|Ireland may not be the sexiest marketplace in the world for major record labels, major bands, major promoters or major media moguls. However, for the myriad singers, songwriters, performers and other assorted artists in this Country, it is major. The music industry in Ireland is a very small one in world terms but in relation to our economy, it is significant. Unfortunately, what is probably most significant about it is that the money made from music sales in Ireland is, virtually to the last cent, lost to the economy.
It is understandable if those artists signed to Companies outside the territory generate revenue that leave the territory, but even those artists signed to labels in Ireland will not generate a great deal of revenue that stays in the Country. The reason for this is simple: there are no Irish record labels playing on a world scale or even a large scale. There is really no structured Irish music industry to speak of. There are 'Irish divisions' of international record lables but, in the most, they are simply adminiistrative or shop-front offices for the labels.
Major decisions relating to, and shaping, the Irish music industry are made by the CEO's and Accountants of American and European multi-nationals, not those who have a day-to-day understanding of how the Irish music industry works, what state it is in and how (or even why) to try to improve it for the home-grown talent. Indeed, it is reasonable and understandable if the external decision-makers prefer if the home-grown talent never surfaced or succeeded. That way there is more revenue generated for their artists, their 'stable', their balance sheet. More to the point, I don't blame them. The purpose of being in business is to legally exploit every opportunity for the benefit of the bottom-line.
To give an indication of the situation in Ireland, and pointers to the reason why so few Irish acts ever get any further than Dublin, I would like to take a look at how the most important people in the equation - Joe Customer - comes to make the buying decisions they do. Unlike Simon Cowell, who said on the Johnathan Ross chat-show in England that shows like PopStars and PopIdol, and the numerous "Find-A-Star-Regardless" equivalents, end up giving people what they want. I don't believe that the industry, and media in particular, give Joe Customer what he wants. I believe that the industry and media combined, although not necessarily in a controlled or deliberate manner, *tell* Joe Customer what he wants, rather than giving him what he wants.
In Ireland, our music-related television, our music and mainstream press and our radio shows (particularly daytime), like anywhere else, focus on the Charts and the music that is in them. We don't have the rich diversity of radio content that the US, or even the UK has because the island is simply too small. Our entire population would easily fit into a small-ish US or UK city. There are, effectively, less than a handful of radio stations nationwide supplemented with a larger handful of city-wide stations in various cities and numerous community and locally based stations. On top of that we have 4 Irish based TV stations (although their content is more US, European, and UK oriented than Irish!). Of course, we have satellite TV stations but, not being Irish based, we cannot realistically expect satellite TV stations to focus on Irish content or developing the Irish marketplace.
Of the music content on TV and radio, the focus is hugely chart-based and our charts are full of English and American product. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it creates a stagnation in Irish content and also prevents Irish product from getting exposure and generating International interest. The solution, then, is to ensure Irish product has the fair and equal opportiunity to get into the Charts and therefore onto the airwaves and into print in a much more consistent and widespread manner. However, it is not as simple as that, and this, in my mind, is the root of all the problems relating to the lack of exposure opportunities for Irish acts and artists.
The Chart system here, probably like a lot of other countries, is based purely on sales. Not every sale is taken into account. There are qualifying criteria. A release must be barcoded, obviously, but more than that it must be in the right place at the right time. There are only approximately 250 outlets in Ireland that are registered as chart-outlets. That covers the whole country. Each has a machine that records their sales and the information is collated and compiled into various charts. The system is run by Chart Track UK on behalf of IRMA (the Irish Recorded Music Association). To quote from their website (www.irma.ie) "The Irish Recorded Music Association is a non-profit making association set up by record companies and companies carrying on associated trades in the Republic of Ireland". IRMA's current membership number approximately 40 companies, which are predominantly record labels and distributors. My problem, and indeed the problem at the heart of the matter, is that the labels and distributors own the copyright to the charts, control the dissemination of information relating to sales, and - more to the point - information about chart-registered outlets affiliated to the system. While these labels and distributors have access to that sort of information, and others (let us say 'independent artists', for example) don't have access to that information, the system will by definition be unfair, and open to abuse. To put it simply, if I was an unprincipled owner of a label or distributor, I'd make sure that my product was put into the stores and outlets where sales were going to count in the charts, while at the same time preventing others from finding out which outlets to use, and so infringe on the sales potential of my product.
Naturally, I am not suggesting this happens, but in the climate of 'secrecy' that abounds, it certainly could.
When charts are published (by chart-Track UK, on behalf of the labels and distributors), radio show producers, press editors and TV programme schedulers take their cue from what is on them. The argument is that if the charts show a large number of 'girl bands' and 'boy bands' in them, it must be as a result of those genres selling more, and therefore being what Joe Customer wants. However, if it was as simple as that there would be no problem. It isn't. If the product owned by various labels is placed in the correct outlets by distributors who are also part of the 'club', they have an advantage that can easily (in such a small marketplace) be translated into chart-placements and therefore into radio, TV, and press exposure (which translates into more sales and into more exposure etc).
The "Catch-22", I think, is obvious. The solution, I also think, is obvious. In Ireland, sales as low as 1000 can result in a top-10 *National* chart placement. It is not difficult to make enough sales to generate chart placement in the Irish market. What is difficult is generating those sales in the correct stores and outlets to count towards the charts. So, to make the system entirely fair and transparent (which, in my opinion, a Chart should be), the owner of the Charts' copyright should publicise the outlets registered toward the charts.
Simple, effective and fair.
I believe that Chart-Track UK (who collate the information) are open to the idea of widening the scope of the charts to make them fairer. I also believe that the Irish Government is concerned with the amount of money made from Irish music sales that leaves the Country. In simple terms, and in one easy step, the system could not only be made fairer, but also increase the amount of money that stays here and goes towards the development of a structure for our industry, by publishing the list of stores and outlets that are connected to the system. If IRMA (the lables and distributors) have nothing to fear - and I don't think they do - then there is no real reason that I can see (other than the legitimate business practise of maximising potential revenues) not to publicise these stores. I also think the knock-on effect would be that independent bands and small scale distributors would focus all their resources on those outlets; other outlets would be losing sales and would want to join the charts system, thereby widening the scope, making it fairer and more open, and creating a much more representative chart of Irish music sales which would include the numerous independent acts that routinely sell enough product to warrant a chart placement but don't get one simply for logistical reasons.
Other than the simple step of publicising the outlets that are chart-connected, the only way I can see to make the system fairer is for a non-profit making organisation, with no ties to the industry players and associated business organisations, to be set up by the Government and tasked with creating and publishing a fair and representative weekly chart. Alternatively, an independent (competing?) chart to be set up by non-labels, non-distributors and organisations with a track record of supporting developing new acts (such as www.thingsyouremissing.com, www.thumped.com, www.cluas.com and ourselves - www.irishunsigned.com). What most bands don't know in this Country is that simply by getting into the Charts, they can make back the money it cost to release a single from radio and TV royalties, expanded fan base sales and future revenue-generating potential. That, to me, is "where the money is" and is the reason why the music charts in Ireland are so important to the development of an Act and why they should be fair and, more importantly, be seen to be fair.