Robert Blair: The stranglehold on funding by the 'fine arts' threatens our musical future

CommonSpace music critic Robert Blair warns of the talent that could slip through the net in the UK if funding bodies don't step up

DURING a recent debate within the esteemed halls of Oxford University, two opposing sides met to answer a question that may seem at once simple but is simultaneously fraught with a degree of misdirection. 

Hosted by the prestigious college town’s Union Society, they departed from traditionalism or any notions of a cultural sacred cow in order to discuss whether modern day hip-hop provocateur and revolutionary Kanye West is more relevant than 'The Bard' William Shakespeare.

Featuring astute and well thought-out arguments from not only students but luminaries from worlds far removed from the ostentation and pomp of debate halls such as former hip-hop DX Justin Hunte and UK grime artist Big Narstie, the most derisive notion that prevented either side from conceding was whether traditionalism or innovation took precedence.

A shocking disparity between how much money is provided to the more staid and stagnant forms of the music spectrum, such as opera and classical music, has come to light.

As defiantly stated by Matthew Cook in response to what he saw to be the prevailing and most tightly held stance of the Shakespeare side of the argument, he asserted: "I have no doubt that our opposition tonight will emphasise the influence of our Shakespeare upon our vernacular, the 1,700 of his words or so in the lexicon. Yet to focus on this is to mistake influence for relevance."

While this quote is culled from a relatively frivolous debate that has been the product of both plaudits and ridicule in equal measure, this summarisation of how the foundations and forebearers of a medium being viewed as of more profound value to culture can be damaging to those making their way through the treacherous sphere of modern artistry.

In a series of recent figures provided by Arts Council England (Ace) and since lambasted by charities such as the Music Venue Trust among many others, a shocking disparity between how much money is provided to the more staid and stagnant forms of the music spectrum, such as opera and classical music, has come to light and indicates that this stranglehold over the lion’s share of funding can only be to the detriment of burgeoning talent in contemporary genres.

With 22 per cent (£367m) of the National Portfolio Organisation/Sector Support Organisation budget for the next four years destined for the music industry, its decisions in terms of how to award it have made it irretrievably clear that it feels beholden to uprooting these perishing art forms more than fostering the next generation of transcendent stars that will make themselves known on the world stage. 

Of this cumulative £367m, 62 per cent (£229m) is allotted to opera while a further 23 per cent (£87m) is earmarked for classical. Contrastingly, a paltry seven per cent (£28m) is awarded to contemporary (encapsulating everything from rock to experimental electronic), and this also accounts for the sums given to the North Music Trust, education, festivals/promoters and recording studios. 

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In short, this means that the eligibility for young aspiring artists of any modern genre to receive considerable funding is largely nullified in favour of the consistent canonisation of "the fine arts".

Given their targeting of the affluent and the rampant inaccessibility that is often seen as synonymous with these exclusivity-ridden worlds, these grim statistics can only serve to further dishearten the young artist who cannot feasibly find the time to fully realise a project while also paying heed to their more monotonous responsibilities. 

In addition to the overarching epidemic of forcing contemporary artists to fend for themselves in the most fractious and in many ways financially unviable musical climate that we’ve seen in the post-streaming age, this also demonstrates a blatant disregard for the local venues that support the artists that went on to contribute to the £4.1bn that the industry contributed to the UK economy in 2015. 

As cited by Music Venue Trust, over half of London’s live music venues have been forced to call it quits since 2007 and its strategic director, Beverly Whittick, has spoken frankly in proclaiming that she cannot "even begin to guess" how many will close prior to the next wave of funding in 2022.

In short, this means that the eligibility for young aspiring artists of any modern genre to receive considerable funding is largely nullified in favour of the consistent canonisation of "the fine arts".

Furthermore, figures from Statista make this preferential treatment towards traditional forms even more at odds with any cogent thought when you consider the imbalance in attendance figures.

When analysing a graph that charts the percentage of English adults that attended an opera or operetta every year from 2005-2016, there has been no exponential growth that would corroborate this explosion in funding, and the total has never risen above five per cent. 

Meanwhile, the same data collation site’s figures on music concert and festival attendance between 2012-2016 are indicative of a renewed desire for the escapism of live music, rising from 13.11 per cent at the outset to a staggering 27 per cent in 2016. 

In light of this clearly disproportionate distribution of funds, it is more vital than ever that the British public as a whole are made aware of how they are being grossly misrepresented by the arcane criteria of Arts Council England.

In an attempt to gauge whether we in Scotland are facing a similarly grim downturn in engagement with contemporary artists in the midst of favourable treatment to those in the fine arts, it is relieving to see that Creative Scotland appears willing to make a fully-fledged commitment to the betterment of our music scene.

It is relieving to see that Creative Scotland appears willing to make a fully-fledged commitment to the betterment of our music scene.

Speaking to Commonspace in response to the criticism of Ace’s agenda, head of music Alan Morrison – a man who famously listens to an album from a Scottish artist every day on his commute to work and documents it on his Twitter account – points out that nurturing our rising stars can be pivotal to their growth and success.
 
"Creative Scotland is committed to supporting musicians at all stages of their career and across all genres," he says. "We especially recognise the importance of supporting emerging artists at the start of their journey into the musical world, when a stepping stone of public funding can make all the difference to getting a foothold within the industry. 

"Some of those emerging artists may, of course, come from the classical and opera worlds, too. The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the National Youth Choir of Scotland are two of our regularly funded Organisations, and have a fine track record of developing talent from primary school age to professional status. 

"This year, two of our Made in Scotland showcase events at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe feature exciting classical talents in the shape of guitarist Sean Shibe (softLOUD) and composer/curator Ailie Robertson (Echoes And Traces)."
 
Espousing a model that supports the classical world but not in a manner that bypasses those in genres such as rock, pop and further afield, Morrison outlines how Creative Scotland's two pronged approach of financial support bolstered by exposure at pivotal industry events has aided in the advancement of new artists.

Time will tell if we see this initiative being routinely enacted in the careers of those that wish to take their home-grown material to the forefront of the wider world. 

"We regularly support emerging Scottish artists through open project funding, enabling the recording of debut material and that difficult second album. In the last year alone we have supported some of Scotland’s most exciting emerging acts in every genre, including Be Charlotte, Martha Ffion, Catholic Action, Matthew Whiteside, Honeyblood, Modern Studies, Duo Van Vliet and Mt Doubt. 

"We’ve also committed to helping record and tour annually the finalists of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year competition.

"It’s equally important to expose this world-class talent to international audiences, agents, labels and programmers, and so we not only support young acts playing festivals abroad but also give them a platform at key showcase events – from The Great Escape in Brighton to Showcase Scotland during Celtic Connections. 

"The stars of tomorrow are always at the heart of what we do every day." 

Now that Morrison has detailed the mission statement that Creative Scotland aims to follow in terms of awarding funding within our ever diversifying musical landscape, time will tell if we see this initiative being routinely enacted in the careers of those that wish to take their home-grown material to the forefront of the wider world. 

With its intentions seemingly in the right place, we can only hope that its counterparts in Ace can mend their ways before more local venues continue to close and creative individuals who could shake the foundations of the cultural world as we know it are deterred by financial constraints. 

If things continue to progress in the same manner, artists who could shake the zeitgeist in the same manner as Kanye West could be lost to time in favour of the preservation of that which holds no relevance and offers no solace or escapism to the masses.

Picture courtesy of Christian Nimri

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