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Echoes of the Millennium: Whither Celtic music

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

Just a few years ago, albums of Celtic music or, at least, Celtic-related music dominated Billboard magazine’s "Top World Music Albums" chart. At one point, near St. Patrick’s Day, 12 of the top 15 were Celtic. It’s true the three "Irish Tenors," Loreena McKennitt, Afro Celt Sound System, and the Chieftains still appear there. But unlike charts in past years, none of their latest albums has gone gold yet: 500,000 units sold, compiled by SoundScan and certified by the Recording Industry Association of America.

It’s no secret that the post-"Riverdance" explosion in Celtic music is over. Sales have slowed virtually across the board. Latin/Hispanic, not Celtic, is now the hot world music, and the recording-industry bandwagon has sped in that direction with NASCAR acceleration.

Does that mean Celtic music is passé, a forgotten fad? Hardly. But as uilleann piper and RTÉ broadcaster Peter Browne perceptively observed in "The Gathering," a fine new video distributed by Irish Visions ([800] 474-7480) in the Bronx, the buzz on Celtic music would inevitably shift to some other "trend" after a time.

And that has happened. The former tsunami of Celtic music in the mid-1990s is now a smaller, steady wave. Without the help of a strong-pulling tide, many artists both on major and independent labels must swim harder to advance or even stay afloat in the marketplace.

Some may not have their options for follow-up recordings exercised. Others denied major or indie label access may have to go the "vanity" route, absorbing the costs of recording, manufacturing, and distributing their albums by themselves. Outlets for these musicians are often limited, with some choosing the Internet to sell their product and others relying on select radio airplay, word of mouth, print reviews, and out-of-the-box sales at concerts and festivals.

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Aside from plateauing or flattening sales, the word "Celtic" itself has become a pejorative in certain critics’ corners, particularly overseas. Periodicals such as the blushingly Anglophilic Folk Roots magazine in England routinely fulminate and ultimately pontificate against recordings carrying the adjective in their titles or subtitles. (In its history, Folk Roots has chosen only one bona fide Irish traditional recording as its best album of the year: Four Men and a Dog’s 1991 release, "Barking Mad." Small wonder why critics of this magazine call it "Folk Ruts.") For those publications, "Celtic" is merchandising code for New Age, ambient, or sheer musical vapor.

Fusion and hybrid, rather than strictly traditional, Celtic music seems to be holding sway today. "Albums now rising to the top have some other components to them, something extra," said Rich Denhart, senior director of A&R at Narada, a Virgin Records subsidiary that distributes the latest recordings by Afro Celt Sound System and the Canadian family band Leahy. "Afro Celt has African influences, and Leahy is almost like a baby ‘Riverdance’ up on stage."

Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical, the label responsible for two titanic "Titanic" soundtracks, signed "Riverdance" fiddler Eileen Ivers, whose "Crossing the Bridge" solo album came out this past year. But even as he points out: "We’re not consciously looking to sign other Celtic artists. If one comes along who we think is extraordinary and fits our overall artistic plans, we wouldn’t hesitate. But we’re not checking out Irish bars looking for spoon players."

Rich Nevins, president, CEO, and founder (with Dan Collins) of Shanachie Records, admits that "most people are not purists. Most people can’t deal with a Matt Molloy or a Tommy Peoples undiluted." But he quickly adds that "the traditional part of Celtic music will survive. It’s survived for hundreds of years. Why would that change?"

The slippage of overall market interest in "undiluted" Celtic traditional music hasn’t stopped Shanachie from releasing it. Just recently the New Jersey-based label issued "Music From Cill Na Martra," by Macroom, Co. Cork, trad fiddler Connie O’Connell, and Danú, a promising under-age-30 trad septet from Waterford, will be releasing their new album, "Think Before You Think," on Shanachie during the early part of next year.

By definition, trends are cyclical. "Remember back 10 or 12 years ago when Bulgarian voices were the hot trend?" Nevins said. "It’s always going to be the flavor of the month."

In all likelihood, the new trend of Celtic fusion will continue to fascinate and build a customer base into the year 2000. But "time is the great censor," said Chris Teskey, chief operating officer of Green Linnet Records, "and fusion almost inevitably passes."

Fusion aside, the inroads made by Celtic traditional music into the public consciousness during the decade of the ’90s are not likely to vanish. Too many serious converts have been made for Irish and other Celtic traditional music to drift back into obscurity in the 21st century.

Sooner or later, something else with the cultural and commercial force of "Riverdance" will emerge, creating a fresh new excitement and curiosity about a musical tradition that is, at core, fashion-proof.

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