Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now

'I did one gig and 12 people turned up': Irish musicians make documentary about reality of touring

The documentary looks at what happened when three independent musicians teamed up to tour Ireland.

Source: gregcliffordmusic/YouTube

IT’S NOT EASY to be an independent musician – and a new Irish-made documentary wants to show the challenges that exist on the music circuit.

The documentary comes after comments by The Stunning lead singer Steve Wall and Eleanor McEvoy about earnings and what it takes to make it in Ireland.

The documentary features solo musicians Greg Clifford, Barry Jay Hughes and Ian N Brennan, who teamed up for a 17-date triple-headliner tour earlier this year. Clifford’s dad Dave came along to film the whole thing.

“It was all self-funded and booked. No manager, no funding,” says Greg Clifford. He says the documentary “aims to provide a measured and authentic insight into the highs and lows that ensue, goes beyond the music and captures traits and humour indigenous to the people of Ireland in the various counties we visited.”

The documentary was also a chance to work closely with his dad, who had never done documentary filming before – though he had studied photography as a performance artist and was the editor of VOX Music Magazine from 1980 to 1983.

The idea for the tour was conceived by Brennan, who brought Hughes and then Clifford on board. As solo musicians they all had limited resources, and Clifford says that “even just being a solo entity can be a lonely existence”.

“The idea behind the tour was to just become a proficient unit, pool our contacts together and heighten our potential reach,” explains Clifford. “We started planning things in October 2016: booking radio, I was getting on top of the graphic design work, getting the venue sorted.”

“It’s an elusive industry anyway but when you’re trying to get on your own you can get a bit disenchanted,” he says. “It’s not something that we’ve come across much – three solo acts coming together and working together. There were no egos attached to it.”

Back to Basics Tour 2

A career in music

What does it take to be a solo independent musician? “You have to be able to motivate yourself and be quite thick skinned and have a threshold for instability, so it’s definitely not for everyone,” he says. “You need to have a skill set, a varied skill set in terms of how to be your own booker, possibly be your own graphic designer.”

Clifford started playing music at the age of nine, going on to get an MA in contemporary composition.

“I’ve always been around [music], maybe it’s not always going to be gigging,” he says of his future. “I teach as well and I lecture in a sound training college so I am fully immersed in it.”

Ian Brennan started playing properly around the age of 15, going on to play in a band and then going solo. Barry Jay Hughes only became a full-time musician aged 30, having worked as a restaurant manager before giving it up to go solo. 

“His story is: I’m approaching 30, I don’t want to have any regrets in life,” says Clifford.

The documentary shows how the tour was a rewarding one, but it wasn’t without its tough moments. At one gig, there were just five people there.

“That is just a struggle in itself to stay motivated,” says Clifford. “But at the Grand Social it was excellent for our finale. It was well attended. That was satisfying because at that point the hard work had paid off in terms of the promo we’d done.”

Ireland vs Europe

Clifford moved to Berlin in 2014 so that he could focus on writing music. 

“That was really great, that was genuinely a seminal moment in my life and my development as a musician,” he says. “I became a solo act in 2012 and not by choice – the band dissolved, we’d run our course a little bit so that was strange not having that big sound around me.”

On stage with an acoustic guitar, he felt exposed, but still he kept on going. “That was in the age of singer songwriters having that pristine voice. I found myself really meandering and just lost and I was doing a lot of guitar teaching at the time and I was thinking ‘will that interest dissipate in my life?’,” recalls Clifford.

He says Berlin helped change things for him. He didn’t want to have regrets, “not looking back and thinking I wish I’d dedicated more of my time into music”.

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

But he knows that the lifestyle he had there is not possible in Ireland. “When I was living [in Berlin] it was really, really cheap,” he says. “People were really receptive to doing pop-up events. It’s just exciting anyway to be almost anonymous, that no one has a preconception of you.”

In Berlin, he got to play to a whole new crowd. Among the challenges for independent musicians is “standing out from the crowd”, says Clifford. “Getting traction is big. A big one as well is just getting your music to the right people – and I don’t even mean industry people, just the right audience who would be interested in that sound.”

Back to Basics Tour 1

The reaction and welcome that the trio have gotten abroad has shown them just what’s possible with their music careers. Clifford and Hughes recently played in Poland, and were impressed by the huge crowd they attracted.

Clifford contrasts this to the challenges of putting on gigs in Ireland:

Six weeks ago I put a gig on in the East Side Tavern and 12 people showed up. There is an array of great talent out there. Maybe there’s a point of saturation.

“One thing going forward – I’m definitely going to explore the possibility of playing abroad more,” says Clifford. “I played in Switzerland before. The treatment that we got was great over there. Solid payment – you felt valued a bit more. Maybe it’s the novelty of going away but definitely the treatment was very spot on.”

Cover gigs and wedding bands often help musicians to make money. But they won’t make much “until you get into that 1%”, says Clifford.

“Sometimes I wake up and think it’s absolutely absurd what I’m doing,” he admits. “You’re constantly staring into the space of futility. Am I going to keep soldiering on, is part of it a romantic dream? I don’t want to say I will give in. You only get one shot at life.”

What did he learn on the tour? “I learned that I definitely enjoy being on the road for the liberation it provides, and even a sense of escapism,” says Clifford. “One thing that was good for me was it helped me rekindle my interest in playing live.”

Back to Basics will receive its first Dublin screening on Tuesday 6 November in The Sugar Club.

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel