For me, this was the most important thing I wrote in 2011. It was published in the Morning Star in November but their online archive has screwed up, so it’s not saved alongside my other MS pieces. Also (as usual) they edited quite heavily, so here is my original version.
The immorality of subjective opinions on art, when distributing public money
People are fighting tooth and nail to save UK arts funding, working every angle, in many different ways. Often locally with no thanks, they’re doing fantastic things with seemingly little arts establishment support, including from within some of the organisations most threatened. The pervading sense of pessimism is rampant and real, come from knowing that this government’s ideological intent is to ruin state supported culture for a long, long time.
Against that backdrop, I am coming to a difficult but strong realisation about one particular flawed goal of the Arts Council and other funding organisations divvying up taxpayers’ cash. And it may be an uncomfortable moment to make this argument but if we are ever to salvage something worthwhile from the wreckage it needs to be acknowledged:
The problem I have is with the key stated goal to support ‘great art’; in other words the part of the funding body’s remit that purports to decide whether the ‘art’ proposed by a project is ‘good’, or not.
This utterly subjective (at all times) element of assessing ‘quality’ is only one part of how they choose who gets our money but it is a load-bearing pillar, occupying the minds of everyone involved. Load-bearing and built on the cheap: I believe this goal of the Arts Council’s funding process to be immoral.
Art is subjective. We might not know for hundreds of years whether something we create today is ‘good’ or not. We will likely never truly know. The eternal imbalance of populism and deeper worth has not – and will not – be ‘solved’ and in fact we don’t want a solution because the conversation about it is half the ball game of artmaking in the first place. So there is not a piece of art or craft out there, that a smart person cannot either defend for its greatness, or destroy as being without value – and it’s very fun, except when public funds and lifelong artmaking livelihoods are at stake.
Yes, art is subjective. Regardless of training, experience or any other bullshit, nobody at the Arts Council – and nobody the Arts Council hires to make those decisions for them – knows any better than you or me.
To have a system where our public money is spent according to the subjective taste of whoever makes that funding decision is a drastic, soul-deep wrong and also a strategic disaster for a couple of reasons:
First, it forces the system to tend towards a reneging of the responsibility of making that decision. By which I mean that since, deep down, shamefully, they know it is wrong, they put phenomenal amounts of time and effort into building barriers between themselves and the decision-making process: channelling everything through buffer organisations who do the curating, or A&Ring, or hiring, for them. Thus: the execrable, inexorable rise to power of the professional form-filler. A monumental betrayal of artmakers and consumers alike. The construction industry of faux self-justifying gibberish.
Secondly, it kills the focus on the ways they should pick projects to support: assess the need of the audience; assess the need of the artist; and assess the commitment to practice and work ethic of the artist. Surely there’s enough in those three to keep these bastards occupied without them having to pronounce nebulous, world-ruining gibberish on quality?
Speaking at Norwich Sound & Vision Conference on a panel about public funding, a founder of the merseyside-based Generator organisation explains how he will pick a young band he thinks “could make it” (in an entirely commercial sense, regardless of creative value, though of course it’s going to boil down to whether he digs them, or worse, whether he likes their haircuts). He’ll then spend “only” £10,000 releasing a couple of singles by that band, to see if they can capture an audience in that time-frame. And if not, they’re dropped back in the pond. He’s salaried to behave like the worst kind of record industry executive with a credit card built from taxation. I am pro taxation but not for that kind of McDickery.
In Brighton, the vast city-wide White Night event is denied funding, while four individual pieces scheduled to take place within it are commissioned, so that the ACE can spin that it somehow supported the event that actually it shackled. And nobody can argue because everyone’s terrified of pissing off the local reps and ruining their own futures. Similarly, for Brighton Digital Festival (an event I’ve praised in these pages) there isn’t enough money for the steering committee to print a brochure, yet one contributing organisation scores £50,000 to put into a handful of specific ‘major’ commissions, including at least one that is already publicly funded just to exist.
