It’s Up Indie Air // Irish Music Feature
The closure of HMV last month with the loss of up to 300 jobs (and thousands more in the UK) was the latest in a steady stream of bad news for the record industry in this country.
The twin pressures of competition from large-scale retailers (notably Amazon and Tesco) and online streaming/downloading has made the existence of the traditional record shop a harder and harder sell, and that’s before illegal downloading is brought into the equation.
On the one hand, HMV’s demise presents an opportunity for those remaining independent retailers – though the death of Road Records is proof that not even the most sacred cows is safe from the slaughter – and it could easily be argued that the skills of HMV’s knowledgeable workforce were being wasted selling Coronas CDs to 12-year-olds.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see HMV shutting down as yet another reason to fear for the long term health of the Irish music scene, with many labels and distributors on the hook for large sums of money if HMV does indeed shut its doors for good and many more jobs are likely to be lost as a result.
Still, it would be a mistake to overstate the importance of HMV. While Mr and Mrs Tesco are no doubt rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of being the country’s sole vendor of Coronas CDs, the independent sector north and south of the border has largely been making do without the help of the big-box retailers for decades.
Over the past five years or so, by far the biggest success story on the Irish independent scene has been the world-renowned Richter Collective, which has helped launch bands like Adebisi Shank (co-owner Michael Roe is the drummer), Enemies and And So I Watch You From Afar onto the international scene through their association with US experimental megalabel Sargent House.
When the label announced it was to shut in November following the release of BATS’ stellar second album The Sleep of Reason, more than a few tears were shed, but in the end it turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch.
No sooner had the label put out its final release than Roe popped up as the head of Sargent House’s new European wing, but the moral was still clear: it’s next to impossible to run a record label in Ireland as anything like a going concern because the financial rewards just aren’t there, and even a vibrant label like the Richter had to face the fact that not enough people were prepared to dip into their pockets on a regular basis.
Yet for Limerick label Out on a Limb Records, the Richter’s demise brought unexpected opportunity. They leapt in to fill a void by releasing Take Control, the second album from Dublin post-hardcore trio and Richter alumni Jogging, last month named the in the Irish Sun’s ten best albums of 2012. Earlier this month they released I Hold The Wolf, the first album in a decade from Cork progressive metal powerhouse Rest.
Out on a Limb was born of absolute necessity, as co-founder Richard Bourke explains: “We came together to release Giveamanakick’s debut album ‘Is It OK To Be Loud, Jesus?’ in 2003. Myself and Albert Twomey really liked their live sound and said why not, let’s get the money together to produce a CD and get it out there. Basically we started it as there was no outlet for this kind of music locally.”
Dublin labels Ath Cliath and Working Class Records came together for much the same reason – although it was less a case of limited opportunities as no opportunities that led rapper Jambo and producer Jackknife J to set up Ath Cliath Studios to serve the flowering hip hop scene in suburban north Dublin.
Says Jackknife (real name John Behan): “The studio was set up specifically to record all of us because we didn’t have a base. It’s gas because obviously no labels were willing to take a punt on hip hop acts in this country, so Jambo was the one who said we needed somewhere to have ideas and knock tracks out. It’s a lot better than doing something out of a back garden.”
The Ath Cliath/Working Class family also includes beatmaker GI, rapper Costello and singer Willa Lee, but the biggest name by far is Lethal Dialect, the Blanchardstown/Cabra rapper whose two albums, LD50: Parts I and II, have achieved international acclaim and arguably set the standard for rap music in this country.
Jackknife is currently working with Lethal Dialect on his third album, 1988, which is due for release in the early summer. He promises the record will be a big sonic step forward from the ‘90s boom-bap style of LD’s albums , incorporating more old school dance and contemporary electronic music – the samples I heard more than bear this out.
For Out on a Limb, 2012 has also been a successful year, coming full circle in many ways with Windings – the band fronted by Giveamanakick frontman Stephen Ryan – last week nominated for the Choice Music Prize, though Bourke is quick to point out that business remains precariously poised.
He says: “Getting folks to go to gigs nowadays is really difficult. It is probably the economy but people don’t seem to want to take the chance that this gig might be amazing even if you have not heard the band before. We just want to break even on each release in order to continue putting out quality music.”
For Ath Cliath and their associates, the challenge isn’t so much to break even as it is to be taken seriously as musicians, when even the national broadcaster is quite happy to portray them as a laughing stock within their own country.
RTE’s documentary Irish Rappers was supposed to shine a spotlight on the burgeoning rap scene in Ireland, but by the time it surfaced early last year dozens of hours of raw footage had been edited down to what Jackknife can only describe as a “big-time mockumentary” that did more to hurt the Irish rap scene than help it.
He says: “They did an interview for an hour in the streets out in Ballymun – they were asked to do it in Ballymun, probably to portray the scumbag image – and a horse walked by, as can happen in Ballymun. In an hour’s worth of interview footage, they took the part where the horse walked past for the documentary. The reality of it is nothing like that.”
Another stumbling block is the hostility Irish rappers face from within Ireland when they choose to rap in their own natural accents, a principle on which the new cabal of Irish rappers have refused to waver.
“Damien Dempsey is somebody we’d be in contact with through mutual friends and he fought the same battle. It’s just this country. Professor Green is rapping in an English accent and nobody bats an eyelid, but as soon as Irish rappers start doing it people are like ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ People are getting their heads around it now, finally – it’s taken years for people to accept us.”
As a decade-plus veteran of the independent scene, Bourke sees nothing but continued financial struggle in the future, but for Jackknife the future is filled with opportunity and a strange kind of optimism, though he’s frustrated by how slowly the establishment has been and continues to be in catching up with what’s going on at ground level.
“People have no idea, on a street level, what kind of a response this is getting. The boys are doing gigs in town with 2-300 people easy. There are indie acts getting smoke blown up their holes left, right and centre who couldn’t get five people to a gig – I can’t get my head around it.
“It just takes somebody to take a punt, and hopefully somebody will actually cop on and say, if the boys here are independently pushing music and getting 50 or 60,000 views on a video on Youtube and there are loads of people buying their music independently, if they were to be marketed and pushed then who knows?
“If anything, the music being made here is more honest than what’s being made in the UK at the minute. Lethal Dialect, Jambo, Costello are bar for bar, rap for rap, as good as anyone in America and the UK – but all the lads in America and the UK have deals and these guys don’t. It’s a hard game for the lads to play.”
$5.2 billion – worldwide revenue from digital music (source: IFPI)
€3.8 million – amount Irish record labels estimate they lose to piracy each year (source: IRMA)
74% – decline in pre-tax profit at EMI Ireland in 2011
20% – drop in physical record sales between 2007 and 2011
€2,000– cost to record and produce an album in Ath Cliath Studios
200 – number of CDs an independent hip hop act has to sell to break even
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, February 8.