Women Blazing Ahead in the Music Industry During a Pandemic

2020 marked a year of many firsts around the globe, many of them marked by tragedy, but with numerous bright spots, as well. Danielle Devlin is owner and agent-manager of a boutique music agency based in the U.S., Canis Major Music LLC. Caoimhe Ní Riagáin is manager of Irish supergroup Kíla. In their own voices, each describes how working in the music business during the pandemic as two women who met just weeks before lockdowns hit, working oceans apart, came to achieve a common goal to the benefit of their shared artist and each other’s professions. Their story is one of innovation and collaboration, the magic that can happen when egos and fear are set aside and one delves wholeheartedly into the unknown with the right attitude. Out of this work, a strong friendship resulted that will undoubtedly strengthen their place in the industry and continue to drive their shared mission to provide outstanding support to their artists. 

DANIELLE: Kíla’s music might as well be a soundtrack for the COVID-19 pandemic-alarming in the way that it rages, anarchic in its energy, and at times forlorning as it leads you into dark recesses with an unsuspecting sadness as a product of its beautiful lyricism and sweet melodies, best experienced in isolation. Working behind this extraordinary, world-renowned band are two strong women-led entities, collaborating and pushing forward through their passion for their work, in support of a well-loved band, and in support of each other.

CAOIMHE: The role of the band manager can feel lonely at times; the manager is there to seek work for the band, but is also there to protect them. It is a role that is designed to give the artist creative freedom, while at the same time act as a marketing voice for them. Although that sense of alone-ness could have increased during the pandemic, it did not, thanks to finding a very like minded woman to collaborate with, located in Vermont. I carry out the role of manager of Kíla with a steely determination to do the best job I can. In Danielle, I have met an equally determined woman, who like me, knows that belief in a project can genuinely move mountains.

DANIELLE: Working as an agent or artist manager is solitary work. You have to be driven, a self-starter, and tenacious. You often have to be able to negotiate the lines between persistence and sensitivity, creativity and sensibility, depending on the situation at hand, knowing when to step back and when to push. Empathy plays a key role in success, and I think that is where Caoimhe and I may have the upper hand in this field. We allow each other the space to create and offer up solutions, we listen carefully to each other and are able to set our egos aside to build something together to spotlight an entirely different entity, the band, while lifting up each other indirectly.

CAOIMHE: After two years of working with Kíla, I felt that I had found my groove. I knew where I wanted to go with the band and was confident that I could get them there. Kíla had not toured in North America for several years, and I really wanted to bring them back. In 2019, I attended Folk Alliance International (FAI) in Montreal, at the invitation of Aengus Finnan, Executive Director of FAI (whom I had met at WOMEX in 2018). The aim of attending was to have Kíla showcase at FAI in 2020, and he suggested I attend as a delegate first. To say the conference was an education would not do it justice! In the middle of some of the worst snowstorms Montreal had ever experienced, an entire hotel had been booked out and filled from top to bottom with musicians from all over the world. The days were filled with seminars and music showcases, and at night the vibe continued on into the wee hours with private showcases in hotel bedrooms across multiple floors. It really was incredible! On Aengus’s advice, Kíla applied and were accepted by Culture Ireland and FAI as an official showcase band for 2020 in New Orleans. I was excited, Kíla were excited, and off we headed to New Orleans that January.  

DANIELLE: Folk Alliance International 2020 in New Orleans was the first conference where I was representing my new agency, Canis Major Music. I was feeling especially energized as I was already working with three artists with official showcases at this event. It was also during this conference that I saw Kíla perform live for the first time. I had only known of the band since the release of Cartoon Saloon’s animated film, The Secret of Kells, so I felt a bit late to the party. BUT, what a party that showcase was! I was pressed up against one of the walls flanking the stage with a couple of promoters I had invited to watch the showcase with me, and the room was just vibrating with energy, not just the energy coming from the artists, but the entire room was buzzing with excitement. The band was on fire, and I was in heaven! On my way out of the packed room to hit my next showcase, I stopped by the “booth” at the back of the room to tell the woman minding the Kíla information table that I was thrilled by the showcase and so grateful for the joy they brought to the conference. It turns out that the person with whom I was gushing about the band was none other than the band’s manager, Caoimhe Ni Riagain.

CAOIMHE : Kíla loved New Orleans. It was hard not to be infected by the energy of the conference (more like a festival really),  and indeed the energy of the city. Kíla give 100% to every performance but the performance they gave at their official showcase was magical,  utterly extraordinary and everybody lucky enough to be in the room knew it, mise in a measc (myself included). We were lucky to have our soon-to-be US agent, Danielle Devlin, in the room that night. I remember meeting her and was struck by her warmth and enthusiasm for the band. She had been enchanted, just as we all had been, by Kíla’s performance. A few days later I was introduced properly to Danielle by a mutual friend and we began chatting about working together.

DANIELLE: Caoimhe and I exchanged a couple of brief texts of introduction and I agreed to come to meet her at one of the “unofficial” showcases in one of the hotel rooms later in the conference. This off-stage showcase took place at 2am, and of course we were all knackered at this point. Yet again, the band delivered an outstanding show squeezed into a tiny room. Given the conference was days in at this point and I was operating on very little sleep, I spent just a moment speaking with Caoimhe on my way out, and we agreed it was best to connect more fully after the conference. Within weeks of returning from the conference, Caoimhe, Kíla and I were officially working together. Caoimhe and I certainly “clicked.” Just as we started to get traction on booking a North American tour for summer 2021, COVID-19 hit Europe and soon thereafter North America, hard and fast. The entire industry was quickly leveled, and our touring plans along with it.