This is the difference between having an opinion on a piece of culture and deciding that your opinion has more value than other people’s. But no, it does not. Because – sigh – art is subjective. The idea that these people spot ‘great’ art is objectively impossible to assess but over and over again, they patently fail. But that’s my opinion! Project after project is not worth the money it is given, compared to what that money could do, if they removed that subjective ‘great art’ goal from the equation.
It is not just wrong, or poor strategy, or a minor short-term mis-step: it is totally immoral.
This week the inaugural John Peel Lecture was broadcast on BBC 6 Music, with Pete Townshend speaking at the Radio Festival in Salford. Introduced by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, the series states an aim to channel “the values of boundless curiosity, exploration and celebration of music,” correctly ascribed to John Peel. But when Townshend was introduced, The Who were called “one of Britain’s most successful and iconic bands,” in other words, already that simple task of focusing on ‘music’ was taking a back seat; linguistically subjugated by two un-musical things: popularity and iconography.
Yeah, before Townshend even spoke a word, his half century of work got Florence And The Machined; ‘fiscalated’ to a horrific, Hallowe’en-y extent.
Anyway, almost nothing Townshend said in the lecture made sense to me, after his initial truism of “All creative musicians want is the resources and the facilities to make music.” He openly decided to represent the entire Internet music distribution world solely with iTunes, as if Apple was still the only provider of legal downloads; in other words wrenching his argument pointlessly forwards in time from 2003, when that was briefly true.
Making almost deranged broad-stroke negative assumptions about DIY processes – for example arguing that bloggers are so collectively mean they somehow cannot tell the truth to artists in the way that old major label A&Rs could (ignoring that these two jobs are utterly perpendicular) – Townshend demanded iTunes install an in-house A&R team, start marketing and hyping their prefered artists like major record companies do (did), and asked Apple to donate computers to the 500 ‘best’ artists per year.
Honestly, this is just gibberish. His argument boiled down to the re-emergence of subjective (and money-led) third party quality control, built back into the mix, as was the norm in the bad old systems. Worse, Townshend thinks that iTunes should be licensing their ‘best’ music to physical distributors to make CDs, or books, or whatever packages they like. He spoke as though that isn’t already happening, in the hands of independent artists, who use iTunes as it should be used – one non exclusive distribution tool for their digital work. He spoke as if taking on the physical nonsense would somehow be a useful service for artists, rather than – in fact – a(nother) rights-stealing restriction on what we can do better for ourselves.
Townshend’s vision for imposing these old (dying) processes on the new world is a desperately regressive step towards giving even more control to a company he’d criticised only moments before for being exploitative. Anyone with experience in both old and new music worlds should see clearly, what Townshend called ‘creative nurturance’ has always been one of the most singularly evil aspects of the ‘old’ music (and entertainment) industries. There almost never was duty of care. There almost never was artistic development. It was always fundamentally and aggressively commercial development; workload pressure edging toward the impossible; often (not just sometimes but often) bullying and at worst the deliberate creation of life-threatening co-dependencies to increase control over artists’ lives.
I’m not being conspiratorial, that’s what happened, across every genre, forever. Squint honestly through smoke and mirrors and rose-tinted myth; the entire history of popular music is brimful of despicable acts of control over and abuse of talent by the exact types Townshend wishes to resurrect, from Colonel Tom Parker onwards.
Townshend knows this too. He knows that the ‘nurturing’ he described in the lecture is a fiction.
Apart from that unpleasant stuff, basically everything else he suggested is already in place on the Internet, independently of iTunes. And funnily enough, service providers that get nearest his vision are the most exploitative – the sneaky gits out there charging for gig promotion, or tricking bands into paying to be on ‘career-launching’ compilations, organising rip-off pay to play ‘battle of the bands’ contests, or building whole networks just to flog artists their clunky, unnecessary electronic press kits. Meanwhile the good online tools for artists are plethora and you pick and choose. If Apple turned around tomorrow and offered exactly what Townshend asked for, it wouldn’t add a single USP beyond what’s competing online already, built by small, highly competitive companies fighting to build their own roster or corner a bit of the market.
