Belfast Telegraph

How to rock 'n' roll in it

The tills are alive to the sound of music, but can Northern Ireland's music businesses cash in on the huge success of our growing musical domination?

By Margaret Canning

Over my dead body! So might once have gone the parental refrain when a Northern Ireland youngster said they wanted to work in the music industry.

Now it can be argued that the massive success - and distinct lack of rock 'n' roll excesses - of Northern Ireland guitar bands like Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club have made music look like a safe trade to ply.

Invest NI, Belfast City Council and the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) now actively support the industry through avenues including the Oh Yeah! Centre and trade missions to global music conference South by South West (SxSW), which takes place in Texas.

The Oh Yeah! Centre in Belfast, co-founded by Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody to encourage the growth of the music industry here, has played host to many budding and established musicians.

Chief executive Stuart Bailie, also a DJ on Radio Ulster, said music can be a viable business choice palatable to even the most strait-laced of parents.

"Van Morrison turns up in the Sunday Times Rich List every year with an estimated wealth of £50m. Ash and Snow Patrol have written songs that are still being played on the radio years after they were recorded. They are still touring and playing festivals, which provides a good income. However, that's at the top of the tree."

There are plenty of people in the middle, he said, such as singer-songwriters Foy Vance and Duke Special. But with the latter headlining in London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in December, and some of Vance's songs being used in commercials and TV programmes, even those in the middle are doing well.

There are a lot at the bottom of the tree, as Bailie pointed out, but getting music made and "out there" isn't as hard as it used to be.

"Digital technology has completely changed the costs of recording. For good quality, all you need is a laptop, ingenuity and software," he said.

Getting on iTunes and other digital platforms solves many obstacles which artists used to encounter, he said.

"With Facebook and social media, you can be in charge of your own marketing, your destiny, how to do it, find your audience and build it up to a fan base."

Digitisation has made things easier but the chances of the next Van Morrison making the same riches as the original are low, Bailie said.

"You may never achieve the riches achieved by artists in the 60s, 70s and 80s and even bands like U2 struggle to achieve the record sales they once did.

"There isn't that turnover because people aren't buying records. Fans buy an album in the first week then sales fall off and it falls out of the charts. It's not like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which stayed in the charts for 15 years."

But one possibility which could yield revenue is getting a song on a TV or movie soundtrack, the path trodden by Vance and others.

"Songs by [Lisburn singer] Gareth Dunlop have been used in shows, including the last episode of [US hit dramas] House, and in Cougar Town. He has connections with Nashville, which are helping him with that. Overall, that can help income and gives you a higher profile. You can charge more for tickets and sell more albums off the back of it."

Part of Snow Patrol's success came from the use of their biggest hit, Chasing Cars, in US hospital drama Grey's Anatomy. Bailie said: "The new artist has to be a lot more versatile. It's no longer just a matter of writing a song and playing on a stage."

While the urge to make music has been around forever, the perception of it has changed, Bailie said.

"Everybody sees the good in it. Politicians understand the Snow Patrol success story and and understand the value of cultural tourism and music tourism and that was underlined by the MTV EMA Awards (held in Belfast last year). Around 1.2bn people were watching and it brought 33,500 people to Belfast.

"It used to be that parents would be horrified if their kids said they wanted to work in the music industry. Now it's more like, 'go on ahead and give it a try'."

The music industry also embraces more traditional business models.

William Thompson and Les Hume said they identified a business opportunity in the Cathedral Quarter in the old Marcus Music shop in Royal Avenue, where they have now opened Northern Ireland's second branch of Dawsons, a UK chain selling musical instruments.

Their existing Dawsons store in Bangor had been patronised by bands Kowalski and Two Door Cinema Club... while Mr Thompson's son Patrick is a member of Christian rock band Rend Collective Experiment.

They are a franchise of Dawsons, which gives them buying power but some autonomy.

"We had been open in Bangor for 10 years and decided Belfast was the next big step," Mr Hume said. "The place is buzzing. The Cathedral Quarter is booming.

"There's a style in Northern Ireland that makes the music accessible, and it's not about singing in your own accent. There are great singer-songwriters like Foy Vance, from pop to rock and Christian, and even a blues-rock singer like Simon McBride."

Mr Thompson said they also wanted to broaden the appeal of the shop, using other parts of the premises for lunchtime gigs and music lessons.

The high number of shop vacancies on the city's streets also worked in their favour, Mr Thompson said.

"We negotiated well and found our landlord to be very supportive. We talked long and hard about it and they recognised the value of having a good tenant in."

Both DCAL and Invest NI supported this month's Belfast Music Week and have committed to building a Music Business Support Prog-ramme.

Malojian's album 'The Deer's Cry' is available on Bandcamp now

Stevie Scullion, a solo alt-folk artist who records and performs as Malojian, said: "There definitely seems to be a better infrastructure in place now for musicians."

He said the music scene is "more recognised", though the bands are not necesssarily better.

"I can remember there were always good local bands when I was growing up. I started my first band at 13 or 14. I think what has changed most is the people around the scene - like bloggers, photographers, film makers etc.

"The digital age has made everything more accessible. So if you want to be a film maker, it's easier now than it was 20 years ago and likewise with everything else. Having more of these type of people about makes it easier for a band to raise their profile and present themselves in a professional way. Plus then you have an instant global platform with Facebook, Twitter etc."

Social media is "great" but limited. "Having 1,000 fans on your Facebook page isn't going to pay your bills. Plus, once you put something "out there", that's it. You're in the Matrix. I think perhaps in the old days, it was good to be able to make your mistakes on a local scale and get things right before launching yourself into the world. Nowadays it's maybe too easy to fire ahead."

And acts like Malojian owe a lot of Snow Patrol. "I think the success of bands like Snow Patrol has undoubtedly made it easier for bands coming behind them, not least because the Snow Patrol guys are tireless supporters of local music. They're always shouting about new bands from here and I know they put a lot of money back into the local scene too."

Music man scores successful business

Mark Gordon of Score Draw Music is one of Belfast's music industry entrepreneurs, making and selling music to TV shows and advertisers. "A couple of songs which I'd co-written were used in some American TV shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Sesame Street. In 2004, I set up Score Draw primarily to service local independent TV companies and advertising agencies and to provide them with original music - and it's really grown organically from there." The business has sprawled to include international clients, though he's still working closely with Northern Ireland companies like Waddell Media and DoubleBand Films, and he's just made music for a 52-part show for pre-schoolers called Driftwood Bay, through animation company Sixteen South. Mr Gordon, who has one full-time and one part-time employee, said there was now plenty of "infrastructural support" available from the Arts Council and Invest NI - "you just have to seek it out". But relationships are crucial. "I travel to a lot of conferences, and to South by South West (SxSW). You rack up the world miles on the international circuit doing networking and hang out with people so that you're keeping a fire under the relationship. It's incredibly important to do the travelling and meet people on their home turf. You can't just base a business relationship on e-mail."