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Do Irish radio stations play enough homegrown music?

The people who work at Irish radio stations and the bands who send in their music talked to us.

WHEN YOU TURN on the radio, do you keep an ear out for Irish music – or does it not matter?

Some believe that there simply aren’t enough Irish bands played on radio here. Others think that if Irish tracks are good enough, they will get played.

Then there are playlists.

And licence commitments.

And quotas.

We talked to some of the players in the radio game, and some musicians themselves, to find out if Irish radio stations do play enough homegrown music – and if not, what can be done about it?

What are the most-played songs on Irish radio?

According to the PPI, of the 50 most-played songs on Irish radio in 2013, six were by Irish bands. The six tracks were by two Irish bands: Kodaline and The Script.

This was the sixth most popular track in Ireland, and the top one by an Irish band:

Source: KodalineVEVO/YouTube

And this was number 40, and the fourth most popular Irish track (the other two in between were also by Kodaline).

Source: TheScriptVEVO/YouTube

The commercial radio station presenter

I think every person who has control over the music they play on the radio wants to break a new band and support them on way up… that’s the dream, that I could help someone who is really talented get out there.

Louise McSharry (formerly of this parish) presents the Louise McSharry show on RTÉ 2FM from Sunday to Thursday, 8-10pm.

Unlike some of the daytime shows, she doesn’t have a purely playlisted two hours, and chooses the music herself.

She listens to everything she gets sent, and considers everything equally, “whether you’re an Irish band or Ariana Grande”.

“I don’t really hear from that many Irish bands,” she pointed out. ”If I hear something online, I will seek the band out”.

She was one of the first people to play Kodaline on the radio, in a previous job, and would like to see more Irish bands sending in their music for consideration.

Naturally, she can’t play every track that’s sent in. “My show it has to be accessible,” she pointed out.

I can’t sound completely alien to the 2FM playlist. So I can’t play anything that’s hardcore or opera, no matter how good it is unfortunately. If it doesn’t fit in with the show, it doesn’t fit in with it.

Within that remit, she’s still able to cross different genres, and bands that recently featured include Faune and Tvvins.

One issue is playlisting, where the songs for shows are all chosen in advance. “I think a lot of people don’t know that about radio,” said McSharry.

Because of playlists, “you can send your CD to every radio person in the place, but probably 80% of people don’t have say”.

“We’re definitely encouraged to play Irish music where possible,” she said of 2FM.

At the same time, we have to consider our listeners first and foremost and what they want to hear. As much as I like to play Irish music, I can’t just play Irish music for the sake of it. It has to be something the listener is going to enjoy;  something they want to hear.

For McSharry, “the best thing you can do ever is make someone say ‘oh, they’re really good’ and go off and find out more”.

She said there “some really good quality stuff coming out of Ireland at the moment”, but what about the idea of having a specific quota for Irish music?

“I think that there are positive factors and there are negative factors,” said McSharry. “I don’t actually know how well it works in terms of what songs get played.”

“You don’t want to wind up in a situation where it is tokenistic,” she cautioned. “People see right through that. Listeners want to hear good music.”

The show that only plays Irish music

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If every artist relied on radio we’d be screwed. If your music is good enough, a big label is going to pick you up and you are going to be played on radio.

A number of shows around the country are dedicated to Irish music – generally they are on in the evening or at weekends, and can be on community, local, or college radio stations as well as commercial stations.

Totally Irish is a dedicated weekly Irish music show on 98FM, a commercial station in the capital. Its presenter, John Barker, said that on the station, 23% of its Irish music output is played between 7pm and 7am, with 30% across total broadcast day.

The station “regularly exceeds those percentages”, he said. Its most recent daytime playlist has five Irish acts on it: Hozier, Riptide Movement, Original Rudeboys, The Coronas and Kodaline.

“I think it depends on the station and the style of music – certain stations have a licence and have to play a certain style of music,” he said of choosing Irish music for 98FM.

“A lot of the music I play on the show wouldn’t get onto mainstream radio,” continued Barker.

“I don’t think the bands involved would always expect that. But for the likes of Daithí or Le Galaxie, it would be really important for them to get daytime airplay on commercial stations.”

He said that some artists can make a career without radio – such as BriBry, an Irish singer-songwriter whose videos receive upwards of 500k views on YouTube. He has been able to tour abroad based on this success.

Barker would play a huge amount of independent artists on his show, and says 98FM hasn’t placed any restrictions on what he can play.

“The overall thing is the Irish music scene is growing – it is getting bigger and bigger and more popular,” said Barker. “I think the Irish public and media have more confidence in it these days.”

