Plugging the Creative Drain: A Glimpse Into Electronic Music Migration in Northern Ireland

Ciara Power

Queen’s University Belfast and Free the Night (Northern Ireland)



In August 2022, the Belfast Telegraph published an article titled “Belfast needs to create more venues for electronic music fans, says NI-born DJ” (Reid 2022). The piece spotlights the experiences and thoughts of Neil Kerr—better known as Mount Palomar—who echoes the utter frustration experienced by those in the Northern Irish electronic community. Kerr describes the lack of venues as an ongoing issue, with only one venue in Belfast city centre which hosts independent, underground style nights, resulting in a decrease in the number of opportunities for artists (and industry workers) in electronic music who want to “display their skills outside of mainstream events” (Reid 2022). Many of the issues raised in the article concern what drives talent exports in electronic music from Northern Ireland to leave, and for the most part, not return. This article reflects on an urgent need to plug the creative drain; a theme that I am researching in my current PhD project that documents and connects electronic music scenes in Belfast and Dublin. It includes some background information into electronic music and the broader night time economy in Northern Ireland, the experiences of three Northern Irish electronic music exports, and some theoretical understandings from Richard Florida (2002; 2008). As this reflection will show, there is a need for greater understanding of the demographic, social, political and economic push and pull factors (Latukha 2022: 2226-7) which influence electronic music talent migration in Northern Ireland, but also attract such electronic music talent from other global scenes.


Within electronic music, Belfast crowds have been described by many touring artists I have spoken to as some of the best in the global scene. Historically, rave culture was important in a divided Northern Ireland during the tail-end of The Troubles—a three-decade conflict between Irish Catholics and British Protestants that lasted from the late 1960s until the creation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The dancefloor allowed ravers to escape decades of sectarian hate and violence. It was an attractive, anti-conflict zone where Catholic and Protestant youths congregated and danced together in venues like The Ulster Sports Hall, Belfast Art College, Circus Circus in Banbridge, and Kelly’s in Portrush (McLaughlin 2004; McLaughlin and McLoone 2012). Unfortunately, my fieldwork encounters have revealed that many iconic electronic music venues have closed their doors. This has had a knock-on effect for local club nights which have been in decline since the 1990s. There is little opportunity for professional development in dance music in Northern Ireland, and many young people in the industry choose to go abroad to develop their knowledge, skills, and careers. The experiences of Fahad, a Northern Irish creative director, event operations manager, and label manager, correspond with my observations. Fahad migrated to other locations in the UK and Europe, including Ibiza, Manchester, and Glasgow, to develop his career prospects in electronic music. He recently returned to Belfast, but believes his ability to throw parties in his local electronic music scene is strained:

Belfast has always had a reputation as an amazing place to throw parties - taps aff, loads of yeeeeos and good energy - which was the case when we started. After attendance of other parties and the dying nature of our own in recent months - this magic has died (Fahad 2022).[1]

The lack of progressive night time policies in Northern Ireland also plays a significant factor in electronic music sustainability and is an encompassing push factor for electronic music migration. In 2021, Free The Night launched as a campaign to rectify decades of misunderstanding of nightlife and advocate for progressive, safe and culturally rich nightlife environments. Free The Night discovered that creative drain was a concerning issue in electronic music and other late night music scenes. Also, recent changes to licensing legislation, which came into effect in October 2021, only permit for nightclubs in Northern Ireland to open until 3am up to 104 nights per year (Department of Communities 2022). Transforming licensing laws in Northern Ireland could help retain and regain Northern Irish talent in electronic music. In August 2022, Free The Night circulated a nation-wide survey, which gathered over 900 responses, to gain insight into perceptions and experiences of nightlife in Northern Ireland. Respondents believed that changes to licensing laws could make Northern Ireland a more attractive places to visit and live (79%) and help ease the amount of creative and worker migration (45%) (Power forthcoming). Understanding brain drain dynamics can indicate the current structural issues related to a lack of policy intervention from the Northern Irish government for retaining and regaining talent (Pivotal 2021), which also informs creative migration.

The Influence of Brain Drain

In many societies, brain drain continues to be increasingly challenging, particularly for developing countries. It is not surprising that talent migration threatens the economic development of countries, caps competitiveness and reduces human capital. Lenient international border laws create vast opportunities for talent to migrate from their home countries to enhance their career prospects and search for better standards of living (Beine et al. 2008; Khilji et al. 2015; Biglari et al. 2022; Latukha et al. 2022). As previously mentioned, Northern Ireland is rich in history of civil and community conflict, yet also shares features of advanced economies including “counter-urbanism, deindustrialisation, occupational shifts, ageing, and growing levels of education, all of which influence migration rates” (Green 2018; Shuttleworth et al. 2021: 1-2). Despite brain drain primarily impacting developing countries, a recent report published by independent think-tank, Pivotal (2021), highlighted that Northern Ireland has an established pattern of educational migration and a loss of thousands of young people each year. For instance, in 2018/19, over 17,000 students studied outside of Northern Ireland, whereas in the same year, just 3,470 students chose to come to Northern Ireland to study (Pivotal 2021). Taking inspiration from Pivotal, there are questions that need to be addressed in relation to electronic music migration: What motivates electronic music workers to leave and not return? Are there both urban and regional inequities that influence migration? Should arts, culture and night time policies place greater emphasis on retaining and regaining electronic music industry talent? Could a stronger night-time infrastructure increase job opportunities and encourage creative and industry workers to stay and/or return to their home electronic music scenes?

