There’s a low-frequency rumble coming from the basements and back rooms all over the city of Dublin. It’s a sound that heralds the birth of a new generation of musicians. Dublin is looking to the artists, the writers and the musicians not just for entertainment, but for direction: a city whose heartbeat has always been music is experiencing a dramatic creative surge, and it’s an intoxicating thing to be a part of.
It’s a time of unprecedented opportunity for those with creativity, imagination and skill, and you may have the talent and the drive you need to grasp these opportunities, but you also need to be in the right place at the right time, and it seems that Dublin is just that place right now. It’s a city where songwriters and musicians have a unique cultural importance.
Dublin is a remarkably welcoming place for musicians. It’s the sort of place where a musical instrument, an honest voice or a bag of records is the only introduction you’ll need. Musicians need community. They need to interact, to share sounds and songs. They need to argue, to champion an ethos or approach to songwriting and production. To do this, and to find like-minded souls, they need a place with an accessible and inclusive music culture. Dublin has become home to a multinational community of writers and performers. Of the many internationally successful acts born and bred here, it’s remarkable how many chose to return between tours to write and record. There’s an energy in the city that recharges, inspires and challenges.
For generations Dublin city has been an exporter of music on a scale that’s totally disproportionate to its population. The 1960s trad and folk scene saw the likes of Bob Dylan make the pilgrimage to the bars of Baggot Street, where the great Luke Kelly and The Dubliners held court. For decades they would sing of their Dirty Ol’ Town, from Baggot Street to the Budokan in Tokyo.
In the 1970s, the leather-clad Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy became the man of the moment, and dramatically changed the international perception of the Dublin music scene. Through the doors that Lizzy kicked open followed the Boomtown Rats, U2 and Sinead O’Connor, among many others, and by the 90s Dublin was firmly established as a town where major labels might sign a stadium filler. The local industry responded by creating state-of-the-art recording, rehearsal and performance facilities – the last two decades have seen Dublin produce an eclectic array of globally successful acts, from the pure pop of Boyzone to the more sensitive, cerebral, folk-based styling of The Frames and Villagers. Furthermore, Dublin supports a thriving dance music scene, which has provided the soundtracks to some of Europe’s best loved club-nights.
Every bar you pass will have a soundtrack
The easiest way to understand the deep effect that music has had on the city is to take a stroll through town. Start at the Grand Canal and head north down Camden Street to Wexford Street. Every bar you pass will have a soundtrack. At the heart of the neighbourhood is Whelan’s, a venue that over the last couple of decades has become legendary, not just as the crucible for local acts, but for playing host to international artists, many of whom could sell out venues ten times its size. As is the case with most Dublin venues, there’s no genre-based music policy, so you’re likely to encounter a trad legend in the main venue while an electro-pop outfit is playing upstairs.
As you head down into the city centre you hit Dame Street, another musical hub where in recent years a host of smaller venues have opened up as live music has experienced a rebirth. The Mercantile and Sweeney Mongrel have small but excellently equipped live rooms, perfect for acts developing their stage craft.
Within a few blocks you’ll find the city’s more established venues, The Olympia and Vicar St, and across the river lies The Academy, all of which are firmly on the international touring circuit. On either side of the banks of the Liffey, connected by the Ha’penny Bridge, are The Workman’s Club and The Grand Social, both of which define the concept of venues run by obsessive music fans for obsessive music fans. For clubbing in Dublin hit The Twisted Pepper, The Button Factory or The Kitchen. The more you explore the city the more music you’ll encounter – just follow the noise.
A hub for music production
Dublin has also embraced the revolution in technology, with producers taking over rooms all over town for recording and rehearsal spaces. The result is that Dublin has become a remarkably cost-effective place to produce a record. These inexpensive and innovative new facilities have spawned an army of young promoters and producers pushing Dublin’s new acts forward. For a city that has a history of producing major label acts that require high-end recording facilities and all the infrastructure that goes with that, this new ‘DIY’ ethos has had a remarkably reinvigorating effect.
Dublin has a lot going for it from a practical point of view, but there’s also an element to the city that’s harder to define. It will welcome you in, but it will also push you. It’s not a town that judges its bands by their haircuts, but it demands that you live your music. Dublin has a healthy sense of the underdog, a need to prove itself. That’s a character it shares with towns like Manchester or Glasgow, Portland or Seattle, or wherever the next wave of great bands will be born.
There’s no doubt that Dublin has a proud musical history, spelled out for visitors by paintings of its music icons on the Wall of Fame in Temple Bar and the statue of Phil Lynott off Grafton Street. But it also has a passion for the new, the brave and the unexpected because, at its best, Dublin is a city where music history is being made today.