The digital station

“All people will think about is they will think about the number, whether there’s anything creative they can do with it,” said Maher of quotas. “Rather than the radio station sitting down and deciding ‘we have problems with sourcing Irish music’.”

Simon Maher has a long history in radio, having worked in Phantom when it was a pirate, and right up to its latter years as a commercial station. He runs 8Radio these days, as well as lecturing.

In the late 1990s, Phantom FM played a lot of Irish bands. “They were purely on the basis of we were all going to the gigs anyway, and these were the bands you would see regularly. From our perspective, it just made sense,” said Maher.

They never worked in terms of percentages, and Maher doesn’t feel that having to play a certain percentage of Irish music is a good idea anyway.

“I don’t think that having a commitment based on quantity works at all,” said Maher.

In a “particularly bad week” in the late 2000s, Phantom FM played a song by Neon Neon in its ‘Irish’ selection, as it referenced Delorean cars, which were built in Belfast.

He believes it changes your way of thinking, so that playing Irish music becomes a “contractual obligation”.

At Phantom, they looked at all the new music – Irish or otherwise – on a weekly basis to build the playlist from. “We always worked on the basis that if something was good enough, it was good enough to be played as an international song,” he said.

When they moved to a commercial licence, they undertook a commitment to play a certain amount of Irish music. By default, you would hear more of the Irish music at night.

But while “75% of time it was easy”, the other 25% of time it could be a struggle. Then it became a situation where “rather than give acts a chance we’re putting a song on because we need to fill a quota”. “That wasn’t always right,” said Maher.

If they played Irish bands that weren’t up to scratch, it wasn’t doing the station or the band any favours.

As the station became more commercial, the music had to become more accessible, which must have had a knock-on effect for the type of Irish bands they could play.

Maher believes that if bands have a live presence, this can help radio listeners have a better connection if they hear them online.

At 8Radio, “we’ve made a decision at the very start that if an Irish song was good enough, it would get absolutely the same amount of airplay as big international tracks on the A list on a given week”, said Maher. 

He said they have had no trouble with this, mainly because they are less constricted by musical style and can choose from more ‘leftfield’ options. Irish bands like Spies, Carriages and David Turpin have all been on the station.

What’s the Play Irish initiative?

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When are we going to take pride in our own music by really supporting it, by playlisting it?

Could the secret to getting more Irish tunes on the radio be a targeted initiative?

IASCA is the Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, set up in 2010. It is run by Sinead Troy, and among its work is the Play Irish project.

Part of Troy’s work with Play Irish is finding out “what the problem is” with getting Irish bands on radio.

France is the only country in Europe with a specific quota for national music. In Ireland, there are voluntary commitments under the Broadcasting Association of Ireland (BAI) licences.

Troy has met with the powers-that-be in various stations. “What I’ve discovered is what defines Irish music is different in every station,” she said.

In some stations, it can be if you have an Irish member in the band – One Direction can be construed as Irish – or if you record a single in an Irish studio.

Another issue is that if bands are not on Radio Monitor, airplay monitoring for the music industry, they won’t be logged.

Irish stations that have come on board for Play Irish so far include:

  • Ocean FM
  • Galway FM
  • Beat FM
  • Dublin City FM

They have agreed to choose Irish artists, and promote them across platforms, while the band promotes the radio station, and IASCA promotes the station and the band.

Talking to DJs showed Troy that many of them want to do more than they are allowed to do. “Very rarely on daytime radio can people go outside of the playlist,” she said.

But for Troy, it is “all about the daytime airplay”:

It’s multiple plays that sell music and create the environment that creates jobs. Once an Irish band gets on the radio – everything starts to change.

“I feel radio don’t take a lot of risks and I don’t think they’re very proud of Irish music. I don’t think they own it,” said Troy. “And I don’t think Irish people get a lot of access to Irish music.”

Looking to the Canadian model for inspiration, IASCA has come up with one definition of what constitutes Irish music for radio stations.

The system allows for bands not originally based in Ireland to gain points in order to allow them to be considered ‘Irish music’, based on certain connections to the country, such as an Irish publisher.

“If stations take on the definition, it will automatically increase the Irish music they are playing,” said Troy. “They can no longer fall back on One Direction.”

She has found “a lot of negativity out there about Irish music – coming from station owners, or the board, but not the DJs”.

Her next project is a digital platform for releasing albums to radio stations, which could be used by independent bands.

The focus is on getting people to ‘buy Irish’ with music, just as they would with Irish food.

I know we’re going uphill but I also know we’re moving.

Troy has also worked at teaming up Irish music DJs with those making playlisting decisions.