Talent migration has been recognised as a commonality in creative, arts and cultural industries, as moving abroad can be an important career developer. The downside of this, however, is that for the most part, “the pilgrimage becomes a permanent migration” in creative communities (Bennet 2010: 117). This facet is echoed by Nikki, a DJ, radio presenter and PhD graduate based in Brixton, London. Initially, Nikki left Northern Ireland at 18 years of age to study in Newcastle and subsequently went to Nottingham to complete her PhD. She decided to leave for university to experience life beyond Belfast and has since stayed in England as job prospects for both science and creative industries fair better in mainland UK.

Leaving NI for uni and joining University Radio Nottingham gave me a platform that I probably wouldn't have had if I stayed. Winning various awards while at the station led to more opportunities and experiences that have undoubtedly helped my DJing career, as well as getting my current 9-5 job at the BBC… I think leaving has allowed me to make more connections and great friends in the music world across various cities, including Nottingham and London, but still feeling a part of Belfast too (Nikki 2022).[2]

Theorising Creative Migration

Let’s rewind back to the first decade of the millennium when an explosion of discourse emerged which highlighted the need for cities and regions to be more “creative” (Verdich, 2010:129). Jumping on this trend, policy makers on a global scale began to consider the benefits of social, human and creative capital to promote economic growth and attract people to cities as means of diversifying and developing the local economy. Interestingly, city and regional planners moved away from strategies focused on developing infrastructure and attracting business, towards attracting the creative class, “through a focus on characteristics such as a 24/7 lifestyle, cultural amenity and ethnic diversity” (Verdich 2010: 129-30). Much of policymakers’ focus on creativity and attracting the creative class stems from the work of Richard Florida (2002; 2014). In sum, Florida argues that economic development is driven by the creative economy, and for this expansion to be successful, cities must promote and attract the creative class [a social group of professional workers who work in jobs that require innovation and creativity, but who also consume cultural products avidly (Verdich 2010: 129-30)] and how quality of place, or “the unique set of characteristics that define a place and make it attractive”, plays an important part in attracting creative talent (Florida 2002: 231). Florida’s claims loosely tie in with the experiences of Tammy, a promoter and event manager currently based in Deptford, London. Tammy chose to leave Northern Ireland in the summer of 2021 for several reasons, but the strict COVID-19 restrictions and restrictive licensing laws in Northern Ireland were the primary push factors towards migration:

The lack of clubs that opened 'late' I always found quite limiting. Especially when electronic music events to me always felt like a late-night activity. When you know clubs not that far away in England open so much later you really feel disadvantaged. The lack of diversity in clubs and musical genres didn’t help either … although I feel like we are starting to see a change in this in NI (Tammy 2022).[3]
Florida’s ideologies have faced some scrutiny. In research on migration experiences of a group of artists who have moved to Stockholm, Sweden, Borén and Young (2013) consider the “usefulness” of analysing creative migration dynamics of the creative class. They argue that Florida’s work continues to be of high influence even though both statistical and empirical data of migration patterns and reasons for migration are complex, they offer some support for his claims, but also do not totally confirm his work. The usefulness of Florida’s theories for workers in electronic music in Belfast and Dublin will be explored in more detail in my thesis, but it is worth noting that creative and talent migration appears to be not fixed or given (as Richard Florida claims), rather it is complex and multifaceted, and determined by varying sociocultural, political, economic and geographic factors of cities, regions and nations.

Next Steps

Despite choosing to live away from Northern Ireland, it is apparent that Fahad, Nikki and Tammy still feel an important connection to electronic music in their home country, and they all agree that more could be achieved to nurture support for Northern Ireland’s creative people and cultural environments in electronic music. Unanimous across the board was the view that Northern Ireland’s night time economy and culture was in need of policy intervention in the areas of licensing, transport, safety, night governance and management. Fahad also pointed out how an increase in arts council funding could elevate workers’ pressures, and Tammy noted how diverse club spaces, which attract people from different cultural backgrounds, has the potential to retain and regain electronic music talent. For Nikki, affordability and career prospects in the creative industries in Northern Ireland would make it more attractive to live. Nikki posed an important question considering the rising cost of living: “[h]ow can we build a vibrant creative night time scene if no one can afford to participate in it?”. Nikki’s plan had always been to eventually return to Belfast, but when the time comes, she is hopeful that it is more affordable, and more jobs will be available.

I think there is probably a creative drain happening in NI (and arguably other parts of the UK and Ireland too), it does feel like creative jobs are very London-centric. I can't see this being sustainable as people start to become priced out of London. Better investment into the creative and cultural environment might see more people stay in NI or come back after university, or more people or agencies setting up a base in Belfast (Nikki 2022).[4]

This article has briefly reflected on the aspects which influence creative migration in Northern Ireland. While this article did not cover every push and pull factors, lived experiences of those who work in electronic music demonstrate that regressive licensing laws, minimal creative and career opportunities, and lack of venue spaces are linked to creative drain in Northern Ireland. Considering the experiences of Northern Irish talent exports in electronic music, is it time to consider a cultural ‘rebirth’ within arts, culture and the night time economy?

Author Biography

Ciara Power is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology from Queen’s University Belfast. Her project documents and connects experiences of electronic music in Belfast and Dublin. She is interested in learning about aspects that might affect, help, or limit electronic music scenes, particularly in the age of COVID-19. Ciara is also lead researcher with nightlife advocacy group, Free The Night, a campaign dedicated to creating safe, progressive and culturally rich nightlife environments in Northern Ireland.


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[1] Fahad, email communication with the author (Northern Ireland), 16 August 2022.

[2] Nikki, email communication with the author (Northern Ireland), 22 August 2022.

[3] Tammy, email communication with the author (Northern Ireland), 11 August 2022.

[4] Nikki, email communication with the author (Northern Ireland), 22 August 2022.