By Conor Brummell
The coronavirus pandemic brought many issues in Irish society to light, one of which was the well-known but lesser spoken-about secret of gender disparity in Irish radio. Back in June 2020, music publicist Linda Coogan Byrne released a report that she compiled, comparing the amount of Irish female artists that were played on the radio in Ireland to their male counterparts. The report was shocking; Zero female musicians featured in the top 20 artists played by four stations- FM104, LM FM, WLR FM and South East Radio – in the 12 months leading up to the report.
As well as that, just five percent of the top 20 played artists on Today FM, Spin 103.8, Beat 102-103FM, Red FM, Cork C103, Clare FM, Cork 96FM, KCLR FM, KFM, East Coast FM, Radio Kerry, Live 95FM, Midlands radio, Shannonside Northern Sound, Spin Southwest FM were female.
The Irish music scene was decimated by Covid-19, and many artists did not have live music gigs to support themselves through the pandemic. Speaking to SIN, Linda Coogan-Byrne said that the report was something she had wanted to do for years but had never had the time to until now.
“I never had a problem getting male identifying acts on the radio,” she says. “I have worked with major international female acts that were signed to big labels, and they were okay to get airplay. But when it came to domestic female Irish artists, I just always struggled. I wondered, what would the actual data reveal?”
“When I got the results, I asked Áine [Tyrell] would she help with the graphics of the report, and she rang me in the middle of the night from Austraila and just said ‘What the hell?’
“We knew it was bad, but we did not realise it was this bad. It was just dismal, absolutely shocking,” she continued.
In Ireland, what gets played on the radio heavily depends on the music charts. Linda says that when she approached radio stations about the problem, they said they played just what was popular in the charts.
“Whoever is played on the radio, gets in the charts,” Linda stated. “The likes of Hozier and Dermot Kennedy appear in both the top 5 in radio airplay and in the top 20 on the charts. There is a correlation there, and we proved that by releasing this report.”
When asked why it is so difficult to get Irish female artists played on the radio, Linda says, “The problem with misogyny in Ireland is that women can be just as bad as men. They have a slice of the pie and they don’t want to upset the patriarchy and demand for better, because they have a job in a country where there are less female than male broadcasters.”
Linda also says that it took some time to get a response from the radio stations who appeared on the list. “It took 8-12 weeks to hear back from some of the stations. They had the idea that I had thrown them to the wolves, but I just had to remind them that this was not about their ego. It was about the fact that there is a decade’s worth of Irish female artists who were ignored and kept off the airwaves.”
“One thing that caught them out was that I asked them to hum a song by five female artists in Ireland who had released music recently. They couldn’t,” she continues.
Female artists not getting played on the radio boils down to privilege, and not wanting to upset the status quo, Linda says.
“I’ve had a lot of male broadcasters unfollow me on Twitter and take me off their mailing list because of the report. I really didn’t want the report to be taken personally like that, but they made it personal by not engaging in the conversation and ignoring it,” she says.
“It is part of the issue, I think, that when people are called out or told they’ve been doing something wrong, instead of trying to help solve the problem, they just ignore it.”
What was upsetting about the report, was the fact that that people did not stand in solidarity with it.
“I was flabbergasted,” Linda says. “In the last decade, male artists were given 100% of the pie. They appeared on the festival line-ups and major playlists, and a lot of them stood back and did not show support. That’s what was upsetting.”
In October, Linda released an updated report which showed some radio stations had improved. “In the period of four months, RTÉ 2fm did a full 360, and brought the disparity up from 10% to 45%. Spin 1038 also jumped from 5% to 40%, which is amazing.”
Other radio stations on the list were Today FM who jumped from 5% to 10%, and FM 104 who moved from 0% to 10%.
“This has never happened before. It is just incredible,” says Linda.
“Some people are still not getting back to me, but they’re talking to their colleagues and they’re making the changes, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.”
Irish Women in Harmony:
We began to see that change this year, when it emerged that a group of Irish female artists would be banding together under the instruction of Ruth Anne to sing a cover of ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries to raise money for SAFE Ireland. The song was an instant hit, with many people’s attention drawn to the fabulous range of female Irish artists that exist around Ireland.
SIN spoke to Eve Belle, who was one of the Irish Women in Harmony (IWIH), about her debut album, her career so far, and the importance of showcasing Irish female artists in Ireland.
“It’s been a really strange year for all creatives this year. It’s been an unprecedented year for us all really to be releasing music or to be working on new projects when we can’t do live gigs,” she told SIN over zoom.
“The silver lining on the other hand, if you want to see it like that, is that the thirst for the arts in Ireland has skyrocketed this year. The shape of the demand for the arts in Ireland has become a little bit clearer, and that’s been really good.”
Eve’s album, In Between Moments, came out in October and she speaks about how she spent most of the debating whether to release it or not. “I kept pushing it back, but it got to the stage this year where I had a choice- to postpone the album indefinitely, or just to go ahead with it? I decided to go ahead with it, but it was nerve wrecking releasing an album at a time like this.”
The album feels the story of Eve’s journey to date, which includes previously released songs and some brand-new ones.
