Meet the music industry pioneer from Dunboyne ramping up the hype for one of the biggest summer parties of the year
Linda Coogan Byrne has worked with some of the biggest musical acts in the world including Cyndi Lauper, Suzanne Vega, Counting Crows, Duran Duran and REM. She's travelled the world, railed against the male dominated playlists on Irish radio and has even enjoyed three years as Queen of Skryne Castle.
Now, amongst other projects including penning a forthcoming book on challenging the Irish music landscape, the industry pioneer is spearheading the publicity drive for the Forever Young Festival taking place this July.
The chance to put 20 years of wide-ranging experience to the test and help grow a fledgling festival to one of the most anticipated events of the Irish Summer was too good to resist for the woman whose love of music and entertainment is traceable through her South Meath DNA.
"My mother's family is from Dunboyne but I grew up there, only sporadically. I attended Dunboyne, St Peters College from age 12- 19 though, and traveled there from Dublin, Cabra where I lived with my Aunt Vivienne (on my fathers side). I always had a close connection to my grandmother. Nana was Mary Coogan (Nee Yourell) and they were a popular and well-known family from Dunboyne. Music was a massive part of her mum's family. My great grandparents were penny musicians, they used to go from house to house with a violin and a little button accordion, playing and performing."
"I later got a chance to live up at Skryne Castle with my cousin, Danny Yourell who was like a brother to me. Basically you have the castle and mews and demesne and stables around it that have been converted in to art studios. He had a studio there and I'm an artist as well and he said did I want to come over and stay for a few months. I had been living in London and I was going through some difficult stuff at the time and my grandmother had also died. I ended up staying there for three-and-a-half years. I created some art there and just had a great time. It was wonderful with Mrs O's being the local! It was a great experience being so close to nature and the Hill of Tara and did I mention Mrs O's, she laughs!
Linda took over the PR work for the hugely successful and still very young Forever Young last year after it, along with everything else for the previous two years was silenced due to Covid.
Last year's festival took place on the hottest weekend of the year drawing a colourful crowd of over 14,000 80s music lovers and nostalgia freaks to see Holly Johnson, OMD, Paul Young, Wendy James and Nik Kershaw to namecheck but a few. This year's line-up features Bananarama, Erasure's Andy Bell, Billy Ocean, Midge Ure and Go West among the many 80s icons appearing over three days and nights. In some Cool for Cats additional news, Squeeze has just bween announced as the headliner for the Friday night.
A call to join FYF founder Dr Sharon Alston proved just to hard to resist for Linda and her Good Seed PR firm having heard rave reviews from friends who attended the first festival in 2019 while she was living in London.
"I got a call from Sharon who asked me to work on the festival and I asked what genre it was, and she said '80s', I said 'I'm an 80s girl so I'm in'. Sharon is such a wonderful person to work with, just her drive and enthusiasm and relentless support for animal welfare (the festival supports her Music for Animal Welfare charity). She's just a wonderful person with a great team and I loved what they were all about."
While the Dunboyne woman's love of the music industry can be traced back through the Coogan generations, she forged her own path, playing in different bands as a teenager before ultimately giving up life in front of a microphone to mastering the music business from behind the scenes. She cites working with Sinead O'Connor, Eleanor McEveoy, the Saw Doctors and Aslan as career highlights and dealing with these stars as "a privilege. "It's a pleasure to be part of the processes," she says.
As well as representing artists, Linda also set about challenging the cultural norms that saw Irish female artists get limited, if any, airtime.
Travelling the world and seeing how artists and gender were handled elsewhere gave her a keen insight into just how behind the curve Ireland was in allowing female artists with an equal platform. The 'Why Not Her' campaign she founded has led to some uncomfortable truths revealed about the traditional biases around equal airplay for women but it is improving, says Linda.
"We've made considerable strides. It started in 2019 and was just borne out of working in the industry and just seeing the gender disparity on the airwaves and in general in the music industry. Just seeing how dominated the playlists are by male artists, I just wanted to see was there anything to be done to change that because there's a lot of diversity in Ireland especially in the last 10 years and new cultures and new music to be enjoyed. There's Hip Hop, there's R&B, there's so much talent coming through.
"We approached the whole 'Why Not Her' campaign using data to tell the story because if you just went at it with opinions it wasn't going to get you far. We looked behind the scenes at radio to see what way the playlists were stacked and after the guts of a year we'd a lot of credible data we could bring to the likes of Catherine Martin, (Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media) and who is a wonderful advocate for gender equality and we showed her the data, we showed it to President Michael D Higgins and we spoke to senators and ministers, because after all, this is an issue that affects the women of Ireland and has historically affected them."
If the statistics turned a mirror on the music industry in Ireland, the reflection was less than flattering.
"We did a 20 year dive into the industry and found that, for instance, Imelda May was the first female artist to have a No 1 album in 6-7 years. Before that it was Lisa Hannigan and before that it was The Corrs so there were these huge generational gaps where women's voices just weren't heard.
So that has a historical effect of how people are seen and the impression that women are not as good as men, they are, they just aren't getting the equal opportunities. There's a generation of women who have never been heard.
There's wonderful acts out there now such as Pillow Queens and CMAT and these these are artists that are getting big international exposure and airtime on TV shows in the UK and America but not as much here. But there has been significant changes in the last three or four years. We are seeing the like of Denise Chaila and Women in Harmony but it's still not where it needs to be.
"We've been working with a lot of politicians to try and push forward the New Media Bill where there will be proper policies across Irish radio. It's not about meritocracy and saying people prefer male voices to female voices. If all people hear is Gavin James, Wild Youth, Picture This or Dermot Kennedy then that's all your going to associate with Irish music and it's simply not true. It's been an uphill struggle but there is a lot of change happening."
While Linda looks to keep breaking down barriers, her focus for now is seeing Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley taking legions of 80s' kids Through the Barricades this July and she can't wait. If going to FYF this Summer here's what Linda advises:
"It is literally just like living in the 80s for a weekend. First of all, if you're coming, wear 80s clothes, do the full costume thing and get involved. The people start arriving on the Thursday for camping and glamping and the atmosphere does be just electric. I've worked at so many festivals over the years and the atmosphere at this one is just unbeatable in terms of ease of access and comfort.
Last year was just so incredible. Your effectively living a culture and an era in one weekend. The atmosphere, the energy and the love is just fantastic to be be a part of.
Linda's book is titled 'Why Not Her? A manifesto on Culture Change' and will be out later this Summer.
For more details on Forever Young click here.