Irish Trad and Online Concerts, An Interview with Dan Gurney of Concert Window
In the past few years, Concert Window has risen to be one of the more innovative and interesting online portals for watching live music. They’ve sent cameras to festivals, music venues, even into the kitchens of artists. They’ve become the go-to brand for online concerts and they’ve even gone so far as to create their own online festivals and communities through their work. And through it all, they’ve had a very clear love for roots music in all its manifestations. I like to think that’s because their CEO, Dan Gurney, is himself a traditional roots musician. He’s a virtuosic button accordionist, and charter member of the hottest Irish-American traditional band, The Yanks. I was curious how Dan brought his experience as a traditional musician into a company that operates on the cutting-edge of modern technology, so I called him up for an interview to talk shop about the music industry and Irish trad music.
Hearth Music Interview with Dan Gurney of Concert Window and The Yanks
Hearth Music: How did you start Concert Window? What was your impetus to create it? Let’s start at the beginning.
Dan Gurney: I think it was the fact that I’m a musician and this was 4 years ago when I started it. It occurred to me that I should be able to watch a show even if I wasn’t at the venue. I dimly knew that there was equipment and tech that could make that possible but I wasn’t sure how. I just thought it was a really cool idea. From there, it morphed into a way for musicians to actually make money because it’s not easy to be a musician and make a living. One of the main things driving me to keep building the Concert Window is to help musicians make money.
Did you have a background in business starting it off? Or did you figure it out as you went along?
DG: Yeah, I’ve just been learning as I go. I was a music major in college. I’ve always done independent projects for travel guides and websites and made videos. I put out albums but I had zero business background before starting Concert Window.
How has it been learning the ropes as you go?
DG: It’s a constant learning process. I try to stay a little bit ahead at each stage. Sometimes I get behind and sometimes I get ahead. I have some great mentors and they’re usually able to clue me in on what the next phase is but it’s definitely been interesting growing a company… It’s very different now than it was when it was just me and Forrest, my original co-founder working out of our apartment.
What’s the current Concert Window model? It seems like you’re moving from what the first model was which was streaming music from specific venues to this more organic grass-roots concert that the musicians create.
DG: I think it’s gotten a little bigger and also easier for people to access. Basically, we still stream from a few venue programs. We’ve opened it up so that anybody can play a show and they don’t need any special equipment. That has had a major impact on the number of shows and the number of side-ops. And it’s led to a lot of our recent growth. We want this to be a way for anyone to stream a concert on-line. In 5 years, we see this as something that every musician uses as part of their tool set for being a performing musician.
So, that’s where it’s going next… to an artist created venue?
DG: Exactly. We’re all about the artist and we’ve aligned all our assets with the artists so that we only win when the artist wins.
Why did you guys move from the venue-specific idea towards the artist? What was the idea? Was it hard to maintain the venues?
DG: A lot of venue owners didn’t want to do it. I think they were worried that it would affect in-person ticket sales. Actually, our artists are the opposite. It actually helps to drive awareness of the venue and it helps get people in the door. But we found that most venue owners just didn’t want to do it. So we shifted our focus to the artists.
Have you guys been looking at festivals? A lot of the video-streaming folks are looking at festivals for streaming now.
DG: We’ve had a lot of success with certain festivals recently wanting to broadcast to the rest of the world, like [The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes]. We had the Old Time Fiddle Competition in Weiser and that was great, that was really fun to watch. The problem with big festivals is that it’s expensive. You need a film crew. There’s a lot of prep work and it’s just a lot simpler to play a show from wherever you are.
You guys seem to be creating your own festivals now. There was the Boston Music Takeover and I think you did Austin or Texas, right?
DG: That’s our solution to this, is doing virtual festivals. The last 2 festivals were our 2 biggest weeks ever. Musicians just get psyched being part of a larger event. So, we started with geographic themes and we’re going to continue putting on at least one festival every month.
That’s a lot, one festival a month. Does it take a lot of prep time?
DG: Yes, there’s planning involved but since musicians are all broadcasting from their own locations, we can just keep it all on-line, and it seems to be a really good fit for a festival because people can still attend and see all the shows from wherever they are. There’s no travel involved; there’s no hardware costs. It seems to be great for both the audience and the musicians.
You guys are going against the grain in terms of video. Most people on video are looking at on-demand video where they post everything to YouTube and they’ll go look at it whenever they want. What keeps you tied to the idea of this music being so transitory with no way to see it after it has passed?
