Renowned across the world for having a good time or craic, as the locals say, the Republic of Ireland and its neighbour Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, is on an upward trajectory after taking its time to recover from the economic crash of 2008.
After several decades of sectarian conflict in the Northern Ireland, people on both sides of the border have enjoyed peace since the Good Friday Agreement reached between opposing parties in 1998.
This has allowed the UK Governments to concentrate on other issues, such as regeneration, particularly in Belfast.
Undoubtedly the biggest show of last year was the homecoming of U2, who played the 80,000-capacity Croke Park in Dublin, as part of the Joshua Tree tour.
Even bigger in terms of overall numbers will be Ed Sheeran’s remarkable series of concerts, comprising three each at each at Dublin’s Phoenix Park (cap. 60,000) and Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh (45,000), two at Galway’s Pearse Stadium (26,000) and one at Boucher Playing Fields (50,000) in Belfast.
Aiken Promotions, which has offices in Belfast and Dublin, is promoting the shows and says 300,000 tickets for the original seven dates sold out in one day, a new record for an act in Ireland.
“What has happened with Ed is phenomenal and it shows the demand for live music is still very strong,” says the company’s Peter Aiken.
“We’ve now sold 415,000 tickets across nine shows – a record no other artiste has at the moment considering the size of our population.”
Aiken Promotions staged around 400 shows in 2017, and expects to do the same this year, with forthcoming events including Billy Joel at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium (50,000), seven shows by The Gloaming at Dublin’s National Concert Hall (1,200), Niall Horan at the SSE Arena Belfast (10,500), two concerts by The National at Donnybrook Stadium (6,000) and 25,000 tickets sold across two shows at Dublin’s 3arena (13,000) with Roger Waters.
The company, which owns Dublin’s Vicar Street (1,500), also runs concert series Live at The Marquee (5,000) in Cork with The Script, Picture This, Alanis Morissette and A-Ha on the bill this summer, and outdoor concerts at Dublin city centre’s Iveagh Gardens (4,000).
“The live scene is the healthiest it’s been in years and there is a fantastic range of homegrown acts coming out of Ireland at the moment,” notes Aiken.
“Ticket prices are always a concern, but the show quality has really improved over the last couple of years in terms of production. Even the smaller shows are pulling out the stops and using production of a very high standard.”
Heading up Ireland’s biggest promoter, MCD Productions, is Denis Desmond who is also non-executive chairman of promotions at Live Nation Entertainment (LNE) in the UK office.
Desmond’s influence spans several ventures across the UK, through joint ventures with LNE, LN-Gaiety – which owns Festival Republic, multi-festival promoter of events such as Reading (90,000) and Leeds (80,000), and Wireless (49,000) – as well as stakes in the twin V festivals and venue chain Academy Music Group. He also helped fund the Isle of Wight Festival (45,000) in its early years, with the event now owned by LNE.
MCD’s Irish venues include Dublin’s The Academy (850), The Gaiety Theatre (2,000) and Olympia Theatre (1,240), with concert promotions including two-nights with Taylor Swift and one with Michael Buble at Croke Park, Bruno Mars at Marlay Park (12,000) and The Coronas at 3Arena.
Northern Ireland-based Joe Gallagher Entertainments is one of longest established national promoters and staged more than 150 events in 2017, ranging from intimate 125-capacity shows to arenas. It expects to do at least 100 shows this year as well.
“Live music is very healthy and I think it will continue growing as long as we can keep ticket prices to a sensible level that enables the concert-goer to deem the cost as value for money,” says founder Joe Gallagher.
“Ticket prices are too high at the top-end. However, the cost of running events, especially a festival or open-air show, is very high, so this has to be passed on.”
Gallagher works with artistes such as The Beach Boys, Suzi Quatro, Bay City Rollers, Smokie and Bagatelle.
“For a country with such a small population, the music
scene in Ireland continues to be remarkably healthy”
Dublin’s 3Arena opened a decade ago, replacing The Point (5,000) as it was known, as The O2 before telecoms company 3 Ireland’s acquisition of O2 Ireland.
“The market is good and the economy in Ireland has noticeably picked up last year and the trend seems set to continue with all shows selling well,” says general manager Cormac Rennick.
