The future of Northern Ireland's thriving music business is essential says chief of UK music licensing company PPL
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Belfast’s Ulster Hall has seen its fair share of iconic moments; with a fitting strapline of “where legends are made”, the historical music hall has welcomed some of the greatest musicians of our time.
It staged the “rock concert of the decade” by Led Zeppelin in 1971, where Stairway To Heaven and its now famous guitar riff made its debut, and it has played host to countless global superstars from Coldplay and The Rolling Stones, to Johnny Cash and Metallica.
It was also the venue of choice in the city back in 2018 for Northern Irish natives, Snow Patrol, when the multi-platinum selling rock band toured its new album after a six-year hiatus. To this day, according to PPL’s airplay data, Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars is still the most played song this century on radio, TV and in public places – an achievement we celebrated in 2018 by presenting Gary Lightbody with a Most Played Award and whose success we still chart as the anthem continues to appeal to millions of radio listeners across the UK and beyond.
The band’s success has been an inspiration for many new and emerging artists in Northern Ireland, a part of the world which has no shortage of musical heroes. This week, as I returned to the Ulster Hall for my fourth NI Music Prize, I yet again witnessed a music scene bursting with talent, including Belfast-based Chalk, who have been winning endorsements from tastemakers like Steve Lamacq and Lauren Laverne; the hook-heavy indie rock band The Florentinas snapped up by BMG for a publishing deal; the “fluid and ferocious” queercore quartet Problem Patterns; and last year’s winner of the public vote for Best Video, Ferna. Showing that the region has even more to offer beyond rock, punk and pop, local RnB star Winnie Ama wowed the audience with her soulful voice, whilst Conor Mallon’s astounding performance on the Uilleann Pipes brought folk and traditional music to the fore.
With such talent on the rise, it is not surprising that music is a strong part of Northern Ireland’s economy, contributing almost £345 million and accounting for almost 6,500 jobs according to research published in 2022 from Metro Dynamics. Behind these great artists is a growing business community, grafting day in and day out to springboard local voices to a global audience. The artist is just the tip of the iceberg; underneath there is a crucial support infrastructure with music teachers, artist managers, marketing specialists, tour directors, venue owners, record producers, music retailers and music tech companies among many others playing a role in bringing these artists to the stage.
All of these players are working together to ensure that performers can be seen and heard by fans across the world. But at PPL’s annual gathering of performers this week, held outside of London for the first time at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, I heard of the need for an even more joined up approach to help break the glass ceiling and rocket launch a new generation of music stars to international acclaim.
I also heard about the reality of life for musicians, as well as those working tirelessly behind the scenes to help them build a career. Joanne Wright, Music Development Officer from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, referenced the perilous funding situation for the arts in Northern Ireland. She explained that the sector receives £5.07 per capita from the Government compared to £10.51 in Wales and £21.58 in the Republic of Ireland, where the Arts Council has been awarded €134 million for its 2024 budget compared to approximately £10 million in Northern Ireland.
Londonderry-based musician, Reevah, who released her new album ‘Daylight Savings’ last month, spoke of the challenges from her perspective, including the cost of living and the strength of the music business infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
This is exactly why, at PPL, we work hard continuously to get music people paid. Every time recorded music is played in public shops and clubs, or on TV or radio – from BBC and Cool FM to Downtown Country and your local radio stations – we make sure the musicians who performed on the tracks you hear and those who own the recordings are paid. The monies we pay out are essential in helping people to make a living from music. In 2022, we paid out £238.7 million in royalties to our members – the second highest amount in our 89-year history.
But we don’t stop there. We go beyond our core business of processing and paying out music royalties to deliver a number of career building initiatives. We recently agreed funding for Moving On Music, a Belfast-based promoter of jazz, folk, roots, and other underserved genres. Our partnership will further the successful ‘Middle Aisle’ programme, which supports artists to perform more regularly, with better fees.
Just last week we awarded funding to Reevah through the PPL Momentum Music Fund, administered by the charity PRS Foundation, alongside its International Showcase Fund and network of Talent Development Partners. Over the last 10 years, we have funded more than 20 artists and organisations from this part of the world from Joshua Burnside and Dana Masters to Ryan McMullan and last year’s NI Music Prize winners, Robocobra Quartet. I am told the funding has been game-changing for local artists.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the Lightbody Foundation, we donated £500,000 to Help Musicians to ensure that self-employed or unemployed musicians who did not qualify for Government support were not left out in the cold. And for the last seven years, we have sponsored the NI Music Prize, helping to spotlight the country’s world class talent.
These actions are just the beginning for us. We are excited about Northern Ireland’s music potential and how we can play a part in its evolution. For decades, it has produced exceptional talent and has a proud music heritage. So, together with local organisations, musicians, funders, and local government, I hope we can continue to play our part in creating the legends of the future and to keep entertaining packed-out audiences at the Ulster Hall and beyond.