Made in Ireland: Notes from a small island

Áine Mangaoang (chair/proposer), Department of Musicology, University of Oslo

Lonán Ó Briain, Dept. of Music, University of Nottingham

John O’Flynn, School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music, Dublin City University

Jaime Jones, School of Music, University College Dublin

Made in Ireland: Notes from a small island

Session Abstract (c.300 words)

This year marks twenty years since the first scholarly article on Irish popular music as a relatively distinct field was published in Popular Music (McLaughlin and McLoone 2000).[1] Taking this landmark as a starting point, this session brings together new scholarship on Irish popular music, representing the field’s progress over the past two decades, and reflecting the range of research interest and disciplinary approaches, from ethno/musicology, sociology and media studies. Moving beyond distinctions between Ireland/Northern Ireland, the panel examines the activities, sounds, and perspectives of various musicians, broadcasters, and mediators on the island of Ireland, and questions ideas of popular music and place in an increasingly digitized era. Bringing together four case studies spanning four decades, this session charts some artists and actors who are often overlooked, yet who have played pivotal roles in shaping and transforming local popular music scenes in Ireland and beyond.

The session begins with new research on The Fanning Sessions, one of the most popular music shows ever broadcast on Irish radio, and demonstrates the role of radio hosts and producers as industry gatekeepers. Second, we turn our attention to the Irish music festival and television show Other Voices, and problematizes such narratives of otherness, not least since the series now has significant influence on media, industry, and arts policy in contemporary Ireland. Third, we move to the underground, to examine notions of visibility, scale, and value in Dublin’s DIY music scene.

Group Session Individual Abstracts

Broadcasting Rock: The Fanning Sessions as a Gateway to New Music

Shortly after the partition of Ireland in 1921, the two countries on either side of the new border established state radio stations to curate and promote their own distinct national cultural heritage. Nevertheless, listeners could tune in to broadcasts across the border to hear the latest popular hits if their own national station wasn’t playing them. This paper uses The Fanning Sessions, perhaps the most respected popular music radio show in Irish broadcasting history, to understand how certain broadcasters attempted to create an ‘all-Ireland’ borderless representation of Irish popular music. Drawing on interviews with host Dave Fanning and producer Ian Wilson, the research examines the pivotal role of these media for musicians and fans. An appearance on Fanning’s show was a career defining moment for emerging artists. Beyond radio airplay time, featured musicians were offered extensive recording time in the high-spec studios of RTÉ, something that was otherwise beyond the financial means of young performers in the 1980s, which enabled them to produce demos and, in many cases, secure their first recording contracts. As mediators between artists and audiences, these broadcasters retained powerful gatekeeping roles that positioned them as the arbiters of taste.

‘Dominant Others’? The Other Voices Festival and Associated Media Productions

Other Voices (OV) is a niche music festival and associated TV series that promotes an eclectic range of indie rock/pop and contemporary folk genres. Primarily based in the town of Dingle, Co. Kerry where its first events were held in 2001, OV is curated and promoted by the South Wind Blows (SWB) production company. Since then OV and SWB have enjoyed significant national and international exposure through a series of broadcast concerts, recordings, music industry gatherings and associated one-off events, including two televised showcase productions programmed and promoted on behalf of the President of Ireland in 2013 and in 2014.

I begin this paper by outlining the range and scope of activities produced by OV, and by considering the impact of these activities on the domestic field – including their potential influences on musicians’ careers.  Next, I examine the ways in which OV has negotiated shifting relationships between festivals and popular music industries over the early decades of the twenty-first century. Here, I interpret its overall success in reproducing an aura of liveness and immediacy that can be experienced beyond OV’s limited-capacity events. For the final section of the paper, I consider OV and SWB as part of an ‘anti-hegemonic—hegemonic’ field[2] in which a small yet influential network of media producers and associated production companies consistently promote and highlight music that is imagined as alternative to the mainstream of popular music production and consumption. I propose the term ‘dominant others’, in contemplating the claims of OV and similar enterprises towards otherness, while at the same time enjoying the privileges of state support, including funding and access to national media outlets. This is considered against a seemingly parallel world of hiddenness experienced by many popular musicians and their audiences within the same domestic field. 

Assembling the Underground: Scale, Value, and Visibility in Dublin’s DIY Music Scene

The underground music scene in Dublin that I’ve been researching draws from and contributes to a translocal ‘underground’ that is simultaneously a community, a set of ethics, a network, and a body of musical texts and practices. This paper examines the tension between underground ethics, which privilege local, DIY, independent production only accessible to those in the know, and the fact that these scenes can be understood as manifestations of a translocal ‘underground’ structure that has unique but recognisable blueprints in cities around the world. In contexts like Dublin, local scenes are not simply passive replications in miniature of these structures; rather, they diversify and feedback into these larger frameworks. Performances are open spaces with a high probability of productive contamination – particularly when they move outside the realm of live experience and enter into mediated forms of circulation, even on a small scale. Using video footage and interviews gathered through field research carried out over the past five years, I examine this idea through the analysis of both live and mediated musical performances. The Dublin scene, far from being isolated or nostalgic, contributes to a radical and far-reaching ‘underground place’ for people to be somewhere musically together.

[1] Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, 2000. ‘Hybridity and national musics: The case of Irish rock music,’ Popular Music, 19(2): 181-199.

[2] Brusila, Johannes, 2001. “Musical Otherness and the Bhundu Boys – The Construction of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ in the Discourse of ‘World Music’,” Same and Other: Negotiating African Identity in Cultural Production, edited by Maria Errikson Baaz and Mai Palmberg, 39-56. Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, p. 39.