Charting a better future for traditional arts

Jack Talty

A comprehensive research report on the challenges, opportunities and supports currently available to traditional arts practitioners in Ireland – which has been launched by Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann at its online TradTalks event – raises a number of crucial issues about the current state of the sector and its potential development in the future.

The report, Navigating the Traditional Atrts Sector in Ireland, provides a detailed description of the current landscape for traditional artists in Ireland – providing an inventory of the various supports available from a variety of agencies and bodies as well as delineating the challenges identified by a number of contributors. It then distills a range of recommendations for the future, including the proposition that the traditional arts sector needs to develop a aingle overarching structure that can draw the various strands within the sector together in order to provide more effecctive repreaentation in dealing with Government and other external bodies.

Commissioned in 2019 by Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann, the project was undertaken by musician, producer and researcher, Jack Talty, and included an anonymised survey of practitioners as well as seventy-four interviews with selected figures. The report was essentially completed before the pandemic. However, Talty indicated that the final draft was subsequently adjusted to take account of the Mise Fosta movement.

During this year’s Trad Talk, Jack Talty was interviewed at the online launch of the report by Ruth Smith of RTÉ. The video recording of the interview is available to view at https://tradtalk2020.heysummit.com/talks/opening-address/. The final research report has been published online at https://www.trad-ireland.com/report. as a resource for the wider traditional arts community, and with the intention of providing direction for future initiatives by Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann and other organisations in the sector. Below is the Executive Summary from the report.

Executive Summary

This research report overviews both the opportunities and challenges encountered by practitioners working in the traditional arts sector in Ireland. Section OneFirst, section one of this report overviews a range of funding and creative supports available on the island of Ireland. Such artistic supports and resources include:

  • Funding awards and supports offered by bodies such as the Arts Council, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and Culture Ireland;
  • Local Authority Arts Office supports;
  • Artist-in-Residence initiatives;
  • Music Network;
  • Foras na Gaeilge and Ealaín na Gaeltachta;
  • Music business and enterprise supports;
  • Resources provided by existing traditional arts representative organisations such as Na Píobairí Uilleann, Cruit Éireann/Harp Ireland, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann;
  • Government initiatives and welfare supports.

It is hoped that traditional arts practitioners who are unfamiliar with existing artistic supports available in the traditional arts sector will benefit from becoming more informed about the various schemes and awards presented in this document. Section Two
Section two of this report focuses on the challenges experienced by those working in the traditional arts sector, and its role is to provide a pioneering platform for traditional artists to communicate such difficulties. Practitioner voices are represented through interviews with 74 individuals and an online survey also provided a forum for practitioners and other stakeholders to offer important insights into the traditional arts community and semi-professional and professional sector in Ireland.

According to interview and survey responses, the primary challenges encountered by those working in the traditional arts sector include:

  • A need for a central information hub that overviews available funding supports and resources available in the traditional arts sector;
  • A need for a centralised, cohesive and democratic advocacy voice for the wider traditional arts sector;
  • A demand for a forum for ongoing sector-wide collaboration and dialogue;
  • A dedicated physical space/premises for the wider traditional arts sector;
  • A desire to mirror the international reputation of the traditional arts at home in Ireland;
  • Career unsustainability regardless of experience or age;
  • A difficulty in obtaining financial services such as mortgages and loans;
  • A lack of employment benefits, illness supports, and access to schemes such as the Artists’ Exemption;
  • Declining album revenue;
  • Part-time and full-time professionals competing for the same opportunities;
  • The lack of an employment safeguard scheme such as the Intermittent du Spectacle in France;
  • Insufficient media coverage for the traditional arts on mainstream TV and radio;
  • Insufficient review/discourse opportunities for the traditional arts in mainstream journalism platforms;
  • Perceived cronyism among media professionals, programmers, and other gatekeepers;
  • Pejorative attitudes towards the traditional arts among media management and producers;
  • Low and inconsistent rates of pay;
  • Inconstancies in how intellectual property rights are respected and protected;
  • Inequitable contracts and exclusivity agreements;
  • Poor levels of Arts Council funding for the traditional arts in comparison to other artforms and genres of music;
  • Perceptions that Arts Council application processes are formulaic and unrepresentative of the practices of the traditional arts community;
  • A lack of consultancy and advice available on Arts Council funding applications comparable to previous Deis Advisor schemes;
  • The resources required and challenges encountered when managing Arts Council funding for projects;
  • The perceived disproportionate impact of the Arts Council on artistic practice in the traditional arts;
  • The selectivity involved in both shortlisting and funding applications made to the Arts Council;
  • The perceived biases and prejudices of Arts Council peer assessment panels;
  • Poor public perception of the traditional arts in Ireland among non-participants despite unprecedented popularity among participants;
  • Gender barriers and imbalances in programming;
  • Inappropriate professional conduct and sexual harassment;
  • Perceptions of the traditional arts as an artform, in comparison to other artforms and genres of music;
  •  The impact of the pub session on perceptions of the traditional arts and on audience engagement for paid concert performances;
  • The perceived low level of knowledge about the traditional arts among programmers, arts administrators and other stakeholders;
  • Insufficient and inadequate traditional arts content in the Irish education system.
  • A need for increased audience engagement with the traditional arts;
  • A lack of recognition for traditional artists in Aosdána, and the consequent public image implications for the traditional arts;
  • Balancing creativity with music business and administrative work;
  • A lack of business supports/experience among traditional artists;
  • A lack of a connected touring and venue infrastructure for the traditional arts;
  • IMRO registration and royalty collection;
  • International instrument transport;
  • Obtaining travel visas to the USA.