I’m not over-romanticising: I made a similar but more nuanced point in my own talk (much, much less heard!) at Brighton Digital Festival last month; I know we don’t live in the DIY paradise some musicians imagine. The majors are replaced by less pro-active, often automated systems that still take a cut and still get rich off our music. From Bandcamp to PledgeMusic to Facebook, there is always a profit motive behind the user-friendly ‘sharing’ vibe. But the solution isn’t to run backwards into the arms of the kinds of malignant fools who used to own the show unhindered.
The solution is to pick the right ones, use them in the right way and keep your eyes peeled for developments.
John Peel wasn’t a record business sales rep, he played music on the radio. Although obviously he had to survive a changing diaspora and therefore play the game, John Peel was remarkably disinterested in the ‘business’. He broke so many great artists without caring whether they’d go on to be superstars: he just played the songs he liked.
This was the real pity about the first John Peel Lecture – as with far too many officiated conversations about the arts today – it was all business, no creativity. Despite disagreeing so strongly with him and also being disappointed by his under-prepared sub TedX delivery, I still think Townshend was a good choice to speak under the banner.
They should pick outstanding individuals, not aim for constancy of content – and Pete Townshend was an uncomfortable, unique visionary in his day. But it would’ve been fabulous if he’d chosen an aspect of his music-making, rather than a discussion about the processes of commerce, to talk to us about. Anything from tinnitus to songwriting to guitar effects pedals would’ve been better.
So in future, hopefully the music industry lecture series in John Peel’s name will be about music, rather than industry.
I’m happy to announce my UK tour dates in November and December, mostly supporting brilliant NY punk rock vaudeville signer Franz Nicolay (Hold Steady / Against Me). The confirmed shows are now up on my LIVE page.
An irritable day, trying to put together a Pecha Kucha talk. It’s supposed to be on Underground Music, Post-Capitalism & Twitter but in my heart I just want to show people my photos of toilets. (it’s HERE by the way)
Anyway, THIS piece by Eleanor Margolis in the New Statesman grinds my gears so much I have to respond. I tried to write (via iPhone) in the NS comments section but it got eaten by a shit authentication process, so I’ll do it here:
First, it’s unfair to pick on Grace Petrie. Petrie is a young, developing, as-yet unsigned artist (still works a day-job) who specifically sings in that classic sincere Bragg-esque acoustic protest style. That’s her schtick. It stinks to hit her simply because it’s a style (or hers a voice) you don’t dig, especially in such a high profile leftist space as NS.
Secondly, I think you’re dead wrong to extend that disdain out to make a universal point. It’s meaningless – for example even on the same bill, on the same night (Robin Ince’s beautiful Book Club night, 1000+ people in the woods), you’ve not mentioned (missed or ignored) two other music acts with political content, with markedly different style to Grace (me, and Jim Bob from Carter USM). For my part, I was fucking hilarious, even my miserable eco-song had talking trees and time travel.
Thirdly, the piece overlooks what’s happened to the entire music industry, regardless of politics, by assuming that ‘success’ equates to the old stuff, the ‘status’ of mainstream pop stardom. It doesn’t work like that anymore – there are a thousand new, different, better ways to build careers in music-making. So of course progressive or radical artists across all genres (just like all artists) are liberated from the hegemony of the ‘radio hit’. There are huge successes all over the shop that debunk your argument.
Fourthly, you missed the boat: where were you six weeks ago when we had this debate? NME editor Krissi Murison wrote a piece in The Guardian saying roughly what you’re arguing. Back then I wrote a rebuttal in the Morning Star (which you can read by scrolling down), there was a ton of comments across social networks and even Mr Bragg chimed in, in NME and on his blog. It concerns me that you feel able to make universal points about the modern music community, without having even been aware of the previous debate.
And yet again you focus on artists themselves, when clearly an argument along these lines needs to be framed as a critique of the establishment gatekeepers, who decide which artists will get mainstream TV and radio exposure.
