Singles Game

Posted 9 months ago in Music

We meet up with a number of acts who independently contacted us about music they are releasing to find out what the state of the DIY route is right now.

“How do you get heard?” ponders musician Paul McDonnell.

It’s a pertinent question that many independent musicians across the globe have asked when trying to find their place within the seemingly impenetrable music industry. In May of this year, a report by Luminate disclosed that approximately 120,000 songs are released everyday on music streaming platforms. Developments in software and social media have made it possible for anyone to record music at home, share their work online and hopefully garner an audience. The ease of uploading music online has significantly broadened the potential for artists to get one step closer to obtaining opportunities to further their career and make the prospect of being a recording artist far more accessible than ever before. Of course, this virtual open-door policy comes with several drawbacks. Primarily, how do you get heard?

“I’m not going to pull out the smallest violin, but it’s tough being an independent artist…What I tried to do, instead, was shout differently rather than louder. I find louder doesn’t always work.”

Over Zoom, Dublin-based musician Paul McDonnell tells me how, at the age of three, he spent hours on the porch of his family home with boxes and knitting needles playing a makeshift drum kit before eventually going on to perform with the National Youth Orchestra, join The Pale in the mid-90s and land a coveted position as percussionist in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. However, by the ripe age of twenty-seven, despite the comfort of his job as an orchestral percussionist, he was already eager to explore the next chapter. “By twenty-seven, the challenge had gone because I had gotten to where I always wanted to be before I had even turned thirty. There was no room to progress, I was at the top peak of where I could reach in that role. So, I thought, ‘Right, I need a challenge. I thrive on being challenged,’ McDonnell explains.

The ensuing years were filled with raising a family and managing a mortgage which sidetracked his professional life away from music. “My soul was crushed into nothingness and it was from a bad place that brought me to a point where I needed to start again. My soul was dead because I hadn’t made music for a long time. I had done some soundtracks for TV and movies but I didn’t have the time to do that anymore with my day job. I had to put that on pause and eventually it ground to halt because if you’re not pushing yourself, the phone stops ringing. Over time, I put a little home studio together and started writing songs and just experimenting and having fun.”

“I counted last night and SWELTR will be my sixth band. Sixth and final band!”

As McDonnell’s children got older and his partner returned to work, he began a new musical project, A Band Called Paul and released Prestige, his debut album under this moniker in 2019. Gearing up to take the album on the road, the project expanded to a five-piece to bring A Band Called Paul’s electrifying rock riffs to life in a live setting. That was until the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on gigging.

All the while, alongside writing, recording, collaborating and releasing music with A Band Called Paul, McDonnell also manages the business and strategic side to the band. Having to exist on both sides is something that countless independent artists have to do in Ireland and around the world. “It’s part of the package of being an independent artist,” McDonnell notes frankly. “I’m not going to pull out the smallest violin, but it’s tough being an independent artist. You have to wear so many hats and I think that the hardest aspect of it is to accept that at the end of the day, you’re most likely spending about 90% of your time on marketing and promotion and about 10% on creativity. That’s just the nature of the beast, that comes from the democratization of both the internet and technology. The technology is now available for anyone to set up a home studio while the internet is available as a distribution point for anyone to get their music out there. Anyone can record their own track, put it up on a streaming platform and suddenly you’ve got an unbelievably saturated market,” explains McDonnell. “And so, you spend a lot of time trying to do anything you can to get heard because everybody else is shouting, so how do you shout louder? What I tried to do, instead, was shout differently rather than louder. I find louder doesn’t always work.”

The process of trying to shout differently to be heard as an independent artist can be a tiresome pursuit and one that leaves many feeling dejected. Naturally, the pressures attached with releasing music when you are both artist and administrator can take their toll on individuals, especially when they also have to maintain a day job in order to make a stable living. When I speak to Noel Dempsey and Tony Keyes of SWELTR, a Dublin-based duo that launched in October, 2022, Dempsey is taking time out of his lunch break in his new job to tell me their story with his bandmate via Zoom. “I counted last night and SWELTR will be my sixth band. Sixth and final band!” laughs Dempsey. Both played music in various bands throughout their teens before they finally found themselves in a band together in 2020. That outfit dissolved shortly after, however Dempsey tenderly notes how significant that brief period was to him. “The best thing to come from that was my friendship with Tony. I think that gives SWELTR a bit of an edge because it’s built upon friendship,” he says earnestly.

