Mary Black speaks about her relationship with Irish folk music, and the difficulties for artists in the modern music business. This interview was conducted by Pat Kehoe of Irish Music Daily in December 2011.
Do you still feel part of the Irish folk tradition?
Yes I do to be honest. I never really was a traditional singer. I came from the heart of Dublin, but I had a strong interest in folk and traditional music in the early days.
I think that left a strong mark on me as a performer because I think who you are in your formative years is the making of your style and who you become as an artist. So I definitely was influenced strongly by folk and traditional music and that’s why it will never leave me.
Mary Black albums available on iTunesI love it still as a punter. I love listening to other people’s music. But my style has evolved and changed. It’s very difficult for me to actually comment so much on it because I’m so deep in it that it’s hard for me to make an observation as to how much I’ve changed or what’s happened.
Do you think the traditional folk scene is still going strong? Is it still vibrant?
I can only judge from Ireland really. The problem with traditional music in Ireland is that it doesn’t sell very well in Ireland. However there’s lots and lots of great young bands, traditional bands and musicians and singers that are still very much involved in it and actually they play outside of Ireland.
That’s the sad thing because I know from the record companies that I’m with, they’ve had trad albums and they know the figures are never huge.
It’s very sad I don’t know why that is, I can’t explain it but I know when you go abroad for example, America, Australia, places in Europe of course, Germany and Holland and those countries particularly would love traditional Irish music.
They’re a bigger market than the Irish market really.
Very much so. Some of the biggest bands would find it hard to make a living in Ireland from music. You have to go abroad to make a living. You go away and come back. I don’t mean you have to live abroad but you have to work abroad.
Has that always been the case? Since the 60s?
I think the 70s was a good time with the likes of Planxty and the Bothy Band and the Chieftains to an extent. I don’t know when it changed. Not to say that people don’t like it but they don’t buy the albums and they don’t go to the concerts as much. I don’t think so anyway.
Has it become harder over the last 15-20 years? Business has obviously changed with YouTube and downloads.
Very much, the last few years particularly. They’re saying that record companies aren’t going to be manufacturing CDs by the year 2013. That’s kind of hard to even imagine. The download thing and the illegal downloads, this is another whole thing.
How will artists and how will record companies survive? I don’t know if they will. More and more I think artists will make their money through touring and gigging and selling at gigs, not CDs and downloads.
With regards to the business, has it become harder? I think it has. If I was starting off now I’d say it would be harder. I think I’m lucky because I’ve established myself, particularly in Ireland I still have a strong persona.
People still would be very aware of me and I would be doing concerts regularly and that kind of thing. But I think I’m lucky. I do think it’s got harder for some people, I think the whole X factor style of stardom, this talk of being famous and stars, I just think it’s not about music it’s about something else. Now I know there’s still very much genuine singer-songwriters and artists all over the world who aren’t into that, but I do think it has a slightly damaging affect.
Do you suffer from illegal downloads? Or does YouTube bother you?
I would suffer from illegal downloads I’m sure but not as much as maybe a young band because I think it’s the young people are doing it more. They’re passing on to their pals.
I think young people need to be made more aware that the artists are actually losing money because of it. It’s not just about the record company, it’s about the artist. They’re actually ripping off these artists that they love.
Also in America I think they’re coming down a bit harder. Hefty fines or whatever if you’re caught and maybe if there was a bit more of that in Ireland… really I don’t’ know how much I’m affected.
I’m affected a bit but I don’t think I’m affected as much because my audiences still, I would say, for the most part are a CD buying audience, because they’re older. We’ll be the last ones to be affected!
What about things like YouTube? When you see your stuff on there? Is that good or is that bad? Does it help you or does it hinder you?
For the most part for me it’s been fine. But it’s a huge invasion of privacy. Somebody gets their phone and they record a couple of songs at a concert and it’s on YouTube the next day, the sound on the phone is crap. You sound crap, you might look crap so it’s not doing you any favours.
What about actually taking tracks from your album and putting it up? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I suppose it’s a bad thing but then again, you’re getting out there. Who knows? It’s hard to know. I think it’s too soon to know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just very much a changing time now and we’re right in the middle of it.
I know for record companies and record shops. You can’t make a living selling albums anymore because business is so bad and the rents are still hugely high. There’s a recession. All these things come into play. Who knows where it’s all going to end.
I suppose that brings you back to live performances
Live performances. That’s what it’s about. And I think why lot of record companies even now are talking about this 360 deal* which is like, they’re involved in the live stuff as well because the sale of records has become so difficult, you haven’t control over what goes out and what’s taken.
So all that – it’s a whole new world really isn’t it?
*360 deals are arrangements between an artist and a music industry company. The company agrees to support the artist financially with advances and promotion in exchange for a share of all the artist’s income from all sources, including concert tours and merchandise.
The move is in response to the fact that revenue from recorded music has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. Companies fear they cannot return their investment in an artist on record sales alone and need a share of all earnings to make a profit.