Expert insights from Niall Stokes, founder and editor of Hot Press magazine, and author of the best-selling books, U2: Songs + Experience; Philip Lynott: Still In Love With You; and Covered in Glory: The Hot Press Covers Book. This blog has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.
There is no point in trying to sugar-coat it: the Irish music and entertainment industry has been utterly devastated by the impact of Covid-19. This is particularly true of the live music sector, which has been shut down more or less completely for a year now.
In this first week of March 2021, no one knows even remotely what the future holds. And as a result, people are feeling increasingly frustrated and angry.
It is all, they have concluded, deeply, desperately unfair. It is impossible to disagree.
Ireland has a reputation as one of the best places in the world to see and hear live music. From big stars to breakthrough newbies on the international circuit, artists love playing Ireland. And for good reason. We sell more tickets per capita than anywhere else on the planet. Our biggest live music venue, 3Arena, has consistently ranked in the top 10 venues in the world, despite the fact that it is located on an island with a population of less than 7 million people. In normal times, there are festivals on every weekend through the summer, delivering raucous good times from one end of the country to the other, some of them attended by upwards of 60,000 people. And the Irish audience is a hugely informed and appreciative one.
Music and entertainment is a massive industry that delivers billions to the Irish economy annually, and which is vital to our reputation internationally. And yet it has, in effect, been completely wiped out.
Some of the toughest and best promoters in the world are based here. We have brilliant live music professionals and technicians, involved in staging, lighting, sound and rigging – many of whom are among the finest in the game at what they do. We have musicians and bands who are scaling new heights internationally because they, too, are Premiership class. And yet, for over 12 months, they have been prevented from going out and earning a living, doing what they are good at. For each and every one of them, it is a nightmare.
The Financial Impact of COVID-19 on the Music Industry
A report issued recently by the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland (MEAI) says that – of their 5,000 members – 21.2% are struggling to pay their mortgages; 39.2% are unable to repay their business loans; and 58% have problems paying household bills. There is a further chilling note in the report: 20% of the members of MEAI admit that they have sought help for mental health issues, as a result of the pandemic.
The real figure is probably considerably higher. There are many in the sector, numerous directors of music companies among them, who wake up every morning feeling nothing less than a desperate sense of dread about what lies ahead. They have chosen to carry the burden themselves: for now. But the latest news from the Government is that they are unlikely to be able to work again till September at the earliest. Who knows what the toll – whether personally or professionally – might be by then?
The Music Industry Response
I spoke to one of the bigger promoters recently. He was sick of the apparently endless scheduling and rescheduling of dates, an ongoing exercise in futility that'd drain anyone of the will to live. And yet you have to keep at it, to stay in touch, to let the agents and the managers know that you are on the case, doing things.
In Hot Press, we have watched all of this with alarm. Our immediate response to the pandemic – and the inevitable collapse in advertising revenue – was to get creative and to do different things. We've run over 120 live Instagram gigs since April 2020. We created and curated the Rave On, Van Morrison project, which has since passed 1.5 million YouTube views and rising. Our social media followings have increased by over 20%. We are holding online events, and have provided brand new sponsorship opportunities. We have also started to get involved in other areas of broadcasting, with a number of TV projects in the offing and podcasts also lined up to go live.
This is what small and medium enterprises are good at: being creative in their response to new challenges, no matter how intimidating the obstacles might at first seem. All over Ireland, directors of companies are digging in, in the same spirit, and coming up with fresh angles to keep their businesses afloat.
The graft, effort, ingenuity and hard work that is required to achieve this is far too often completely underestimated.
We are lucky to operate in a field where it is still possible to dream up new ideas, opportunities and openings. Not everyone is as fortunate.
The Waiting Game
In addition to Hot Press and hotpress.com – which is flying in terms of traffic and engagement – we publish Best of Ireland and Best of Dublin magazines. Since 2015, they have been exceptionally successful annual publications, selling very well and attracting serious advertising and sponsorship. But neither title could be published in 2020 – and 2021 is looking increasingly precarious.
Our main advertisers in these publications – hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions and so on – are all closed for the foreseeable future. There is no point in talking to them about marketing: they don't even know when they'll be open, nor under what restrictions. Both magazines will have to remain on hold, at a huge cost to our organisation.
Just like the musicians, and the roadies and the production crew, we have no choice but to wait.
Meanwhile, some company directors have been forced to shut the doors, or know that they will have to in the not too distant future: there is only so much that you can do. Others are hanging in there. We know that there is an extraordinary wave of pent-up energy and innovation ready to be unleashed, if and when we can get beyond coronavirus. The question is: will the re-opening happen in time, to allow the majority of Ireland's unsung heroes – and some that we know very well indeed too – to stay in the game.
If we take what the Government are currently saying at face value, Electric Picnic is unlikely to make its return till the summer of 2022. But, however long it takes, when Stradbally comes alive again to the sound of music, we'll see you at the Hot Press tent. In the meantime, stay safe. And, if you can, stay sane...