“Obviously Brexit is a concern [the Republic remains in the European Union] as there is no certainty over how the border [with UK/Northern Ireland] will look and how this may impact on acts looking to play both Dublin and Belfast.”
Evidence of how the country has recovered since the economic crisis is seen in the number of shows taking place at the LNE-owned venue – 104 last year compared to an average of 75-80 during the recession.
Among hot tickets in 2017 were Ed Sheeran, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Killers and Depeche Mode. Forthcoming concerts feature The Script, Morrisey, Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamarr.
“Ticket prices in general reflect good value for money when you look at what goes into the production,” says Rennick. “People are no longer just attending a concert, it is now a complete spectacle.
“For a country with such a small population, the music scene in Ireland continues to be remarkably healthy, and we continue to produce acts that can perform on a global stage, such as Hozier and the very promising Picture This.”
Across the border is The SSE Arena Belfast (10,800), which has hosted shows by acts including Neil Diamond, Little Mix and The Stone Roses over the last 12 months, while Adele opened her UK tour there with two sold-out shows in March 2016.
Known as the Odyssey Arena until 2015, when a 10-year naming rights deal was agreed with energy company SSE, the venue underwent a £3 million ($4.1m) refurbishment in 2016. It staged around 50 shows last year, but expects to exceed that in 2018.
“We pride ourselves on the diversity of shows that we have,” says general manager Neil Walker.
“We continue to look at ways to develop the venue and make the best use of its flexibility, including further investment in the intimate theatre-style format.
As for Brexit, Walker says, “It may be that the market is outweighing the uncertainty that surrounds exchange rates, transport costs and the various factors that put Northern Ireland in a unique position in the Brexit talks.”
Upcoming concerts feature Niall Horan with tickets at £35.50-45.50 ($48.50-62), Stereophonics (£41.50, $57), Jason Derulo (£41.50-45.50, $57-62), Iron Maiden (£62.50-69.50, $86-95.50) and Paloma Faith priced at £38-49 ($52-67).
At Belfast venues The Limelight (850) and Limelight 2 (475) the demand for club level shows has resulted in owner Shine Productions planning 250-300 events this year, including Steel Panther, Gary Numan, Feeder and Public Service Broadcasting.
“On the whole at club level tickets are doing pretty well,” says Shine’s Joe Dougan.
“There’s occasionally a discrepancy between an act’s profile in Dublin and Belfast, and it can be difficult to justify the same level of venue in Belfast as in Dublin, and on occasion vice versa.”
Shine also co-promotes the Belsonic (5,000) festival at Ormeau Park with MCD, and concert series Custom House Square (CHSq) at the same location.
Firmly established on the scene Belsonic will mark its 11th year with a bill featuring The 1975, Arcade Fire and Chainsmokers.
“There are no large camping festivals here, but the annual Vital [promoted by MCD], Belsonic and Custom House runs of outdoor events in Belfast go from strength to strength,” says Dougan. “Other headliners already include Liam Gallagher, The Script, Picture This, Kasabian and Carl Cox.”
Dougan is conscious that tickets need to be at the right level.
“We are very sensitive to this and will strongly argue our case for keeping prices lower,” he explains. “We generally go no higher than regional UK prices, despite the additional costs travelling from the mainland and the smaller Belfast population.”
This objective is obviously serving the company well as it is due to open a new multipurpose venue, The Telegraph Building (1,900), on the site of the former printing press for The Belfast Telegraph newspaper in the coming months.
“We are planning lots of concerts there this year,” says Dougan. “The space is fully fitted out to accommodate international touring artistes and the building’s character and heritage has been persevered.”
Another major force at the smaller end of the Dublin music scene is Whelan’s, hosting around 800 shows a year, a quarter of which it promotes itself, across its 450 and 120-capacity spaces.
Upcoming shows feature Jake Bugg, British Sea Power, Chris Difford and Shakey Graves. Ticket prices average €20 ($24.50) for established acts, and €10-12 ($12-14.60) for local up-and-coming artistes.
“The market is very strong, particularly over the last six months, and bookings look very good for the next few months,” notes Whelan’s promoter and bookings manager Dave Allen.
“There always seems to be a healthy demand for live music in Ireland and I can’t see that changing much.”
