New Data Underlines Music’s Integral Role in the Northern Ireland Economy

Sound of Belfast

New data released today demonstrates the economic importance of music to Northern Ireland (NI). Figures published ahead of Wednesday’s Music Cities event, and the NI Music Prize show that, in 2019, the music sector in NI contributed almost £345 million to the economy and accounted for almost 6,500 jobs.

Delving deeper, the direct music sector (comprising activities strictly within the commercial music sector[1]) contributed £115 million in gross value (“GVA”) and 3,600 jobs, having almost doubled since the last economic study[2] in 2013 when the figures were £61.5 million and 1,900 respectively.

Music creators (songwriters, musicians, performers and producers) and live music are the lifeblood of the NI music ecosystem, altogether accounting for more than 75% of the sector’s overall GVA. Music creators represent two-thirds (2,189) of all those working directly in the sector, underlining the strength of this segment’s overall contribution. The study was commissioned by Fourth Pillar and supported by Northern Ireland Screen with funding provided by the Department for Communities, and the research was independently conducted by leading economists, Metro Dynamics.

Commenting on the figures, Charlotte Dryden – CEO of the Oh Yeah Music Centre – said: “The publication of these figures represents an important step in educating policymakers on the vital role that music plays in supporting the NI economy. Music is more than a hobby or a ‘nice to have’; it provides jobs for thousands of employed and freelance staff across the region, from artist managers, record producers and music technology companies through to individuals working in talent development roles, as we do at Oh Yeah. Collectively, we are not just a rich community asset but an economic keystone. At our Music Cities afternoon and the NI Music Prize, we will be celebrating all of those who work in our sector, including the behind-the-scenes champions of creativity and innovation.”

Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody added: “As the sector takes to the stage on Wednesday to celebrate the immense wealth of creative talent in Northern Ireland, this report acknowledges the invaluable contribution of professionals who work tirelessly to support musicians, creators and performers like myself. I’m excited by the potential and power that music has for our nation – it is there to uplift and connect communities, especially during challenging moments like these, but it is also there to provide jobs, support livelihoods and strengthen our economic credentials. We have the talent, we have the expertise, and we have the drive to succeed; now, we need the recognition and support of our political and business leaders to help us build on our success in the months and years ahead.”

In the context of the wider NI economy, in 2019, music was responsible for more direct employees (3,621) than the TV and Video Production and Programming and Broadcasting sectors combined (2,574). In the same year in Belfast, the first city in Ireland to be awarded the prestigious UNESCO City of Music title, music accounted for 1,781 jobs, with live music accounting for 81% of all music jobs in the capital, according to the global research firm, Sound Diplomacy[3].

The study examined the sectors most aligned with music, specifically those within the Digital, ICT and Creative priority cluster. Against sectors found in the digital economy, music employs a larger workforce than Cyber Security (2,299) and Advertising (901). Music sits just below the Telecommunications (4,468) and Life Sciences (4,516) sectors, the latter being a priority area in the Department for the Economy’s 10x Economic Vision, which attracts considerable government investment and engagement.

Local recording studio owner and media entrepreneur James Ayo of Hotbox Entertainment added: “This report matters because it shows strongly that working in music is a real profession. We have skills and knowledge that we have worked hard to develop; we have a passion for using the power of music to grow the economy and support our communities, and we have the drive to develop the sector to retain talented young people to be our next generation of business leaders. Hotbox is committed to developing its business in Belfast, having recently expanded into a second studio, and we want to see the infrastructure that supports music talent continue to grow and strengthen right across the country.”

The report published today explains how music plays a vital role in supporting the broader economy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, concerts and festivals held in NI attracted over one million attendees each year, driving direct and indirect economic benefits across the region. In 2019, according to UK Music, 234,000 music tourists visited NI generating £81 million in tourist spending [4].

Beyond live music, an evolving and thriving infrastructure supports the development of creative talent, from recording studios, music managers and music retailers to music producers, music teachers and specialist lawyers and accountants. With NI now a popular filming location for broadcast content, the valuable opportunities for the production and use of music in entertainment media are growing. The business of music will be the primary focus for artists and music professionals at the popular Music Cities afternoon on Wednesday at the Oh Yeah Music Centre. Together with the local music sector, experts will explore the challenges and opportunities facing the business, from Web3 and digital rights management to the environment and NI’s night-time economy.

The research does not take into account the impact of COVID-19 on the sector, which is being heightened by the current cost of living crisis, with many arts and music organisations struggling to retain staff, commission new works, and deliver services to support the wider community. Earlier this week, Help Musicians revealed that half of all professional musicians believe they may have to leave the industry, up from one-fifth from this time last year. The music sector continues to make representations to NI’s political leaders, primarily through the All Party Group for the Arts at Stormont, which was reconstituted in July 2022.

On behalf of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), Chief Executive Roisin McDonough said: “There is no doubt that music is one of NI’s greatest strengths and these figures demonstrate the essential role it plays in supporting our economy. However, like so many sectors, music has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis. Data recently released by ACNI shows that the arts sector as a whole faces additional costs of more than £12 million by the end of this financial year. We are working closely with the Department for Communities to drive forward the strategy for culture, arts and heritage – of which music is a core component – and to encourage greater cross-departmental working within Government with a view to protecting and nurturing this critical facet of our economy and identity.”

Chair of the All Party Group for the Arts at Stormont, Mike Nesbitt MLA, welcomed the publication of the figures, saying: “Music pervades our everyday lives and these figures leave no room for doubt in terms of its economic importance. However, at times, it can be taken for granted and not given the respect and appreciation it deserves. Music matters and through the All Party Group for the Arts, we look forward to engaging further with the music sector to explore how it can help to deliver the Programme for Government, whether it’s in growing our economy, supporting long, healthy and active lives or preserving mental health and wellbeing.”

Lynne Best, Managing Partner at Fourth Pillar, who commissioned the study, said: “Music promotes NI plc around the world, generating important revenue streams and furthering a positive image of a place that is attractive to live, work and visit. Using this data, we will continue to engage with policymakers, as well as other stakeholders, to ensure that the value of creators is respected, professionals are supported, and our music economy enjoys sustainable growth.”

Sound of Belfast runs from 10 – 20 November, and the full programme is available here.

Xsnoize Author
Mark Millar is the founder of XS Noize and looks after the daily running of the website as well as hosting interviews for the weekly XS Noize Podcast. Mark's favourite album is Achtung Baby by U2.

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