‘We turned over €100K in performance fees in 2017 but none of us got paid’ - King Kong Company’s Mark G on struggles of Irish musicians
Mark is presenting The Irish Music Industry Podcast featuring interviews with industry professionals from all disciplines
After almost two decades fronting King Kong Company, vocalist, percussionist and trombonist Mark Graham knows a thing or two about the music industry and the pitfalls that lie therein.
However, despite his wealth of experience creating music, traversing festivals, recording an album, and producing music videos he reckons he and his band mates are not immune to those pitfalls, particularly the old stickler of making money, and specifically making enough money to make music a full time career. In 2017, for example, King Kong Company turned over more than €100,000 in performance fees but none of them were paid.
“We were shocked," he tells Independent.ie. "We couldn’t believe it. And some of us still don’t believe it. We were like, ‘Hang on, did we lose money somewhere? Did money fall down the back of the couch?’. Our manager didn’t believe it; ‘How did you not make money?’.”
They spent it, he says, “keeping the show on the road”. Music is an expensive endeavour, so much so that there are artists across the country who cannot even afford to gig, never mind make enough money to live on, or to pump into making an album. Most have day jobs. The career Mark puts on the Census is 'lecturer' - he teaches Music Technology on the BA Music course in Waterford Institute of Technology – rather than musician.
The financial struggles of new, up and coming, and even seasoned talent in Ireland are just one aspect of the industry which Mark explores in his new podcast, the Irish Music Industry Podcast, supported by IMRO. It’s aimed at music professionals but covers territory that will undoubtedly interest fans too. He speaks to a range of pros from multiple disciplines, from artists to promoters to publishers and bookers, to get some insight into what makes the industry tick. Among them are Body & Soul booker Jenny Wren, Jerry Fish, 2FM's Dan Hegarty, independent artist Katie Kim, music publisher and IMRO founder director Johnny Lappin, as well as Daithi, Dominic Kelly (entertainment industry accountant and business manager) and Bitch Falcon's Lizzie Fitzpatrick. The conversations are invaluable for those contemplating a career in music as well as those who are already established.
The first five podcasts are available now (the sixth lands tomorrow morning) and the financial aspect of the industry is a theme that crops up repeatedly. Albums are a particular financial headache.
“Albums cost anywhere between €3,000 and €100,000 to make and for independent artists they’re paying that money themselves," says Mark. "It’s funny, at the same time Marlene Enright was nominated for the Choice Music Prize, she had to pay €20,000 to make an album and promote it. She still has no idea how she got that money together. She’s never had €20,000 in one place at one time in her life, yet she was able to get that money. There’s no way she was going to make money on that album - album sales have gone through the floor. They’re a promotional tool, a bloody expensive promotional tool.”
However, Mark is keen to point out that these are not issues which solely affect his industry.
“It’s not just musicians. It’s everybody, no matter what your job is or where you live it’s harder to make ends meet. When it comes to music, we have to be careful because nobody is entitled to a living from this," he says. However, it is, he says, important to have the conversation, and for artists to be honest about the reality, so that people who are contemplating a career in the industry are going in “with eyes wide open and knowing what to expect.”
There are some supports in place in Ireland for artists. IMRO provide support and Culture Ireland provide funding for bands to travel to other territories. Money, however, is not necessarily the answer.
“In terms of the system we have here it’s a system that’s used for commerce and for industry and which very much adheres to the rules of the free market, but when it comes to the creation of art are the rules of the free market what should be applied?” asks Mark.
“Canada has a programme called Factor and New Zealand provides funding and a leg up and treats it as a small to medium enterprise because that’s what an artist is spending money on – accountants, advertising, albums – but being treated a little bit differently than a usual enterprise. Artists need space to create stock to use for their business. But even talking about music as a form of business sometimes rubs the wrong way.”
While artists are often advised to treat their career like a business, this is not an approach which suits everyone. Success is measured very differently from one artist to another, as Mark is discovering via the podcast.
“For some it isn’t monetary, and it isn’t down to how many followers they have. For some people in terms of the music industry they produce something they’re really proud of and that’s what they want. Talking to different people you get a different answer to the same question,” says Mark.
“What is it that you want to achieve? Do you want to make a living and have a career? Then you have to try to translate what you do into a business, making money and paying your rent. If it’s something else, an artist’s itch you need to scratch then the only way to scratch it is to create it.
“Jeremy Hickey of R.S.A.G. said he’s working on an album at the moment and the thing he’s enjoying most about the album is the fact that nobody else has heard it. It’s just his until he shares it and releases it and then it’s something else. I’ve never heard anybody describe an album like that before.
“He said now he’s almost allergic to social media, and feeling like he constantly has to jump up and down and wave his arms, ‘look over here at me – I’m still doing things’. It’s refreshing to hear somebody talk about it like that. He said he doesn’t really like doing that side of it, he’s not very good at it. It’s doing it, creating it and the enjoyment of the creation of the stuff he likes. That’s why it’s art.”
King Kong Company appear to have adopted a similar attitude. Last year, the band sold out The Olympia Theatre in Dublin. This is no mean feat. However, rather than raking in the cash, they were out of pocket by around €4000. It was, Mark admits, down to their own lack of business acumen, but they didn’t do it unwittingly.
“We wanted to put on the best show. We had a string section, we videoed the gig, we sold tickets as cheap as we could, at early bird prices. We were told to charge more but we decided not to. We wanted to give people the best night out they could possibly have,” he says.
“Maybe that’s where our business acumen kind of falls down. But that’s a decision we made. We knew in advance. We were given the projection. We knew we’d lose money but we’ll make it up somewhere else. As a business decision it was a pretty bad one, but it was an informed one.”
Being informed is everything and Mark hopes the podcast will help artists and professionals to learn from each other. While he says he probably won't ever attend a Nathan Carter gig, for example, he's interested in how the country music star has managed to become so successful.
"He's the only musician in Ireland with a 40ft articulated lorry with his own number plate. I want to ask him, 'How did you buy that? How did you put the money aside to buy a 40ft articulated lorry?' Then you have a wonderful band like Delorentos who find it difficult to make ends meet. What are country acts doing that we can learn from?
"We've had bands like The Hot Sprockets and O Emperor calling it a day this year, maybe before their time, so if a band becomes more savvy about some of the stuff we're talking about does it increase their longevity and do they realise their full artistic potential? It's something interesting to talk about!"
The Irish Music Industry Podcast is available now.