DG: There’s nothing more exciting than watching a live concert because you know that nobody has ever seen it before and, if something happens, you are going to be the person to see it as it happens and that’s really exciting. I think the other important aspect is that on Concert Window, you’re engaging with the artist. You can literally type in and chat and they’ll see it and they’ll talk right back to you and change the show and that’s only possible on a live setting.
So, there’s an interactive element to it as well. I saw people commenting and chatting back and forth during the show.
DG: Yeah, it’s a ton of fun. It’s also something you can’t do at a physical show.
Well, you can but it’s kind of rude! (laughing) Do you feel that more and more concerts are going to move on-line as the technology and social media advances?
DG: Yeah, this is going to be a normal thing in a couple of years. I don’t think in-person shows are going anywhere but there are a lot of issues with playing shows in person. Venues need to take their cut; you have to travel over there; you have to book the shows months in advance; there’s an expectation that you will draw a certain number of people and if you don’t, there will be consequences whereas, on-line, none of that applies. You can play from anywhere, you can play whenever you want, it’s super-easy for your fans to tune in and you get paid right after the show.
What do you think is lost if we were to move away from live concerts in person?
DG: I don’t think live concerts are ever going to disappear because on-line concerts are a fundamentally different experience. You still enjoy live music but there are certain things that you can do that you can’t do in person but, vice versa, there are certain things you can do in person that you can’t do on-line. I think there’s nothing better than live music in whatever form it takes. I don’t think in-person concerts are going anywhere.
But it’s true that this could be an alternative that helps support artists. A lot of artists don’t want to tour that much; they want to stay home and just make music.
DG: I will say; venues may have to change their business models as time goes on because there’s a lot of hassle that artists have to put up with and if you didn’t have to go through that hassle, a lot of people wouldn’t want to.
What do you think is working with spreading the word about concerts these days? A lot of musicians are struggling with Facebook changing algorithm and Twitter’s not that great. What are you finding spreads the word about the Concert Windows the best? What advice would you have?
DG: We have found that email has been the way for a long time and it’s still the most direct way to reach your fans. A lot of people are building fan pages on Concert Window so you can follow artists on the site. I can see that it’s a way to communicate with their fanbase all at once. People are having success with that. Facebook events still work pretty well. With everything said, Facebook and Twitter are not as good as they once were for promoting your music. It’s all changing.
That’s counter to what we would expect with social media. Are people turning away from social media, do you feel?
DG: For a while, social media was just a free lunch. You didn’t have to pay anything; you could access all your fans. Now, Facebook and probably Twitter before too long, are tightening things up. If you want access to these fans, you have to pay us. It’s a change in the game; it’s no longer free, just like buying a billboard or buying a Google adverts. So, I think the form of communicating with your fans is changing. Email is going to be around for a long, long time and that’s still the best way to get in touch with people. Again, social media is effective if you can produce content and have it go viral. There are different ways to build their fan base and engage with their fans.
I love that you hired Emma Beaton from Joy Kills Sorrow on staff. Are you looking to bring in more cutting-edge roots musicians as staff?
DG: Yeah, we’re always on the look-out to add more people. We love hiring musicians who have been in the business and have toured and know how the system works. Because all of the team are musicians, it aligns our interests and keeps us coming to work every day.
Let’s talk about your Irish band the Yanks. I love the Yanks a lot. You guys have a new album out, but it’s a double album. Why did you guys go for a double album?
DG: It was an accident. Things went so well and we were having so much fun that we suddenly looked up and we had 22 tracks. It’s the kind of thing that, if you planned for that, it’s never going to happen.
Right. You just had a wealth of material that came out of the recording sessions?
DG: We had our good buddy, Sean Keegan, from Ireland who has engineered John Blake and Lamond Gillespie’s album and some of my favorite albums over the years. So, he was around helping engineer and getting us all in the right mind-set; I think that really helped.
You had guests like the Murphy Beds (Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary) that came along for that.
DG: Yeah, and Josh Dukes on drums.
Speaking about the drums, that was interesting because it harkened back to the old Irish-American ceili bands that had drums. Do you think there’s a difference between Irish and Irish-American music? People think it’s the same thing but you’re bringing in different sounds from Irish-American roots.
DG: That’s a good question. We know Josh through the scene but he’s a good fit for our band because we’ve all played ceilis with him up in the Catskill Mountains. Those are the real, old-style types with people like Jimmy Kelly on drums… That’s the kind of things that were in New York in the 1920s. There’s nothing like it, the rhythm and having the dancers involved. That’s how we know Josh. I normally hate drums in Irish music, especially drum sets, but because Josh has played for so many ceildhs and he’s also a great flute player, his rhythm fit right in.