“It’s a mixture of songs that have been put out before and some new ones. I think the album shows how I have changed over the last two years. I think that is the fun part of the album for me, is seeing my progression as a singer-songwriter. That said, it has been nerve wrecking to release an album at a time like this. It’s certainly been a unique time,” she laughs.
Eve was also asked to join in the Irish Women in Harmony group this year for their Christmas single, Together at Christmas which she says was comforting. “It’s difficult to be a woman in the Irish music scene, and it comes with a lot of difficulties that sometimes feel unique to you, and that you can internalise a lot. It is an intensely vulnerable art form, and to be met with adversity, it can be detrimental to your confidence. As a woman to be constantly met with these challenges, it can chip away at you,” she states.
“But suddenly to be a part of this collective and discussing our experiences and how we have dealt with some of the same challenges, you suddenly realise these aren’t unique experiences.
“The extent of how systemic this issue is becoming apparent– a lot of reasons for not being chosen for festivals or being considered for radio play is put down to coincidence. You are told there aren’t enough female artists to be played on the radio, or to be booked for festivals.
“But then what you have is a wall of female artists- and there’s forty odd of us- that people can look at, and you’re telling me that there is no one there suitable for radio play? I think how you dismantle an idea like that, is you demonstrate how absolutely ridiculous it is.”
Dreams by the IWIH is the first song by an Irish female artist in twenty years to reach the top 10 in the Irish charts, and Eve Belle says being a part of the group has been so validating.
“When I was starting out in music as a young woman, it is very disheartening to have a bad experience, and it is very easy to not want to put yourself out there again after that bad experience. You begin to think you’re not good enough, and you become afraid. It’s easy to get a chip on your shoulder when you don’t have a support system to guide you through those experiences,” she says.
“But when you increase visibility, you allow younger people to see themselves as what you’re doing. I know myself if I were a 15-year-old musician again and saw Irish Women in Harmony and what they were doing, that would be so incredibly encouraging to me. To see this group of women who are so driven, and to see the support people have for them, it is encouraging, and I sincerely hope that’s the effect this project has on young people.
“I hope the conversation continues, too, now that we have pushed past the façade of “there are not enough women in Irish music”. We can objectively see that that’s not true, and I hope we are actively inspiring the next generation of musicians,” she finished.
Sibéal features on both Dreams and Together at Christmas, and she spoke to SIN about her experience with the Irish Women in Harmony Group.
“I got an Instagram message from Ruth Anne, and she asked me ‘Would you like to be part of a group of Irish female artists who are going to record a single for charity?’
“I had no idea who the other artists were going to be, but to be honest I was thrilled to get a DM from Ruth Anne, so of course I immediately said yes I’ll do it, whatever song it is, I’ll do it,” she says, laughing on the phone.
“Two weeks later I got an email and everyone else was cc’d, and the list of artists attached was phenomenal. I couldn’t believe it. So many people came together to the cause, and it was open to suggestions and ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries was the song we chose. SAFE Ireland also seemed to be the perfect cause for the single too, and I was really honoured to be a part of it.”
Sibéal also speaks about her musical background, how she grew up in the Gaeltacht in Meath, and how getting the chance to sing Mise Éire for the 2016 centenary was such a wonderful experience.
“There’s such a strong culture of Sean-Nós in Meath, of traditional Irish music and I grew up surrounded by that culture. I come from a musical family and my dad had a band when I was growing up, and I used to go on tour with them, see how they practiced and performed, it was great.
“To sing Mise Éire I think was a wonderful experience,” she continues, saying, “I grew up studying classical music and the mixture between Sean-Nós and classical music on the track came naturally to me.”
When asked did she feel pressure about performing for the 100-year celebrations, Sibéal says she had more of a stoic feeling about the performance. “I never thought about more than what I was doing in the moment. I didn’t think about how so many people were going to be watching the programme, or anything like that.
“It was supposed to be for background music for a documentary on RTÉ and I never really thought it would become a song in its own right. I took it one step at a time, and it was very much a natural progression.”
Sibéal’s approach to music and studying medicine in NUI Galway are very similar- she must focus on the task at hand and put all her focus into what she is doing in that moment in time.
“When I’m in a lecture, or studying for an exam, I focus on that and not music. You can’t be constantly juggling the two, so you need to just allocate the time and do one to the best of your ability. The same goes for music- if I have a performance, and I have an exam the next day or something, I just put all my energy in the music in that moment.”
As well as that, Sibéal had the opportunity to collaborate with composer Eimear Noone on the soundtrack for the film ‘Two by Two: Overboard’, which is currently playing in Irish cinemas. She says the experience was a dream.
“Eimear is such an amazing woman, and she actually composed one of the songs on my album as well. Her husband Craig Stuart Garfinkle is an American composer and he composed some songs and co-produced for my album too, so there’s been a working relationship there for years.”
“They are both so incredibly talented and I was so excited when they asked me to be a part of the song ‘Stand for Hope’ for the movie. It is surreal to think if you go into a cinema at this moment in time, my voice on a song will be heard at some stage.
“As well as that, I am incredibly lucky that despite the pandemic, I got to collaborate with Eimear for that song. I feel like it translates to the times we are living in, that feeling of despite everything, there is still hope out there now,” she finished.