He does however feel that Dublin is lacking a good mid-sized venue of around 4,000 capacity, an opinion shared by Peter Aiken.
“We are very fortunate that business has been great and it’s
good to see the underlying economy a lot more buoyant again”
Two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Dublin is Dolan’s Warehouse (400) in Limerick. The venue is run by chief booker Neil Dolan, along with brother Mick, and the pair also promote across the country under Dolans Presents Live, with 300 shows expected this year.
The promoter has shows coming up with artistes including Walking On Cars at The Castle (2,000) with tickets at €43 ($52), Stranglers at Big Top (1,200) priced at €33 ($40) and Don McLean at University Concert Hall (960), with tickets costing €45 ($54.50).
“The biggest problem at the moment is building acts,” says Neil Dolan. “The talent is there, but with so many shows on every year it’s harder to get traction.”
He says travel costs and hotel prices have increased making it harder for people to attend as many events.
“Artistes need to make more money from shows as people are streaming or illegally downloading music,” he says. “Meanwhile, ticket prices fluctuate from show to show and have to be taken in each context, but in general I think they are just about right.”
Over in Belfast social enterprise T13 (5,000), is also located in a warehouse, previously used for shipbuilding, and mainly stages electronic music events such as AVA Festival and Cream, as well as regional acts including Towers and Altus.
“We put on a wide spectrum of events,” says Gary Flynn, a director of venue operator Square Pit Productions. “We work with independent promoters and are an incubator for talent. We make every event look different and represent the vision of our promoters, and at the heart is the customer experience.”
Last summer the team behind the venture launched a second venue in the city – South 13 (9,000) which is also looking to host live music.
“We’re purposefully starting quite small at T13, with local bands and other events outside of music, to build it up to a hybrid music and events venue,” says Flynn.
Now in its 10th year the three-day surf and music festival Sea Sessions in Bundoran on the north-west coast in County Donegal, is marking the occasion by expanding capacity from 5,000 to 7,500. Dizzee Rascal and Walking on Cars have been announced as headliners and festival director Ray O’Donoghue is in an optimistic mood.
“Things have definitely picked up in the last two or three years and we seem to be back to the pre-recession days,” he says.
“Sea Sessions, Electric Picnic [47,000] and Indiependence [8,000] all sell-out in advance, so demand is there, but although we have lots of festivals there may be a lack of quality events.”
Along with the festival, O’Donoghue also promotes around 50 shows annually and recently did a sell-out country-wide tour with Badly Drawn Boy. He has forthcoming tours with Lee Scratch Perry, Mr Scruff and Chris Difford from Squeeze, but says the Irish music scene could do with being spiced up.
“I’d like to see new artistes coming through with a bit more of an attitude with something to say for themselves,” O’Donoghue says. “We’ve got some great acts in the country but some of the ones that are breaking through are just a bit wishy-washy.”
Down south, the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival was launched in 1978 and has featured acts such as Imelda May, Kenny Garrett and Dee Dee Bridgewater,
It uses around 80 venues across the city, including Cork Opera House (1,200), The Everyman Theatre (600) and Triskel Christchurch (320) during three days in October, covering genres such as folk, pop and jazz-rock.
Programme director Jack McGouran says the event attracted 50,000 people last year.
“We had the strongest ticket sales and footfall in a decade,” he says.
“As far as I’m concerned the festival market is buoyant and people are happy with our average ticket price of €35 [$42.50]. The only problem on the horizon is Brexit, which may affect things in future, particularly visitor numbers from the UK.”
The line-up for this year’s event is yet to be announced.
Also operating outside of just the two capital cities is Shane Mitchell, producer of Sligo Live, a multi-venue indoor festival held in the north-western town – with the event now in its 14th year.
“All indicators suggest the live scene is set to keep growing. Festivals can offer wider programming these days where different genres of music can sit together and draw from different audiences,” he says. “With West Ireland airport now serving multiple destinations in the UK, people are taking the short trip for music filled weekends.”
He also believes that festival ticketing is undergoing a shake-up. “I think ticket prices are more sensible than years ago and festival ticketing will become a stand-alone model offering better value and packages.”
The line-up has yet to be announced.
