Friday, September 24, 2010

Politics and music – dangerous liaisons, or not?

By Emmanuel Legrand

UK Music CEO Feargal Sharkey
Feargal Sharkey is taking the UK Music brass band to what we hope will be a sold out tour of this season’s political party conferences. It started this week with the Lib Dem gig in Liverpool, and will continue at the Labour Party do next week and end with the Conservative Party hootenanny in October (apparently there’s no visit planned to the BNP or the Greens).

A party conference is hardly Glastonbury in terms of entertainment values – although some reports suggest that quite a few MPs know how to get the party started - no pun intended. So why would the former Undertones frontman spend time in such company? And why is something that 20 years ago would have been anathema now seems so perfectly normal?

Because it matters! And because that’s why he was appointed chief executive of UK Music. His brief is to be the advocate for the British music industry, first and foremost to the country’s policy-makers. That he had been a howler in a punk band they all remember (and probably grew up listening to) helps open doors (it’s easy to imagine Sharkey handing his business card to some MP, adding ‘You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It?)’…).

However, it hasn’t always been like that. Creators, by nature, are weary of getting too close to politicians. It can be a painful relationship. You can quickly fall into the “official art” category, and that’s not a good place to be. But it does not apply to the industry itself, to the point that it’s now impossible for the creative industries to not interact with policy-makers. The world has become increasingly complex with legislation and regulations at national and global level necessary on many issues, from piracy to copyright harmonisation to taxation to organising the free flow of creators to the remuneration of works…

If this is quite new to the UK, in France there has been a more symbiotic relationship between the political world and the creative community, thanks mostly to the socialist minister of culture Jack Lang. Appointed in 1981, Lang re-defined the role of government in the creative sphere, and set a new atmosphere where creators were given prime position. Of course it did not go without its concessions. Artists were asked to “participate” in various initiatives, with most of them doing so, because they trusted Lang.

The upside for the industry was that Lang, to a limit (for example, he never helped quash the 33.3% VAT rate applied on recorded music), was open-minded and sympathetic to industry issues, taking it upon himself to sponsor a groundbreaking copyright law in 1984.

Lang’s tenure created a benchmark by which all its successors have been judged, with some faring poorly. One of his lasting legacies has been to put creative issues into the political agenda. The aftermath could be seen last year when the French government passed the “graduated response” law known as Hadopi. This was strongly lobbied for by the music industry, and it certainly helped that the husband of singer/songwriter Carla Bruni was the host of the Elysées Palace…

No democratically elected government, whichever colour of the political spectrum it is, can abstain from paying attention to this important facet of society (OK, save maybe for Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and the US under Bush). Over the past 10-15 years within the UK, there has been a shift for the better in the way policy-makers perceive – and work with – creative industries. It’s hard to imagine a symbiotic relationship between the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and the creatives – quite the contrary: the image of Bob Geldof lecturing Thatcher about the VAT rate applied on ‘Do They Know…” springs to mind.

With Tony Blair, however, things got better. Beyond the photo of the Gallagher Bros. sipping champagne with the PM, there was also major groundwork made by the industry to connect with cabinet ministers – not simply at the DCMS, but across the government. Chris Smith and Andy Burnham, especially, were quite sympathetic to the creative sector, whilst Tessa Jowell focused on the Olympics and James Purnell did not last long enough to make a mark. If, earlier this year, the then-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Peter Mandelson had not taken personal interest in the Digital Economy Act (with or without the influence of David Geffen), the legislation would most probably not have been passed.

Perhaps the biggest change over the years has been the mindset of policy-makers, with the recognition of the creative industries’ invaluable contribution to the overall economy of the country. It is hard to deny the cultural and social importance of music, cinema, visual arts, literature, photography, etc. The value of a Caravaggio painting, for example, may be huge, but its historical, social and cultural value is even greater. Dealing with the creative aspects, however, does not mean you have to limit the scope to heritage, particularly given that governments would like to confine it.

So with Labour’s patrons of the arts such as Gordon Brown and Mandelson gone, is it going to be any different under a Conservative government? Apparently not. A while ago, when he was leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, David Cameron visited the BPI’s AGM and delivered what many considered to be an impressive speech – remember, at that time, he wanted the music industry to help him “repair” Britain’s “broken society”.

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt has already signalled his interest in fostering good relations with creators and the industry. One thing is certain, given the impending budget cuts, there will inevitably be less money to spend on the creative industries, particularly given that there are a number of important agendas to deal with: the implementation of the Digital Economy Bill; the drought of credit for small and medium businesses (at the Lib Dem conference, Business Secretary Vince Cable – a Lib Dem, in case you forgot – said he was going to make sure the banks “lend again”); the role of ISPs and the remuneration of rights owners; and, the status of Britain as a source of creative works for the world (we know that on this topic, Sharkey has set the bar quite high).

Today, there are forces in motion around the world that aren’t necessarily sympathetic to the creative industries. They have far more powerful lobbying machines and lots of funds, whilst they too know how to connect with policy-makers. So yes, it is imperative for someone like Sharkey to mingle within that crowd, and make the industry’s voice heard. Whilst his punk credentials may be at peril, knowing him, it’s fair to say that he’s unlikely to give a monkey’s about them.

(This story was first published in the weekly edition of Record of the Day, dated September 23, 2010)

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