A FolkWorld article by Sean Laffey
Bob Conway presents a programme called Best of Irish on RTÉ Radio 2FM and if you are familiar with the station's output I'm sure you are thinking what has this to do with a traditional and folk music magazine? Hold the scepticism for a paragraph or two, then think again as the story unfolds of an unusual compilation traditional CD that is about to be launched onto the Irish market in early June.
Bob has set himself an enormously difficult task, the story of the Best of Irish, is a combination of goodwill hunting, legal wrangling and a race against time. In essence the project has to be completed in a mere two months, from negotiations with artists and their record labels to the production of the shiny discs and their distribution throughout Ireland. During this time a series of TV and Radio ads have to be produced to back the campaign and a competition will have been running on 2FMs Drive Time programme for the design that will ultimately grace the sleeve of the album. Entires will be judged by Jim Fitzpatrick and Bob, the winner will receive an Apple I Mac computer "any colour you like" quips Bob.
This would be a tall order for any record producer, even those who own the bulk of the tracks and are able to access design and production facilities in house. Bob Conway is doing all of this on the tightest of budgets - zero money, this is a project that is running on high octane enthusiasm, and Bob must have the infectious virulent kind because as he freely admits he couldn't complete the task by himself.
Having heard about the CD on the industry grapevine, I made an appointment to see Bob in the Radio Centre at RTÉ Montrose to find out at first hand the thinking behind this project. For those unfamiliar with the bricks and mortar rather than the ether of RTÉ the Radio Centre is at the far end of the Montrose complex on Nutley Avenue in Dublin 4. After being screened by the friendly security staff and finding a parking space within a quick leap of the Radio reception area ( I always like to park close on the days when I forget to pack my umbrella), I called Bob on the mobile to tell him I had arrived. (For once I was early and Bob hadn't even left home).
Waiting in the reception area, which is a pretty swanky affair as one would expect of the national Radio station, I was struck by a bust of Ciarán MacMathuna that guards the entrance to the studio areas. Here in bronze was a lasting tribute to the spirit of early Radio Eireann and all those jobs of journey work when Ciarán scoured the country for original traditional music. A far cry from compilation albums thought I. At the very moment that scurrilous thought was zipping through my cranium in breezes Ciarán. Passing his own effigy without even a nod he disappeared into the vaulted studios below leaving me to wonder on just how far the job of journey work has taken us all.
When Bob Conway arrived we headed straight for the staff canteen and much needed coffee, over a hot cup or two we got into the serious preliminaries of the Best of Irish CD. Now chats in canteens are OK, but with the ever present danger of somebody famous leaning over and asking for the sugar or the lone of a spoon we adjourned to the radio offices.
Bob's office is a hessian partitioned space as is the custom throughout the radio centre, yes folks National Radio is run from the cubicles of Dilbert land, well what more do you need? A bit of privacy actually, which we found by invading the Gerry Ryan office (partitions again- sorry to shatter any illusions). For those outside Ireland, Gerry Ryan is an institution, a DJ, chat show hosts, his day time radio programme is essential listening from 18 -35 year olds, he's a star. Bob on the other hand has one major show (which might not survive rumoured schedule changes), he also gets to ride in a chopper every morning as he reports on the Dublin traffic grid-lock. Here in a scene that could come from the pages of a Dirk Gently novel, Bob sandwiched between a water machine and two life size cut outs of Gerry Ryan began by explaining that the CD is for the National Children's Hospital in Tallaght.
For those unfamiliar with the social geography of Dublin, the space between Montrose and Tallaght is little more than a few miles. Nutley Avenue is in upmarket Dublin 4, it's a settled mainly middle class professional area. Tallaght is a new town, built initially to cater for the relocation of working class families from the inner city. It has all the amenities you'd expect in any late 90's conurbation, shopping malls, car parks, satellite housing, excellent road links and so on. However, as with many new towns it is still evolving a community spirit and traditional music is helping to shape this neighbourhood.
The NCH is located in Tallaght and like many other medical centres it needs money, and here is where Bob Conway stepped in to help. Tallaght hospital was created by the merger and relocation of three inner city establishments, it proved difficult , went beyond budget, was deleyed for years and the CEO resigned, not the happiest of starts for the Flag ship health service.
