THE trouble with Cork is there’s just too much music.
Any night of the week there’s something unmissable, usually two or three concerts, not to mention rehearsals or launches where a body should be at. It’s a huge privilege to be a music fan in Cork city in recent decades.
Cork’s music scene is an ever-shifting ecosystem, with talent blown in from far flung lands and locally produced gems borne away on the tides. Music is what brought many of us to the city, and what convinced many more to stay.
Perhaps we don’t deserve what we have. We certainly don’t seem to appreciate it, judging by the size of the active audience. It seems that most of the audience for any good concert is drawn from the same 800 people. For a couple of weeks in July, when a temporary tent with unsatisfying sound pops up, we can accommodate the kind of numbers that will make up the exorbitant fee of mass media hyped headliners.
Judging by the popularity of those large touring acts there are thousands more people who will part with mad wads of cash to see them. But they don’t seem to recognise the level of artistry and passion, entertainment and talent that is here year-round and a fraction of the price.
Is Cork really big enough for its huge music scene? Do we need to press for a musical equivalent of farming’s set-aside, an EU subsidy to lay a portion of our musicians fallow in order not to saturate the market?
What comes to a head at festival time, when we see the wealth of Cork’s talent amplified by visiting artists in lavish productions, is the tip of the iceberg. Yet day-to-day that wealth is there if you scratch the surface playing brilliant music, often for free, to half-empty rooms.
The city may have a reputation for music, particularly among touring artists who love to play our permanent venues to an intimate yet sophisticated audience, but we don’t seem to have a strategy for selling what we have to the outside world. Yet we need to do something to increase numbers, there just isn’t enough audience to go round.
Music thrives on what Cork has to offer. First off is the walkable size of the place, the ease with which people meet, re-meet and foster friendships.
We have dozens of good venues and still more in the pipeline. We do lack, perhaps tellingly, a medium-sized place that can comfortably seat about 400 people.
At the heart of it all, of course, are the musicians. Cork has a tradition of producing and attracting incredible musicians, and an appreciation of musicianship and passionate performance that is heedless of social divides. The range of our music education opportunities today is remarkable and an important contributing factor in the diverse out-of-town contingent of artists who continue to help us to up our game.
The extent of music-making in the city is demonstrated by an ability to support three specialist shops offering all manner of instruments and books. They survive in an age of cheap imports over the internet thanks to the expert advice and after-sales care they can provide.
Shopping for recorded music is admittedly less well catered for. Suffice it to say that while I decided to leave all names out of this article, there is really only one proper record shop in town. Thankfully, in its well-run independence it is a beacon of good judgement.
While the kind of jazz that is rolled into town once a year in October struggles to live on in the city year-round, improvisation and experimentation is alive and well any day of the week. Yet, time and again, we fail to muster the kind of audiences that would make it sustainable, that would allow it to reach its potential. When world class artists regularly play to half-full venues, despite state-subsidised tickets prices of a modest level, what future is there for the talent we have on our doorsteps?
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