This camaraderie has been crucial for the pair as they navigate the industry as an independent act. In a study carried out by the University of Westminster and Music Tank recorded that just under 70% of musicians have experienced periods of depression and anxiety. In recent years, acts with a substantial platform have been frank in the media about their mental health and how it affects them and often prevents them from fulfilling certain aspects of their work, primarily touring. The cancellation of tours have become more prevalent and we’re seeing artists prioritising their wellbeing. Amongst the high-profile examples of this are Lewis Capaldi and Sam Fender, who are signed to EMI Records and Polydor, respectively. These major labels are equipped with teams to provide help for their artists, and fundamentally, manage the business and behind-the-scenes administration that goes into building and growing a career as a musician; everything from developing press releases, booking tours and creating artwork.

“The reward factor is greater because you’ve done it all yourself. There’s a great sense of achievement.”

However, having the resources of a major label as an independent artist is practically impossible due to the immense costs involved and a severe lack of resources available to be able to afford paying external figures with expertise in a specific area. As McDonnell described earlier, an independent artist’s time is divided, unevenly, with strategic business planning overtaking the creative side. Obviously, everyone will have different approaches to both sides in how they fulfil the practicalities of planning releases and tours, and how they perceive the action of doing it, as Dempsey explains. “I don’t mind doing the PR side of things; writing press releases and sending emails to journalists and publications. We do everything ourselves from recording, mixing and mastering, making artwork and music videos, everything we do comes from just the two of us. We don’t have the money to pay for PR, I’d love it if we did,” Dempsey smiles, “But to be honest, it’s been working well so far and the reward factor is greater because you’ve done it all yourself. There’s a great sense of achievement.”

Following on from this, Keyes adds, “One of the things about SWELTR was that around the time it was formed, I wasn’t really in a good spot and neither was Noel,” recalls Keyes. “It wasn’t shared misery, it was shared support. We really felt connected to this thing that we both loved; making music together. We both needed it in our lives and for that reason, it makes being in this band just a little bit more special. Also, there’s the fact that we’re both so heavily involved in the songwriting and Noel doing PR things, everything is way more personal for the two of us because of that.”

SWELTR not only became a beacon of support between the duo, but they have cultivated a dedicated community of fans who have found solace in their music. When asked about what they hope will unfold for SWELTR in the immediate future, and what inspires them to continue making music in spite of the hardships of releasing music in an already over-saturated market, they explain that they are endlessly motivated by younger generations of fans. “Although our fan base is small at the moment, it’s a really lovely and interactive fan base that’s really supportive,” says Dempsey.

“We have kids who are around thirteen or fourteen asking me for guitar tabs so they can learn our songs and they’re asking Noel to show them how to play drums. Out of all the music I’ve done and bands I’ve been in, that’s the most heartwarming response I’ve ever experienced. To have kids asking us if they can learn our songs to play them with their school band or alone in their room; that’s the best part of the whole thing, for me,” Keyes explains through a wide and warm smile.

Amongst the younger generation of Irish musicians forging a career in music and finding her sound is Larabel. The Donegal native discovered her passion for performing at open mic nights hosted in Leo’s Tavern, known as the home to Clannad. “I played the first song I ever wrote at that open mic night and got a good reaction which made me want to seriously pursue it as a career,” Larabel tells me. Since then, Moya Brennan has described Larabel as ‘a gifted singer and songwriter…one of Ireland’s finest up and coming talents’. Larabel relocated to Dublin when she turned eighteen and started studying songwriting in college. There, within the first few weeks of settling into a new place, during a stroll through the city centre, she was inspired to begin busking. Initially, busking was a way to make some money whilst singing and playing her guitar, as time went on, it would provide a sense of community. Three years on, Larabel is preparing to start her final year in BIMM, the music college whose graduates include Grammy-nominated Fontaines D.C., Anna-Mieke, and Jafaris, amongst others. In between assignments, she has released three singles, supported David Keenan and Paddy Casey and has performed on the stage of the 3Olympia.

