There was a time when it would have been inconceivable that I could be typing this right now on a computer after the digital apocalypse that should have brought the world to its knees.
Do you remember Y2K and all the panic of gloom that came with it? Yeah, well, that never happened and to quote from Elton John, we’re still standing.
It’s hard to believe that the concept of Y2k and our new millennium are now 15 years old at the end of this month. Just as I marvel at how the teenagers in my house have been shaped over the years, I am reflecting on the changes in the music business that have impacted the Irish and Irish American music scene on our millennium’s teen years.
Here is a list of some game changers I’ve seen from my post as the Off the Record columnist:
U2’s black and red model of the iPod: Do you remember that device? It was not only the start of the band’s long association with the Apple; it also symbolized the music business’s acceptance of a transformational device.
There was no use fighting the paltry royalty rates paid by iTunes (which are rich compared to the pennies artists receive on Spotify now). The biggest band in the world decided to join them when they realized they couldn’t beat them.
U2 embedded their entire catalog into the device back in 2004, which hinted at the stunt they pulled this year of dropping their new album into everyone’s iTunes accounts.
The return of the singer/songwriter: The Celtic Tiger might have begun a long roar in Ireland at the turn of the century, but the rich tradition of Irish singer songwriters was becoming an endangered species. The pop svengali Louis Walsh was producing mindless pop at an alarming rate in Ireland as he attempted to keep up with the boy band craze here in the U.S.
Walsh answered the call of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys with the likes of Westlife, Boyzone, MyTown and Samantha Mumba. It was all slick and mindless bubblegum fare, which made the strum of Damien Rice’s acoustic guitar so seismic in its cultural impact.
Upon the release of the classic O in 2003, Rice ushered in a folk rock movement that brought the music back to the coffee house. Artists like Damien Dempsey and Lisa Hannigan were resuscitating the confessional storytelling of Luke Kelly and the Clancys that seemed lost in the syrupy pop. Rice led the way to the thriving business of Irish songwriting that we currently enjoy today.
The “Framing” of Glen Hansard: For a while there, it was looking like U2 would be the last band from Ireland to have a global impact. Glen Hansard would have been voted least likely to buck that trend.
He started promisingly enough as a member of the band in the musical film The Commitments but soon displayed an independent streak by starting the Frames. The band put out some brilliant rock inspired by the Pixies that never seemed to make much of an impact outside of Ireland.
All that changed in 2007 when Hansard, his then-girlfriend Marketa Irglova and a few filmmaker friends created this handmade little film called Once. The movie became a massive hit and went on to win an Academy Award with “Falling Slowly” as best song.
It didn’t stop there. The adaptation of the story of Once became a smash hit on Broadway that won eight Tony Awards.
The desktop music business: Technology has certainly loosened the grip that large record companies have on what you hear and when. Musicians no longer need record company support to book studio time if they have a quiet room, the right software and a decent hard drive.
Websites like Kickstarter have enabled artists to reach out to their fans directly for support, offering advanced copies of albums or handwritten lyric sheets in exchange for donations that contribute to the making of the album.
Artists like Storyman, Pierce Turner and Black 47 have all appealed to their fans in recent years, and that has enabled them to make a living by making such vital music.
Publicists in Ireland no longer mail me hard copies of CDs with paper press releases. I get something put into my Dropbox file sharing account that has publicity pictures, the album and a press release all in one file. The convergence of this technology has made it easier for Irish artists to travel across the pond and be heard here.
9-11: Yes, the horrific events of that terrorist attack have spawned some memorable lyrics of both hope and despair: Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising comes to mind.
The seedlings of an Irish American music community took root in the weeks that followed to create a mighty oak tree with many strong branches as musicians took to the stage to play for any funeral or PBA benefit concert. These jam sessions produced new bands, guest collaborations on albums, and strong community ties that hadn’t existed before.
Alas, this has been a double-edged sword as well. There was also a crippling downside for Irish artists when the U.S. government’s homeland security initiatives pulled the red carpet out from under any foreigners trying to work in this country following the 9-11 attacks.
Work visas for touring artists like Luka Bloom were lost in a bureaucratic cauldron of paperwork and long delays, prompting many Irish artists to either cancel planned tours here or skip touring America altogether.
The Troubles: Anyone living in Ireland knows that you didn’t talk much about the bombings and brutality that ravaged Northern Ireland. You just made the Sign of the Cross for the victims and said a silent prayer that the violence never spilled to points south.
Years after the Good Friday peace initiatives in 1998, there was a deafening silence on the topic but now, young artists grown in that soil are hitting their middle age in this decade. They are no longer restricted by their parents’ instructions to keep yer head down and mind yer own business.
That has resulted in a trickling dialogue from Northern Ireland recently that can be felt in books like Colin Broderick’s That’s That and in the melodies of our music. Steafán Hanvey, a singer/songwriter, toured last year with a new album Nuclear Family, which showcased his confessional songwriting alongside his father Bobbie’s riveting photography of those dark days in Northern Ireland.
A reporter’s eye for the detail of the carnage can be felt in the lyrics of U2’s “Raised By Wolves” from the band’s new album. Irish artists are no longer holding their tongues.
Celtic Crush: Hosted by Black 47’s Larry Kirwan, this has become THE showcase for Irish and Celtic artists with a reach of millions each week. Kudos for Sirius Satellite Radio for taking a bold stand for this genre of music.
Craicfest: Promoter Terence Mulligan started this music and film festival right before the turn of the century and over the years, he has built a brand around showcasing up and coming Irish artists. Foy Vance and Mundy are just some of the singer songwriters who have found their U.S. audience through this uniquely Manhattan festival. Long may it reign!
Big glitzy Celtic shows: I know there are some of you who turn your nose up at these splashy shows and their PBS specials. I get it, really!
Say what you will about Celtic Women, Celtic Tenors, Irish Tenors, Celtic Thunder and the like -- but they are shining their luminous spotlight on some of the best singer songwriters we have ever produced.
In the Celtic Thunder franchise alone, songs by Paul Brady, Christy Moore and Phil Coulter have made their way onto Broadway stages and in public television fund drives, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. You can’t hate on them too bad for doing that!
The death of the Irish bar: Yes, we are breathing cleaner air as we sip our pint but the bans on smoking have choked the wee Irish pub on both sides of the Atlantic. Our desire for healthy food has killed off the fish and chip trade, rents have increased, and more pubs risk shutting down.
The first thing to go? Live music. It’s cheaper to just turn on Pandora to the Black 47 channel than it is to actually hire Black 47 to play your pub, which is one of the reasons why the band decided to pack it in this year. You now have to scout the outer boroughs to find good Irish pubs, like Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook, if you want to hear a flute and fiddle.
What’s in store for the Irish and Irish American music scenes moving forward? The good game changers tend not to last very long before they sour and the bad ones probably aren’t as bad as they seem. We’re a tough lot and I have little doubt that we will navigate the good waves with the choppy ones as we move into the next few years!