Pat Egan’s Dublin-based Pat Egan Management has been promoting for more than 45 years, working with artistes such as Elton John, Sting, Status Quo and Eric Clapton.
He also promoted Bob Marley’s first Irish concert at Dublin’s Dalymount Park in 1980 to a crowd of 29,000. He expects to promote around 250 shows this year.
“Most of our market is in the 40-60 years of age bracket and business was very good in the latter half of 2017,” he says.
Despite the current market strength, Egan believes Ireland is in need of more independent venues like Vicar Street and the National Concert Hall.
“If we continue to produce quality shows then the future is always secure,” he says. “The problem is too many awful tribute acts, no production values and poor performers.”
Among forthcoming concerts are Russell Watson at Bord Gais Energy Theatre (2,000), and the Irish Tenors at National Concert Hall.
Another who has chosen to tailor his offering is promoter Colin Wasson, formerly of Big Noise Concerts, but now operating under the RCW Live banner in Belfast. The company’s biggest show will be The Belfast International Tattoo, comprising three concerts at the SSE Arena Belfast in September. Tickets cost £35-50 ($48-68).
“This is very much a niche event which appeals to a wide cross section of the community and a range of ages, with around 600 artistes will be taking part,” he says.
“We are very mindful of the demographic who come to our shows and set ticket prices to suit, working hard to be as family-orientated as possible.”
Owned by Belfast City Council, the Waterfront Hall (2,700) and Ulster Hall (1,750) – where Led Zeppelin first performed Stairway to Heaven in 1971 – have hosted shows by U2, Westlife, Robbie Williams and One Direction.
“We have a very strong local market and with Belfast receiving prestigious endorsements such as Lonely Planet’s Best Place To Visit in 2018, we are increasingly reaping the rewards of growing cultural tourism to bolster the success of the domestic market,” says Adam Knight, programme manager for the two venues.
However, the prospect of further reductions in funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has made for a gloomy start to the year.
“As the UK nation [Northern Ireland] with the lowest per capita spend on the arts, further cuts to the arts budget will cause catastrophic and long-term effects to the local arts sector,” Knight explains. “It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the ability of local artistes to continue to create and develop work suitable for presentation on our stages,”.
Among other artistes due to perform at the venues are Paul Weller, Jake Bugg, Gary Barlow and Billy Ocean.
Over in Londonderry (more commonly known as Derry), the Millennium Forum (1,200) opened in 2001 and hosts shows by acts such as Lisa McHugh (tickets as £23.50/$32), Mary Black (£27.50/$37.50) and Don McLean (£24-35/$33-48).
“Live music is a big component of our programming strategy and we aim to promote around 50 shows in 2018,” says chief executive David McLaughlin. “We have recently developed a standing configuration which has increased our standing/seated capacity to 1,400–1,500.”
For McLaughlin, one of the market’s big challenges is attracting music acts away from playing just Belfast and Dublin, with the north-west often overlooked.
“As the Millennium Forum is extremely close to the border, a percentage of our market is from the Republic which has the euro and this is always factored into our business plan,” he explains.
Meanwhile, John O’Neill, CEO of Tickets.ie, says the company has experienced a substantial jump in revenue due to increased sales, achieving €21m ($25.5m) turnover between March and December last year, compared to €18.5m ($22.4m) over the previous 12 months.
“We are very fortunate that business has been great and it’s good to see the underlying economy a lot more buoyant again,” he says.
However not everything in the ticketing sector is rosy, with touting a growing problem which has resulted in legislation being drafted and the Competition and Markets Authority investigating.
With this in mind, the company is planning to launch ticketing platform, SeatFair in the coming months, aimed at ensuring genuine fans have better access to tickets.
“It’s not going to entirely eliminate touting, but it should greatly reduce it,” says O’Neill.
In conclusion, 3Arena’s Cormack Rennick, says, “We are a country with a young population and Irish people love to go out to live events.”
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
Population: 4.7 million/ 1.8 million
GDP per capita (US$): 66,787/ 23,700
Currency: Euro (EUR)/British pound (GBP)
US$ exchange rate: 1.19238/1.3526
Internet users: 3.8m/ 1.1m
Broadband households: 2.9m/967,000