Cutting-Hedge Music and the Arts Council

Cutting-Hedge Music and the Arts Council

In light of the arts council embarking on a consultation process in order to replace the Arts Plan 2002-2006, composer Roger Doyle offers his suggestions for improving and expanding current structures for music.

Many artists believe that people in the Arts Council speak ‘artspeak’ to other arts administrators and thus they (the artists) don’t become as fully involved as they should in responding to issues which affect them. On too many occasions one sees only arts consultants, artistic directors, arts administrators, festival directors, arts centre management and producers at meetings called to discuss arts plans without any actual artists being present or invited.

‘The Arts must be managed better’ is the current thinking, which nobody could argue with, but how to involve and integrate the practitioners in policy-making is up for grabs. There are two issues here in this consultation process.

Firstly, who and how to consult: the drawing up of the new Arts Plan must question the mindset that imagines mute artists getting on with it at the coalface, with their shoulders to the grindstone, their ear to the ground, their finger on the pulse holding a mirror up to society (try working in that position) and their imagined best interests being looked after by management. Secondly, the consultation process itself: I suggest we artists all take some time off from forging twenty-euro notes in the smithy of our souls and start responding to the Arts Council’s call for feedback on music policies. The success of these policies will never be fully known and new ones will never be as effective as they could be unless practising artists contribute to the debate.

The international impact of Irish arts
There have been a number of international festivals in recent years celebrating Irish culture (‘From the Heart’ at the Barbican Centre in London in 1999; ‘Re-imagining Ireland’ in Virginia, USA, in 2003; the ‘China/Ireland Cultural Exchange’ which took place this year). Those in charge of deciding what music should represent Ireland have gone for the ‘usual suspects’ in traditional music, whilst almost completely ignoring our rich culture in contemporary classical music-making and an exciting emerging new generation of jazz and electro-acoustic technologists.

My view is that the Arts Council must make sure it has an advisory role, or even better, be involved in the curation of such festivals, conferences and expos. Otherwise, the true image of Ireland abroad is distorted and the benefits of the many millions of Irish euros spent on strategic planning by the Arts Council will never be seen (or heard).

It is not enough for an Irish creative musician to develop a ‘body of work’. The work has to be heard. We must recover from the success of Riverdance and not fool ourselves into thinking we have a vibrant presence abroad. Abroad is where it is at. Irish musicians reach the top of their careers here in a relatively short time as the scene is so small. After that they go round in circles.

Mention is made in the Arts Council’s Annual Review 2002 of the role of the Contemporary Music Centre in its active promotion of contemporary Irish music. The CMC is doing a great job as an information and resource agency here, with its extensive library of scores and CDs, its printed composer information sheets, its excellent web-site, and its active promotion capabilities within Ireland (contemporary music salons in numerous venues, composer residencies, its involvement in ‘ReJoyce’ in Dublin and ‘Cork 2005’ amongst other projects). But what direct impact does it have on the careers of Irish composers abroad? Has it the manpower to hound, chase and follow through with contacts made? Can it track and trace the good work that it does so that it can know exactly what might have been performed where and by whom? It perhaps is hampered by the fact that it must represent equally all one-hundred-and-thirty or so composers that are on its books.

It seems to me that the CMC is the right hand of an infrastructure that badly needs a left hand. The CMC has all the composers dressed up but very few are being asked out!

Can the Arts Council play a more pro-active role in its funding of resource agencies in the promotion of Irish music abroad? Might it be possible to help set up an agency in consultation with interested third parties with the specific purpose of pro-actively promoting Irish music abroad, developing direct contacts with international publishing houses, CD labels, ensembles, festival directors, film producers, venues and so on? This could perhaps work through representation on a rotating basis of those who specifically apply to be represented. Such an agency would need funding not only for the obvious staffing and office space but also for subsidies it could offer to festivals (especially the smaller ones) and ensembles to enable Irish works to be heard. It is a market-place after all. There is also an argument to be made for the CMC to have its staffing and funding levels increased so that it could perhaps handle the situation.

And what of the plans by the Minister for the Arts, Sport and Tourism to set up an agency for promoting Irish culture abroad? Little is known as yet about this but again a communication channel should be kept open between the Arts Council and the Minister’s office, because there might be a tendency to promote the usual suspects all over again as a commodity like Irish butter, without due regard being given to the lesser-known practitioners of quality.

There is no publishing house in Ireland for music. What role can the Arts Council play in the setting up of one, or in liaising with an existing one? The careers of Irish composers Gerald Barry and Ian Wilson have been transformed by having English publishers. In truth, there is little active promotion of new Irish music abroad – or ‘cutting (h)edge music’ as a French colleague calls it – except for the work the CMC is able to do, or once in a while when an Irish ensemble includes contemporary works in its travels abroad.

It is not enough. Most Irish musicians have little or no international dimension to their work, which is a tragedy. We have the quality here of the highest standard. A restauranteur friend of mine explained to me that if you make the best food in town and you still don’t get any clientele, you don’t try to make the food even better. You improve your promotion.

