In all my years of writing and observing the music scene in Northern Ireland, it has always amazed me just how much we punch above our weight in terms of both the quality of music we produce, as well as the quantity of great artists we have on our shores. From the artists we see playing live every week and at festivals, or from music we discover either from social media or from great resources like Chordblossom’s monthly local playlist, there’s no doubt that there’s so much great music waiting to be heard. Yet despite this, why is it that this isn’t reflected in the daytime playlists of commercial radio stations here?
I had a look at the playlists of three region-wide radio stations (Q, Cool FM, U105) between the hours of 12pm and 4pm on a Wednesday, and not one of these stations played a single track from an artist from Northern Ireland, and not a single one of them has a Northern Irish artist in its top 10 songs played during the week (for context, BBC Radio Ulster had Soak, PORTS & ROE in their most played songs of that week). Whilst there are a few bright spots (Ryan McMullan’s latest song got the odd play on a few stations), it’s a barren landscape for local artists, particularly those who are still building their reputations whilst already having a great cache of songs in their arsenal.
There are many countries that already have cultural quotas within their cultures. Australian broadcasting rules mandates that each station must play between 10-25% of Australian artists depending on what type of station it is (Classic Rock, Easy Listening etc.). In Canada, 35% of the music played on its radio stations must be Canadian, whilst France has a requirement that at least 40% of the songs played on the radio must be in French or other regional languages within France. So cultural quotas enshrined in law are not a complete rarity within the world.
However, closer to home, attempts to make a quota legally binding has fallen by the wayside . In the Republic of Ireland, a bill proposing a quota of 40% of all music on Irish radio was defeated in the Dáil in 2016. In 2020 the Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan claimed that introducing a quota could be contrary to EU law – the argument being that although countries like France have quotas in place on the radio, this is for the preservation of its language, rather than music from a particular place. Whilst I’m not well-versed in international law to say whether this argument holds water, it does suggest something interesting – could Northern Ireland, which is somewhat outside of EU rules (the NI Protocol notwithstanding), have legislation enacted to commit broadcasters to playing a % of much from the region?
Let’s say for arguments sake that it can. The issue then would be deciding what form such a quota would take, and like all cultural issues from here, it will not be easy to come to a consensus. Firstly, what percentage should the quota be? If it is too low, then it defeats the purpose of having a quota in the first place. When I was Head of Music at Queen’s Radio many moons ago, we floated the idea of having a requirement that every show must play at least one song from a local artist. In the end, the idea was scrapped, given that the requirement was likely to be met by each show playing a Snow Patrol song. Now I enjoy Snow Patrol as much as the next Nordie, but you’re not going to reflect the diversity of music available here by playing “Chasing Cars” every hour. (I should say that Queen’s Radio, both in my time and currently, does a great job of playing and supporting local music without the need of a quota, although given it’s not as profit driven as the commercial stations, they have more freedom to do so than other local stations).
We then get into the thorny issue of what would constitute a “local” artist in the Northern Irish context. Whilst the simplest view would be to take the reductionist view that it the quota would be solely for Northern Irish artists, there will inevitably be one side arguing that it would be wrong in exclude any artists from the Republic, and therefore the quota should be done on an all-island basis.
This would inevitably then lead to calls that Britishness also be respected, and that artists from the whole of Great Britain be included in such a quota. If it leads to a situation where the quota encompasses any artist from the British Isles, it could make such a quota moot, given how much music from this catchment area is already played by local stations.
Even if there was agreement that the quota would be for NI artists only, you then get into another issue as to what constitutes a Northern Irish artist. Would it be for those who were born or are citizens of the region, or would it also extend to those who make Northern Ireland their main base of creativity?
There was controversy a few years ago when Rina Sawayama was deemed ineligible for the BRIT Awards and the Mercury Prize as she didn’t have British citizenship, which led to both awards allowing those who have resided in the UK for five years or more to be eligible. For a region that spends more time talking about identity that almost
anywhere else in the world, you better believe that there won’t be an option that everyone will be happy with.
There’d also be the question as to whether a Northern Irish artist that’s part of a bigger group should be covered by the quota or not, which could lead to interesting programming decisions – a song like ‘Love Machine’, one of the greatest pop songs of all time, would not meet the cut, as only 1/5 of Girls Aloud are from Northern Ireland, yet the slightly less iconic “Insatiable” by Nadine Coyle could end up becoming a local radio mainstay due to being undeniably from here.
Whatever way such a quota is worked out, one thing that’s certain is that it couldn’t be legislated for from the NI Assembly, as Stormont doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally make laws regarding broadcasting, so any changes would have to be agreed at Westminster.
But if it were up to me, how would I want a quota to look like?
Based upon best principles from other countries that have introduced cultural quotas, I would suggest that 20% of all songs played on music-led radio stations in Northern Ireland between the hours of 8am and 6pm must be of Northern Irish origin, either from artists who are a majority based in Northern Ireland or can demonstrate strong cultural ties to the area. And to get around any worries of a “Snow Patrol loophole”, at least half of that total must be music that has been released in the prior five calendar years.
I believe that this modest proposal would be beneficial not only to local artists, who would begin to gain an audience from stations that otherwise would have ignored by commercial audiences, but would also benefit local radio stations as well, as it would help them to cultivate an image that sets itself apart from commercial radio across the rest of the UK.
And who knows, in a few years the idea of hearing ‘Africa’ by Toto, followed by ‘I Dare You’ by ROE on daytime commercial radio will feel incredibly natural…