Irish Music Will Need Support in the Strange New World

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.


We are accelerating towards recession. For those of us considered the older end of millennial, it will be the second such cataclysm of our adulthood. Another economic catastrophe for the generation that had their youth stolen from them. The moment will come when this depression is all too palatable. If you haven’t felt the crush already, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 made confinement to our homes a life-or-death necessity, clips of people not adhering to social distancing have regularly received online traction. But the truth is that from the moment the pubs shut their doors we’ve been excellent at consenting to this difficult but necessary process. When it’s all over, most of us should be very proud that we played our part in protecting human life.

From our living rooms, dreams of what we’ll do when the world is switched back on have become a regular part of the thought process. Ask anyone for their to-do list and culture will feature prominently – cinema, the theatre, gigs. What the arts look like in the strange new world, though, probably won’t be the stuff of fantasy.

A few weeks ago, not shaking hands with a person felt strange. Now, it’s hard to imagine doing it without being hyper-aware of a potentially deadly viral pathogen. What was once second nature will for a time feel strange and uncertain. How long before packing into a gig venue feels natural again?

We want to believe that the first shows after our containment will be celebratory – that the familiar sense of solidarity, of oneness, that comes through the shared experience of hearing live music will feel particularly pronounced. We’ll jump and scream and gyrate and rest on each other’s shoulders. But I suspect it’ll take a while for many of us to feel totally at ease at gigs again. Even with a vaccine, our inbuilt radars will now look at a packed room and see a biological threat.

Such worries are for the future. Right now, musicians who are never more than two steps away from financial oblivion are still counting the cost of the cancellation of their tours and collapse of this year’s festival season.

On money matters, it’s almost impossible to be optimistic. In the short term, government measures intended to aid people working in the cultural sphere during the crisis – such as the Arts Council Covid-19 Crisis Response Award and Culture Ireland’s #IrelandPerforms initiatives – have felt perfunctory in the extreme as they offer relatively tiny sums of money to those willing to inflict the complex application procedures upon themselves. It’s sad to see such a lack of institutional support. In difficult times, almost nothing connects us to our old lives and better memories like music.

Don’t expect any more comfort in the medium and long term. When economies are sluggish, the arts suffer. The paradox is that when the Irish economy is strong, like we were so often told it was ahead of the last election, the arts are forced to cede their territory to big business. While almost nothing has been done to foster musical creativity, relentless gentrification has eroded Dublin’s music spaces. Small venues like Hanger and The Bernard Shaw in Portobello have been shuttered to make way for hotels. That Irish music remains so inventive is a testimony to its resilience.

There’s an expectation that this global shutdown will spawn a lot of great music – that artists will have so much time on their hands, they will be active. Creation of art rarely fits into tidy narratives, but what we do know is that undeterred by social distancing living, Irish musicians have been showing the same inventiveness they always have.

Here’s just a small number of examples to give you a flavour: Mango x Mathman last month hosted an online rave via Twitch that even included a glorious old-fashioned text message hotline. “Keep your hands washed. Keep a few cans stocked. And keep it locked,” read the event’s Facebook announcement, a motto that should be placed in all 2020 time capsules. The performance summoned the spirit of London’s late 1990s and early 2000s pirate radio stations that partially fueled their excellent album Casual Work.

Nialler9 has hosted performances by both April and Gemma Dunleavy on Instagram, asserting the fact there’s barely a communication app that hasn’t become a portal to live music. Meanwhile, electronic musician CYNEMA teamed-up with his roommate Matty Killeen to shoot a music video for his song “Promises” that beautifully captures a deserted Dublin City.

Artists, battle-hardened from both the recession and the subsequent recovery that left them behind, are proving ingenuity and resources are never parallel lines. The strange new world won’t change that. In the absence of better structures to help them, we can all do our bit. Support Irish musicians in whatever way you can, whether it’s buying their vinyl online, paying for their digital downloads via Bandcamp, or taking part in whatever ventures they’re working on at home to help us get through the crisis.

If the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and subsequent austerity has taught us anything, it’s that Irish music is like a rubber rod – bend it as hard as you like, it’ll snap right back into place. As we brace ourselves for a new normal, all that is certain is that there will still be good tunes released, this year and every year.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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