Recommendations In an attempt to address these challenges, this report makes 48 recommendations:
Availing of existing opportunities

  • Artists and other stakeholders unfamiliar with the opportunities and resources available to the traditional arts sector should use section one of this document as a starting point to proactively seek out supports relevant to their creative and professional needs as traditional artists.
  • It is recommended that an advocacy body develop an online information hub that overviews and regularly updates the funding and professional supports and opportunities available to traditional artists in Ireland.

Career unsustainability and unsatisfactory working conditions

  • It is recommended that an existing traditional arts representative or resource organisation facilitates workshops, webinars or other consultancy opportunities for traditional artists to avail of advice and guidance on matters such as financial management, accounting and business supports.
  • In the absence of published pay rates or guidelines for the traditional arts, a traditional arts representative organisation should consider developing and publishing a charter for pay scales, contracts and working conditions, comparable to steps taken by advocacy organisations such as Words Ireland and The Contemporary Music Centre.
  • It is recommended that the Arts Council communicates to events and festivals in receipt of funding, the importance of adhering to the Council’s policy on pay and remuneration by respecting and protecting the intellectual property and rights of artists whereby permission (and remuneration, if possible) is required when performances are recorded for subsequent broadcast and other use.
  • Traditional artists should engage with the Musicians’ Union of Ireland to become familiar with the potential benefits of MUI membership.
  • The Musicians’ Union of Ireland should proactively seek out opportunities to interact with traditional artists at traditional arts festivals and events.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative organisation provide a forum to discuss the establishment of an industry co-operative that could collaboratively engage the various stakeholders in the recording industry chain, with a view to optimising and streamlining the process for the benefit of artists.

Mentorship and increased professional opportunities

  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative organisation, in collaboration with the Arts Council, establishes a mentorship programme whereby experienced practitioners and music business professionals offer guidance to emerging traditional artists and other interested parties in areas such as artistic development and music business.
  • Interested venues and institutions should proactively seek funding from the Arts Council to establish artist-in-residence initiatives as part of their traditional arts programming.

Touring supports

  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative organisation encourage and facilitate the development of a partnership with venues and programmers, comparable to theatre networks such as NASC, Nomad, Strollers, Imeall, and Shortworks.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative organisation liaise and collaborate with an established and experienced organisation such as Music Network on an additional touring opportunity, to optimise the development of traditional arts projects and audiences, with a potential focus on supporting existing projects through an open-call application process.
  • Where feasible and relevant, traditional artists, management and festival organisers should consult the airline policy rating system developed by the International Federation of Musicians when selecting an airline for international performances.

Artist welfare and employment supports

  • It is recommended that an existing traditional arts representative or resource organisation collaborate with other Irish arts resource and representative organisations such as the National Campaign for the Arts in order to represent the voices of traditional artists in any collective dialogue with Government on issues such as employment, social protection, arts funding, and obtaining travel visas, for example.
  • It is recommended that an existing traditional arts representative or resources organisation liaise with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to act as a certifying professional organisation on behalf of traditional artists who are not members of the Musicians’ Union of Ireland (MUI).
  • It is recommended that the Arts Council and the Revenue Commissioners clarify or revise policy on the tax exemption status of traditional arts awards that do not involve the creation of new work. At present, documentation states that awards for interpretative work, which forms the vast majority of traditional arts activity, are not exempt from income tax.
  • In the absence of any emergency benevolent fund to provide urgent financial assistance to traditional artists in times of unexpected financial crisis, it is recommended that models such as Help Musicians UK are researched with a view to developing a similar scheme for traditional artists in Ireland. This could potentially be funded through tax deductible philanthropic donations from sectors that benefit considerably from Irish traditional music, song, and dance.

The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO)

  • It is recommended that traditional artists liaise with IMRO in order to become more familiar with copyright and royalty payments accruing from their registered works.
  • It is recommended that IMRO representatives increase engagement with the traditional arts sector by providing outreach activities at various events and festivals.
  • It is recommended that IMRO appoint a dedicated officer to liaise with a traditional arts representative organisation in order to provide guidance to those who wish to claim outstanding royalty payments but who may not be IMRO members.

