Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Guest post: Gerry Godley on arts funding

The politics of arts funding as seen from the point of view of an arts organisation

Wed, Nov 20, 2013, 09:20


There are some stories which shouldn’t go away just because the news cycle moves on. The recent forensic reporting by Nialler9 on conflicts of interest and other alarming issues around Music Network’s Recording Scheme awards is a story which has raised many questions and led to pieces here and elsewhere. While Music Network have answered some of the questions, there are still many more queries around this particular scheme – and the bigger picture when it comes to arts’ awards, panels and bursaries – which require answers. For instance, what about the management and administration of the judging process in previous years? I’ve written to Music Network looking for a list of the judges who sat on the various panels from 2006 to 2012 and Nialler has also requested this information but, as of yet, the information is not forthcoming. Perhaps a FOI request has to be next on the to-do list?

Today, we’re publishing a guest post from Gerry Godley giving his thoughts on what’s been happening over the last week from the point of view of someone who runs an organisation funded by the Arts Council. Gerry is the director of the Improvised Music Company, an Arts Council funded resource organisation for jazz and related music, established by Irish jazz musicians and supporters in 1991.

Whatever way you slice it, last week was not a good place to be if you were the Arts Council or one of its funded music organizations, when good journalism by Nialler9 shone some unflattering light on the mechanics of recent decisions around recording grants. I’m in the latter category, running an organization accountable for taxpayers money over the last two decades to support jazz, improvised and related music. Writing in a personal capacity, I’m familiar with the people involved and the ecology they work in.

Many posters made constructive points as to what needs to change, and given the strength of feeling expressed, it’s a racing certainty that the best of those will be taken into consideration by the awards administrators Music Network. It’s a space that will be watched closely. But there was hysteria too, and the trial by online court of one musician in particular was, to me, unfair. The cynicism that has understandably become our default assumption about all our public institutions found a fertile breeding ground here. And of course, the white noise in the background of every discussion about arts funding – calls of cronyism, golden circles, being in the know, elitism, fear of speaking out, the tyranny of form filling.

Zooming out, the wider questions are significant. The commercial/non-commercial distinction as articulated by the Arts Council is no longer fit for purpose, based on some notional music industry model that no longer exists. From my vantage point out here in the jazz badlands, so much popular music sounds incredibly narrow now, captured by its Orwellian relationship with advertisers, brands, daytime radio and Saturday night TV. Music for people with no teeth. The 99 per cent who choose not to capitulate to the neoliberal soundtrack, following instead their own creative star, now find themselves in a market just as failed as that for jazz, opera, chamber music or any other niche. Market failure sounds terrible, but it’s the reason the state uses your money to pay for good things like lifeboats, hospitals, buses, even recording grants. Because these things just wouldn’t happen left to the market and its primary motivation to take profit.

If the online revolution has obliterated the old business models, forcing yet more demand on the shrinking resources of the public purse, it gave us something too. Empowered by information and liberated by technology, musicians are tearing down the silo walls. Their music has become porous, a noisy Venn diagram, and the musicians in the interstices of all those interlocking circles are making some of the most vital music right now. But their position is also the most precarious. Rejected by a market that no longer has an appetite for risk, complexity, subtlety, they look to the state for a safe haven. This is their right as citizens, as much as it for theatre makers, sculptors and uileann pipers.

Where public money is concerned, the conduit between artist and their fellow citizen is the Arts Council. It is a massive responsibility. They take their public accountability seriously and rightly so. But like all institutions everywhere since the dawn of organized society, they are wary of change, because it’s volatile and unpredictable. It is the nature of institutions.

Issues of representation, about music genres or anything else, are thorny, and sit right on the fault line of arts policy and the myriad competing interests it tries to serve. A recurrent riff of last week’s conversation was that everything would be fine had there been a representative of the rock/pop constituency on the inside of the decision making process. But doesn’t putting in a rock/pop brain to “defend our patch”, smack of the parish pump? Isn’t this part of the same political dysfunction that many posters wanted to believe is at work here?

If gesture cultural politics were all that’s required, that wish would be easily granted. Maintain the status quo to make sure we get our fair slice of the pie. Problem is, the pie is getting smaller. With another few austerity budgets to come, we may soon all be pieless.

So if you’re going to mobilise for change, do it because it raises the bar for everyone. Feed into a deeper interrogation of the purpose of these awards. Have a richer conversation around the table whereby each application has to considered both on its individual merits and also within the widest musical context too – the beautiful, noisy, colourful habitat of all Irish music making.

Zooming out a bit further, we also have to consider what becomes of these recordings. 76 of them have been funded by the scheme in question since 2006. How many of them have lived up to the laudable ambition to fund excellence, and by what rubric can we measure it? Is it physical sales, downloads, critical response, international distribution, touring, all or none of the above? What level of promotional heft is expected once these artifacts go out into the world? Was there a keen-eared producer in the booth at the time of their conception? Its become the norm to assume that the artist is a miracle worker who can deliver all the above, but isn’t that naive on everyone’s part. These recordings will follow the artist ‘til the day they die, so we should make them to last.

And they are absolutely vital to our music export aspirations. I believe our current approach to music export is piecemeal at best, especially when compared to countries like Iceland. A fraction of our size, economically just as traumatized, yet with its own music export office since 2006. The outcomes for Icelandic music over the last decade speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Culture Ireland, the body expected to carry the can for all Irish cultural export, take a 20 per cent hit in the most recent budget. The political grandstanding about the importance of our culture didn’t even break its stride.

Who is deserving, who gets to decide, who pays for it? None of these questions are easy. You might think ‘you’re compromised by your funding relationship, you’re not impartial’. That may be so, but I’m not a shill either. Do I think there are fundamental flaws in the recording grants that need to be urgently addressed? Yes. Do I think we need a wider dialogue about music policy? Yes, and not just for music, for all the arts. The appetite for it is palpable. Do I support my colleagues in other funded organisations? Yes, because I believe they are straight shooters.

And do I stand by the role of the Arts Council and the arms length principle, which requires it to live up to the aspiration of politically independent decision-making, even if it sometimes falls short as it reaches for the falling knife of decreasing funds, growing demand and shifting cultural sands? Absolutely. Because the alternatives are that these precious resources become the whimsical gift of the minister of the day. Or that they disappear entirely and we are left with the crass populism that played out with the Arthur Guinness Projects. A hunger games for arts funding.

These recording grants are not small beer, because principles are at stake, which is just as important as the money. In our world of convulsive change on the one hand and despondent lethargy on the other, articulating those principles and backing them up with policy and resources is a tall order, but it’s not beyond the collective capacity of the smart people in Ireland’s big room of music. Last week Nialler9 did us all a service by framing the discussion. Where does it go next?