Fifthly/finally, you’re simply wrong. Your readers would’ve benefitted far more from being pointed to: The Agitator, Sam Duckworth (Get Cape Wear Cape Fly), Scroobius Pip (solo or with Dan Le Sac), Rumour Cubes, Emmy The Great, LowKey, me, folkies such as Spiers & Boden, Chris Wood, Eliza Carthy, Frank Turner (a different political hue but still making powerful points), a whole bunch of successful heavy rock acts, plus huge amounts of UK grime, electro, dnb and hip hop stuff. And the rest. Especially if you include the Americans, there’s container-loads of the stuff.
To my mind, you’ve missed all this music because you’re not listening out for it, you only spotted an artist when she appeared to conform to your “cling for its life to another era” stereotype and then berated her for doing so.
Once again someone with a relatively high profile in the music world bemoans the lack of ‘political’ artists in pop music. Usually it is an artist who makes the claim, which is disheartening enough but at least they have good intentions.
But this time it was Krissi Murison, editor of NME, writing not in her own paper but in The Guardian. Now I admire Murison’s editorship of the paper; I think she’s the best chief NME has had in over a decade. She has brought structure and good – sometimes great – writing back to a magazine that lacked it for too long.
But what she wrote is problematic, simply because she herself is such a powerful gatekeeper; bemoaning the lack of people in a room, while choosing who is allowed in. I scarcely need tell you, it’s not remotely true: as ever, there is a great pile of high quality, openly political, socially radical and progressive UK artists of all genres, banging on the door. They’re also well marketed, with better tunes and more savvy than the generations before – they’re not crusty losers. Any creative across any art form will tell you, these are fecund times for radical, polarised art.
Ms Murison, it is the arts critics and their editors who suppress the political, radical, or truth-speak in modern culture, not a mysterious lack of people doing it. In your case, it is the writing of your critics and your own editorial decisions that have been unable to lift the post-Bragg exclusion zone around radical music in the UK. Not for party-political reasons, nor even for the often rolled out stuff about image being everything (plenty of sexy pop singers are socially conscious too). But simply because the relentlessly corporate energies that drive papers like NME (and many others, as well as review sections in tabloid and broadsheet), find sincerity, optimism, commitment and opinion so unattractive, unnerving, that they instinctively force to the periphery people who edge into those areas.
What these machines are comfortable with is schtick.
Modern pop cultural critics like style, form and rendering much more than they like content, intent or layers of meaning. They do so because it’s immediately apparent: you know what a show looks like long before you unpack what it’s trying to say. It’s quicker and easier, so you filled up your notebooks with vivid experiential fluff long before any actual meaning began to sink in.
Worse, meaning itself is always debatable – and there’s nothing critics fear worse than being made to take a position that might isolate them from their peers. The deepest, darkest fear in the arts critic’s heart is that he or she will get a review ‘wrong’; flying against everyone else’s deeper understanding of a piece.
So shrug off intent and write up the hats.
Meanwhile, the editors are so busy worrying about the business, they forgot what they wanted to say in the first place. Even as newspapers diminish and music splinters, even as blogs dominate, the NME remains a powerful voice in the music industry. If you get the NME vocally onside, you will likely break your band – or at least give them a workable shot. I don’t mean reviews per se; I mean a slightly grander sort of feature-led coverage, alongside regular referencing in the news and other sections, that places a band firmly at the heart of the reader’s perceived ‘scheme of things’. NME support also powerfully encourages Radio 1 to commit; which in turn is still perhaps the UK’s most powerful method of kicking an act into the mainstream.
These decision-makers are not the faceless business types that artists, especially struggling bands, might believe. They do love music and they work in the music world for that reason. However, at key moments their assessment inevitably has less to do with music and more to do with judging how much money is being invested and who is doing the investing. And here is a truth long established by such organisations as Media Lens: the nearer you get to the top of any profit-making heirachy, the more the views will be concentrated in pragmatic, non-confrontational centrism.
So the radicals sit where they are perceived to be best suited, where their meaning doesn’t need too much unpacking: outside the door.
Ms Murison, let them in, or shut the hell up moaning. Don’t go to a broadsheet and gripe; run a ‘new reds’ special and radicalise your own charge.