The Ulster Hall, that venerable venue in Belfast city centre, has witnessed some ding-dongs in its 159-year history: from Lord Randolph Churchill’s opposition to the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 to the launch of Ulster Resistance exactly 100 years later.
Now, it is at the centre of a row over the levy it imposes on merchandise sold at concerts there.
Both Tim Burgess, The Charlatans’ frontman, and Belfast’s own Brian Kennedy have highlighted how the venue’s agents take a cut of merchandise sales, while other venues, such as The Empire, take none.
The issue came to a head at this year’s NI Music Prize awards, when several bands withdrew their merchandise and kicked up a storm of protest.
Merchandising is now an essential — and lucrative — element of touring bands’ business model.
As groups head back out on the road after, in many cases, a 20-month lay-off, revenue from merchandise has, arguably, never been more important.
On the other hand, the Ulster Hall is owned and operated by Belfast City Council, which has an obligation to maximise revenues from its property portfolio, thereby lessening the burden on the ratepayer, and the 25% levy on merchandise must be seen in that context.
The Ulster Hall — along with the now sadly departed Grosvenor Hall — kept the flag flying for live music through the arid years of the 1970s and 80s.
Led Zeppelin debuted the track Stairway to Heaven there in March 1971. Acts as diverse as Simple Minds, Metallica and Westlife’s Shane Filan have all performed under its roof.
Rory Gallagher played the Ulster Hall so many times, the Donegal (via Cork) man was regarded as an honorary citizen of Belfast.
No one — not least its hard-pressed ratepayers — doubts the need of Belfast City Council to balance its books.
But, surely, there must be some recognition of the cultural tom-toms in play here.
As the Belfast Telegraph’s music writer, Stuart Bailie, observed, the chasm between corporate city profile and artist welfare still needs a lot of repairing.