How Musicians Can Start to Afford Ireland

David Kitt and Niall Byrne

How Musicians Can Start to Afford Ireland

Singer-songwriter David Kitt is leaving Ireland because of the housing situation, and music writer and DJ Nialler9 is 'stressed and broken' by it. Boom after bust after boom, the lot of the Irish musician never seems to change. There is a way to change this, writes Toner Quinn.

In 2006, a strange thing happened: like canaries in the coal mine, musicians and artists began to leave Dublin. Nobody announced it publicly – there was no social media – but I noticed the pattern because I was one of them. The Celtic Tiger was difficult to navigate economically if you wanted to focus on creative work, so artists left. Years later, when I came across an economic chart for the 2000s, I noticed the moment of maximum overheating was the year when the creatives vacated the capital. From that point, the economy started to unravel. Two years later it collapsed.

Leaving Dublin can be unwise for musicians and creatives, but the need for some sort of security eventually kicks in. Wanting to buy a house in Ireland is not a psychological hang-up from the famine days – it’s a practical thing to do because it means you don’t have to re-plan your life every 12 months.

‘Stressed and broken’
I can empathise therefore with singer-songwriter David Kitt, who this week announced on Facebook that he was leaving Ireland because the house he was renting in Dublin was being sold, and also Dublin-based Niall Byrne, publisher of the Nialler9 music website, who wrote a blog post saying he felt ‘stressed and broken’ from not being able to ‘save money for a house for some stability’. We should pay attention to these particular yellow birds. 

Artists are used to insecurity, living week by week with general rootlessness, but whether they are a harbinger of economic disruption or not, there is a larger issue here. Why is it acceptable that musicians and creatives suffer economic insecurity? Boom follows bust follows boom, but the lot of the Irish musician never seems to change.  

Freedom and security
The old assumption was that creatives were too obsessed with their freedom to be concerned with practical things like job security or settling down, but artists actually crave space and security because it means they can then concentrate on their work for prolonged, uninterrupted periods.

There is also the idea that the arts are not valued and don’t generate much income, but music actually creates hundreds of millions for the economy. And there is a regular flow of money invested in culture and the arts by the state. It is never enough, of course, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as nothing. So where does the money go?  

Musicians are not frivolous with finance, nor uninterested in it. They manage ambitious projects on small budgets all the time, and often plan well ahead when working on recordings and tours. It is clear that there is plenty of opportunity, but it rarely translates into long-term security. 

The only way is up
I use to think I understood why musicians didn’t make much money, but then we created the listings service on The Journal of Music to track concerts, and I discovered that we could track jobs and funding too. This has changed my perspective. I see lots of funding opportunities for creators, but they are always paid far less than permanent managers, and while job security and strict employment conditions are seen as essential for those in charge, it is never considered for those who create. 

After two decades of watching the Irish arts scene, the reasons for musicians’ poverty cycle are clear to me: musicians do not have security because they are not organised as a collective and therefore do not get their fair share. By ‘organised’, I mean something rather unambitious that would not stymy creative work: an agreed minimum rate of pay for certain types of performance, in venues and festivals above a certain turnover, and on radio and television for example. The advantage of this is that, for artists in demand, the only way would be up, but it would also protect those starting off, and those who have been around a long time. This would not mean fewer creative opportunities, it would simply mean a balancing of the business; the people who are at the heart of every performance – the musicians – getting what they deserve. It has worked for other creative sectors such as film and television: they organise, set rates and conditions, withdraw services if the conditions are not met, but musicians shy away from such action. 

There are plenty of people with leadership skills in music who can lead bands, groups, operas and orchestras, but they rarely attempt to organise the wider community. As we have seen with Sounding the Feminists and FairPlé, artists can organise themselves extremely well around certain issues, but they avoid focussing on money. 

A golden age of Irish music?
Since the economic crash, I have wondered how we continue to witness such a golden age of Irish musical creativity. Each week, I see a wealth of events and recordings come across my desk and I ask why the crash did not diminish this flow. The answer is becoming clear: our golden age of Irish music is built on the good will and endless flexibility of musicians. Nobody is paid properly and no musician (outside orchestras, but we have seen the problems there too) has any long-term job security. That’s the only way this cultural structure could survive.

So why doesn’t this change? The challenge is more psychological than practical. Musicians and artists have long been influenced by society into believing that, apart from some fleeting personal importance to die-hard fans, their creative work has little value. They have also been led to believe that there is not enough money to go around. They therefore lack the confidence to exert serious upward pressure on the promoters and venues who employ them, who in turn would put it up to their customers and funders, and the message would gradually get through to the top that musicians require proper pay and security. 

When musicians start to organise together they will break this cycle. They will then begin to be able to afford to live in the cities that they so deeply enrich. 

Published on 1 August 2018

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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