British Government Pays to Send Blonde Birds To SXSW

Late on Saturday, the last night of SXSW, I somehow ended up having a pint with a mixed party of American and British band members, only one of whom I knew previously, when suddenly the subject of the British government’s support of the arts came up. Seems these four young lads, and their frontwoman—one stunning fulfillment of my perky blonde English chick singer fantasy (oh my)—hadn’t used their money to come all the way to Texas. No, the government had picked up the tab. The fact that they were vaguely ashamed—because being on the dole is unhip and kind of the opposite of DIY—told me it was true.

At SXSW this year there was a very pronounced increase in the amount of German and UK bands. The publications pictured above and below, both of which were in the goody bags you get each year when you register, are both products of their countries respective governments, i.e. they were paid for with tax dollars.

Both books open with statements from a government official. The German book featured a preface by Hans–Joachim Otto whose job title is crazy silly and reveals a whole bunch about how the German mind works: The Parlimentary State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. I mean C’mon! They can’t shorten that? Make it less Stars Wars–sounding? Next thing you know they’ll be working on a Death Star. Oh God, probably shouldn’t tempt fate, this is Deutschland we’re talking about.

Anyway, Hans, in his introduction to this 51–page booklet that included a compilation CD featuring a track by 14 different German acts, he says in 2008 the music business in Germany generated revenues of approximately, “5.4 billion Euros,” and that “11,300 companies with “36,000 employees” work in the German music business.

His British counterpart, Feargal Sharkey, CEO of UK Music, which I’m thinking is an arm of the British government organization, UK Trade & Investment, had a booth, threw several parties and had a very visible presence in Austin. Feargal ( I was going to make fun of the name, but it’s just too easy) noted in his opening essay that, “1 in 10 albums sold in the U.S. in 2008 was made by a UK artist.” Actually I would have thought that number would have been higher. But even with the lower number, he reckons that: “We are world beaters” and that the mass of music coming out of the UK “illustrates a nation’s true creative health.” The idea probably in both the German and British case is that any money invested in the music business will come back to the country in the form of increased exports and sales taxes.

As far as promotional materials, scale is obviously the deciding factor. Because Britain and Germany are small, they can print up a book the shills for much if not all the music business in the entire country. A US guide, would have to be multiple volumes and would never be done because of the squabblins that would immediately ensure (“Whattya mean Warners has more space than we do?” sayeth the Sony rep). And given the strains on the public pot these days in the land of the free, there is not money for music in the federal budget. If there’s no money for music education in schools, there’s no cash for adults musicians whether they be symphony players or punk rockers. But maybe there should be. Even a tiny investment of tax dollars, say 50 or 100 million dollars which is about what it costs to put a tire on an F–16 (clearly I exaggerate but you get the idea) could become grants to songwriters or public performance venues, fund a concert series or hell, even pay to send jazz musicians to one of the many prestigious European summer jazz festivals. Yes, I know, in the USA capitalism reigns supreme and we don’t give a bunch of no good, lazy–assed, starving artists any of our hard earned money. We’d rather do constructive things like bribe a senator or start a war or fund the pensions of overpaid government workers who think they are living in 1959.

And to be honest, if I’m British, I’m not sure that I quite agree with paying to fly a couple hundred indie rock acts to Texas. Yet it does say something about how the Allemagne and UK value civilization. Music, even rock music, is a thing to be valued and supported. And as far as I could tell, there were no morals requirements attached. And as businesses go, it is a viable export. It does bring in hard currency. Best of all, as far as I could tell, there were no morals requirements attached. If you’re lyrics contained naughty bits, then, oh well. No Mapplethorpe religious right wrangling required. And yes, the NEA, NEH and IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) do give out grants of public money for art—and the Obama administration is trying to revive some of the government’s involvement in culture—but as we’ve all learned several times over now, the cash often comes with many strings, if not ropes, steel cables, nothing you want to be associated with, attached.

Again while there are many sides to this argument, most of them valid in spots, all I know is I came back from SXSW with a gorgeously printed book, that is thicker than the average Stereophile, and talks about what I assume is a reasonably large slice of British music businesses as well as all the bands playing SXSW whether they were getting money from the British government or not. Hard to see exactly how this kind of support for music can be bad.

