The debate over whether public money should be used to fund the arts is a well rehearsed and vibrant one. But one area that has generally been able to look after itself is pop music – regarded as a commercially competitive industry whose products count as one of the UK’s great cultural exports.
At least until now.
Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England, says the market in popular music is “failing” and the industry is guilty of a “short-termism”. He cites an “X Factor” culture that promises overnight celebrity and a tendency for major record labels to drop an artist if their first or second album underperforms. They want talent to be delivered to them ready-made,” he says. “They’re not prepared to take a risk over a long period of time investing in talent. I’m interested in signing artists who are going to be making albums for 10, 15 years”
Mike Smith President of Music at Virgin-EMI Records “It’s something you see lots of industries get into when they’re under pressure. So they’ll concentrate on giving the public what they think the public want, rather than exploring and getting the public to find things that they didn’t know they want.” Industry executives reject the claim and say their investment in new artists and marketing has actually increased. Alan Davey’s concern has led to the announcement of an Arts Council fund designed to support artists trying to break into the music industry. It marks the first major venture into the popular music industry for Arts Council England, which has traditionally been more associated with funding for opera or classical music. It follows a decline in popular music industry revenues over the last decade. According to BPI figures, annual UK album sales dropped by more than 10% in 2012 as the CD albums market shrunk by a fifth – although singles sales hit a new high.
Hard to hear
The Momentum Music Fund will see £500,000 distributed to musicians seeking investment for activities like recording, touring or marketing. “It’s when the artists are actually seen to be professionals, they’re working in the industry, but actually they’re struggling to have their voice heard,” says Vanessa Reed, executive director of the PRS For Music Foundation, which is administering the fund. “They are competing against the huge marketing machines that are supporting the kind of artists that come through X Factor,” she says. Arts Council England says it aims to support a broad range of artists at a critical stage of their development, when they are on the cusp of making a breakthrough, helping to fund “something the market wouldn’t necessarily provide on its own”.
It’s designed to help artists like Kwes, a 26-year-old musician and producer from south London. He released a single in January on the independent record label Warp, and has just finished his first album, and has to juggle his work commitments as a songwriter and producer to keep enough money coming in. Speaking at his studio in a renovated shipping container in London’s Docklands, he says writing and recording the album has been a “really long, arduous but enjoyable birthing process”.
But the birth of new music is an expensive business. A recording industry report in 2012 estimated that it costs around £1m to break an artist in a developed market. The study from IFPI, the global recording industry body, said that record companies’ investment in new artists and marketing had increased to $4.5bn (£3bn), which represents 16% of music industry revenues.
The claim of short-termism is rejected by the major record labels.
Mike Smith, president of Music at Virgin-EMI Records, knows all about the effort and financial support it takes to nurture new acts. As an A&R man his signings included White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Supergrass. He says he “takes issue” with the claim by Alan Davey that the major record labels aren’t doing enough to support new and emerging talent. “I’m interested in signing artists who are going to be making albums for 10, 15 years, that’s what I’ve always tried to do,” he says. “A lot of the time I think we need to adjust how we invest in those artists, not necessarily cutting anything back but just a lot wiser so that we’re able to invest over a longer period of time.”
The recording industry says the proportion of revenue it spends on new acts is greater than that spent on research and development by the pharmaceutical or IT industries. The BPI, which represents the UK’s record label industry, has criticised some of Alan Davey’s remarks as “ill-informed and out of touch”.
BPI Chief Executive Geoff Taylor said: “UK labels have invested £1 billion over the last five years in new music. The results speak for themselves: five out of the top ten best selling albums last year were from the UK. New funding for investment in UK talent is always a good thing, but the Arts Council should be supporting the music industry’s excellent record of breaking talent, not attacking it with ill-judged soundbites,”
Tom’s original report was first broadcast on the Today programme on Tuesday 28 May 2013.