The Arts Council’s cuts and music

While there was plenty of high-profile hoo-ha over Arts Council England’s proposed cuts to theatres around the country, there hasn’t been the same response from musicians. The weighing-in of popular superstars such as Kevin Spacey and Ian McKellen undoubtedly helped get theatre’s plight into the news, and likely assisted the funding rethink that is now under way. But where were the musicians?

Among those threatened under the original proposals were Birmingham Opera, the Early Music Network, the London Mozart Players and the London Musicians’ Collective – all of them essential and significant contributors to Britain’s cultural make up. The news now is that the LMP may have its £160,000 grant reinstated under the new considerations, but there appears to be no word yet on the other bodies.

Apart from the occasional letter to the Times, however, the response from leading musicians has been a muted sub-pianissimo. Only the LMC seem to have roused much activity, maintaining a collection of letters of support from the experimental world. Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of Arts Council England, maintains that “It is not the decibel count which has influenced us, but reasoned argument”, but one wonders at the impact of celebrity outrage too. It is easier, after all, to support funding for a student theatre festival if it happens to include Stephen Fry, Simon Russell Beale, Rik Mayall and Timothy West among its alumni – “Look – grassroots arts are where we find the stars of the future”. But that same argument can’t quite be made on behalf of music: even the greatest players to make their way with the support of the LMC are going to remain on the fringes; an outstanding oboist in the LMP may end up with the Berlin Phil – but they’re still just an orchestral oboist.

It’s not that music is short of superstars who can get the ear of a minister or two – plenty of them are happy to pipe up when expiring copyright terms begin to bite into their pension. The argument for maintaining the experimental, unusual, innovative, specialist and esoteric in music is simply harder to make (but no less necessary for that), and not one that much interests Cliff Richard or Bono. It’s still sadder that it doesn’t appear to have interested Bryn Terfel or Sir Simon Rattle either – at least, I can find no public mention of their complaints. Why is this? Are musicians shrinking violets? Is it because they maintain that music and politics have nothing to say to one another? Or have those at the top of the tree, dazzled by continual performances of canonic works in great venues, lost sight of the importance of small-scale, local music-making?

Who knows. But when the dust settles and the cuts are made, let’s hope that the silenced ensembles aren’t matched only by the silence of acquiescence.

(Cross posted at Bits of News)

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