The Kerry way
Now in its 17th year, Other Voices is one of the most beloved events on the cultural calendar, and while the event it is by no means financially secure, its ethos runs deep and those behind it are determined the show will go on
Other Voices continues its musical mission
For 16 years, Other Voices has existed as an anomaly on the Irish cultural landscape, which is why it works. The event sometimes contracts, but has expanded beyond gigs recorded for RTÉ television in St James’s Church in Dingle into a multifaceted international event, which takes over Dingle on the first weekend in December, luring music fans and artists local and far-flung.
In the early years, as the quiet quality of the television programme took hold, Other Voices doubled as an informal music industry Christmas party. Record label folk, band management and others came to Dingle with their acts, and music journalists were there to cover the event and pick up interviews. The event’s reputation as a convivial gathering devoid of a back stage or green room acted as a magnet for music fans who wanted in on the curious intimacy of a festival that wasn’t a festival. The potential for more bands featuring in the television series, coupled with the limitations of the church, saw the emergence of the IMRO Other Room as a way of including more acts on the bill. The crowds kept coming and to serve them The Music Trail was born; free gigs during the day and evening in the various pubs and rooms-turned-into-venues around the town. A few years ago, the town creaked under the pressures of an increasing crowd, and a late night offering in the form of After Dark, a party in the local nightclub, filtered the crowds away from the pubs and onto a dancefloor.
Media coverage of the event began to create a type of Other Voices bingo; the spontaneous sessions at Benners Hotel, the curiosity of Foxy John’s pub doubling as a hardware shop, the west Kerry winter light, the hot ports and stuffed church pews, the magic of the place and the event which went ahead through snow or gale with occasionally massive musical stars playing to 80 people. Other Voices began to stretch out from Dingle, to New York, Derry, Belfast, London, Berlin, Austin, and this year to Ballina.
Now, the event in Dingle includes the television recording in church, which this year features Gruff Rhys, Mahalia, Nakhane and others, and the IMRO Other Room (Kojaque, Mango x Mathman, and more), the Music Trail with 35 artists performing across 12 venues, Jim Carroll’s Banter series of actual fireside conversations in Foxy John’s (this year’s guests include Annie Mac, Carole Cadwalladr, Tony Connelly and Maeve O’Rourke), the After Dark club night, and the Ireland’s Edge conference at the Skellig Hotel. To attend is to experience a flow of music and conversation in a spectacularly beautiful place. But how can an entity that is in many ways the antithesis of the commodified and commercialised live music space be sustained?
The delicacy and warmth with which Other Voices prides itself on treating artists was wrenched from its hygge in October, when the musician Hilary Woods tweeted, “Dear @OtherVoicesLive, I wld hav Loved to hav played ur festival ths year. I hav always been a fan from afar. Howevr the Only offer I received from u was one t play The Other Room w No fee & No expenses covered. Understandably I declined & wasn’t keen to follow up, thanks anyway.”
Of course, artists being asked to play for free or for exposure is a raw nerve issue in the industry and on the festival circuit, and many people jumped on Woods’s tweets both in support and outrage. “Other Voices’ raison d’être is the artist,” the organisation responded, outlining the fact that artists performing the Music Trail are offered accommodation, catering and a small fee, and those playing the IMRO Other Room are also offered a paid gig on the Music Trail. So while the IMRO Other Room slot itself may not have a fee, bundled together, a fee and expenses are paid. A band playing a gig that is recorded for broadcast on television is
viewed as promotional, something that generally does not come with the same kind of fee that a “normal” gig would - as in a gig that isn’t recorded for TV and where the audience buys tickets to see the act play.
While musicians and those involved in the live music industry, and in music television are aware of the monumental financial constraints independent entities find themselves under, audiences can be less aware of the intensity of such struggles. Running something like Other Voices makes no one rich. The goal is to make it sustainable. Other Voices may be one of the most beloved events on the cultural calendar, but you can’t lodge vibe in the bank, and as an event it is by no means secure. Making it happen is a scramble for funding, with support coming from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, RTÉ, and other sources in various amounts. When Eir was taken over earlier this year, Other Voices lost its title sponsor, a big blow. The reality of these financial constraints is evident this year, as there will be two, not three, nights of music in the Church, and a small registration fee (€30,€10a day) is being asked of those attending four Music Trail venues.
While the audience members are wondering where to have a Guinness next, the team behind Other Voices is holding the thing together. Tina Moran is the producer. “There’s a passion about it. Everyone on the team believes in it. If you didn’t, you might be willing to give up earlier, but we don’t,” she says, “I often say we’re a committee and a collective. It’s not a hierarchy. We all work together. Sometimes that mean things are slow, and there are lots of conference calls. Molly [King, head of development] coming on board brings a fresh perspective and different ideas such as developing our merchandise. After Dark comes from Molly. Anna Job does all of our social media, it’s a busy role and has really progressed. Everybody on the team has their strengths. There are a huge amount of women on the team, including across production managers we’ve worked with. Everybody is vital, everybody is important.”
