Why hard-pressed music talent gets a poor reception from radio stations
Airplay procedures and practices in Irish radio stations militate against homegrown artists getting top slots, says singer/songwriter
The monitoring of Irish music on Irish radio, especially local radio, has been a concern of mine going back to the early 1990s, when, after a bust-up with my record company over artistic control of my album, I decided to go independent and produce, manufacture, release and promote all my own work.
Trying to get airplay on local radio - then in its infancy - was an eye-opener. Stations that had been set up to cater for local communities all over the country, I found, were less than enthusiastic about supporting independent home-grown artists like myself.
A fairly common rule appeared to be that, if local venues were not in the practice of taking out advertising with their local stations then airtime for artists like myself was severely limited. As for finding placement for my songs on prime-time playlists, this was a complete no-no. The first time I stuck my neck out and asked, the music controller of one of the biggest stations on the east coast let me into a secret: "We only play Irish in the evenings and at weekends."
I also learnt that lots of the music played outside prime time wasn't being properly monitored or logged for royalty payments. My suspicions in this regard were confirmed after I performed a number of my songs live on a popular evening programme at a local station. Before leaving the studio I asked if they were going to log my songs for royalty purposes. The response I received has been going around in my head ever since: "We're not encouraged to log."
At another regional station where I was booked to do an evening interview, I had forgotten to bring a copy of my latest album and was directed to the station's library to see if one of a batch of CDs that I'd sent to the music controller some weeks before was stored there.
Without even checking, the controller told me that "Irish stuff" like mine was given out to evening and weekend presenters, as it would never be included in prime-time programming. As an alternative, I asked the controller to search for a cover version of one of my songs by Christy Moore, the Dubliners or Mary Black, but again the controller shook his head emphatically. "You won't find any Dubliners or Christy Moore or Mary Black albums in this library. As I told you already, Irish stuff that comes in goes directly to the evening and weekend presenters."
During a more recent interview at another local station - after the publication in the Sunday Independent of an article of mine on the need for introducing legislation to enact a quota system for Irish airplay - a prime-time presenter defended his station's record of complying with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's stricture of playing 30pc Irish. What he didn't seem to appreciate was that the airtime he was alluding to was restricted mainly to evenings and weekends.
From what I can gather, many local radio stations pay royalties primarily for the songs that feature in their prime-time playlists, most of which are copyrighted to major UK and US labels and foreign publishing companies. In the Phonographic Performance Ireland list of top 50 songs played on Irish radio in 2013, only two Irish acts featured and both had recording deals with international labels. Some local radio station bosses defend their compliance with Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) rules by pointing out that they supply IMRO with monthly "samples" of music played during their evening and weekend programmes, and the lucky ones who show up in these stats get paid. But surely every song played on radio should receive a royalty?
There are, in most rural stations, individual DJs and presenters - and even one or two radio controllers - who, because of their genuine commitment to the development of Irish music in all categories, stick their necks out for Irish performers and allow them some airtime. But cut-throat competition within the industry will eventually do away with even this modicum of national altruism if a quota system isn't introduced through legislation. When I started out in the business, RTE was the only broadcaster and it played 35pc Irish and logged every song, night and day, weekends as well as week days. It still does, I believe.
In the UK, as far as I'm aware, local radio stations adhere to the same practice as the BBC of logging and monitoring all the music they play. Even the UK broadcasting company UTV - which has taken over some of Ireland's most popular so-called local radio stations - monitors and pays for all the music it spins.
My main worry is that Irish musical artists and songwriters who don't have international deals and whose back catalogues are not coded are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs. Ironically, these very musicians - many of them existing on the breadline - are the very ones who need royalties most.
© Johnny Duhan