Chain of Envy

In the New Music Connoisseur in May, the centenarian US composer Elliott Carter, commenting on why his music is better known in England than his homeland, said:  ‘…contemporary music is very much more accepted in England than it is here, in general for many different reasons, but one of them is that it’s just been played more and more frequently. And it’s been more intelligently reviewed.’

Statements such as these are interesting because they are so regularly contradicted. In April in this magazine, the London-based composer Christopher Fox was less enthused by said supports: ‘The Arts Council [has spent] the largest proportion of its music budget on sustaining the status quo through its subsidies for the big national opera companies. Most of the thin pickings left for new music go to a handful of promotion organisations, festivals and just two performing groups.’ In turn, he cites the German and Dutch models as positive examples.

This discontent through comparison is not only apparent between states, but also between genres. Musicians and composers in the same country, in pop, classical, jazz and folk, regularly regard their colleagues in other genres as being better supported, more appreciated, having more earning power and brighter prospects than the scene they are involved in. And ironically, as the arts infrastructure grows, so, it seems, does the discontent.

It is the current approach to subsidy that is largely responsible for this chain of envy. Instead of only providing a growth package for great ideas and talents, many of which should eventually become self-sufficient, the reality is that it often acts as an annual life-support for commercially weak artists and arts organisations. As a result, we erode pro-activity in the arts, creating dependency rather than kindling entrepreneurial talent.

It is time for a radical new vision of subsidy, one that does not produce dependency, disproportion and thus envy amid artists, music scenes and regions, but rather pride and passion in the extraordinary things that can be achieved with seemingly so little.

October 2009

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