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At the pulse of pubs – Challenges and hopes in Ireland’s music scene amidst rising costs and closures

Photo by Eleonora Attolini for Pixabay.

A deep breath, the eyes closed. And then he starts: “Not all good things come to an end”. That is what Eddie Brewer, a live musician and artist, sings while he is sitting at a black piano and fascinating the people who are listening to him eagerly at the ‘Song Cycle’ in one of Dublin’s most popular pubs. Since he has started making his own music at the age of 10, he developed a strong passion for live music and performing in front of an audience. “There are lots of different feelings when you have a gig. One is excitement, one is an unbelievable anxiety and another one is an absolute strong focus on your performance. But the feeling to show my own music is just amazing.”

Photo by Daniel Nebreda for Pixabay.

Ireland is known throughout the world for its music and pub culture. Over 700,000 people go to pubs every year only in Dublin. While this seems to be a large number, unfortunately more and more pubs and music venues had to close over the last years. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic over 450 pubs have closed in total with the largest decrease in rural areas of the country. Even though this is an alarming number, the reasons for the decline are very multilayered. Missing support from the government, increasing costs and the pressure to constantly appeal to a specific audience are just some of the obstacles. So what kind of support for artists and business owners is needed? Or do the good things come to end now anyway?

Regarding the fact that rising costs not only affect musicians and owners of pubs and music venues but also their customers the way how people spend their money has changed over the last years. This cost of living crisis is one of the reasons why people attend less in venues and pubs, according to Niall Byrne, the founder of the Irish music news site Nialler9. “The financial squeeze that people are feeling in terms of Dublin’s rental costs and rising costs of childcare means that there is less pocket money to take for a live event for example. People want a guaranteed good time when they go out, so are choosing more carefully”, he says. In addition, even in 2023 the price of a pint of Guinness rose about more than 10% compared to the previous year. That means that the business owners have to increase their prices which ends in the customers have to pay a higher amount of money in the end. A never-ending spiral that appears like a vicious circle.

Being affected by rising costs and closures at the same time does not only have a severe impact on customers and those who are working in the business with regard to the money. As a consequence it also has an impact on the social life and the culture of a country in general. With regard to the fact that the emotional well-being of a culture is determined by a stable social interaction and connectedness, a functioning culture helps people to make healthy choices and to have better mental and physical health outcomes. Places such as music venues and pubs as a social meeting place therefore play an important role for the social life. According to Eddie, not having those venues would mean a loss of humanity in general.

“It is a way for the people to unwind, to meet new people and to find others that have similar interests. I think it’s really important for other people to socialise and get out and just to have fun.”

Eddie Brewer

In order to support business owners of bars and night clubs the Licensed Vinters Association (LVA) therefore requires special support from the government. “I think the most important thing are new night time trading hours and new night time trading licenses. The other thing that needs to happen at the same time is an insurance reform because the costs of insurance for late bars and night clubs are extraordinarily high, so a big late bar in Dublin could be paying €80.000-100.000  per annum”, says Donall O’Keeffe, CEO of the LVA.

Even though the improvement of the situation is the goal of the government for years now, the support is lacking not least due to missing financial resources towards owners and artists. The last big support was the so called ‘Night Time Economy Support Scheme’ from 2022 which aimed to encourage a “diverse social, cultural and economic activity” during night time hours. Currently, there is the ‘Sale of Alcohol Bill’, which proposes the required extension of night time trading hours and extend them of pubs being allowed to remain open until 12:30 am seven days a week and nightclubs being allowed to open until 6 am. Although this Bill would help the entire night time economy according to the LVA, it is important to know that a Bill is just a proposal for legislation and not an enacted law yet.

To give quicker financial support, Liam Cannon, Press Officer of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, has assured that there is a total budget of over €2.5 million that has been allocated to the Night-Time Economy for this year. With this money it is not only planned to just give financial resources to pubs and music venues but also to invent new ides within the Night-Time Economy. “It is clear that a collective and concerted multi-stakeholder approach to tackling these challenges is required (…). Since the publication of the Night-Time Economy Taskforce Report we have seen significant progress, there is a readiness on the part of the Government to listen and to work with the sector to help create opportunities for it to thrive”, he says.

While there are current proposed legislation and budgets for owners of pubs and music venues, the support for artists that is needed is different. Artists are often self employed and therefore they are dependent on bookings and a stable income. But the income can vary from month to month, so when it comes to the salaries of musicians, it seems to be difficult to keep things afloat. For Eddie, this kind of pressure can be very draining because it is just about earning money and preventing to fall behind the poverty line instead of focussing on the passion of music. “It feels like you miss out something vital. So if the minister was here today, I would say invest more in people’s spirit because I think the spirit of a country’s civilisation is art and music and should be lifted up.”

RTÉ News.

To be fair, in order to relieve artists in terms of rising costs and taxes in particular, the government has launched an artist tax exemption where the incomes of artists’ work can be exempted from taxes under certain circumstances. This can result in musicians having more money in the end to live and focussing on distributing their music.

However, even if the overall situation seems to be challenging with regard to pub and venue closures, rising costs, and a decrease of costumers, at least the pub numbers in Dublin remain stable, according to the LVA. And for the artists themselves the use of new techniques and platforms might be a possible solution as well in order to distribute their music. Niall Byrne even sounds a little optimistic at the end for this reason: “While the medium might change, musicians are able to spot trends happening and try it out. They are digital natives these days so they often react to how platforms prioritise viral music content for example.” So if the situation improves in the next years, with a stable number of venues and supported artists as well, the culture and society can benefit from it and Ireland might keep the trophy for the world’s most famous country of live music and pub culture. So that the good things will not come to an end.

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