Arts Council funding to opera is unfair – pop needs support too – says Michael Dugher

UK Music CEO gave his view on funding to The Guardian

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12/04/18: UK Music Chief Executive Michael Dugher has written about his views on new Arts Council England funding figures for The Guardian.

Arts Council England funding was also discussed on The Wright stuff today

In his opinion piece, Mr Dugher said the funding to opera is 'unfair' and that 'pop needs support too'.

Read his full piece on The Guardian here and below:

Arts Council funding to opera is unfair – pop needs support too

Just 8% of Arts Council England’s main music fund goes to pop, 2% to jazz, compared with 62% to opera. We must even out the imbalance if we want a diverse and healthy national music scene.

At the beginning of this year, Arts Council England boss Darren Henley launched what he hoped would be a “public conversation” about the future funding strategy for his organisation that allocates millions of pounds of public money to the arts.

In the spirit of that “conversation”, UK Music – the umbrella body that represents the collective interests of the commercial music industry – decided this week to get the ball rolling.

We started by looking at the huge disparities in terms of who gets what from the Arts Council England “National Portfolio” fund: pop music gets just 8% of the cash from the Arts Council’s main fund for music. Opera gets almost eight times as much, enjoying 62% of the same fund.

When I pointed out this disparity, things kicked off with our friends from the opera world. Passionate fans took to Twitter to voice their outrage at what they saw was an attack on opera – but it’s not anti-opera to highlight a stark unfairness.

Opera makes a fantastic contribution to our cultural life, and I strongly back the council’s role in helping to maintain our place as a world leader.

But it is only one important part of Britain’s rich music scene. How can it be right that nearly two thirds of this funding goes to opera, when the rest of classical music gets less than a quarter? Why should jazz only receive around 2%, and world music, folk music, choirs and brass bands receive 1% each or less?

Some of the arguments that followed my intervention have been revealing, and depressing. One person told me that it was the job of the Arts Council to fund “the arts”, and pop music should therefore get “not one penny” of public funding.

Many others were under the misapprehension that popular music – perhaps we should call it “contemporary music” – means “commercially successful music” and is therefore highly lucrative.

Certainly, there are those at the top who do amazingly well. But for every global star, there are thousands of hard-pressed artists, musicians and songwriters desperately trying to make ends meet with pop music.

Average earnings in music are less than average earnings for workers in the economy as a whole, and that goes for musicians whether they play in a string quartet or a four-piece rock band.

One or two suggested that given pop music has generated some fabulously wealthy stars, pop music doesn’t need public money. That’s as preposterous as saying that as Jonas Kaufman has done alright for himself, opera can fend for itself.

The truth is there are very real issues to address in pop music. Around 35% of grassroots music venues were forced to close in last decade, and they lack adequate support from the Arts Council, even though they are vital to our industry’s talent development and ecosystem. Contrast this with the Royal Opera House, which receives £24m from the Arts Council every year. That is monstrously unfair, especially given how pop music makes up most the music industry’s £4.4bn contribution to the UK economy.

Is it too much to ask that government reinvest a tiny fraction back into supporting grassroots pop music?

Music also has a key role to play in enabling social mobility, and the Arts Council’s Music Education Hubs – groups of organisations like local authorities and schools that work together to create joined-up music education provisions – do help increase that.

Worryingly, there is no clear plan in place for them after 2020, and venue closures have left aspiring musicians with even fewer places to hone their craft. That’s why Arts Council funding is required to expand rehearsal spaces and help safeguard grassroots venues.

The Hubs also potentially improve music education for people of all backgrounds, who aren’t always provided for at the moment. The number of pupils taking GCSE music fell by 8% last year, and one fifth of schools no longer offer the subject as an option.

Top earners are four times more likely to pay for out-of-school classes for their children: 50% of children at independent schools receive sustained music tuition, while the figure for state schools is just 15%. This entrenches inequality and tends to penalise music genres that are more popular among disadvantaged communities.

There is a strong body of evidence that young people who are engaged in their education through music, or who play a musical instrument, make greater progress at school and achieve better academic outcomes in core subjects like maths and English.

And given that the creative industries are growing at twice the rate of the wider economy and are now worth £92bn to the UK, we also need to ensure young people are receiving an education in creative subjects and that we are equipping them with the relevant skills.
When it comes to funding from the Arts Council, the status quo is simply not good enough.

Their boss Darren Henley knows this. He said back in January: “There remains much to be done, especially in widening access to the arts to all socio-economic groups and diverse audiences, and ensuring that the workforce and leadership of the arts and culture world is representative of England in the 21st century.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. But his vision will demand changes and facing up to some difficult realities, not least the current unfairness when it comes to funding music.

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