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Should the UK Government Have a £2.5 Million Slush Fund for Bands?

Arts funding is in need of a boost - but is the answer letting twelve artists receive all the benefit?

af Lisa Wright
13 juni 2014, 12:26pm

Are you in an unsuccessful band who once got a decent write-up in Artrocker but things peaked pretty much after that? Want to be as big as your heroes Temples, or even Bombay Bicycle Club? Well help could be on hand, from the lads at Her Majesty’s Government. Only thing is - you’ve only got until the end of the week to prove your worth.

Basically, the Conservative’s party hard-living club kid Trade Minister Lord Livingston has helped set-up a little known about £2.5 million slush fund for people in bands. It’s called the Music Export Growth Scheme which sounds like the sort of thing you put on an expenses form when you owe a drug dealer money. Applications for the third round are set to close on June 16, whereupon another 12 successful applicants will be bestowed a grant from the government in order to aid their success overseas.

In the mind of the government, this will create little guitars with mod stickers on that will swim across the ocean like the Dad’s Army title sequence. Or as the BPI Corporate Communications officer Lynne MacDowell puts it "[the project aims to] secure a return on investment for the British creative economy.”

What we’re talking about is a speculate to accumulate affair – by ploughing a load of cash to send British artists on tour, the idea is that, a few years down the line, we’ll be reaping in the cash from 12 money-spinning Adeles.

There are obvious benefits to the program. Last year the Department of Culture, Media and Sports announced a further 7% cut to funding over the next three-year period, with the Arts Council on the receiving end of 5% of that. That’s after a 30% cut in 2010 and hundreds of other cuts to arts funding that have been implemented by the coalition government. Add to this the not-exactly secret news that people aren’t really buying records today, thus making it increasingly difficult to be a viable, financially functioning musician. So if the department for Trade want to step in and and help maintain the UK’s musical output at a time when artists and labels can’t necessarily fund it themselves, who could complain?

Well, quite a few people actually. The bones of contention around it seem a lot more confused than merely a case of whether to stick a cheeky couple of bob in the communal flat cap of the music world. For a start, the method for choosing successful applicants seems fundamentally flawed.

Applicants, of which there have been more than 200 throughout the first two rounds, explains MacDowell, are assessed on a number of criteria including “current success of artist or project in UK, the traction of artist or project in target market, the quality of marketing plan or campaign being submitted to secure the funds, the cost effectiveness of the funding and the revenue streams identified as well as the income projections” with a team of 14 industry professionals totting up the final totals.

Successful artists on the receiving end of the first round of funding included scuzzy rock duo Drenge, who’ve been on the up since the release of their debut LP last year; quirky folkie Beth Jeans Houghton, who’s received peaks and troughs of industry interest since the tail end of the noughties; The Crookes, who are now three albums into their career and Melt Yourself Down – described pretty unappealingly by Pitchfork as “a bazaar sax smackdown”. Second round winners included Metronomy, who just headlined Field Day to 25,000 people; Dinosaur Pile-Up, who’ve been slowly losing interest since their 2010 debut, and Slow Club, who are gearing up to release their third album this summer.

Aside from the genre differences (there’s also a 56-year-old composer, a world music artist and a heavy metal group), which are commendable artistically but perhaps not all conducive to actually bringing home the bacon, the main issue seems to be that there’s no real sense of what should be backed. Do you give a leg up to the fledgling band who could break through or the seasoned pro? How can you really project income for the success of an artist - did anyone think the biggest new British band of the year would be a bunch of violinists without a singer from Cambridge? In a culture where the internet can break a band overnight, does giving a group who had a vaguely successful record four years ago £20k to go to the US really seem like the key to keeping the UK music scene afloat?

Charles Watson of Slow Club – one of the bands to receive money from the Music Export Growth Scheme and who are using their share to fund a number of US tours – explained that their label Moshi Moshi had filled in the application and the band were only really made aware of it once the money had been received. “From what I understand, the grant we received was a certain type of grant for people that have already been out to America and need a little help to keep going. I think we were just very lucky that we fitted a certain criteria, I don’t even really mean genre-wise but in terms of logistics and where we are as a band,” he says. “It’s not on musical merit at all and people that think that are just wrong. It’s not like there’s some politician sitting there going, ‘Oh I really love Slow Club’, that’s not happened. It’s a load of labels trying to sort things out and it’s just been looked at on paper as a sensible way of spending the money.” The fact that labels do a lot of the paper work for bands is hardly news, but the complete lack of involvement of the artists does seem to add another layer of inscrutability to the whole affair. Of the half dozen bands I tried to speak to about their grants (which can be anything up to £50,000), Slow Club were the only ones who even knew enough to comment.

When there are budget and welfare cuts being made left, right and centre – and this, essentially, is the real reason that the scheme has come under fire – it seems uncomfortable that so much cash is being used for an idea that has no tangible or definite return. MacDowell states that the success of the scheme will be measured by “Financial [return]- Revenues from physical and digital formats (including ringtones where significant); live revenues; public performance; merchandise; sync deals; and sponsorship” as well as the change in profile of the artists, but there’s no real way to know what these changes, if there are any, are a result of. Does playing to 50 people in a bar in Texas yield more results than someone writing a particularly praise-worthy blog these days? Doubtful. Even if this scheme does help an individual artist, there’s no certainty that it will benefit the UK overall - they might do a Dev Hynes and set-up in New York, or do a Gary Barlow and find ways to stop paying back.

The reaction among corners of the internet has been unsurprisingly reflective of this discomfort. Members of indie bands Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner took to Twitter at the time of the announcement to voice what most people were thinking, stating that, essentially, the scheme is just a quick fix cop out for bands who could work for it instead.

Even people on the receiving end of the funds seem unsure. When I asked Watson (who noted that Slow Club have had “quite a lot of negative attitudes directed to [them] for it”) if he would have applied for the scheme in retrospect, his answer was hesitant. “It’s tough to say... I really love doing what we do and if it means we can do it, then great. But there’s just so many other questions that go on with that and it’s not quite as simple as saying yes or no,” he states.

But perhaps the moral question is a bit of a red herring here - the UK government has given away billions in tax cuts, bailouts and guarantees to the banks, as well as subsidies to almost every industry from agriculture to video games. Considering the large contribution the music industry makes to the economy, surely they should get a piece of that pie. As MacDowell writes - “The funding is ring-fenced by the Department for Business to support such commercial objectives and is therefore an appropriate use of their funding" - in other words, if the musicians weren’t getting this cash, someone else would.

The problem is how the money is being spent. Government breaks for musicians, in the form of unemployment benefits and loopholes that allowed for new bands to basically declare themselves as small businesses, meant that artists like Orange Juice and Pulp could languor for years before success. This non-discriminatory funding gave rise to a period of popular mordenism in which British music - kept at arm’s length from industry - produced some of its most groundbreak artists. Arts funding is something that’s clearly in need of a boost, but perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in letting 12 artists, who have all been chosen by an outdated numbers game, have all the benefit. Time will tell if the scheme does provide the boost to make a significant financial difference, in the meantime youth music projects, community radio stations and bands without business plans are being told to sack it in.

Follow Lisa on Twitter: @LisaAnneWright

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