Last summer, Gary Ó’Nualláin decided he’d had enough.
The indie-rock musician was angry when a gig organiser told him that, instead of the organiser paying him the industry rate of €50 to play a half-hour set, he’d have to sell more than 20 tickets to friends, family and fans – as would each other performer – to get paid anything at all.
Ó’Nualláin took to Twitter, created a media storm – and also set up the Unsigned Irish Collective, to try a different model for paying bands for performances. “I said we should set up something to kind of stop this,” he says.
It hasn’t worked out though, Ó’Nualláin says, disheartened.
“I would love to say what the progress is, where we started and where we’re at now but the reality is that it hit a brick wall – not through lack of effort, just through lack of interest,” he says.
“Give and Take”
Ó’Nualláin says that working in the music industry is a “give and take” where sometimes you have to play concerts for free. But what the organiser of this night on Francis Street was proposing was another level altogether.
Luke Gleeson, the former booker at Drop Dead Twice, said the venue didn’t know this was the way the gig was being set up. “Once it was brought to my attention I cancelled the booking,” he said.
Gleeson and his team asked Ó’Nualláin if he would run the night there instead. So, Ó’Nualláin used it to try something different – a night, on the first Sunday of each month, under the aegis of the Unsigned Irish Collective.
Ó’Nualláin wouldn’t book any acts, he says. It was more like an open-mic night: turn up, sign up, equal billing. The first night was a free one, at Drop Dead Twice.
They “were very good in that they didn’t take any money. They opened the venue and paid a sound engineer for the night and gave the space to us,” he says.
“The first night went well and then we had another one in The Underground,” says Ó’Nualláin. Everybody paid €5 to get in. All the money went to the acts, he says.
As well as concerts, Ó’Nualláin says he was trying to organise a night where industry experts would come and chat with the collective.
He had a line-up ready to go: Alan Swan from 2fm, Ann-Marie Shields, manager of My Bloody Valentine, Roisin Dwyer, commissioning editor at Hot Press. “They were all on board with it. They all said they’d give up their time for free to come and speak,” he says.
But interest in the gigs started to fall, he says. The audience shrank.
“It kind of got to the stage where organising as a collective sort of fizzled out,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared to have these people come in and waste their time.”
At first 60 people turned up, which dropped to 30, then down to 20, and then further down, he says. “When I pulled the plug, four people had turned up.”
People had raised such a hullabaloo, says Ó’Nualláin. “They were saying that we should do this and that, but they just stopped going and voted with their feet.”
Ó’Nualláin says he offered to help anybody who wanted to organise more of the gigs. But there haven’t been any since November – and no more are planned for now.
“A lot of it was left to me and I hadn’t organised a gig in my life before,” he says. “I was doing all I could with it but unfortunately something like that, that’s so big, you need help from other people.”
Gleeson, says that a lack of media attention and promotion played a part in the decline of the concerts.
If it had got the same attention as Ó’Nualláin’s Twitter thread, it could have established itself, says Gleeson. “Unfortunately, once the furore died down people lost interest instantly.”
There are often “grassroots groundswells” trying to tackle issues in the music industry, says Aaron Casey, a music-business tutor at British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) and a music-rights and royalties consultant.
But “these issues may not be top-of-mind for everyone,” Casey says.
Looking to the future, Ó’Nualláin says he isn’t sure how and if the live music scene in Dublin can change.
“It’s just the same old thing, people don’t want to know. […] They want somebody else to organise everything and they come in and reap the benefits, but it doesn’t work like that,” he says. “One person at the bottom can’t change it.”
Jake Regan, who’s played with bands in the past, but is solo at the moment, says: “I think bands should put on their own shows more.”
“It’s preposterous, it’s middle management getting in the way,” says Vincent Dermody, guitarist with The Jimmy Cake. “Kids don’t need help starting to put on gigs, they need venues, that’s all they need.”
He did a couple of nights like that when he was in an earlier band years back, but didn’t make much effort to sell tickets. “We didn’t bother our holes really,” he said.
Another idea, says Casey, is a “an association or guild”. In the UK, there are groups such as the Concert Promoters Association, or closer to home, they could organise a working group with the Musicians’ Union of Ireland, an affiliate of SIPTU, says Casey.
A guild could set out a best-practice charter for promoters to abide by, he says. That “would be the first step in having the live music industry look at its most vulnerable members: young acts who are being made jump through hoops just to be able to play on stage.”