McEvoy puts her heart into copyright
As chair of Imro, the singer songwriter says she is passionate about fighting for artists' rights, writes Samantha McCaughren
Eleanor McEvoy remembers well the day when the problem and scale of online piracy hit her for the first time. While working on her album I'd Rather Go Blonde in 2009 and 2010, she decided against releasing it online.
"One of my little things is I do very high-quality sound recordings. I do super audio compact discs, so very, very high-level sound," she says. For this reason, McEvoy decided to steer away from a digital release.
Or so she thought. "About five days before the album came out, a mate of mine sat down with the computer and said, 'Eleanor, here it is for sale online, so you're fooling yourself.'"
McEvoy insisted it couldn't be her music, the album had not even been released. "But there it was, my album, with every track on the thing and a biog for me and everything."
Another friend insisted people would still want to buy the actual album for the art work, another area of focus for McEvoy. "But the guy with the computer screen said, 'And here's the button that says download the art work here for free.'"
It was a disheartening moment for McEvoy, who still has no idea how the album came to be online and for sale for just a couple of euro.
Since then, she has been a passionate advocate of protecting copyright and is now has just stepped into the role of chairwoman of Imro, the Irish Music Rights Organisation, which represents composers, songwriters and publishers.
It is a key time for the battle over music rights, with a new piece of EU legislation on copyright being prepared for later in the year.
The role, to which McEvoy will dedicate a significant amount of time, represents a big change for the acclaimed singer/songwriter, who is best known for Only A Woman's Heart but has 14 albums to her name. For the first time in her life, she has an office and has already added a piece of original art by famed British artist Chris Gollon, with whom she has collaborated in the past.
She is adjusting well to this corporate corner of her life, with post-its scattered on a wall, identifying key contacts all over the world, while a freshly filled filing cabinet holds details of MEPs who will play a major part in copyright policy decisions in the coming months.
The battle is between the likes of tech giants Facebook and YouTube, which often carry copyrighted material, and the music industry, which wants to agree a proper fee structure for use of that material.
Musicians naturally back her cause, with the likes of Paul Brady, Christy Moore, Paddy Maloney and The Chieftains and Brian Kennedy among the many artists who agree with her stance.
"Basically, we're trying to get all our MEPs to vote for this," says McEvoy.
There is a mixed view across Europe, with some politicians leaning towards those in the hot tech-sector, rather than the creative world. One view is that imposing fees for material which ends up online will stifle innovation.
However, according to McEvoy, the current system, where people can enjoy music and videos for free on the likes of YouTube, is having a crippling effect on the livelihoods of songwriters and composers.
McEvoy herself produces her material independently. She will shortly release her new album, The Thomas Moore Project, and will continue to tour extensively.
"If you're not on the road, really it's very, very difficult to sell CDs. There isn't even a record shop in Wexford, where I live," she says.
McEvoy grew up in Cabra, north Dublin, in a musical family.
"We had lots of instruments at home and we used to play together in a little band, myself and my brother and my sister.
"The parents encouraged us to do music, but they kind of had a fit when I wanted to become a professional musician. That wasn't quite in the plan, they wanted me to become a national school teacher or a nun."
McEvoy managed to keep the peace, however.
"I got into Trinity to do music. All I wanted to do since I was kid was do music, there was never anything else. And actually, songs were my thing earlier on, but I didn't know you could be a songwriter, I didn't know you could be paid."
During college, she wrote hundreds of songs but had never played them for anybody.
"I played one for my brother. He said, 'Eleanor, you've got to do something with this.'"
McEvoy taught violin during college and got pit orchestra work, so she saved up money for a recording.
"I found it was going to be £475 to do the recording, which was a lot of money in those days. Then I realised I had to buy a proper guitar. I went into the studio, did the four or five days' recording, all the rest. When I came out, I got a bill and it had the £475 or whatever and then it had this thing called 'plus Vat' and I nearly died."
She had to sell the guitar but vowed not to let the same mistake happen again.
"So that's when I thought I need to learn a bit more about business."
