Billy Bragg Fight Songs

Mass culture demands a platform

Published: 10/04/2000   by: Article by Billy, New Statesman, 10 April 2000

London is one of the world's great cities of culture. It has the opera, ballet and orchestras that you would expect of such a high profile city. Yet its reputation as a cultural centre rests on its great fashion designers, pop musicians, film makers and novelists and a very high standard of skilled technical labour that support these artists. Popular culture is what has given London its dynamism over the past decades.

Yet all of the big subsidies go to what are known collectively as "The Arts", that is London's opera, ballet and orchestras, none of them world beaters. More than that, the authorities still see their job is to support and develop these art forms, under the pretence that "serious" art must be brought to the "deprived" masses.

Yet the culture of these same masses are ignored. Seats at Covent Garden are subsidised but not at Stamford Bridge. Ordinary people have been priced out of the opera and many cannot afford to attend Premiership games at leading clubs. Subsidised season tickets to London's smaller non-Premiership clubs could help them to make ends meet in a market swamped with TV money and might also begin to overcome the Man-U obsession in our nations playgrounds.

Popular culture brings people with money to spend to London and yet there is very little encouragement given to this sector of the arts. As a huge row blows up over the sale of Rover and the loss of the British car making industry, there has been no similar outcry over the sale of the last big British record company, EMI. David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead and even the crown jewels themselves — the Beatles — are now foreign owned. If thats not bad enough, the result is that a few trans-national megacorporations now exist with the muscle to dominate what is heard on the radio and TV and what makes it onto the shelves of the high street record shops.

What could the government do about this? Several things. The British music industry now consists of those independent labels who have not sold out to the multi-media corporations. By its nature independent music is cutting edge, challenging, different. Subsequently commercial radio stations are reluctant to programme it, particularly when they are being fed a diet of pap by the major labels. Radio could be unleashed. It does not cost much to open a radio station — most US colleges have one — but getting a licence costs a fortune. There is no shortage of band width for short range stations and provision could be made to ensure that digital radio is not kept safe for big money.

Furthermore, artists need space to work in, be that for performance or exhibition. London is a large city and it makes no sense to concentrate such facilities in the centre. Each borough needs to open up unused spaces and turn them over to artists to run. Youth in the suburbs can be encouraged to either create or spend money on culture if it is see to be inspired by their own experience. Of course, young people will want to stay up late dancing and not bother with their exams but this is to be expected. Not one of those featured in the cultural section of the Observers recently published "Young Rich" lists actually went to university. Young people want to have a good time, not pass exams. Shouldn't the government be prepared to spend money to ensure that the good time is spent expressing themselves rather than allowing them to piss away their future pursuing a hedonistic impulse born of boredom?

This may seem utopian at a time when the government is no longer willing to subsidise university education and Jack Straw is on the verge of introducing curfews for young people but this is not a call for a subsided record industry. What is needed is a loosening of the reigns of cultural control and a revision of the official view of what is and what isn't culture. I am bound at this juncture to point out for those of you too young or too New Labour to remember, that this is what the GLC were striving to achieve in the 1980s. They realised that the best way to support the artistic community is to spend money employing them. They funded huge multi-stage free festivals in the London parks. Why can't British Airways do that for a bit of promotion, instead of clogging up the skyline with a space-age ferris wheel?

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