Charles's picture

Feargal Sharkey was the lead singer of the best punk band to come out of Northern Ireland, The Undertones, so he knows a little bit about how much some modest support can mean to a band just starting out.

ashley's picture

Just play "Teenage Kicks" and weep as the mighty John Peel did. Then you will understand that Feargal knows. "I wanna hold her wanna hold her tightGet teenage kicks right through the night"Dont forget Stiff Little Fingers if you are talking NI punk/new wave. There is an alternative Ulster!!

rudy yniguez's picture

It's best that America stay out of the arts lest we end up insulting the world by sending tripe, like Twisted Sister or Bon Jovi, around the world as examples of our music.

Andrew Jones's picture

I guess you just met one of the least assuming rock gods ever - just going about his business, promoting other acts. For what its worth, John Peel (high priest of the UK underground) reckoned The Undertones' Teenage Kicks to be the most exciting two-and-a-half-minutes ever commited to vinyl. Later, Feargal had a UK number one with his soul flavoured cover of Maria McKee's A Good Heart. This man is rock aristocracy. Follow where he leads.

Jim Tavegia's picture

There are no doubt many US Govt. programs in place that produce little if any positive effect on the general citizenry, but we do try anyway. Even over the last 30 years when we blamed some our academic failure to large class sizes and reduced individual attention we are now coming full circle with school closings and much larger class room sizes. I do believe that how we choose to spend are free time is critical in charging up the human batteries again for another "go of it" at work that many find tedious and "just a job". If we have not learned anything over the last 200 years it is that when bureaucracy become involved little good can follow such as "No Child Left Behind", the biggest joke of an academic program if there ever was one. You might have told all 30 major league teams that "No runners left behind in scoring positon" is a bad thing. Really? No one has exactly figured out how to make that happen, either. I am glad that the UK saw fit to throw a few pounds some performer's way.

DavePage's picture

Rock God? Does penning one good song 30 years ago entitle the artist to live off the public purse in perpetuity? More public sector waste from the UK -- Feargal Sharkey: apologist for Republican terrorism (remember when the Undertones wore black armbands on Top of the Pops when IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands died?) and now Minister for Indy Bands. How soon people forget. Idiots

Andrew Jones's picture

Crikey Davey. Now we know where you stand on the concept of public support for the arts, government support for the UK's export industries, and using the medium of music as a vehicle for social comment. You're against them all. Fine. We also understand that you are not over bothered by facts - such as Feargal Sharkey's long career as a record industry executive, or the fact that his current employer (UK Music) is a trade body representing the BPI, the Music Publishers Association, the Performing Right Society, and many more. Not my idea of "living off the public purse in perpetuity".But now I'm really keen to know which of The Undertones terrific songs you think is "the one good one"? Jimmy Jimmy? Wednesday Week? My Perfect Cousin? The Love Parade? All good 'uns in my opinion. And as for being a rock god? A minor one, I'll agree. But then again, Jimi Hendrix never said anything about 400 years of English barbarism in Ireland. A good memory is only useful of you know anything in to start with.

Andrew Jones's picture

Now I'm really intrigued. We now know that Feargal Sharkey is a apologist for terrorism who supports murder just to make his point. Yet STILL you suggest he wrote one good song! That has to be one heck of a good song for you to be liking it despite all that. Please do tell. I'm afraid you've lost me with your revalation about the BFI. That's the British Film Intitute, yes? Yet I can find no mention of the British Film Intitute (nor anyone with those initials) being a member of UK Music. Clarification please? It might also be more pleasant conducting this debate if you could refrain from calling me an idiot. I have a theory that habitually denigrating people you happen to disagree with is how things get out of hand in the first place.

ashley's picture

Tricky stuff. A lot of debate about the troubles is very pedantic and if we have a fact we need to appreciate it. From what I have seen it was only the guitarist who wore the armband. I have never seen a quote attributed Fergal Sharkey that is pro Republican or IRA. And dont forget he is working for the UK industry.Fergal left the Undertones and this was blamed on tensions between him and the guitarist. So where does that leave us?

mauidj's picture

As a tax payer I'd rather send a rock band to Texas than a soldier to Afghanistan!