A Honey Badger
‘I don’t want to work for a big company again. I’m feral!’ Jim Carroll is referring to when he worked for an online magazine called Muse which was owned by Rondomondo, a digital publishing arm of Eircom. In 2001 they closed it down or to use a corporate euphemism they decided to restructure the business. It resulted in several job losses including Carroll’s. You can’t ever imagine Carroll conforming to the beat of someone else’s drum, that’s not to say that he is difficult, quite the opposite, he’s warm and engaging. He has a sharp wit and the energy of a humming bird. He also is a honey badger, that is, he doesn’t give a damn if you don’t agree with him, he has strong opinions which is becoming a rarity in today’s culture of not wanting to cause offense. But enough of the animal comparisons.
Carroll is best known as a music journalist for the Irish Times and as a regular contributor on RTE radio’s Arena. His fast-paced journey to that point never deviated from the world of music, ‘when I was growing up in Cappawhite, Tipperary in the 80’s I was a vociferous media reader and consumer. I was fascinated,’ he pauses and corrects himself, ‘no I was obsessed with print and papers, I wanted to know how they decided on the stories to put in.’ The stories that pull him in nowadays are written by sports journalist Malachy Clerkin, his stories have ‘colour, depth, width and girth. I also read Ed Vulliamy’s and Mary Fitzgerald’s work, they write with righteous anger.’ But back to the 1980’s farm in Tipperary, as well as print Carroll was simultaneously infatuated with music, ‘it took me a good few years to realise that I love music and I love writing so maybe I could combine the two, that was kinda one of those eureka moments. I didn’t realise that you could make a living from combining the two.’
He moved to Dublin to study journalism in the College of Commerce Rathmines, it’s now known as Rathmines College. ‘There was something like twenty-four places on the course and I think thousands of people applied, but the funny thing is most of the students dropped out in the first year because the course wasn’t great.’ His alumni include journalist Paschal Sheehan and public relations maven Jackie Gallagher as well as many others. ‘The one thing that course taught me is that you don’t have to do a course to do journalism so I dropped out to do freelancing. I started to write for anyone that would have me!’ He achieved this by calling the papers, ‘back then we had no email so you had to call and you were put through to brusque newspaper editors.’ You can’t help but imagine a younger Carroll maximising on the country strain of curiosity aka nosiness that he acquired over the years to hunt down the right person to talk to. He was tenacious, ‘the worse they could do is put the phone down, the best they could do is bring you in for a cup of tea and talk to you and the better thing they could do is take the piece from you.’
During that time he used to go to several gigs in a night and that is when he got his second eureka moment. ‘I was fascinated by new bands and the industry. I was insanely curious about what’s going on, I don’t drink so I’d be standing there looking around and I’d get to know the record people.’ It was during this time that he became very close with Simon Dine who at the time was A&R for Go! Discs, it had bands such as The Beautiful South and The Housemartins. Dine later went on to work with Paul Weller. ‘Simon hired me to do A&R for Go! Discs in Ireland. I would fax over a list of the bands that I thought were hot to him every fortnight, yes fax,’ he laughs.
He continued to write freelance expanding his reach to the UK by writing for NME, Melody Maker, Spin and Sounds magazine. He quickly noticed that the remuneration for writing for UK publications was significantly more profitable than for their Irish counterparts.
Having explored the music business from many angles owning a record label was one unexplored area for an inquisitive soul like Carroll. He co-founded Lakota Records, their most memorable signing being JJ72, ‘their first album was a hit,’ but then silence so he decided to move to London, no doubt the earlier freelance writing for UK magazines had laid a seed. He started working for London Records which had East 17, All Saints, Echo & the Bunny Men and several Britpop style bands. On his first day in the office the infamous incident with Brian Harvey happened, you know time when he told a radio interviewer he had once taken 12 ecstasy tablets and then drove home? He laughs at the memory, ‘it was a great introduction to the label on my first day!’
Pete Tong also worked there, ‘his approach was a real education.’ But it was the steps that went into manufacturing All Saints that fascinated him, ‘I saw how they developed this image and took out all the rough edges.’ The stimuli of a new city and a new company grasped his attention for a while but eventually it was the turn of technology in the guise of Microsoft and British Telecom. ‘It was around 1996 and record labels hadn’t a clue about the internet. This was pre-Napster but it was coming down the line. BT and other big companies started to request meetings with record labels to talk about new tech. I was the only one with an email so they figured I knew something about technology and would send me to meet them, my mind was blown by what they were telling me. I was convinced that online streaming was going to hit like a train so I compiled these reports and sent them up the line and they were completely ignored.’ The label was making so much money from CD reissues that they were not interested in future proofing the business. Carroll smiles and says, ‘my sympathy for the record labels as to how things went were very limited.’
In 1999 he got an offer to head up an online magazine in Dublin called Muse and if you read paragraph one of this article you will know how that panned out. Carroll is philosophical about it all, ‘I’ve spent all my adult life in cities. The great thing about cities is that things happen all the time, the city always has something that pulls and defines.’ The next thing Dublin presented him with was the opportunity to write for The Ticket as he still does in a freelance capacity. His blog for The Ticket has won awards and gives him a freedom of expression that he is grateful for, ‘the blog allows me to write about the music business in depth, it’s a good place to pull out the issues. Music should get the same forensic approach that we take to every other story. You take a soft story and try to apply a hard news template to it and that’s what I can do on the blog.’
One thing he complains about is the lack of time given to journalists nowadays to write pieces, perhaps that frustration unconsciously brought Banter into his life. It is a project that guzzles time like a Cadillac on the open road creating unique experiences that are paradoxically timeless. ‘Back in 2008 Trev O’Shea went to Sonár Festival in Spain, they had some talky events at it that he wanted to replicate in Dublin. With hindsight I wonder how he thought it was great because they spoke Catalan and he doesn’t even have a word of Spanish that he could rub together!’ O’Shea owns several pubs across Dublin such The Bernard Shaw, he also is part of several successful festivals like The Big Grill in Herbert Park.
‘Trev used to hassle me to write about his clubs for the Irish Times,’ so he approached Carroll to help re-create what he saw in Spain and that is how Banter came into being in July 2009. Even when just three people showed up to one of the earlier talks they never gave up on the vision, ‘two were Polish tourists that wandered in out of the rain. The thing is we got an amazing podcast, we just kept going, persistence is an amazing thing.’
They have done 113 Banter talks to date. There have been ‘two tipping points for it. In December 2011 we had Miriam O’Callaghan and it gave it a profile and from then on it was always full. Then in December 2012 Other Voices invited us down to Dingle.’
Banter allows him to explore subjects with a depth and detail he believes they deserve, a consideration that print limits him with, due to time constraints. ‘My friend Blathnaid Healy, editor of Mashable, said to me early on that it was a media play. I resisted it but she’s right it is. It’s a chance to develop conversations more.’ He always is keen to up his game by asking questions that interviewees have never had before because it’s raw realness that holds his attention not restrained thoughts and to tease them out from someone is not easy.
For now he is content with his lot but when asked what scares him he gives an insight that what will guide his future plans. ‘The scariest thing is to keep doing something when you know that you should be doing something else, I mean I know a time is going to come in the next few years when I will feel that I’ve done everything I can do in journalism. It would be scary to jump but it would more scary to keep doing what you’re doing, knowing that there is a natural end in sight.’
You can check out Jim’s blog here.
You can follow Banter here.