Musicians force civic tightwads to change their tune
I dropped into Sandino's on Sunday night to discover Technopeasant on stage building anticipation for the next band up, Paddy Nash And The Happy Enchiladas. After the Enchiladas, Paddy performed an encore by singing the praises of the outfit which was to bring the evening to a close, The Wood Burning Savages.
For readers who don't recognise the names, these are some of the acts which have made Derry a source of wonderment for critics across the island and across the water.
Check Guardian and Daily Telegraph coverage of the Other Voices event in February, the heady Dublin response to Little Bear, the soaring trajectory across the UK and Europe of Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, the respect in which music heads from distant regions hold The Murder Balladeers, Johanna Fegan, Triggerman, Best Boy Grip, Paul Casey and a dozen others I will be chastised for not mentioning.
The range and quality of the music being made in Derry now is of an altogether different order from anything I've known down through the decades.
All last year there was rock and roll in the Derry air and council bureaucrats, stage Derrymen and corporate cheerleaders never gave over about the brilliant image of Derry this displayed to the world. Now it turns out that there was a degree of spoofing in these paeans of praise.
Last week the city council sent letters to local bands asking for "expressions of interest" in reprising their City of Culture role during "one of the most exciting events that will be held in honour of Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2014 – the Foyle International Maritime Festival in Derry-Londonderry... when we will literally turn our city into one of music and singing from dawn until dusk".
And who is it intended will provide the bulk of this music and singing to entrance the multitudes from June 21 to June 29? The aforementioned local musicians, of course.
Earlier this week Donna Deeney revealed in the Belfast Telegraph that the local "urban development company" Ilex has offered an initial calculation of the economic benefit from City of Culture at 850 additional full-time equivalent jobs, £25.2m in gross value added and 535,000 additional visitors, estimated to have spent £25.5m in the city.
"When capital expenditure on construction and renovation projects in the run-up to 2013 is taken into account, a total of 2,740 additional full-time equivalent jobs are recorded and a total of £97.1m gross value added," reported the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is not immediately clear how the figure of 2,740 "additional full-time equivalent jobs" was arrived at. But it's very clear that the year generated significant income and that another boost is confidently expected from the Maritime Festival.
How much of this money can the musicians anticipate will come their way? The festival organisers' intention was: not very much.
The call for expressions of interest specified that preference would be given to bands willing to play for free. Their contribution might be crucial. But in monetary terms, they were deemed to be worth little – or even nothing.
It would not occur to the council, Ilex or DCAL to invite local security companies, or caterers, or stage-builders to work without payment. But the cultural workers, whose labour is key to the success of the enterprise, are apparently expected to provide their services out of an altruistic love for the city.
This is not just a Derry phenomenon. Kelly Wood, live performance official at the Musicians Union, observes that across the UK "we're seeing a big increase in events where there's a lot of money being made by someone and not being shared with musicians".
The union's intervention came after local musicians surprised festival bosses by coming together to say that they would, in effect, go on strike if the organisers didn't change their tune.
The threat may have worked. At the time of writing, it seems that the financial arrangements will at least be up for discussion. We shall see.
Whatever the outcome, the incident emphasises the extent to which creative artists are routinely taken for granted, the products of their collaborative efforts and individual genius regarded as the property of no one in particular, to be used as they see fit by whomever is currently ruling the local roost.
The vigorous response of the Derry bands should act as encouragement to musicians and others elsewhere in the north to demand the modicum of respect – measured in money – to which their contribution to the life in these parts entitles them.