“I’d love to just think radio stations would take this on as a bigger thing than Irish music – as an employment thing and a pride thing.”

What the bands think

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Mark Geary is a longtime musician who described his experiences with getting radio air play:

That feeling that your local talent is no match for cool bands from the UK or further.
That feeling that you’re not cool enough, not now enough. Of course when we all go abroad and tour, you’re amazed at the level of goodwill and a feeling your appreciated because you’re Irish.

He said that another angle on this is “the type of choices, musically you’re forced to make”.

“Why do most bands you hear on the radio sound the same, interchangeable heads and fingers? Well, because they’re faced with a decision – will this song be played on the radio, does it have ‘ hooky ‘ chorus? If it sounded a little more like… Maybe we have a chance.”

“I’ve seen labels and my own management sweat over what I’m going to give them, because radio still means so much,” he concluded.

 

Musician Niall Jackson said:

The whole question of Irish radio play for Irish acts outside of the watershed (that is, before 9pm) is a sham. A rigged game. A complete and utter one.

He said that “most of these stations are reaching their ‘Irish’ quota with complete and utter contempt for anything new, exciting or more importantly unpaid for”.

It has been said that even recording a song in Ireland qualifies it as Irish to meet quota standards, meaning bands like REM, Muse, Rihanna, Madonna get to fly the Irish flag when it comes to ‘Irish’ radio play.

He believes that “you don’t get play-listed unless you play the game”, which is “paying a PR company a lot of money to get your act on daytime radio”.

“If not you may just accept that, unless some freak song comes along like Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ with an accompanying groundbreaking video, then you are going to be ignored. Even then, Hozier was a while in development,” said Jackson.

“All of the Irish bands you hear on daytime radio are lauded for their brilliance not because they are better than what is happening in Whelan’s or smaller venues on any given night of the week but because they are paying or being paid huge sums of money to get there,” he asserted.

“I believe if the bands you and I go to see week in- week out, were given half the chance of being play-listed, Irish people would willingly lap it up,” said Jackson. “It would in turn lead to gigs being better attended, albums being better sold and artists being better paid.”

He also pointed out that IMRO ensure that Irish bands are paid when their songs are played, which is a further benefit of radio play.

“Until such a day exists when radio station managers stop thinking about the bottom line and start thinking about breaking the mould this won’t change,” said Jackson.

Noel Gallagher said it best (and I hate Oasis) when he said that the Sex Pistols or The Clash would never get played on the radio today as there are now to many meetings and focus groups for them to be accepted, but back in the heyday of radio you didn’t ask your demographic what they wanted to hear, you showed them the way and in the process we got our John Peels and Dave Fannings. Somewhere along the line listeners became customers.

He singled out night time DJs for flying the flag for Irish acts, such as Dan Hegarty, Paul McLoone, John Kelly, Cathal Funge and until recently Donal Dineen.

Better still we have some amazing acts such as Villagers, We Cut Corners, James Vincent McMorrow who transcend being kept out of the limelight with sheer talent, but what of Girl Band, Girls Names, September Girls, Cian Nugent and the countless other acts, successfully touring around the world, blissfully ignored outside the witching hour of our vague bland alternative/playlisted radio.

Advice for bands

With all this in mind, we asked some of the radio experts what advice they would give bands who want to get played on radio.

The main takeaway from this? You don’t need to print out a fancy press release or send a CD to get your music listened to by DJs.

Louise McSharry’s advice:

In the same way that a director might say to an actor – ‘you’re very good but you’re not right for the part’, sometimes you might have a great song and it might not be right for the show or station.
  • You have to find the right place for your specific music to fit.
  • Find out who the head of music at the station is, and get in touch with them.
  • Look at the playlists for the shows, and see where you fit in
  • Digital is better; sending someone an mp3 is better. It’s much easier to click on the link listening to the song.
  • If you get an mp3, you are judging just based on the music.
  • If you send me music, I am happy to receive it happy to listen to it and happy to give feedback – louise@rte.ie
  • There’s no harm in dropping someone an email asking for advice.

John Barker’s advice:

There are a lot ways to get your music out there – get on to music blogs, plug your songs on Twitter.
  • Make sure you’re gigging regularly.
  • Make sure you’re on Bandcamp, where people can buy/listen to your music.
  • Make a music video – people share videos a lot online.
  • You don’t need a huge amount of money to send out your music.
  • “I don’t mind physical but digital is preferable – an email with an mp3/WAV or other download is perfect.”
  • Make sure you have your stuff online so the presenter can give out the link on air.

What’s your opinion on this topic? Tell us in the comments.

Read: This could be Ireland’s library of the future – but why the controversy?>

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