My first question was to ask who was going to be on the album? "Lets says at the moment, because of ongoing negotiations I'd rather talk about a wish list rather than a definitive cast of characters. Sharon Shannon, The Chieftains, Solas, Liam O'Flynn, Conor Byrne, Dervish, Kila, De Dananan, Donal Lunny, Danú, Nomos ( the new look Nomos) Dolores Keane and Davey Spillane. And Iarla O'Lionaird." No complaints there, all the major heavyweights and a representative sample of the commercial side of the tradition. In fact names the readers of this magazine are sure to be familiar with.
OK having a wish list is one thing but getting the acts onto a compilation album requires some interpersonal skills, certainly when it comes to getting through the layers of minders, agents and promoters before the performers might be located to grant that track wish. So how has Bob sold this to the names?
"The response so far has been just amazing, the artist who have already come on board are incredibly supportive of the venture. They are all totally behind the NCH so much so that they have given the tracks freely, that is they won't claim any royalties on the albums. This will help Tallaght to maximise their profits."
So I wondered, how is the deal structured, is it all based on good will alone or will the artists gain some rewards? "Firstly the NCH are underwriting the project, it is a modest amount of money, less than £1000 in all and this will ensure that they retain the ownership of the CDs. RTÉ are giving us their promotion machinery for free, and thanks are due to my colleagues here at the station who are making great efforts to get everything ready on time. It is true that the artists have waived their royalty fees but they will still be entitled to claim the mechanical fees. They win by gaining high profile exposure, access to national broadcasting and a few pounds every time one of their tracks is played on the radio."
Sounds pretty good, but what happens if one of the tracks becomes a DJ favourite (we can all think of artists who would naturally get more air time than others)?
"Yes that is a problem, and to be honest it is one we can't control once the album gets out and is taken up by local and independent stations. But what we have tried to do with this album is to reflect the best of the best of the current crop of working traditional artists. It will be up to the minute stuff, take the Nomos tracks for instance, if our negotiations are successful we will be selecting material from their latest album with the new line up, and that's the thinking behind every track, traditional music that is about now."
Given the short time scale wouldn't it have been easier to select tracks from say the past 25 years of traditional music, in effect plunder back catalogues?
"Easier for sure, but I am really against that sort of thing." Bob pauses for a moment, aware that he might be treading on sensitive toes "Let me put it this way, with regular albums selling at around £15 it makes perfect sense for the punters to invest in cheap compilations. For the same money they may get three or even four budget compilations, and as far as this gives them a taste of what is actually on offer in the marketplace it can't be a bad thing. But we all know there are compilation albums that are rehashing old material, they are not representative of today's music and all they are doing is lining the pockets of the compilers. Now I know if I owned a vast back catalogue of material I'd want to get as much mileage and money out of it as possible. So I don't have a problem per se with cheap compilations, provided the labels put some of the money back into active bands, and of those that don't well I find it all a bit distasteful."
Finally, then how does a pop music DJ come to the hard tasks of picking the tracks and the running order?
"I'd be the first to admit I don't have a huge knowledge of the tradition, my work here at RTÉ is in an area of Irish Music that is far from traditional music. So I have taken advice. I wanted upbeat lyrical, melodic tracks from the best in the business. As to who goes where it is early days yet, we have at least two weeks to go" he laughs "Yes the running order is important, the first track has to draw a DJ into the album, the opening track is a critical choice because we want this album to get as much airtime on regional stations as possible. But as we don't have all the artists or the tracks as yet, that is a job for another day."
Then as if by magic, his mobile phone rings, some black-suited agent no doubt ready to do a deal on a track or two and haggling for prominence on the eventual sleeve. I said my goodbyes, thanks for the coffee and the information, it was 3 pm on a Friday and I had a story to file. Small potatoes in comparison with the labours ahead of Bob.
The Best of Irish CD in aid of the National Children's Hospital Tallaght should be on general distribution form the first week of June, it will cost around £12.
Photo Credit: (1 & 5) Bob Conway & Co., photo by Sean Laffey; (2) Paddy's pipes, photo by The Mollis; (3) Danú, photo by the Mollis; (4 & 6) press pic
Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around.
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