I just read about the Open Letter to Sound & Music and Arts Council England from a large group of irate composers in Britain.
The situation is thus: a few years ago, the Arts Council England merged all the constituent parts of the ‘New Music’ scene into one organisation which covered everything from jazz, rock, and pop to contemporary composition. Previously these constituent organisations were principally responsible for the welfare and upkeep of contemporary composition. Society for the Promotion of New Music for contemporary (classical) composition, the British Music Information Centre for scores and recordings of the British contemporary (classical) scene, Sonic Arts Network for sound art (acousmatic composition, electronic music, musique concrete), and the Contemporary Music Network for the members of the above scenes. You might be forgiven for thinking these organisations were rather narrowly focused, but they had all existed for quite a substantial length of time, and represented the interests of a generation which still considered classical music and pop music as distinct, separate strains of development. They set out to provide mainly emerging classical composers with opportunities to have their (mainly scored) works performed by (at that time) healthy and well-supported contemporary classical music ensembles and orchestras.
Cue Sound and Music, and its shakeup of the music scene in Britain. In 2008 Sound and Music set out to support the British contemporary music scene from a different angle, not one centred directly on contemporary (classical) composition. They changed their focus from providing opportunities for emerging composers to supporting performing musicians, becoming a ‘producer’, as Norman Lebrecht terms it. I wholeheartedly, with the rest of the composition fraternity, jumped on this bandwagon, and Sound and Music kept up promoting opportunities for composers, as well as now making more of highlighting concerts outside London (which was always a huge beef for ‘regional’), and they supported the leading acts of the moment (as they saw fit), stalwart composers of the old school, and championed emerging composers. Unfortunately, what got lost in the meantime was the SPNM Shortlist, and the New Voices and Contemporary Voices schemes, replaced by the in-house Embedded scheme. However, you could say these opportunities were too contemporary (classical) composer specific, and given the new Sound and Music remit, only providing opportunities for a niche doesn’t particularly seem fair. So they were cut altogether.
A quick look over the Sound and Music website shows that there are plenty of opportunities for composers, and the composers I do know haven’t rested on their laurels waiting for the SPNM Shortlist to reappear. I, personally, don’t think it’s right to ask Sound and Music to reinstate an outdated, atavistic call for scores or apprenticeship programs. They need to be supporting both a range of contemporary schemes, most of which are already out there, and schemes across all of the musics which Sound and Music supports: ‘Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’. So, I say ACE should ignore the Open Letter, as I have made clear in my explanation above that the people representing Notated and Modern Composition should have come to terms with the fact that they would get a smaller slice of the pie, both in these austere times and with the new Sound and Music remit.
Sound and Music got going at a particularly tricky economic time, and the funding cuts hit last year, with the government announcing it would cut ACE’s subsidy by 29.6%, and they passed on 15% of this to arts organisations, promising to taper the remaining deficit over the coming years. It subsequently announced it would be cutting core funding (arts organisations with 100% ACE funding) to 206 organisations. The Stage newspaper, as reported by the BBC, carried out a study on those organisations, finding that of the 206, 24 had closed or were in the process of doing so. This isn’t the whole picture, though. ACE subsequently funded 110 new organisations, and 182 of those who lost 100% of their funding are still surviving. Overall that’s an increase of 86 arts organisations in the UK who received support from ACE. Surely that’s something to be lauded?
This brings us back to Sound and Music. They’re advertising for a new Chief Executive, salary £50,000-£60,000. That seems a reasonable salary, considering the ACE Chief Executive is on £150,000+. With the current cuts going through, Sound and Music are likely to end up with a bunch of administrators minding the website, and not much more.
What this group of composers are lobbying for is precisely a website, as the ‘Provision for new music’ study, written by Eve O’Kelly and commissioned by the Holst Foundation, states. They want something that links together all the composers’, performers’, and organisations’ websites, and acts as the ‘first point of contact on everything to do with new British music. Online directories are a thing of the past, as Yahoo can testify, and Sound and Music is precisely there to provide a portal for new British music.
I don’t intend to provide an exhaustive analysis of the full debate that is going on, nor have I commented on the contentious issue of the composers wanting a venue in central London for performances and meeting, a view which is not shared by performers or organisations. Composers can discover their own opportunities, even without an umbrella body such as Sound and Music, and it is increasingly becoming the responsibility of the individual to make decisions for himself regarding a ‘career’ in new music. Help is still at hand, and Britain is still undoubtedly in one of the most privileged positions in the world with regards to support for the arts.
Arts Journal article on the Open Letter to Sound and Music and Arts Council England http://goo.gl/uwhTG
BBC article on the Stage newspaper’s report on arts funding cuts http://goo.gl/GI7Xw
Vacancy for Chief Executive of Sound and Music (deadline passed) http://goo.gl/2Wn1o
Holst Foundation commissioned studies on the Provision for New Music http://goo.gl/M2zxJ