Gender imbalances and a reporting mechanism for inappropriate behaviour

  • An appropriate umbrella advocacy or representative organisation should consider collaborating with relevant existing support organisations to facilitate the establishment of a confidential, robust, and ethical platform for reporting inappropriate professional behaviour relating to payment, contracts, and general conduct. Such an organisation could at least begin a conversation to liaise with the Musicians’ Union and traditional arts festivals in an effort to collaboratively progress such an initiative.
  • It is recommended that traditional arts festivals and events develop charters of best practice for eliminating instances of sexual harassment and misconduct and consider distributing flyers and posters detailing contact information for dedicated liaison personnel.
  • It is recommended that the necessity to provide a safe environment for all attendees is communicated directly by the Arts Council to traditional arts festivals and events in receipt of Council funding.

Funding bodies and awards

  • Traditional artists and other stakeholders should subscribe to the Arts Council’s regular newsletters for updates on available supports and upcoming deadlines.
  • It is recommended that the challenges documented in this report are observed by the Arts Council as sufficient justification for re-assessing traditional arts funding when developing the next phase of Council policy beyond 2022.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts resource organisation make representations to the Arts Council to advocate for increased traditional arts funding on behalf of the wider community and sector.
  • It is recommended that traditional arts funding awards such as the Deis Recording Award are re-evaluated in terms of their feasibility, in consultation with industry professionals and practitioners.
  • It is recommended that the next three-year Arts Council strategy to follow Making Great Art Work 2020-22, offers a platform and mechanism for traditional arts stakeholders to contribute to traditional arts policy to ensure that Council policy resonates with practitioner perspectives.
  • Based on the consensus outlined in this research, it is recommended that the Arts Council continue to increase their level of outreach and community engagement activities at festivals and traditional arts events, in order to attract new funding applicants.
  • In the absence of Deis advisors it is recommended that the Arts Council provides more frequent funding advice clinics in locations not confined to Dublin and its environs.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative or resource organisation prioritise the provision of workshops and consultancy opportunities for applicants to receive support and feedback on funding applications.
  • It is recommended that publicly funded Arts Council initiatives such as Tradition Now, programmed in collaboration with the National Concert Hall, implement an open-call element to its programming in order to provide traditional artists with an opportunity to apply to perform.

The public image and profile of the traditional arts

  • It is recommended that programmers and artists consider increasing audience engagement for local performances through workshops and other outreach activities comparable to the model developed by Music Network.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative body consider engaging in effective dialogue with national media management in order to represent the concerns of the traditional arts sector about insufficient media coverage.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative body considers liaising with bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Screen Skills Ireland to increase collaboration between the traditional arts and creative media sectors, with a view to providing mentorship opportunities comparable to the Irish Traditional Music Writer Mentoring Scheme established by the Journal of Music.
  • Traditional artists are encouraged to engage more proactively and effectively with media professionals in order to maximise airplay and media coverage for new releases and events.
  • It is recommended that a traditional arts representative body considers programming a forum for traditional artists to interact with media professionals and broadcasters at a traditional arts event, such as TradTalk.
  • It is recommended that a representative body consider facilitating workshops on social media promotional tools and digital marketing to enable traditional artists to look beyond conventional media platforms for promoting their work.
  • It is recommended that a representative body consider the establishment of a national/ international Irish Traditional Arts Day to maximise exposure to the traditional arts among the mainstream Irish population.
  • Interested parties from within the traditional arts sector should proactively engage with the Arts in Education Portal and open calls from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) with a view to developing traditional arts educational content.
  • It is recommended that the Arts Council and Aosdána make a formal statement on Aosdána’s policy on the traditional arts in order to acknowledge what are perceived as inconsistencies in the interpretation of the 2003 Arts Act.

Traditional arts advocacy

  • Despite the exemplary work being undertaken by specialist organisations within the traditional arts sector, there is consensus expressed in this research that an umbrella representative organisation is needed to work on behalf of the wider traditional arts community/sector. It is recommended that Trad Ireland / Traid Éireann consider fulfilling that role.
  • In response to a demand communicated by contributors to this research, Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann should endeavour to host a TradTalk event on an annual basis.
  • Considering the demonstrated ambition and capacity of traditional artists to advocate for the traditional arts, albeit on an individual, ad hoc, and fragmented basis, the development of a new resource or representative organisation for the traditional arts should embed practitioner engagement and input as a key component in its own development as an organisation.
  • Given the potential of an annual TradTalk event to address so many of the concerns expressed by traditional artists and other stakeholders in this research, it is recommended that the Arts Council and Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann develop a collaborative partnership that ensures the longevity and impact of such an event.
  • Notwithstanding the highly ambitious pursuit of providing a premises for a new traditional arts representative body, it is recommended that further research into the feasibility of this objective be undertaken.
  • Any resource or representative organisation with an ambition to sustainably advocate for the traditional arts in Ireland to the level demonstrated by organisations such as Dance Ireland, Folk Org, or the Traditional Music Forum in Scotland, must source strategic funding opportunities that will allow for maximum growth and impact. Relying on project-based funding awards will undermine the potential of such an organisation to adequately advocate on behalf of its membership.
  • An umbrella traditional arts representative or resource organisation should regularly liaise with existing international organisations working with traditional and folk arts to collaborate and dialogue on best practice for sector-specific advocacy. This should include collaboration with the recently-established European Folk Network.

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