RTÉ Lyric FM is in the news because of its schedule changes, but the strength of the response is a positive thing.
As 2016 begins, and the economy starts to recover after the crash, how will musical life in Ireland fare? Will it benefit in proportion to the improving economy?
In Ireland, the cost of music is underestimated. Music is expensive. Musicians and composers of all genres develop their work over decades and they require a substantial infrastructure of venues, promoters and organisations to assist them in reaching their potential and creating the experiences that enrich our lives and our society.
Those interested in music in Ireland must now look around and ask how we can improve that infrastructure.
RTÉ Lyric FM is currently in the news because of its schedule changes for 2016, particularly the dropping of the choral music programme Gloria, but also the traditional music programme Grace Notes and Jazz Alley. Leaving aside the surprising decisions for a moment – it now has no programmes specifically dedicated to these genres, thus narrowing its constituency – what is interesting, in another sense, is the strength of feeling in the responses. An online petition asking to reinstate Gloria has received 3,000 signatures and hundreds of comments, and the issue has been featured in the national press. Lyric, too, may be surprised at the attention it is receiving given its relatively small listenership – but influence is not just about how many are listening, it is also about who is listening. Lyric possibly has a lot more national influence than its listenership figures suggest.
This national radio station is potentially the greatest advocacy tool that Irish musical life has. It broadcasts 24 hours a day, 365 years a year, has several presenters who are strongly connected to musical life on the ground, it can reach everyone in the state in their car, kitchen radio and on their smartphone, and it has firmly established itself as part of the Irish media landscape.
However, the wonder is that the station is functioning at all. According to RTÉ’s most recent annual report, it received an annual budget of €6m in 2014. That’s €685 per transmitted hour, including all administrative costs. It receives the lowest funding of all of RTÉ’s four main radio stations. RTÉ Radio 1 cost €3,625 per hour, RTÉ 2FM cost €1,267 per hour, and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta cost €1,199 per hour.
As well as broadcasting, Lyric also has a record label and recently announced a composer in residence.
A comparison with the UK’s main music and arts channel, BBC Radio 3, illustrates what the cost of producing quality music and arts programming could be. In 2014, £56.7m was spent on BBC Radio 3, which amounts to £6,473 (€8,806) per transmitted hour. We can only imagine what the impact on Irish musical life would be with those kind of resources.
A battle still to be won
The financial health of Lyric FM is symptomatic. We still see too many music groups and organisations without the resources to launch ambitious projects and programmes, and without these opportunities, even outstanding musicians and composers struggle. There is an intellectual, cultural and political battle that still has not been won. With every Government budget we can see that Ireland’s musical and artistic community has still not managed to instil an understanding in Irish society that music is expensive and deserves generous support.
So where can we look to for further advancement? I would like to suggest two ideas.
Seventeen years ago, the music community came together to establish the Forum for Music in Ireland. The instinct was a good one, but it lacked a clear focus and the organisation petered out. It was also driven by volunteers and smaller musical organisations.
Is it, therefore, now time for the larger musical organisations to take on the responsibility of collectively driving advocacy for music in Ireland?
Advocacy is part of Music Network’s remit, and is highlighted in its 2014–2017 Strategic Plan, but it has no individual fully dedicated to this role, and it would still require wider support. IMRO last year published a major report on the socio-economic contribution of music to the Irish economy, but did it have the impact it should have?
Imagine an advocacy group involving the National Concert Hall, Royal Irish Academy of Music, IMRO, Irish Traditional Music Archive, Music Network, Contemporary Music Centre, Music Generation, Na Píobairí Uilleann, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Opera Theatre Company, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, First Music Contact, Irish Concert Orchestra, Wexford Festival Opera, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Improvised Music Company, the college music departments and more.
It could be a powerful force to ensure that music in Ireland is not overlooked in Government budgets in the coming years.
The purpose of the group would be clear: to advocate directly for music and influence the political, intellectual and cultural climate on funding. This would require a direct and personal approach, connecting the activity on the ground with the decision-makers in Government. It is about hard-nosed selling and networking, repeating the same message a thousand times in endlessly creative ways: that music is incredibly valuable to our society, and music is expensive!
The second idea I want to suggest is that such an advocacy group would make as one of its first campaigns an increase in funding for RTÉ Lyric FM. Schedule changes are important but it must also be considered how straitened financially this station is. A stronger Lyric FM means a stronger musical life in Ireland.
It is time that we realised the potential within the music community to influence its own fortunes. Advocacy for music has been outsourced to organisations such as the Arts Council and the National Campaign for the Arts for too long. The future of music in Ireland is down to the music community and, as the economy improves, now is the time.