LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL
For many Irish acts, rock’n’roll is here to stay. But duplicating domestic success in the competitively cutthroat UK and US is another story. Many go for it, but few return triumphant, writes Jim Carroll
FOR Irish rock acts, the high times may be back. More and more Irish bands have enjoyed a lengthy spell in the album charts this year. As a result, the latest contenders have some commercial success stories to tell. The ability of bands who were not in the public eye a year ago to sell large quantities of CDs and downloads is particularly striking. Director and The Blizzards, for example, are two acts signed to major label subsidaries who emerged with a bang in ’06. With official sales of 8,000 and 4,000, respectively, at the end of November, in addition to playing and filling bigger venues, both have reasons to be cheerful about what lies ahead. But both still have some way to go until they can match the real heavy-hitters in the Irish pantheon. Snow Patrol lead the class of 2006, with 90,000 Irish sales and counting for Eyes Open. They’re followed by Bell X1 (52,00-plus for 2005’s Flock, which is still selling), Damien Rice (more than 17,000 people have already bought 9) and The Frames (12,000 copies of The Cost have gone to Irish homes).
This is just the tip of the iceberg; you can also add commercially well-received releases from a host of other acts, including Republic of Loose, David Kitt and The Immediate, to that list.
Of course, some albums failed to perform. The most high-profile under-achievers were Humanzi. Despite a lengthy and expensive promotional and marketing campaign by their label, the Dublin band sold just over 500 copies of their debut album during a three-week tenure in the Irish Top 100.
Yet, for most Irish acts, the real work is only beginning. While encouraging domestic sales can sustain a band for a while, it’s not enough for a long-term career. Bands have to eventually leave home and sell their wares abroad.
Snow Patrol may have the biggest selling album in the UK in 2006 (1.2 million sales for Eyes Open), but few of their peers can sell more abroad than they do at home. With exceptions such as Snow Patrol and Damien Rice (whose 9 has already sold more than 44,000 copies in the US and went into the UK charts at No 4 with 58,000 sales), selling albums abroad is traditionally where new Irish acts come a cropper.
Musical issues aside, there are many business reasons for a band’s failure to make an impact abroad. After all, many acts signed to major labels often find themselves without significant and powerful champions inside the company willing to help their cause. Many acts find that an Irish success story is often not enough to guarantee a release, a promotional push or even a move up a rung on the priority ladder. There is often a small window of opportunity which the band maymiss because they have commitments elsewhere and are unable to capitalise on a media break or opportunity. Without a major label’s investment, many acts just don’t have the financial muscle to sustain an extensive foreign campaign.
Then there’s the band’s own morale. After an act becomes accustomed to a certain amount of hometown acclaim, the lack of interest from overseas audiences night after night can sap the spirit and kill any enthusiasm for the job in hand. Its at this stage that many acts decide to go home and play another sell-out tour rather than embark on another soul-destroying and expensive run around the UK, playing to three students and a dog every night.
Director are taking a “slow-burn approach” in the UK, according to manager Richard McDonogh, with the first single due out there on Atlantic Records in March. “The band have really just started in the UK,” he says. “They’ve done a lot of touring and have played already with Hard-Fi, the Goo Goo Dolls, The Automatic and Modest Mouse. There’s a very long gameplan with Director.
“There are a lot of bands coming out on the back of hype and press before the music is right. Once the music is right, you’ll sell records. So many Irish bands are thrown out there, get one shot at it and end up meaning nothing because they don’t sell any records.”
Universal Music Ireland boss Dave Pennefather, whose charges The Blizzards have made such a big splash at home this year, also advocates the go-slow approach to breaking an act overseas.
“How many Irish bands have been signed in the last 20 years?” he asks. “How many have broken through in the UK or other territories? You can’t fast-track progress, so you have to take a more patient approach. Too many bands have been signed to UK labels and have never been heard of again. You have to create the awareness here, help the band develop an audience in their home base and then look towards the UK or US.”
Pennefather says Bell X1 are one Universal signing who have benefited from this business model. He sees it as the way to go for The Blizzards. “The whole trick is to get a story over here and make it at-
tractive for our labels and subsidiaries in other markets. With The Blizzards, there’s a whole bunch of labels in the Universal family, so we’ll see what hands go up.
“There was no point going to the other labels before there was anything to talk about. We can now point to a Top 5 album and the growing size of the venues The Blizzards are playing and filling.”
The decision to release Director’s album in Ireland first was taken after the success of their Reconnect single here. “The reaction surprised everyone,” says McDonogh. So Warner Music Ireland managing director Pat Creed “felt it was time to go with the album release over here at that stage, and I think now it was a very wise move. It has really upped the ante in England and they’re very encouraged by what has happened.”
One Irish band who have rejected the major label’s approaches and have no qualms about it are The Immediate. Their In Towers & Clouds debut album, released as part of a one-album deal with London-based independent Fantastic Plastic, has sold nearly 2,000 copies in Ireland to date and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
“It’s out in the UK but it didn’t get the response it got here,” admits manager Philip Cartin. “A lot of that is down to the fact that we’ve only played two shows over there since the album came out. If we had been sensible, we should have held off the release of the album in the UK until 2007 because we concentrated on Ireland so much.”
Now that licensing deals have been done, In Tow- ers & Clouds will be released in 2007 in France and Australia. “It’s released in Germany already and getting very good reviews there. Our plan is to have 3,000 or 4,000 sold by next year in Ireland, to be able to play gigs abroad in the countries where the album has been released, and to have the next record ready.”
Next year will also see many other Irish acts making a mark on release schedules. The Marshals, who are signed to Universal Music’s Mercury subsidiary, have an album due out in February, while another long overdue album should be forthcoming from Derry’s Red Organ Serpent Sound. Excellent Carrickmacross band The Flaws are also set to release their debut album in Ireland in 2007. And then there are the bands who are quietly beavering away on their music andwho could turn out to provide the real stories of next year.
All of these bands will, however, probably make their biggest inroads at home. In the long-term, bands really need to make an impact abroad. After all, as hundreds of Irish acts have discovered down through the years, very few major labels will continue to support a band who are just making the headlines at home.
That said, an Irish success story should not be sniffed at.
“People underestimate Ireland,” says McDonogh. “Selling a record is selling a record. If we can sell 30,000 or 40,000 here, that goes a long way to recouping the money we owe the label and paying some bills.”