Originally published in The Irish Times, January 31st 2011
“YOU HAVE TO speculate to accumulate.” Wise words for a student of business, perhaps, but not exactly a phrase you’d expect a young Irish band to live by. Yet over the past year, several of our musical acts have borne that maxim in mind when unleashing their work on the public. The industry has been in a state of flux since the internet arrived: people consume music differently and physical copies are being increasingly overlooked in favour of downloads. If someone wants an album they can get it for free – whether through legal or illegal channels.
That knowledge was something Dublin band the Cast of Cheers (thecastofcheers.bandcamp.com) took into consideration when preparing the release of its debut album Chariot last April. After recording the album with €3,000 of their own money in a small studio in Blanchardstown, they decided to give it away for free.
“We couldn’t have gone the traditional route, because it’s not really there any more,” shrugs the band’s singer and guitarist Conor Adams. “We all have to embrace what’s happening with piracy and that sort of stuff. The music industry’s completely changed. All of the big companies are left scratching their heads. They just can’t make the same money that they used to.”
Like his three bandmates, Adams did a day job to finance the album, which was recorded over three months, or whenever their pay cheques allowed them to book studio time. Although they had a certain amount of help from independent label Richter Collective, there was no real safety net. It’s tough, he says, to make money as a musician in Ireland.
“I work part-time now, but it wasn’t because I was like ‘oh, the money’s coming in now, I can afford to’ – I just didn’t have time to do both. We did a small Irish tour in October, and we’d played in Berlin before that, and I was basically not sleeping for weeks on end. So I went part-time, and now I’m much poorer,” he grimaces.
“But I’m also more free to do music, which is a million times better.” Their collective monetary woes beg the question: why not charge for their wares?
“It was partly down to having no funding to promote it, and partly down to the fact that nobody knew us,” the singer explains. “We were going to go down the route of getting copies pressed up, too, but we thought, ‘What’s the point?’ We’d been in bands before and done that, and you just end up with 200 copies in your bedroom.”
Adams admits their brave endeavour could have gone awry and seen them “sink into obscurity”, but there is a happy ending in their grasp. Chariot is the first free album to be shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize in its six-year history, and although he doesn’t rate their chances of victory, the extra exposure has come at a good time. It’s still up for debate whether album number two, tentatively titled Rockets, Rockets and Infinite Rockets, will be released without charge but, for now, they’re relishing the spotlight.
Michael Mormecha operates in a similar way. Last year, the guitarist in Northern Irish rock band Mojo Fury recorded an experimental pop album under the pseudonym Clownparlour (clownparlour.bandcamp.com) and made The Sum of Sounds available for free download.
Recorded at almost no cost at home in Lisburn, he flew in his engineer friend Richard Elder from London, borrowed some extra microphones from friends, and got down to business. “Apart from us, the main workhorse was my MacBook,” he explains. “It’s crazy but it records at the same quality as any studio in the world. Getting good results are down to a song and the room you record in.”
The point of Clownparlour, he says, was not to make money, but to establish the project. “There was no big advance to pay back to a label, no producer’s fee, no marketing fee. I hadn’t played that many live shows, so to try to sell an album of relatively experimental music in the middle of a recession would have been a crazy idea,” he says, adding that the album has been downloaded over 1,000 times since June 2010.
“That’s not a lot with regards to charts or albums with substantial marketing behind them but it is for a self release in the first six months of its totally independent life.”
Mormecha is also realistic about the business end of things. “Until the internet is properly policed, people will take what they want and from wherever they want – so why not let them take it from one place and be able to track how many downloads, and who your market is? At this stage, I’m glad to get it into as many peoples’ hands as possible, then a percentage of those people will buy the next one.
“When the record industry figures itself out, and music regains its worth, and the internet hosts less piracy, then I might make a quid or two . . . we’ll see.”
Barry Bracken, lead singer and guitarist with Dublin/Kildare duo Bouts, agrees with Mormecha’s strategy: €3,000 saved the “old fashioned way”, bought the band 10 days’ recording time in Dublin’s K9 Studios. The result was 11 tracks that comprise New Ways of Saying NO but Bracken claims that there was never any intention of a marketing blitz or long promotional tour for its release.
“There was a certain resignation,” he nods. “We knew from the start we weren’t going to make any money from selling it but it didn’t bother us. Even if you do put a price on it, and get it distributed nationally, you’re not going to make any money unless you’re selling large quantities – so for us, selling it online made no sense.
“Most people spend a lot of their time in front of a computer – and, if they’re music-savvy and they know how it works online, they’ll get something for free. You shouldn’t condone that but people will do it. We thought that if people do eventually come around to our album, at least it would be easily obtainable, and they wouldn’t think twice about downloading it because there was no risk associated with it.”
Despite what Bracken admits may sound like a defeatist attitude, he accepts that the changes within the music industry are something that bands will just have to find new ways of working around.
“I suppose there was a certain amount of being sick of being an Irish band who falls into the terminal ‘Irish band’ problem of releasing a single, releasing an EP and taking ages to release an album,” he says.
“We wanted to just release an album, put it out there, get it done and move on to the next thing. And we’ll see what comes of that. It could be a path that leads us down to six albums, all of them released online for nothing, and no real acknowledgement. We could become a sort of ‘cult band’ nobody really likes,” he laughs.
“Or it could bring you on a path whereby you release two, three, four albums, and people see your songs are for real, and that you’re for real with what you’re trying to do, and something might come of that. There’s no real thought process beyond creating more new music and having something there.”
Download Chariot from thecastofcheers.bandcamp.com, The Sum of Sounds from clownparlour.bandcamp.com and New Ways of Saying NO from gimmebouts.com