On BIMM’s website, from a 2017/2018 survey, it states that “83% of BIMM graduates are actively working in the Music & Creative Industries six months after graduation.” With a selection of courses on offer for students to specialise in music production to business and songwriting, Larabel describes how the college has been beneficial to her career beyond the syllabus. “I think college has really helped me, it’s been really great for networking and building connections for booking gigs and getting some exposure.” As well as helping create a database of names to call upon when looking to further her career, Larabel notes the importance of her classmates in building her artistic confidence and also creating a strong sense of community through music. “I would often jam with my two best friends in my course. There’s a really nice vibe with the class, we’re all quite supportive of one another. There isn’t a feeling like we’re competing with one another.”

The sense of community that ties the Irish music industry, whether signed to a label or operating on an independent level, has always been steadfast regardless of how things evolve within the landscape. Throughout my time speaking with each of the artists for this feature, that was a recurring sentiment that found its way into our conversation. With Ireland’s music scene being so small and intimate, it’s generally only a matter of time before you untangle the various threads that bind certain scenes or generations together. This became apparent in my conversations with both Larabel and Banyah, the Blessington-based siblings Paul and Aisling Jarvis, with whom Larabel recorded her first two singles, Monster (2020) and Tout le Monde (2022).

The Jarvis siblings are sitting in their new home studio, which has been functioning for five months. The pair released their debut single as Banyah in 2019, having previously made music independent of one another. It was always inevitable that Paul and Aisling would work together as music has been an integral and informative foundation in their lives. Their mother is Moya Brennan of Clannad, who are celebrated for their innovation in popularising contemporary Celtic music. “We’ve grown-up with music for our entire lives. It’s always been such a big part of our family. Our mom had us in music lessons since we were seven, we didn’t even really realise how much we were being encouraged to go into music as a career. We had music lessons six-nights-a-week until we were 18. That was normal for us.” Aisling describes before her brother promptly expands on their music-led upbringing. “We were always going to play music, there were times when instead of going on a family holiday, our mom would bring us to festivals to play gigs with her. I remember we played Glastonbury with her when Aisling was 18 and I was 16.”

“We were always going to play music, there were times when instead of going on a family holiday, our mom would bring us to festivals to play gigs with her.” 

Aisling and Paul’s experience of their parents encouraging their children towards a career in music is, of course, a rarity in Ireland. Typically, at any family function, musicians will be faced with the inevitable prying questions, Are you still at the music? Or Do you make a living off it? Their exposure to seeing their parents (their father, Tim Jarvis is Moya Brennan’s manager) has been hugely insightful to them as they plan Banyah’s trajectory from a practical perspective, as Aisling explains. “Seeing my dad managing mom throughout the years has helped us to see the business side of the music industry in action. It’s tough, though, to put on those two different hats because all you want to really do is create. Ideally, we would love to have someone else doing all of the PR work but it’s just too expensive.”

The mention of the costs involved in outsourcing work ahead of album announcements or radio plugging, leads me to ask Banyah about the struggle in balancing the business versus the creative sides of being an independent artist and how sustainable this practice is in the long term. Paul notes, “We know a few people who have been on the Basic Artist Income and we’ve seen how they’ve been able to use that to push their music and be able to concentrate a bit more on the musical side. You can really see how it’s actually elevated their music because they have more time to concentrate in one area.” The Basic Artist Income pilot scheme was introduced in September 2022 by the government to best “inform future government policy on how best to support Ireland’s artists and creative arts workers”, as stated on the website. The scheme, which is running until 2025, sees artists receiving €325 a week, which is paid on a monthly basis. It seems only logical for there to be such fiscal support put in place for artists in Ireland, particularly when we consider how much the government emphasises our rich cultural heritage across literature, music and the visual arts as a selling point to the rest of the world.

