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London Calling: What the US Can Learn From The UK About Defending Local Music And Arts Communities

1[UPDATED] The UK has earned a reputation as a musical powerhouse, churning out globally renowned groundbreaking artists, bands and DJs. But how? - with the backing of the government. At a time when the Trump administration is adamant on pulling public funding for local artists, community projects and public radio, McIntyre details what the US can learn from the UK’s art scene.

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Guest post by Scott McIntyre, advisor to Weeshing

Scott McIntyre, advisor to live events funding platform Weeshing, helped revive the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (Movement) and travels in a restored vintage tour bus on business trips.

From the Beatles, to Black Sabbath, to Basement Jaxx, the UK has earned a reputation as a musical powerhouse for churning out globally renowned groundbreaking artists, bands and djs.

But what is it that helps push artists from this small island to fame around the world? Are there magic powers hidden with cups of tea and newspaper wrapped fish and chips? Maybe. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that with the backing of the government, local UK arts communities have created a supportive breeding ground for local artists and musicians.

On the other side of the Atlantic, things could not be more different. Despite massive increases in unpopular areas like wall building and defense spending, the Trump administration seems hellbent on pulling public funding from community projects, the arts, and public media. As the nail in the coffin, Trump’s administration recently proposed the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

So what could the US learn from the UK about defending local music and arts so that Americans can band together in support of local venues and artists?:

Offer alternative forms of public funding for the Arts

Even before the Trump administration, the UK has traditionally offered a lot more support to music and arts than here in the US. A recent Pitchfork article highlights that the UK ranks 2nd globally-- only behind France -- in terms of countries offering public funds towards music and arts initiatives.

2Despite having funds sliced by as much as 30% due to austerity cuts in 2010, funding has slowly but surely bounced back, and in 2016, the Arts Council England announced a budget of $772 million per year to be handed out via the National Portfolio (NPO), Grants for Arts and Culture, and strategic funds over the period of 2018-2022. The 2018-22 National Portfolio is the largest funding portfolio to date and will provide more than 800 arts and culture organisations with funding over the next four years, with a particular focus on spreading funds to areas outside of the capital city of London.

But the important takeaway for the US, is that the majority of this money is not taken directly from public funds. Since John Major’s government introduced the National Lottery in 1994 -- which pumps 28% of the money raised through people buying lottery tickets to cultural projects --  the initiative has raised £37 billion for arts organisations, charities and sporting organizations.

However, this channel of funding is very dependant on the general public buying lottery tickets. In 2016/17, lottery money allocated to good causes fell to its lowest point since 2010 translating to a £200 million cut compared to 2015/16.

Protect and support local venues and music communities

In the US, local authorities have had a bad track record when it comes to protecting local nightlife, and music and arts venues. Despite the current Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio’s office releasing a report which shows the  local “music ecosystem” pumps as much as $21 billion back into the city each year, up until last year restrictive legislation was still in place tying the feet of local venues.

In 2017 the prohibition era ‘cabaret law’ was finally repealed, after a lengthy campaign by Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal. The archaic law -- which was used frequently in the late 90s and 2000s as part of Mayor Giuliani's war on nightlife -- had been used to fine and shut entertainment venues which allow patrons to dance without applying for a ‘cabaret license’.

According to New York Times article, the application process in place had been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, required the approval of several government agencies, and was only available to venues in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing. As such, at time of repeal, only 97 out of roughly 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in the city had a cabaret license.

In the UK, the government has traditionally stood behind local venues and supported nightlife and arts. In 2017, after the controversial closure of iconic London dance club Fabric, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan urged the city council to revoke the closure, stating “London’s iconic clubs are an essential part of our cultural landscape”. In the end, after a popular public campaign the club was re-issued its license.

Earlier this year, the UK government signed a landmark piece of legislation known as the ‘Agent of change’ principle, to protect clubs and music venues from property developers. The principle places the responsibility of soundproofing properties onto real estate developers who buy plots next to music venues, rather than the owners of the venue. Housing Secretary Sajid Javid told Resident Advisor, "I have always thought it unfair that the burden is on long-standing music venues to solve noise issues when property developers choose to build nearby.

1The British government also signed a law last year targeting ticket ‘touts’ or ‘scalpers’ who use automated software to buy tickets en masse for concerts and sporting events the second they go online, and then reselling them at massively inflated prices to real fans using platforms like Viagogo, StubHub, Get Me In! and Seatwave. As part of the Digital Economy Act, which came into power in January 2018, buying tickets more than 10 tickets at a time with bots and reselling was made illegal.

While the repeal of the ‘cabaret law’ in NYC is a move in the right direction, local authorities in other major cities in the US need to recognize the economic and cultural benefits which music and nightlife brings to cities, and start taking measures to support their local ecosystems, and protect the rights of local music fans.

Help local artists to get on the global stage

It can be very difficult for up and coming artists to break out of their local scenes onto the global stage. While music sharing sites like Basecamp and Soundcloud are increasing visibility, the opportunity to tour abroad remains very expensive. This has led to many young artists in the US being forced to sign restrictive 360 music deals with labels, in return for the chance to perform live and tour, which can tie them down for years, and restrict their ability to play in locations of their choice.

To allow artists to grow more independently, in 2017 the British government put aside more than $3.5M USD to help boost local British artists into the global limelight. To date more than 162 UK acts have been supported through Government’s Music Exports Growth Scheme (MEGS). On top of that, government backed cultural organizations like The British Council  and Artists International Development Fund provide grants to emerging artists to help cover the costs involved in performing at concerts, and festivals abroad.

Aside from touring, one of the best ways for up and coming artists to showcase their music has been via online streaming, and also on the radio. However, with Trump’s recent cuts, public radio stations like NPR and popular member stations like KCRW in Santa Monica, California, could face an uphill battle in supporting their news operations, and cut the amount of air time available for showcasing promising new artists.

KCRW, for instance, is known worldwide for breaking artists to great acclaim by offering candid interviews and unique performance venues. If public money continues to dry up, it is unclear if private donations could support such altruistic, community-focused programs.

On the flipside, in the UK, Arts Council England is actively taking steps to promote new music, by funding the internet radio station NTS, live-streaming Boiler Room and backing contemporary music curators Capsule.

The BBC, and in particular BBC Radio 6 Music, are renowned for showcasing new talent, and also organizing tours and events across the country which offer performers the chance to perform and build up their social profiles. It is worth noting that the BBC is funded by the TV licenses paid for by British citizens, rather than using money raised through taxes.

There is no silver bullet to save music and the arts in the United States. The current administration has made it clear that cultivating homegrown cultural talent to be exported around the world lies very low on their priority list. However, while by no means perfect, the example offered by the British government shows that it is possible to support local musicians, venues and fans, without excessive taxation of everyday citizens. If we can’t rely on the government for support, we need to find ways of banding together as a community to raise the funds needed to keep our local ecosystems active and vibrant. This could be via crowdfunding concerts, festivals and tours using platforms like PledgeMusic, ArtistShare, IndieGoGo, or our own platform, or by banding together to petition local state authorities to loosen the purse strings for cultural and arts events and venues.

As Americans we are forced to accept, that while other nations have grown to appreciate that the arts are a fundamental component of their culture and quality of life, in the US it may be up to private enterprise to bridge this important divide.

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