CAOIMHE: The showcase delivered Kíla the bones of a North American tour and a strong desire from the band to head back across the Atlantic. I met with Culture Ireland and discussed the offers we had resulting from the showcase, and started the work on getting it all going in collaboration with Danielle. At the same time, I was coordinating Kíla’s European St. Patrick’s Day concerts. Kíla was booked to play several concerts in Paris, London, Dublin and Kilkenny over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, including a 6-day residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Unfortunately, COVID-19 struck at the start of this tour, and Kíla had to return to Ireland from Paris on the 13th March before any of these concerts could take place.

DANIELLE: With the pandemic, the abundance of cancelled shows, and the anxiety and grief we all were experiencing, grew an opportunity. As a new agency, I knew that I was not going to sit on my hands and wait for the return of live shows. I couldn’t do that—to my business, myself, nor the artists that had placed their careers in my care! It quickly became clear that the pandemic was here for a while and that in-person concerts were not going to resume in just a few months’ time. Without music conferences, I also had no means by which to introduce my new agency to promoters. I soon delved into research for a means to host a series of virtual showcases so that I could promote my new agency to promoters across North America and start getting eyes and ears on my artists—and establish a unique space for myself among agencies as one that was innovative, caring, resilient, and passionate about the artists and the industry as a whole. 

CAOIMHE: In the early stages of lockdown many artists were taking to social media with live virtual performances, but quite often both the sound and the visual quality were poor. Coupled with the logistical difficulties of coordinating an 8-piece band on an online platform, I was reluctant to put Kíla on a virtual stage until we could guarantee the quality of both sound and vision. In May, we were approached by John & Bobby Vickers of Concert Deck to take part in ‘Lock Up Live’, and what resulted was a very high-quality recording that brightened up many a living room during lockdown.

DANIELLE: Caoimhe and I were both so energized by the events at FAI and the resulting offers to bring the band to North America. We wanted to use that energy we both still felt to build something entirely different instead. Kíla did their first livestream with Lock Up Live which was a great success. I also had a few artists on my roster here in the US producing high-quality livestream concerts and workshops. Promoters here were looking for virtual programming to remain engaged within their communities, to retain relationships with their sponsors, and frankly to stay active and in a positive space themselves.

CAOIMHE: Each of us in our own way were determined not to give up or give in to the constraints that the pandemic presented to musicians and live music. This may come down to female determination as each of us was driven by a force of energy, an energy I personally believed started in that hotel room in New Orleans in January 2020. Every decision we made, and every project we worked on, was collaborative and lacking in ego. Our goal really was simply to continue to get the job done, even under difficult circumstances.

DANIELLE: Following the band’s ‘Lock Up Live’ virtual concert in Ireland, Caoimhe and I discussed producing another concert with the band to be streamed specifically for North America. Together, we investigated technical solutions to hosting livestream concerts, ticketing platforms, and delved into video production as a whole, assembling teams alongside us and the band to ensure a successful deliverable. We divided up the work and leaned right into it. Caoimhe and I had complete trust in each other’s work and skill sets. Caoimhe and the band researched tech, stages, staff, potential dates for recording in an empty venue, and budget. Meanwhile, I was pitching the idea across the US and Canada to promoters that were Kíla fans (including those we knew from the FAI showcases), Irish arts organizations and Celtic festivals. We found that budgetary constraints would make it difficult for any one promoter to host an exclusive concert stream. We were all in a vacuous financial hole as the pandemic raged on, and no one had any idea when income from live shows would return, nor their usual budgets. 

CAOIMHE: Together, we produced an hour-long concert with Concert Deck and showcased it to 12 festivals and venues across the US and Canada in August 2020, each a financial sponsor, sharing the load. Now with Culture Ireland support, the concert will be streamed across the rest of the world during 2021. So far it has been to the US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, and will hit Brazil, Australia, Asia and New Zealand later this year. 

DANIELLE: There are many strong women represented in Irish mythology: Brighid, Aine, Macha, Fionnuala, Caer and Morrigan to name a few, many of whom are shape-shifters, able to take on multiple forms. I like to think of Caoimhe and I owning some of that spirit energy in our Irish DNA. In retrospect, I see how our flexibility and willingness to shift our energies from booking an in-person North American tour to a virtual tour, and all that needed to be learned to make that happen, as something of a feat. We barely knew each other at the start of the pandemic. Yet we quickly forged strong professional ties through weekly zoom meetings and innumerable emails as we set about to make the Kíla Live virtual tour a success. We persevered through the pandemic, despite the repeated lockdowns, the loss of income, the heightened anxieties, and all the unknowns—and out of all that work, found success, and forged a friendship across the ocean.

CAOIMHE: As a band manager, being forced into the constrictive conditions caused by COVID-19 offered me a chance to be very creative. As well as continuing to organise quality online concerts, this involved a strong focus on grant applications, and maintaining a constant presence on social media. Collaborating with Danielle meant that each of us had a sounding board for our ideas. It gave us a supportive environment to openly discuss these ideas and to support each other as women working in a still predominantly male dominated industry. 

DANIELLE & CAOIMHE: We both had a genuine desire to facilitate the development of music, art, and creativity in an online world, and to persist despite the challenges faced by the industry resulting from the pandemic. It is a creative partnership rooted in respect, cooperation, and solidarity. Long may it continue! Beir bua!