Tell me more about this Catskill’s scene. That sounds interesting. Where is it in the Catskills and is that still going on, these ceili dances? Do you mean like music camps? Or venues?
DG: It’s up in the Catskills Mountains; it’s in a community called East Durham. It used to be a vacation spot for Irish people and Irish-Americans coming out from New York City and when that scene disappeared, the town is still there and there are a ton of great pubs and hotels and every summer, they have this event called the Catskills Irish Arts week and they bring in instructors from Ireland and New York. It’s as good as it gets. I grew up going there and the rest of the Yanks grew up going there; it’s really important to us and our music and I definitely recommend checking it out.
You were saying too about the ceili rhythms… Irish music is not too often played for dancing these days. Obviously, there is a huge concert circuit for Irish traditional music but the rhythms for dancing, for the ceili, are really different; you have to play the music really differently to accommodate those rhythms. How did you guys develop those rhythms?
DG: The thing is concerts aren’t really the natural environment for Irish music. That was an artificial thing, created because, if people wanted to make money, they had to tour and put on shows. So, that was more commercially driven. Sessions and ceilis were how the music has been played for hundreds of years now. They’re informal; they’re social; money really isn’t the reason to do either of those things. A lot of the stuff that you hear in the concert environment, isn’t how Irish music has been historically played over the last couple of hundred years.
Are there still a lot of people who play the old dance styles of Irish music?
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of people, especially around New York because that’s where so many emigrated to and back in Ireland. You go to County Clare or Connemara, you’ll still see ceilis. It’s a particular kind of rhythm and there are similar tunes that you play for a ceili and a particular sequence of tunes and it really is a 2 part thing between the music and the dancing but honestly, some of the most fun I have playing music and have some great memories, are in the Catskills playing ceilis over the years.
Concert Window is based in Manhattan and New York. Is there a strong underground Irish scene that you guys fit into there?
DG: Yeah, Concert Window is based in the lower Eastside of Manhattan, and New York is a great Irish scene; Tony DeMarco is here, Eamon O’Leary, Rose Flanagan and Brian Conway are nearby, Brendan Dolan, tons of great musicians around New York. I think it’s good for Concert Window to be in New York, because there is all kinds of music here… We’re trying to do more to become part of the community, have events and bring people together as much as we can.
How did you first get into the accordion?
DG: That was random. I just picked one up in the toy store when I was 4 years old and wouldn’t stop playing it. That was it!
Do your parents play Irish trad or how did you get into Irish trad from there?
DG: I think my parents had been to a Chieftains show in California and then, when they moved to New York, they discovered Father Charlie Coen’s concert series and that was probably before I was born and as I started getting a little older, they took me to Father Charlie’s concerts and that’s what got me into Irish music.
Did you guys study with some of the real older musicians in New York who were around in the early days?
DG: Yeah, all of us in the Yanks have studied from the older generations. I learned a ton from Father Charlie Coen, Billy McComiskey, John Nolan, Joe Derrane. Dylan learned from Brian Conway, Rose Flanagan. I’ve recorded from Kevin Henry in Chicago. Most of our music has been inspired by the older generations.
What’s your take on Irish trad today? Riverdance was the big boom for the whole thing, it seems now it’s retreating back to underground roots. I don’t see as many concerts from Irish musicians. I don’t see even many musicians releasing their albums in the States. Do you feel like there’s been a backlash?
DG: I think you’re right on. I think it’s tough to work full-time because, in order to be commercially successful, you also have to change the music that you’re playing to appeal to the audiences and the audiences may not know much about Irish music and this turns into a cycle where a lot of what I find interesting about the music is taken out because it’s not commercially viable. That’s the environment that has been developing over the last couple of years and, as a result, I think we’re seeing that other side of the cycle which is that it’s harder to play shows. Irish music is less popular in the mainstream than it was when Riverdance hit but I actually think that’s a good thing because it shows that musicians around the world Irish music has never been stronger. It’s really all about the informal sessions and playing in people’s houses and the non-commercial aspects. In a strange kind of way, it’s a good thing. Of course, it’s tough if you want to make money, make a living playing, and nobody has quite figured that out yet. I’m confident that another model will come along in the next couple of years where there is a way for Irish musicians to make a living if they want to because it’s unbelievable music and there’s a lot to it and it’s very accessible to anyone. I think it’s finding the right business model around that and finding a way to perform for people without changing the nature of what you’re playing.
Thanks to Dan Gurney for his great responses to the interview questions and Barbara Richert for the transcription. For more info on The Yanks or Concert Window, go to their websites: