A letter to festival organizers and merchandisers

Hey Guys:


This summer sure flew by for me. Where the heck did August go, for chrissakes?

For you, I bet the summer can’t move on quick enough. I can’t remember a worse year for the Irish festival.

Like the next Mel Gibson romantic comedy, you have yourself an attendance problem.

Sure, you can blame the hot weather, the World Cup, the change in venue and the economy. But the sad fact is, fewer people are buying what you’re selling.

I just came in from the one in Wildwood, New Jersey last weekend. It was run by a group of great people with the best intentions of promoting a culture, just like yourselves.

They had a great lineup of artists and a built-in crowd in this seaside summer vacation spot, yet they only attracted a couple of hundred people into their event.

The vendors were angrier than BP shareholders at an investor conference, meeting one another in the aisles to bemoan the lack of foot traffic. I’m not sure how well or poorly the event was promoted, but based on the low attendance in other parts of Jersey and last weekend’s festival in Bennington, Vermont, perhaps both Irish merchandisers and festival organizers alike are responsible for this sad state of affairs.

You see 'em out dancing with their flat caps on
Wavin' their banners and tippin' their drum
And the blood runs deep
When the booze is cheap
Long as you ain't got an agenda to keep
You can be a Weekend Irish, hey!
Aye, aye, we're the Weekend Irish.

These are lines I got from Kyf Brewer of Barleyjuice, from his song “Weekend Irish.” He played it at the Wildwood show. He is singing about a class of people these vendors are clearly catering to that leaves the rest of us feeling cold.

What’s up with a certain sector of Irish Americans and their addiction to kelly green clownery that is available at these shows? Do you ever see a real Irishman walking down Grafton Street wearing that loud crap?

The drunks you see lining the curb on any given St. Patrick’s Day parade, with their shamrock sunglasses, plastic green beer necklaces and emerald colored feather boas, look less like Irish people and more like the love children of Adam Lambert and the Jolly Green Giant. Ho, ho, no!

Look around any Irish shop here in the U.S. and you see the same fare. “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons and green shirts made in China? Check. The flat caps with patchwork designs? Check.
The Aran sweaters that went out of style when the Clancys played Carnegie Hall in the sixties? Check. The smattering of Guinness merchandise for the special alcoholic on your naughty list? Check, check, check!

Is this is what our national soul has been reduced to?

I have had a front row seat on Irish culture during my time at the Irish Voice these last dozen years. I have been in the snug of a pub with Frank McCourt, sipped tea with Bob Geldof at Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, and watched the nervous and bitten hands of Sinead O’Connor poke the air for emphasis during an interview.

In all my time as a reporter, none of these artists ever came to the interview wearing a shamrock brooch or a plaid pair of pants. So where did this cartoonish depiction of the Irish come from?

I have a good mind to gather all Irish merchandisers together on one school bus and drive them over to New Hope, Pennsylvania. It is there that the vibrant, innovative self-expression that I know in our artistic community is on full display at the Celt-Iberia Traders.

The store is an eclectic and unique gallery inspired by the rich and culturally distinctive art and craft works of Ireland and Spain that are rarely, if ever, presented in the U.S. The owners just moved to a bigger space, indicating that business is good.

It sounds weird mixing Irish and Spanish together, right? It’s like serving soda bread with paella.
Actually, there is a Galicia region in Spain that was populated by Irish and Scottish settlers. They blended with the local folk to create an offshoot of music and art that is every bit as Irish as a shamrock, but most Irish vendors are either too lazy or too scared to “mix Irish blood” to offer Galicia art to the summer Irish festival attendees. That is a shame.

In that shop that you’ll be introduced to the works of Sharon McDaid, who works in textiles and mixed media in her studio on the Malin Road outside Carndonagh, on the way to Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head. Her stuff is brilliant.

Sadly, Irish shops like the one I found in New Hope are few and far between, and I applaud the likes of Mary Foley Reilly of the Irish Centre in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

Sure, she stocks her store with some of the same green nonsense that everyone else does, but she also uses her showroom floor to promote the art of lesser known glass blowers, artisans, writers, and musicians that Irish Americans might not know in the hopes that a customer will slide a new cultural artifact into the bag along with their Claddagh sweater. Fair play to her, and we need more festival merchandisers thinking that way.

I actually tried to do something about this a few years back by joining one of the festival committees nearby. It was stocked with folks a good deal older than me. They held their meetings in the back room of the bar, with most participants rolling dry tongues and licking their parched lips with one eye to the bar outside during the critical planning stages.

I remember broaching the subject of bringing Black 47 onto the roster, but the universal consensus was that they were “too edgy.”

Now, there certainly was a time when the concept of mixing fiddles, political sentiment, and power chords was considered too dangerous in the early nineties, which was when Larry Kirwan and the lads first came together. But the scene is now so crammed with bands that are in that genre, like Barleyjuice and the Prodigals, that the mixture of traditional and rock is now mainstream.

Black 47, though still an immensely enjoyable rock act that is playing its best shows right now, is about as edgy as a butter knife 20 years on.

Instead, the organizers that year played it safe with a roster of folkies and the traddies that seem to share the same set list. “Fields of Athenry.” “Irish Rover.” “My Lagan Love.”

No, nay, never again, please!

The face of Ireland has changed forever, and it is no longer an odd sight to see a Polish or African musician join a traditional seisiun back on the auld sod.

Even on this side of the Atlantic, artists like Susan McKeown are mixing it up with Yiddish musicians on her new Saints and Tzadiks album and tour, yet she was curiously absent from most festival lineups this year. With so many Irish people marrying Jews here in the States (as I have), one would think that a little out-of-the-box marketing to Jewish communities would bring in more paying customers to our events.

You may be thinking to yourself that the Irish Voice has some nerve bringing this up, especially after you advertised here in the paper. Understand my concern comes from self-preservation, and I am not trying to bite the hand that feeds us.

I derive my living as a culture vulture, commenting on the state of Irish and Irish American rock. If this scene goes away, so do I. I know after reading this you might think that would be a good thing, but we both know better.

The time is right for us to capture the imagination of a broader audience once more by embracing the changing face of Ireland instead of sticking to this dated vision that appears to be trapped in a time when Maureen O’Hara was still of childbearing age and had real red hair.

What you’re selling at Irish festivals might go down well to an older generation, but they are dying off and the attendance records prove that.

To resume blockbuster attendance at these Irish festivals, I propose we put our heads together, maybe do some market research or online surveying, and use the viral attributes of Facebook and IrishCentral.com to get a sense of attitudes, tolerance for ticket prices, promotion, etc.

Any sales and marketing textbook tells you to find out what your audience needs and deliver it to them. Online technology makes that much easier and cheaper to do nowadays.

I’m not looking for a fight here, but I do think picking at a scab is the best way to heal the wounds of your balance sheet. If you need my help, drop me a line here at the office.

Still friends?

Mike

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