Is ‘Celtic’ music now the most quietly commercially successful music in Scotland?

This Inverness Courier article cites Celtic Connections 2015 with actual audiences of 100,000 and gross ticket sales of over £1.1million. Staggering success really for a winter festival for a niche musical genre that receives relatively little media attention in the mass media.

What it underlines however for me, is two things: 1) ‘Celtic music’ as a genre is effectively a mass media marketing term that has now proven itself as commercially useful as ‘World music’ in the late modern West, and 2) the social networks that underlie traditional music in Scotland (and possibly elsewhere) are in fact very quietly now fully commodified and professionalized, despite the overt ethos of communitarianism within folk and trad music communities themselves.

One of the key reasons for this shift in commodification (and mediation) and the move from purely a local social music making to a partially mass mediated traditional music has been the adoption of economic models from popular music in terms of touring, distribution of gig income, commercialization of recordings and the shift towards professionalization, royalties and rights. The other very significant change in the 21st century is the collapse of historically and geographically defined authenticity into authenticity in performance practice. This has had particular implications for the meaning of ‘folk music’ both in Scotland, Britain and in North America, and who, what and how it is performed. There are artists who now claim to be ‘folk’ because of its commercial viability, who would have never have dreamt of claiming that moniker 10 or twenty years ago. The commodification of traditional music, as well as altering the socio-economic basis for the tradition has also altered the very performative nature of authorial presence, performance and vocal persona. This shift can broadly be evidenced in the texts of traditional song, performance practices and contexts and their reception by audiences.

The term ‘Celtic’ music is regarded with disdain by most performers of Scottish traditional music that I know, however, it has been enthusiastically taken up by those with an interesting in marketing or promoting Scottish traditional music both at home and abroad. As the international touring circuit opened up for Scottish traditional musicians in the 1980s and the subsequent changes in professionalization and marketing of Scottish bands, the logic of mediatization and presentation have changed how these groups are perceived in other countries. In tandem with the emergence of a commercial genre of ‘world music’ came the invention of ‘Celtic music’ where bands deliberately altered their performative discourse and musical instrumentation to appear more ethnically Scottish and authentic to foreign audiences. More specifically, the term really took hold in Scotland with the establishment in the early 1990s of the radio show ‘Celtic Connections’ on BBC radio Scotland and the festival of the same name in Glasgow primarily located ‘Celtic’ music in Scotland within a decidely commercial space:

‘Whereas “Scottish” may have been limiting for those creating radio playlists and festival programmes, “Celtic” (in all its ambiguity) allowed for a multitude of interpretations and could be pushed much further than “Scottish” or “Irish” alone.’ 

(McLaughlin, Seán. 2012. ‘Locating Authenticities: A study of the ideological construction of professionalised folk music in Scotland’ (unpublished Phd Thesis, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh), pp. 71-2.)

And it is easy to see why; the 2015 Celtic Connections Festival drew combined actual audiences of over 100,000 with gross ticket sales of over £1.1 million (Anonymous 2015). Aesthetically, the term ‘Celtic’ itself (usually pronounced in Scotland today with the hard ‘C’) is now bound up inextricably with the commodification of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Galician, Asturian and Manx traditional musics that has arrived since the global phenomenon of ‘World music’ was invented in 1987. Philip Bohlman maps the rise of ‘world music’ onto the growth of globalization and the consequent disruptions of the Self in the West, which have opened up a space where ‘world music’ packages up the Other, enabling the exotic to, ‘…become the everyday as the people without history seize upon world music’ (Bohlman 2002: 27) to construct a newly imagined Western Self that relies on a commodified Other.

This is also where the power of ‘Celtic music’ lies; in the discursive and narratological ability to commodify the white, ancient internal Other found on the fringes of Europe as a counterpoint to the dominant capitalist identity. This is also one of the key reasons for the success of placing Scottish traditional music in the recent referendum: it signifies an otherness to the London-centric hegemony. The emergence of Celtic music allows audiences and industry to purchase and make sense of those marginal European identities that did the cultural work of modernity through the mythologizing and romanticization of Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Scots, Asturian and Manx Others throughout European modernity. Traditional music has served this project well, but is now reclaiming the space from which it was marginalized via its very mediatization and commodification. Celtic music and musicians have self-consciously managed to create a commodified authenticity that enables an industry to support not only traditional music but cultural tourism, heritage consumption and cultural advocacy across Western Europe and in Anglo-American culture. That is why when we look to Scottish traditional music today and attempt to make sense of it and the discourses that surrounds it, we require an understanding of how its commercial and global narratives can and should provide the economic basis for a tradition that has emerged as a crucial part of late modern Western culture.

Two important issues we therefore need to think about now as scholars of traditional music are: How sustainable are these commercial practices, and how they speak to the radically altered sense of authenticity that lies at the heart of traditional music.

(Simon McKerrell, February 2015).

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