In providing a basic income for artists, it opens up the possibilities to focus entirely on one’s craft and not rely on a day job for a wage. This type of support, in some cases, could also lessen the desire or need to seek out a record deal, instead operating in a fully DIY realm. We are seeing that independent artists are setting up their own labels to put out their music. In an industry where big labels will claim ownership of recording masters or set timelines and targets for artists to reach with their work, the allure of eschewing that system is evident. What’s more, it gives artists creative autonomy and the space to hold on to their authenticity. Surely, then, to have a sustainably structured independent music industry would be beneficial to the strength of the work being made? “I think so,” Paul considers this point. “We love having control over everything we do.” Aisling continues, “Yeah and there’s also the community side of it nurturing independent artists and scenes. We’d never want to lose that. Yeah. Like we work with a lot of our friends anyway, and it’s been amazing being able to just do what we want when we want as well, because at the moment we struggle to keep up with a release schedule as a label would expect you to. We simply don’t have the time to do that.”

“…at the moment we struggle to keep up with a release schedule as a label would expect you to. We simply don’t have the time to do that.” 

Also navigating the challenges and benefits of being an independent artist is electronic musician and DJ Jillelli, who describes how the pros and cons often collide. “The greatest challenge is that you steer it by yourself, from creating the songs to the promotion and you need to invest a lot of your time and energy on that. I collaborate with other artists which is incredible but as a solo independent artist the only person you really answer to is yourself, so if your project isn’t going the way you’d like it to it ultimately comes back to you,” explains Jillelli. “The greatest benefit is also actually that you can steer it by yourself! I choose everything I put out for audiences to hear and if I don’t feel comfortable with something I just don’t put it out. I see everything as a creative choice and you learn something from every creative endeavour so I never see a creative exercise as a loss. I do work with others and I’m not ignorant to the fact that although I am independent I work with a network of very talented people and that is very important for the project. However, because I am independent I get to choose who I work with which is a huge benefit I may not always get with a label.”

In managing her output, Jillelli has amassed substantial and impressive coverage of her thrilling alternative pop productions, with her recent single Don’t Leave The Party getting a spin on BBC6’s ‘New Music Fix’ with Deb Grant and Tom Ravenscroft. She has also received support in more practical guises, too, in the form of arts grants. While they have provided short-term help in honing her craft and dedicating time to projects, the support is fleeting and doesn’t provide a solution for artists to have a work-life balance.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to get support from some music schemes in Ireland which has afforded me time to work on music which I’m very grateful for but realistically I don’t think I could live off of that for life. Ireland is a very expensive place and I work in education alongside making music. I’m lucky I enjoy both my jobs but I have to give up a lot of evenings and weekends to do music and it does put a bit of a spanner in my social life at times. People might think that sounds tiring and time consuming but I always feel lucky to spend time on creative projects.”

“I’m lucky I enjoy both my jobs but I have to give up a lot of evenings and weekends to do music and it does put a bit of a spanner in my social life at times.”

After spending time talking to each of the artists, A Band Called Paul, SWELTR, Larabel, Banyah and Jillelli, hearing each of their stories and experiences with the music industry and their relationship to releasing music as an independent artist, it was striking – and extremely enriching – how positive each of them remained. Furthermore, the inherent passion each of them expressed when speaking about their songwriting process, their dreams of performing their music to audiences, interacting with fans, and their aspirations for their releases was so extremely humbling and inspiring. From the importance of community to the need for more access to artist income schemes, at the end of the day, the main motivation in each of these artists was music. As Paul McDonnell described his musical trajectory to me in great detail, he paused for a moment and concluded, “It’s instinctive. Making music is something that I have to keep doing if I want my soul and head to be in a good place. I just keep moving on.”

Long Way Down A Band Called Paul’s new single with GLU is out now.

SWELTR’s latest single Chewing Gum is streaming now.

Larabel’s new single eleven eleven is out now.

Banyah’s new single Too Easy is out now.

Jillelli’s new single Don’t Leave the Party is out now.

Words: Zara Hedderman

Photos: Róisín Murphy O’Sullivan


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National Museum 2024 – Irish


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