands folded in disillusionment. Only a handful of bands actually made it onto the international circuit and it wouldn’t take long to name them all.
Reasons for this lie in backing, both financial and promotional, along with the inspired, imported music which sold in droves. Pink Floyd are exemplary of this. Their 1973 mammoth Dark Side Of The Moon sold enough units to plug the hole in the ozone layer. Financially, that album was a safe bet for Irish record stores, who could rest easy knowing it would sell. Rather than pushing an Irish band, unknown on the global stage, to potential consumers, it was better to stick to a known entity.
Did this show a lack of faith in Irish produced music back in the day, or was it merely good business sense? The answer is both. We had bands in Ireland good enough to take on the Pink Floyds and Led Zeppelins of this world, Horslips for example, but those bands could not get the same investment as UK/US bands. The best they could hope for was cult status.
Today, you can look at social media as the biggest influencer on what we eat, wear and watch. In fact, if you allow it, you will be advised on how you are entertained. Whichever artist currently dominates social media, will be the artist you see most often, regardless of quality, talent, or even location.
Indeed, you will be bombarded with ear-worms ahead of artworks, the rock/pop equivalent of ‘Baby Shark’ shoved into your nervous system until you submit. The vinyl resurgence may herald mere novelty, bringing back the oldest of formats to sell music is simply that, a novelty for consumers. A digital imprint on an analogue format may not highlight the charms of the medium, staying too pristine, whereas the old-school records were organic, complete with glorious scratches and noise. To quote the late John Peel:
“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.'”
So things in Ireland have not really changed, remaining stagnant because we allow it. Money talks and talent suffers as it always has. High-profile acts from abroad are portrayed as superior to our own when, in fact, this is far from the truth.
How do we improve? We unearth and support homegrown talent. The “not as good” excuse disappears from the equation if you look at the emerging Irish acts of the past decade. Here’s the thing though, it has never been easier to discover Irish talent. So look through the international dominance of the industry, and gaze directly into the heart of Ireland, where the voice of a new generation sings loud and clear.