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Two door

Northern Ireland’s Music Industry

01/04/14

Generator NI's Ross Graham on what's allowed the country's musicians to finally compete on their own terms

Considering its place at the heart of creative arts, it may well come as no surprise that the local music sector continues to exhibit fine work, driven by the verve which has long defined it in this corner of the UK. Indeed, such health has a positive effect beyond the boundaries of one particular area. ‘The creative industries are important,’ says Ross Graham, programme director for Generator NI

This body — commissioned jointly by Invest NI and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure — is only six months into a three-year life span. Its existence, however, is a recognition by government of the music scene’s centrality to the economic and cultural health of a country. 'We’re big consumers of music in the UK and Ireland,’ Graham points out. ‘But we’re bigger per-capita producers and exporters than any other nation.’ 

Generator’s remit, he says, is one of artistic endeavour allied with a focus on stark practicalities. ‘We try and develop excellence in the creative community here: the writers, recording artists, the producers, the performers. We try and input towards increasing their skills levels, their exposure levels to international markets and, ultimately, their incomes from those markets.’

‘Hand-in-glove with that, and it is a chicken and egg, there’s no point having those creatives if there’s nobody within our economic framework who can help them manage themselves, market themselves, export themselves and monetise themselves. So that’s the business and entrepreneurial side.’ 

With the aid of public financing, the domestic sector is growing. Yet, for all that, talent is the true arbiter. Graham cites Van Morrison as an example of a musician who managed to succeed without similar backing. On the other hand, fiscal support has assisted in stemming the immediate bleeding of outstanding prospects away from Northern Ireland.

In the days when Morrison or The Undertones were ascending, the route out was all but inevitable given the previous lack of meaningful infrastructure. Once considered an outright necessity, that process, he believes, has been arrested. A shrinking world and the digital revolution has, at last, allowed Northern Ireland to compete on its own terms. ‘What that’s done, as a positive, is give the creative industries a real possibility of growing regionally. Sometimes it’s cheaper to stay here, more realistic, as long as there is some infrastructure, and some skills. And that’s part of what we try and underpin.’

Equally, the triumphs of Bangor’s Two Door Cinema Club were born more from organic gifts and graft than anything else. As Graham recalls, the trio worked to a traditional model of touring and building an audience, relying on the quality of their content and word of mouth to establish the basis of their global popularity. Active, grassroots support for Northern Ireland’s musical output takes many shapes and the presence of committed, vibrant venues such as the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry’s Nerve Centre represent key pillars in the support for that important live element.

‘Belfast and Derry are very lucky to have them,’ says Graham, describing both as high-profile community organisations existing at the ‘front end’ of an ongoing crusade to capture and nurture the stars of tomorrow. ‘They are very stimulating, attractive, helpful early guides for those who dream of being performers or young managers, or sound and recording guys. In many ways we rely on those places to attract the broad, hopeful sphere into their circle. Then it's our job to try and spot the really excellent talent with genuine potential and staying power.’ 

What fresh acts should the public be aware of then? Graham insists that we look out for Little BearGo Wolf and Unknown, amongst others. All three are benefiting from Generator’s talent development programme which supports and profiles a select few performers with financial assistance and creative guidance. Dance producer Unknown, in particular, have just returned from South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Arguably the biggest — and certainly the coolest — showcase event in the world, SXSW’s decision to include these beatmakers on the bill is a strong acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s place in international music’s rarefied air.

As impressive as such breakthroughs continue to be, the emergence, and success, of left field standouts like HyperDuck SoundWorks is especially compelling since this Belfast-based duo create only video game scores. Their contributions to a crowded marketplace of obvious economic significance is a further testament to the enviable abilities of those artists trained, and based, locally. HyperDuck also enjoy a place on Generator’s priority slate and, like Unknown, they too have made crucial inroads across the Atlantic. In this case, March saw them travel as far as San Francisco and the Game Developers Conference, an event every bit as a towering as SXSW. 

Their evolution is exciting. It is also telling. ‘One of the buzzwords these days, in the music industry, is “convergence” and I think it’s very real,’ says Graham of the visible crossover between film and advertising, television and gaming. Music, of course, ties all of these strands together and in his view HyperDuck stand on the crest of this new wave. The varied disciplines, Graham suggests, ‘are nearly part of the same thing, which is the convergence of the creative industries and those guys are right on the cusp of it all.’

By Matthew Coyle