"A broadside of Wagnerian proportions"
I recently learned a lesson most people are quicker to learn: mess with the music lobby at your peril. A suggestion I made in the FT that the £6.3 million being spent by the Arts Council on London’s orchestras in 2010/11 could be better spent elsewhere provoked a torrent of e-mails and letters. This is not a group to trifle with. (I am reliably informed that John Major backed off plans to cut the subsidy to one London orchestra when a party donor – also a friend of the orchestra in question – picked up the phone and main his views clear.)
It is, then, hugely to the credit of the Association of British Orchestras, which ‘advocates on behalf of professional orchestras throughout the UK’ (and which I also had a pop at in FT) invited me to their annual conference in Glasgow to continue the argument. The Sunday Herald described my intervention as “a broadside of Wagnerian proportions”. I rather like that. But Simon Woods, RSNO chief executive, said my argument was “extraordinarily shallow and facile and mostly very poorly thought through…It is deeply patronising to working class people to assume they do not want culture and they only want money invested in obvious social need.”
Well, the debate was certainly robust. What struck me was that the sector has developed an entitlement culture – understandably given their past successes – and has weak arguments for its financial support. Any reduction in subsidies is denounced as a reduction in ‘access’. Any questioning of the subsidies to orchestras is greeting with a mixture of incredulity and horror. Any attempt to suggest that the orchestral sector predominantly caters to the middle class is immediately shouted down.
But here is a direct quote from an Arts Council study of attendance at arts and cultural events: “Ninety-three per cent of interviewees educated to tertiary level had been to an event within the last 12 months. This compared to 85 percent of those education to secondary level and 48 per cent of those educated to primary level.”
Music education is strongly skewed towards the affluent. The National Youth Orchestra relies increasingly on pupils from private schools. And consider the proportion of students at the UK’s leading music colleges who are from poor backgrounds (ie. who were entitled to free school meals) :
It is impossible not to be shocked by these figures.
My argument is not against music, or music education. Far from it. I think that the chance to develop an ear for music, and to play music, is part of the capability set of the citizen of any civilized nation.
But the classical music industry is in danger of becoming an echo-chamber, taking taxpayers’ money to pay middle class people to perform to middle class audiences – and branding anybody who questions this settlement a philistine. And that, I’m afraid, just won’t do. Will it?