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The show must go on

By December 6, 2020No Comments

What’s it really like to be an artist in Ireland during COVID 2020. Ola Majekodunmi looks at the challenges faced by those trying to make it.

“They were the first to close as a result of the pandemic, and they are likely to be amongst the last to return to full operations in the future”. So said Minister Catherine Martin for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, on those working in the music industry in Ireland, and their plight during the past year.


Life during lockdown is undeniably hard for all of us, with the kinds of restrictions placed on us that most of us have never faced in our lifetime. However, the section of our economy that has unquestionably faced the most strain, is the music industry. So, just how are our country’s talented artists coping creatively and financially during this bleak period? 

Justine Nantale is a traditional African singer. She sings with a few different bands including Discovery Gospel Choir and Rhythm Africana, an 8-piece band. Her first proper gig since COVID hit was ‘Festival in a Van’,  a lovely idea whereby an Ice cream van traveled around to schools, bringing arts and entertainment to the community. 

Justine enjoys doing lots of community work particularly with schools putting “smiles on kids’ faces”.  “It’s really tough for everyone in the band” she reflects, as they’re “used to expressing themselves, online gigs have a lot of challenges”. She describes the loss of concerts and festivals as “[losing] half her job”. However, music isn’t just about finance for her, the “social aspect is lost, not just income” she said. 

Recently herself and a few others were involved in a Zoom karaoke where eighty people attended a ‘Social Inclusion Concert’. Initially meant to finish at 10pm, it lasted till 1:30am as the audience were thoroughly enjoying the experience, highlighting the loss of these wonderful activities we all enjoy. 

KeSTine, a hip hop artist whose music has elements infused in rap and R&B, has been pushing out new music on platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud while COVID restrictions are in place. He says it’s “different [when] performing, feeling it and emotions make the most of it”. 


Similarly to Kestine, Cian Mac Cárthaigh is another artist who has been doing their best finding other alternatives to push out music. Reflecting that “at the start, [COVID] made it much harder to record […] and releasing music is harder”. Cian is one-third of Irish language band, IMLÉ. Their work is fused with Hip Hop, Rap, Electronic and Indie. 

The band had bought equipment for home use and the new, strange situation they were in forced them to find software such as Pro Tools they had not used previously, while connecting on Zoom to share ideas. IMLÉ soon moved from the recording studio to their bedrooms. Mac Cárthaigh has a positive view on the not always easy situation, seeing it as having opened new ideas to the band as well as ensuring they gained new skills, even though it was tricky at times. 

He said that in a “weird way it was hard at the start, but they figured it out”. IMLÉ “started out as a collective” and wanted to write their lyrics in Irish while not being a traditional Gaelach group. 

Even before COVID, it can already be financially challenging for artists generally. Justina added that she went through “a phase” where she wanted to pursue music full-time but realised there were a lot of expenses which made that impossible.

Justina has been unable to record any of her songs yet, as the expenses involved are prohibitive,  but she would like to record an album in the future. Like everyone interviewed here, she has a second job.

Justine Nantale

KeSTine who also works outside of music, says that it is often “difficult getting work out”. Cian finds that “singing in Irish either opens or closes doors” for IMLÉ. As they’re not a traditional Gaelach group, they may not be invited to perform at every Irish language music event, however they aren’t short of opportunities as they performed on an international stage in Glasgow last January at the Irish & Celtic Music Festival. 

Commercial Irish radio has been repeatedly called out for not playing enough Irish music. A helpful marketer once wanted to promote Nantale’s music, she recalls, but claimed that “Irish radio wouldn’t play it”. When Nantale has either an upcoming gig or concert, she does the work of a promoter by organising everything from venues to anything else required.

As a fellow creative myself, working in Irish media, both writing, broadcasting and filming  along with being a public speaker , I know all too well about getting requests to work for free as society often doesn’t attach much value and respect to the creative arts.

But I wondered how this felt for music artists who are already pushing extra hard to get ahead despite the often lack of respect towards the industry’s big efforts. 

Nantale described the feeling of “people you know, you don’t want to let them down” so she’s happy to perform for free for charities and friends. Aside from that, she won’t do so, saying “I give my prices”, with room for negotiation. Nantale also mentioned how it can be more difficult for artists of colour in Ireland, expressing her views on white privilege and inequality. “They won’t ask fellow Irish artists to do it for free”; it makes one feel “undeserving of being paid when requested to perform for free”.

Along with this, she said as a traditional African singer with soul and jazz, the Irish market can be a “very hard environment to sell your music,” selling to Irish listeners. 

Mac Cárthaigh says that “a lot of people at all levels are expected to work for free. It’s seen as a privilege to be a musician”. He goes on to say that it can be particularly hard for newcomer artists, and that “music is not given the same respect as any other job”. 

KeSTine has similar views, as he believes it’s “necessary [to work for free] when starting off” as an artist to gain more profile and a fan base as people don’t yet know who you are.

As he initially went out of his way to perform at gigs, and then went on to build a small fan base for himself. He had further interesting insights, telling me “not a lot of people [are] looking for black artists or new artists. [The] Irish music scene is still focused on rock. In the new Music Industry Stimulus Package announced on 23rd November 2020 by Minister Martin that “184 musicians/bands are being awarded a total of €896,000 to assist them to record singles, EPs and albums” for artists in a wide range of genres including rock, indie, jazz, trad, folk, country, classical and electronic”, leaving out hip hop which is a key genre in the thriving Irish music scene. 

Cian Mac Cárthaigh also stated that:

there were over 1,400 applications for recording support, which reflects the high demand for support as well as being an indication of the vibrancy of the music sector in Ireland. The total funding for the 2020 Music Industry Stimulus Package of €1.7 million is covering support for 79 songwriting camps and 56 new album releases as well as the 184 recording awards announced today.” 

This announcement came after Budget 2021 calls for the music industry with further funding decisions to support recording by artists. Budget 2021 includes:

 “new €50m support for live entertainment – a range of supports for live entertainment events to take place in 2021 in venues across the country, other measures to support music, and a new grant scheme for equipment. […] €8m to provide for the transfer of the National Symphony Orchestra to the National Concert Hall”.

A very important move by the Government and a clear, stark sign of the times we live in, as this is the first time support is provided for this commercial sector on this scale. While the music industry may celebrate this gesture, will they really benefit from it? 

Justine Nantale voiced positive sentiment towards this news saying that it’s a “great initiative” but said that “If it can go to the right people, great”.

Nantale has applied for several grants but has yet to receive any. 

Cian from IMLÉ emphasised the value of the industry in Irish society, pointing out that it’s “important we have this industry, people in the background do incredible work”. There’ll be a “greater appreciation of live music post-lockdown”, he adds. The Irish language musician believes that the music industry is a huge effect as it is a “knock on effect for the [Irish] economy”.

It’s clear this funding is desperately needed by the industry to get people back on their feet and help repair the damage of COVID. 

Although things may be tough now, there’s lots to expect from these gifted talents.  Justine Nantale spoke of her upcoming music  project, a school outreach programme. KeSTine is very enthusiastic over the future of Irish underground music, “[It’s a ] new ground, untapped area. Once they get the platform, they’ll go big internationally”. He’s currently working on an E.P. for February of 2020 and has a new music video out for his latest song, Tale of a Black Irish.  IMLÉ are looking forward to the possibility of returning to performing at festivals, sharing the stage with other incredible artists and working with producers. IMLÉ’s new single Do Chuid Jeans, from their second upcoming album, will be released in 2021.