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In Writing

Collateral Damage: Sam Richards on commerce, funding and academia

November 2013

When funding bodies treat culture as a business enterprise, their insistence on results discriminates against music’s true value, argues Richards.

You’re a maker of new music. You have an idea to compose, or create an installation, an audio piece, radio art, something site-specific or community based. What’s your first move?

I like to think that we begin with the work itself. After all, we have the idea. We can unfold it, interrogate it, begin mapping it. Or if it doesn’t call for such detailed preparation we can just get on and do it. But the chances are that whether in the initial stages or further in, we’ll confront issues of money, venue, promotion – the practical issues of how we get the thing on. Enter the three-headed hydra of commerce, funding, academia.

Musicians should be wary of these three ostensible allies.

“Musicians don’t eat flowers,” my composition teacher Alfred Nieman exclaimed. “They need building up! They need steaks!” No vegetarian, Alfie. But steaks or nut cutlets, they need paying for, as does our work as musicians – even if it’s only buying ourselves time to do it. Commerce is the easiest to understand. We know, in the words of a cynical old song, “Nothing is for nothing, nothing is for free, I look after you, Jack, you look after me”. Commerce always involves predictability. A commodity needs identity. An identity means repeating something already done. We decide whether the deal offered is worthwhile depending on various factors. How much? Does it feel like a compromise, a promise, or a mutual opportunity? How about our credibility? How do its demands sit with our own ethics? The agenda here is led by the commerce and accepted (or not) by the musician. It’s a straightforward business model in which a whole load of questions and answers is implicit. Take it or leave it.

Turning from commerce to funding, state sourced such as the Arts Council or privately sourced, the questions are now explicit. Who will benefit? What are your aims? How will it be delivered, evaluated or involve others? How will it create new audiences? How does it relate to existing best practice? What skills do you have? How will it fit with your current work and its future development? How will you explore new ideas and concepts? How will you market it? What partnerships have you established? How about access and diversity? Outline the main stages of your activity. Risk assessment? Project management? (Incidentally, all these questions were lifted from the current Arts Council Grants for Artists application form.)

Some excellent artists who don’t mind writing these elaborate fictions do get through the obstacle course intact. I’ve done it myself – although rarely. But there’s no mistaking the basic model here. It’s the business-enterprise model, now the default position for everything cultural, with its insistence on accounting, predictability, repetition and describing your idea before you’ve actually finished it. It discriminates against musicians who don’t know (or find too distasteful) the au courant codes, buzzwords, right answers, concepts and assumptions about music, and this applies equally to experimental music. Indeed, it ensures that experimental music has its wings clipped before it has even had a chance to fly. It tends to uniformity while paying lip service to innovation. Breaking boundaries becomes a familiar routine, a cliche – and therefore tends to its exact opposite, becoming an obligation rather than a creative imperative. It also discriminates against musicians because as creative artists we think in flashes, round corners, accept our clouds of unknowing as sources of the imagination. We understand that a negative result is OK although the business model labels it a failure. The questions demanded at the gates of heaven, therefore, are designed to tell us all to go to hell – the hell of music as a results based, predictable practice. No wonder improvisors find it hard to get support.

It’s hard to find a funding source that places principal value on music. Music is a value of and for itself, but demanding that it enhances audiences, confirms the aspirations of a sponsor, enhances civic pride, repairs communities, enables the disabled, supports diversity and so on actually deflects faith from music to causes and buzzwords.

I do not disdain good causes; I occasionally work for them. What I do disdain is the absence of music funding that places the highest priority on music itself, rather than on what it can supposedly do. It is, of course, impossible to prove that an exploratory, diverse, abundant musical life has relevance to worthy causes, feeds education, supplies the young, the differently abled, the supposedly deprived, with new ideas and fresh potentials. But that’s precisely the point: by placing ultimate faith in its supposedly definable use values rather than in music itself, we detract from the potential that music has to create, mould, invent and probe a culture of attitudes and values. If we cultivate and allow music’s core values of listening and hearing, of acting and responding, interacting with others, and emphasising music’s ability to engage, astonish and empathise, it is hardly likely that we’ll dismiss or turn a deaf ear to worthy causes. They follow as night follows day.

You might think that turning towards academia is a safer bet – provided that you have your entry ticket, that is. Communities of teachers, researchers and learners might be supposed to be neutral, committed to music as research rather than entrepreneurialism. But academia is to music as party politics is to original social and political action. It’s the last stage in the process, not the first. It formalises. It is technocratic. It considers itself cutting edge but is often blunt and worn out. It is conservative. The wild explorations of the old avant gardes of previous eras end up as campus modernism – or, even worse, campus postmodernism.

Since the Baker Education Reform Act of 1988, when higher education was unceremoniously shoved onto the neoliberal path to insignificance, and then since the creation of more than 60 new universities in 1992, higher education institutions have been first and foremost businesses. Loss of huge chunks of government funding has forced ever greater alliances with partners, industry, the free market and entrepreneurialism. Corporate funding and the business model run rampant. The university I work for part-time proudly proclaims itself as the sixth largest business in the region. To survive, to compete, there’s no other option. Some excellent work does happen in universities, but it tends to happen in spite of the general framework, not because of it.

The hydra of commerce, funding and academia hates the messiness of the real world, even though it may make a show of accepting it in the name of a kind of post-Cage knowingness. The trouble is that it’s this formal, institutional acceptance, with its enormous load of culture, prestige, economy, marketisation and respectability, that emasculates the very values that make new music potentially so dynamic. It is, ironically, this very quality of dynamism, this ability to engage and to probe, which can make new music attractive to the hydra. Not wishing to appear isolated, non-worldly or outmoded, the hydra – perhaps especially its academic head – is attracted to the ‘real world’, the living, organic, connected quality of new music. Yet it is also the first thing to be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, repeatability, and marketability, even if only to coteries of apparently devoted followers.

But how do we pay for those steaks and nut cutlets? How do we buy time to make our music? The best answers I can think of are these. First, just acknowledge that no one lives an uncompromised existence, not under any system, although capitalism takes some beating in this respect. There’s no disgrace in holding a few candles to the devil – or the hydra. Second, political awareness of these issues plus a spirit of refusal go some way to neutralising their effects. Third, in any catch there’s always the one that gets away. You can do all you can to be that one.

Sam Richards’s The Engaged Musician: A Manifesto is published by CentreHouse Press.


Great, great piece. Some really astute observations and critiques of the oh so problematic relationship between the arts & its funding. As Sam Richards points out, the problem arises when music is treated as a mere commodity, and can only be viewed thru the dissociating lens of instrumental reason.

Great, great piece. Some really astute observations and critiques of the oh so problematic relationship between the arts & its funding. As Sam Richards points out, the problem arises when music is treated as a mere commodity, and can only be viewed thru the dissociating lens of instrumental reason.

An excellent and very perceptive piece.

I teach Improvised Music at Guildhall School of Music + Drama. It's not all bland and corporate.

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