| 19°C Belfast

Our politicians were quick to jump on the music bandwagon, now it’s payback time

Paul Martin

NI's Mr Showbiz Paul Martin on why the Assembly needs to put its money where its VIP pass is and support local musicians


Elton John at Stormont

Elton John at Stormont

Lady Gaga on stage at the Odyssey

Lady Gaga on stage at the Odyssey

Paul Martin with Cheryl

Paul Martin with Cheryl

Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody

Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody

Elton John at Stormont

Sir Van Morrison and I have had our fair share of run-ins over the years. It's part of the deal of being a showbiz reporter in our wee country. But I must hand it to the east Belfast legend. He couldn't have put the pitiful abandonment of Northern Ireland's music scene by the stuffy suits of Stormont more clinically.

It's appropriate that one of our most celebrated sons sticks it to our ponderous politicians in a recent offering, blaring out lyrics about the big wigs "waffling endlessly" and "Getting paid too much for screwin' up".

Admittedly, he was singing of his frustration at the handling of Brexit. But it doesn't take a quantum leap to equate his no-holds-barred lyrics with the impending catastrophe blighting our world-renowned music scene.

The song title also sums the pitifully neglectful abandonment of our music here in the shadow of Covid-19 by the Stormont crew: it's called Nobody In Charge.

Yesterday, there was a glimmer of hope that somebody might be in charge. But what a shame it wasn't one of our politicians who stepped up to the plate.

It was announced that Northern Ireland is to receive £33m as part of a UK Government support package for arts venues. But where - or how - the money will be spent remains a mystery and, even then, I fear it's a case of too little, too late.

And have no doubt: there will be as many losers as winners when the rescue funds are finally divvied up.

I suspect the pretty theatres and the artsy scene will be raising a toast, while the upcoming singers, the unheralded roadies and the anonymous sound engineers will be left cutting their losses - again.

Our so-called leaders' apparent inertia when it comes to our once-buoyant live arts scene is worthy of nothing short of the metaphorical showbiz Z-list.

The politicians of Northern Ireland have dined out on our triumphant music scene for two decades - now it's payback time. But they are falling hopelessly short - by millions.

It's shamefully clear that our music sector has felt completely abandoned by our government.

And it's an added kick in the teeth that it wasn't "one of our own" politicians who took the stage to pipe up for their plight.

Their lacklustre treatment of the music wouldn't be such a bitter pill to swallow if the Stormont brigade weren't among the first to swan into the high-profile concerts, exchanging air kisses at the glamourous after-show parties I've attended.

Previous research by UK Music estimated that music tourism in Northern Ireland generated a bountiful £90m in spending in 2018. Take a minute to let that sink in: one year; £90m.

So, the haplessly late announcement of £4m funds for the arts as a whole on July 1 by Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin amounts to little more than the kind of smoke and mirrors you'd expect when megastars like Cher, Britney and Beyonce hit the stage at the SSE.

Now, we have a welcome further cash injection from London, but it's a drop in the ocean not worthy of the considerable financial benefit that music has brought to the NI economy.

Before the onslaught of Covid-19, more than 1,000 full-time equivalent jobs were sustained by music tourism alone in Northern Ireland.

And let's banish any misinformed notions of rich megastars battling through the financial consequences of Covid-19. It's bread-and-butter - with most scraping a meagre living.

Van swapped the microphone for pen and paper in recent days to join Snow Patrol and Ash among almost 150 artists pleading for "urgent financial support" for NI's music industry.

The powers-that-be are peddling a different, self-serving narrative. Don't be fooled.

A menacing reality of the abandonment of the arts emerged in research, published by the Assembly in May, that warned that many self-employed musicians were not eligible for income support schemes during the pandemic.

Throw in the mix the "hidden heroes" of the music scene - managers, producers, sound engineers and countless venues, small and large, and all their employees - and we have a car-crash crisis.

And how the whole saga that ended with our singers having to get out the "begging bowl" with their impassioned letter is bewildering.

Was it a surprise to our leaders that a major industry that has played a pivotal role in catapulting us from Troubles to triumph may need some help?

When they sat around their mahogany meeting tables, plotting how to help pubs reopen, swanky velvet-clad hotels sell expensive rooms once more and restaurants serve up gourmet, a-la-carte dinners, apparently a man and his guitar was the last thing on their mind.

You see, they broke the biggest rule of the music business: believing the hype. They were blinded by the magical tinsel sprinkled over the singing set, blinded by the bright lights, the sell-out shows, the supposed glamour and the VIP parties, blinded into thinking, "They are in showbiz - they can look after themselves." They should know better.

It's not as if our political figures are shy of a good showbiz night on the tiles. It seemed that every politician in the country shuffled into the front row in their finest Gucci when Elton John turned their stuffy Stormont from a den of division to an edifice of the arts in 1997.

And they had no reservations about downing champagne with yours truly and the showbiz elite when the MTV Awards came to town.

Shucks, some of them even managed to break out from their tatty suits into a shuffle as Lady Gaga hit the stage.

And something tells me they'll be first on the phone to beg for backstage passes when the world's biggest stars do return to these shores - if we have any venues to host them.

When they are digging into their pockets, the politicians shouldn't have underestimated the "wow factor" our music scene brings to this country.

I witnessed it with my own eyes just prior to lockdown when my Miami girlfriend, Jenny Krieger, jetted over for a night at a sold-out SSE Arena show.

She was spellbound by the majesty of our top venue and equally as taken with the ornate Ulster Hall, the grassroots revelry of the Limelight and spectacular architecture of the Waterfront.

You see, star power impressed the outside world and attracts the masses to our irresistible land as much as our lavish hotels, our big yellow cranes and our money-spinning tales of a sunken ship.

Back to my old sparring partner Van. "No pot of gold at the end of the rainbow/No social ladder to climb around here," he muses in the forebodingly titled End of the Rainbow. "So much for capitalism, so much for materialism/Every penny now has got to be earned."

But what happens when our artists can't even earn a living? I'm talking about the independent artists, who live from gig to gig, never sure of where their next booking is coming from.

It's time for our politicians in Northern Ireland to put their money and vocal support where their VIP laminates are.

It's going to be a hellish year for music here. Now they must take centre stage to keep our music industry alive.

And that's a tune we would all dance to.

Belfast Telegraph