The front of house is Philip King, a musician, filmmaker, broadcaster, and relentlessly quotable and quoting lover of art. He is someone who can say “We’re in the feelings area of things” when asked to describe the event, and for that statement to be authentic and meant. “It’s a model that has developed in a world that is becoming a little more augmented, virtual, robotic,” King says, “the human engagement that happens at events like Other Voices in terms of discourse, exchange, platforming and encouraging talent is hugely important.” The tactility of experience - or there being “no metric for priceless”, as King puts it - has come full circle in many ways. What could once be construed as old fashioned now carries a desirable contemporary value.
Another facet to Other Voices is Ireland’s Edge, a conference run by Nuala O’Connor, who is also King’s partner. With the musical aspect of Other Voices, quality is at its core, but also the energy that colliding genres emits, risk, unknowns about to be knowns, and established artists, are strung, Calder-mobile-like, creating an equilibrium of flow. Ireland’s Edge draws from a similar philosophical well, “Muireann likes to describe it as a cultural conversation that grew out of actual conversations when people came from Dingle for Other Voices,” O’Connor says, of her co-organiser Muireann Kelliher, “So it’s Other Voices in another way. It’s the mix of people who are normally not together in one room; professional profile, age profile, class profile, status profile, whatever, mixing together. If I could break that conference down, my feeling is that the people on the floor of that conference, the people who come, could equally be on the stage… I would like to break down conference fare as much as I can and get out of that paradigm of ‘talks from experts about things’.”
The church, O’Connor says, “is like the Tardis at this stage. I don’t know how Tina - and she is the logistical queen - gets the loaves and fishes to spread ever more thinly.” Tina is Tina Moran, Other Voices’ producer. “Part of what is never seen as part of the festival - as well as nurturing the artists and giving them a good experience - is also on the crewing front, bringing in trainees, and doing the best to provide an experience for them,” Moran says, “We’ve had quite a few people who have come to us on work experience and ended up working with us over the years.” Does she ever worry that one year will be the year it may not happen? “Yeah, I do, often. I suppose we argue back and forth about it - can we press the ‘go’ button on this and take the risk again? I don’t think we’re unusual in that, every arts organisation is in the same boat.”
King and O’Connor’s triplets, Molly, Juno, and Ellen, have at one stage all worked on the show. Molly King is head of development. The responsive nature of Other Voices is something Molly King has lived with for a good deal of her life, “The people who have really responded to it and the people who have been affected by it have informed changes as much as anything else,” she says. “I do find it hard to be objective about it as a regular audience member. I guess I perceive it on a number of levels. In my incredibly biased opinion, people respond to OV because we try to go about what we do in a genuine, empathetic way. There is a huge amount of emotional investment in creating an experience that will sit with them. So whether that’s The National coming off a big tour and playing to 80 people, or whether it’s whoever has come down from Dublin and wants to see some shows, we try to create an atmosphere where people can see all types of venues in intimate settings with very little red tape.”
Aoife Woodlock, the music producer of Other Voices, is a woman who has and will fly anywhere and literally climb over walls and under fences at other festivals to get to acts she wants in Dingle. The blockbuster acts that have come to Dingle; The National, Amy Winehouse, The xx, and so on, are caught on the forward motion of her will. “In totality you have to look at how it’s grown and the activity is amazing that’s down there now. How do you explain to somebody that a couple of thousand people come and watch what’s going on in the Church on a screen somewhere else?” Woodlock says, referring to how the gigs in the Church are live-streamed on screens in pubs around the town. “Unless you’re part of it, you can’t fathom why somebody would do that. Between the conference and Banter and the Trail, the epicentre of how it all stated and while they’re all there does come back to the Church. It began there, it’s grown there, the hype and the excitement is ‘did you see Little Simz in the Church? I saw Hozier in the Church.’ The Church is the TV show. I have to keep my eye on the prize while acknowledging there’s a much bigger thing going on outside the Church door. The audience have grown that.” Now Woodlock is seeing the impact of Other Voices on a new generation of artists. “The fact that they’re citing Other Voices as an influence on them when they’re 13, 14 and they’re on the show in their 20s, it’s a nice nod, that you’re doing something right. People say it’s a show for musicians - well, great!”
And so, the show goes on. “Someone asked Nuala many years ago ‘what do you do?’,” Philip King says, “and she said ‘We celebrate what’s about to happen and we capture what’s about to disappear’. The soundtrack of Ireland from 2001 to 2018 - the crash in the middle of it all, the changes in technology, the two referenda - the emotional response to that is to be found in songs and tunes and expressions of artists who are part and parcel of that life… I go back to Moya Cannon’s poem, ‘Carrying the Songs’: ‘it was alway those with little else to carry / who carried the songs.”
Other Voices Dingle 2018 runs from November 30th-December2nd.Seeothervoices.ie
Far left: Anna Calvi on stage in St James’s Church in Dingle. Left and below: Philip King. director Other Voices and co-founder of the Ireland’s Edge conference, and music producer Aoife Woodlock.