Making an arts career a realistic ambition
There is some re-thinking needed on this subject as there is no prospect of making a career a realistic ambition at present funding levels. For instance, the size of the ‘Project’ grants (around f25,000) is too small to support much artistic activity, especially when cross-discipline collaboration is happening and maybe six to ten artists are involved. Considering that f25,000 is a moderate yearly wage for one person, how far does it go in the employment of ten artists, without even including the cost of the materials, promotion, administration, venue rental, and so on? It would employ ten people for five weeks, provided they performed without building anything, in a free open-air space with no publicity….

Realistically, these grants enable companies/organisations to employ a few artists for a few weeks to try to produce excellent and innovative work. They don’t help at all in the making of an arts career. It would be of greater benefit to Irish artists if fewer of these awards were made with a much higher financial ceiling (in the absence of more funds being available).

Similarly, the funds available under the commissions scheme are too small at present to make a career a realistic possibility for composers. All too often too little is offered (well below guideline rates provided by the Contemporary Music Centre) to too many. Three options appear here: (1) more money to fewer composers; (2) more money to more composers; (3) money to ensembles.

In order that new music be built into the fabric of music-making and not be ghettoised, might it be possible to invite certain performance groups to partake in a five-year commission scheme, whereby a specific amount of money is set aside by the Arts Council for ensembles to commission a new work each year for five years? This would be on the condition that they perform the accumulating new works each year. By the time the fifth year was reached, the organisation would have to perform the four previous commissions plus the fifth new one during that calendar year. In order that all new works are performed five times the ensemble would be bound to continue the scheme for four years after the new commissioning had stopped.

The existing commissions scheme would continue independently of this and ensembles in receipt of the five-year scheme would not be able to apply to it. At the moment there is some commissioning money being given to some ensembles but they hedge their bets by applying to the existing commissions scheme as well, which seems unfair.

In the Arts Council’s Annual Report 2001 we read that Opera Ireland produced its first contemporary opera in thirty years – but not one by an Irish composer. This does not make good reading and is nothing to celebrate. The Wexford Festival Opera receives funding without employing any Irish musicians at all. One of the criteria on opera in the old Arts Plan was ‘to increase the number of commissions to Irish artists and more performances of their work at home and abroad’. It never happened, but it still could.

Finally, the emphasis on cross-discipline commissions must be eased as it causes concern with composers wishing to compose string quartets, orchestral works, and so on.

Music recording scheme
I believe that fewer and larger grants should be made under this category in the absence of a larger amount being made available.

This scheme is almost always applied for and awarded to individuals who make small CD editions of their work, which I wholly support. With an international agency in place, targeted labels from around the world could be invited to apply, thus ensuring a wider distribution of Irish-produced music abroad should they be successful.

Not all awards made under the recordings scheme bear fruit. There has been an instance in the past where a label received considerable amounts of money to release Irish composers’ works and this never fully happened. I really believe the Arts Council deserves this money to be returned and should, as a matter of course, make it a condition that all recordings are released by a certain date.

Talks with the Musicians’ Union of Ireland
In the last ten years it is fair to say that the once thriving ‘music industry’ has all but collapsed in Ireland. Rates for payment to live musicians in the few remaining venues are low and the radio stations play the multinational ‘playlists’ and all but ignore local music, except for boy bands.

Casual listeners would never know what country most Irish radio stations are broadcasting from, judging by what music they play. Live music has largely been replaced by DJs – it’s cheaper than hiring a band. The Dublin branches of the big record companies have closed and the record shops cater mainly for teenagers (imagine the same situation in literature).

What’s this got to do with the Arts Council? No mention at all is made of music specifically in the ‘Broaden and enhance audiences for the arts’ section of the Arts Council’s Annual Review 2002.

Musicians suffering as a result of widespread lack of employment (and insultingly low rates when employed) last year formed the Musicians’ Union of Ireland, which is affiliated with SIPTU. I am a member. These are very motivated people who demonstrated on the streets outside the Wexford Festival Opera because no Irish musicians were being employed there.

At their first Annual General Meeting recently the question was asked: ‘What’s the Arts Council doing? Has anyone here ever benefited from Arts Council funding?’ Since I was the only person to raise my hand it made me think. There are hundreds upon hundreds of professional musicians in the classical, jazz, traditional and (for want of a better term) adult-oriented rock music genres living close to penury in Ireland, who believe there is an audience of thousands upon thousands of disillusioned music-lovers, sick of the sameness of the product of the multinational music factories. I believe that very fruitful meetings could take place between these musicians and the Arts Council on how to develop programmes that re-animate them and re-create lost audiences, perhaps with local authorities becoming involved also. Ideally the Arts Council should be thought of as a friend with good ears to all musicians in Ireland.

In conclusion
My intention has been to try to make helpful suggestions without laying blame. Some of the suggestions I make will cost money. ‘Please sir can I have some more’, is what Oliver Twist famously asked. It is not a question any artist or Arts Council (in its relationship with the Government) should be shy of. I say this because of the immense talent Ireland currently possesses. We are worth it.

Published on 1 September 2004

Roger Doyle is a Dublin-based Irish composer working in electronic music.

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