McEvoy attended a Hot Press seminar, where she heard James Hickey (now chief executive of the Irish Film Board) speaking. "He was a lawyer and I put his name at the back of my head and I said if I ever need a lawyer that's the guy I want to go to," says McEvoy. "And sooner than you would think, I needed a lawyer."
McEvoy was signed to her first record label when an "A&R guy literally walked in and saw me playing in the Baggot Inn". She fell out with her record label after three albums.
"I went independent in around 2000 and this is where the business thing does come in, actually. I had an album called Yola and I set up my own publishing company, my own record company, and I have been doing it independently ever since."
She remembers being at the kitchen table with her partner and coming up with marketing strategies over a bottle of wine.
"You know, it was funny because I remember two years later my little independent album, Yola, going onto the Sony American website." It was a satisfying moment.
Although McEvoy has needed a business head at times, she admits profits are not her top priority.
"There were certainly points in my career where I could have made the more commercial decisions and chose not to. I love music, I love it, that's why I get up in the morning, I adore it.
"I love doing quirky things, odd things with music. I wouldn't get out of a burning building at five o'clock in the morning, but if I come up with a chord sequence at five o'clock in the morning that I think works for something I'm working on, I will get up and I will do it."
While she believes that musicians and artists should be on top of business, she has altered her view slightly in recent years.
"If you said 15 years ago to me, I'd say absolutely you have to be on top of the business thing, you have to be right in there and doing it yourself.
"I have now gone a little bit another direction. I think you're creative, first of all your heads don't work that way, you know.
"So now I think that musicians should be aware of what's going on but not to do the nitty-gritty."
McEvoy has developed her own mechanism for separating the creative side of her work and the business elements.
"I noticed early on that your sense of smell is very powerful," she says. "I use this particular scent when I'm working creatively and I burn that candle and that kind of puts me into the creative zone really fast.
"I'll go out of that space to make phone calls, do faxes. Ordinarily, it would take you about 20 minutes to go back into the creative zone but if you walk back into that smell within a minute you're back into it."
Despite her love of music, McEvoy says that it an increasingly difficult business to be in, largely due to the very sharp fall-off in royalties.
"It very tough, yeah. I won't lie to you, it's incredibly tough and I'm one of the really lucky ones."
She says there are four ways of making a living from the music industry. One is selling a piece of recorded music.
"The second way is performing live, so you get up on stage. It can be Ed Sheeran in Croke Park, getting millions, or it can be your mate down the pub getting a pint and €10 for the night."
The third way is from writing songs and getting paid royalties and the fourth way is merchandising. She points to an Irish band called Fight like Apes, which announced last year that they were splitting up.
"They were a fantastic band - really genuinely talented band, very successful - and they gave up last year, they said, 'We can't do it any more, we're living on nothing.'
"And there is a band, I won't say their names now, but a huge band in England at the moment, kind of hottest, new, funkiest, cool band, very, very young, very good, record companies signed - and they are broke."
McEvoy spoke with them recently. "They said, 'You know, we are penniless, we are literally penniless, we cannot afford our rent. And they can't let that perception be seen by the outside world because they have to be perceived as being successful but they're absolutely broke."
McEvoy believes that if the tech companies signed up to a new fee structure, it would create a fair playing field, not just for artists but for other media companies.
As well as getting the message to MEPs, McEvoy says ordinary people need to be aware of the impact that burning CDs and illegally downloading music is having on those on the industry.
"We have 11,000 members, I'd love to make them foot soldiers for copyright. I'd love if every IMRO member was saying to their neighbour, their co-worker, their family, 'Look, guys, this is a real issue.'
"Because it's not like the coal industry where there was no longer any need for the product, this product, the music is still needed.
"All that content is huge. And money is still being made, there's money still rolling in - but it's rolling into the tech companies."
Chairwoman of Imro
Music in Trinity College, Dublin
A partner, three step children and a daughter who is 15
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, love that book
Favourite TV series
I only started watching television recently and I got into The Big Bang Theory
Favourite holiday destination
There's a little fishing village in the South of Spain, Zahara de los Atunes, it's beautiful. It's a very remote little place and I absolutely love it
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