Thursday, September 28, 2017

Music, Society and Cultural Policy

Most of the time government is content to throw a few dollars (pounds, euros?) at "cultural industries" and go on ignoring the arts. That phrase "cultural industries" that always seems to pop up in government policy studies, gives me a headache. I have this fleeting image of rows of composers at little desks writing thousands of hemidemisemiquavers in a backstreet sweatshop somewhere. I have little faith that government cultural policy--which means, basically, subsidies--will have much effect one way or the other on the cultural fabric of the nation, so, for me, examining what is being said is largely a way of understanding how the mainstream of society tends to regard the arts.

Today's post is inspired by two recent articles, one in the Globe and Mail about Canada's new cultural policy: The 10 key takeaways. The other is in The Guardian: The Guardian view on musical education: it needs social harmony. Let's have some quotes, first from the Globe and Mail:
Last spring, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly launched a broad Cancon policy review, saying "everything was on the table" in how the federal government funds Canadian culture and media.
For those of you not familiar with Canadian cultural policy, the main thing driving it is Canada's proximity to the giant engine of US culture. Eighty percent of the population live within two hundred miles of the US border so they are inundated with US radio and television. Canada has a native media industry who are always trying to get hefty government subsidies so that in Canada we can hear and see our own stories instead of American ones. Yes, it is a problem. But the result of this seems to be Canadian programming (called "Cancon" for "Canadian content") that is even duller and less creative than it otherwise would have been.
A "Netflix tax," which would have been levied upon digital media producers and Internet service providers, had been discussed previously as a potential source of revenue to fund more and higher quality Canadian content.
Netflix has been killing cable companies in Canada, just like in the US. The expected response was to hit them with a tax to support local content. As it turns out, they got Netflix to "voluntarily" promise to invest $500 million in
developing and distributing Canadian television shows and movies
Six of one, half a dozen of the other in my view. Canadian cultural policy, no matter how nice it sounds, always comes down to punishing successful businesses economically so you can support, with subsidies, ones that people are less interested in. The secret ingredient is always the government who chooses whom to punish and whom to reward.

Now let's look at Great Britain, where there is a very different cultural context:
Opening the conservatoire, its principal, Julian Lloyd Webber, said the new building came at a difficult time for arts funding, and he hoped to use the new college “to ensure that the future arts industry is not dominated by the wealthy elite”. He will have to try hard. Those studying music at university are vastly more likely to hail from private schools, or from abroad.
The driving force in cultural policy in the UK seems to be the fight against historic class divisions: the "wealthy elite" serve as the scapegoat much as the US does in Canada.
Music is taught in the majority of schools around the country, but it is skewed towards the rich. Those wishing to study classical music, a grounding that can lead to rock and pop, must often pay for private tuition and own their own instrument, which cuts out those who cannot afford it.
The same is true in Canada, of course. Those families who through cultural tradition or wealth or both who provide private music lessons for their children give them the possibility of becoming musicians that other families do not. But in Canada it does not seem to be an issue, while in the UK it is.

I guess my cynical takeaway from these two articles is that, first, Canadian cultural policy is all about, all about, finding a way to subsidize influential cultural moguls that can be sold to the general public. In the UK it is all about trying to find ways of supporting cultures, like classical music, that are tarred with the brush of elitism, by making them seem not elitist. So it's really about smoke, mirrors and hypocrisy. Isn't it?

Let's have a suitable envoi. For those who don't know, Julian Lloyd Webber is the brother of Andrew Lloyd Webber and a fine cellist. Here he is playing the last movement of the Haydn C major cello concerto:

But, good grief, what is he wearing?


Anonymous said...

Every business operating in Canada pays corporate taxes. Netflix does not. It should. That's how they're doing it in Europe. But if Canadian taxpayers are happy subsidizing Netflix, hey, that's their problem.

The deal is a big win for Netflix. That $100M a year is money they would have invested in Canada anyway.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the insight, Anon. I noticed an opinion piece by another Globe and Mail writer that also points out that Netflix pays no taxes in Canada. Over the years the Canadian establishment has cowed the Canadian taxpayer so successfully that they will swallow almost any absurdity if it is accompanied by the appropriate virtue-signalling.