"...And Roses Too," or the Case for Public Arts Funding

"...And Roses Too," or the Case for Public Arts Funding

If one good thing came of the recent threat to shut down the Federal government, it’s that the conservative mask has definitively slipped. John Boehner, Jon Kyl and the rest of the Republican hit-squad showed themselves willing to stoop to any level to do away with what little social safety net remains in the United States.

With the door opened by the union-busting Governor Scott Walker, and with a growing global rebellion against austerity ringing in their ears, Boehner and company threw down the gauntlet. Emboldened by timid Democrats, he made clear that there was no quarter of government funding that wasn’t at risk: be it public sector workers, Planned Parenthood, even publicly-funded arts.

To be sure, there hasn’t been a time in recent memory when the issue of public arts funding has been so, well, public! Observe, for example, comments made by Sarah Palin to Sean Hannity on March 15th:

“NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars—those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids.”

Total government funding for all three of these organizations is less than $350 million, barely putting a dent in the deficit. NPR in particular gets less than 2% of its funding from any government program. For Palin, scapegoating public culture isn’t merely a matter of racing to the bottom. It has to do with stripping people of their basic right to arts and information.

Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang, in a May, 2009 article for The Nation, put his finger on the political importance of culture:

“Culture is not just something that conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something that liberals dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up. The economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society. Both artists and community organizers cultivate new forms of knowledge and consciousness.”

The vibrancy and diversity that so inspires Chang couldn’t be more stark from the near-monoculture of the entertainment industry. On the same day that Palin was busy squawking against public arts, David Bakula let his own mask slip. At Toronto’s Canadian Music Week, the executive for Nielsen SoundScan revealed that a mere one percent of all albums released in 2010 made up almost 82 percent of worldwide sales. Even Bakula himself called the figure “ridiculous.”

He’s right; it is ridiculous. Especially when one considers that arts, and in particular music, have long been portrayed as somehow above the realities of privilege and class. To take MTV, VH1 and BET at their word, music is one of the many equalizers of “America the classless society.” If you have talent, you will be recognized, simple as that.

The only problem with this myth is that it’s always been just that—a myth. And though it may be contrary to whatever agenda they have, the words of Palin and Bakula have shown precisely why we need public arts funding, and why they should be fought for alongside a robust social safety net. While music may only be a single part of this, it nonetheless proves the case amply.

Deregulation Plays Out

The numbers coming from SoundScan are nothing new. In 2009, music’s “upper one percent” ate up over 83 percent of album sales, with similar figures for 2008, 2007, 2006 and so on.

Many of this one percent are the acts you would expect: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Usher. Artists whose lowest-common-denominator approach to song-writing make them easily marketable for the “Big Four” record labels. Others, like Lady Gaga or Eminem, have proven trickier. Whatever their differences, whatever their relative merits and faults, they all represent an incredibly thin slice of the music being made in the world right now.

Author and musician Mat Callahan, whose previous act the Looters were one of the first to be labeled “world music,” points out the detriment this has in his book The Trouble With Music:

“With the intense concentration of resources in the hands of a few major corporations that generate enormous profits from the sale of millions of units of a tiny number of musical artists, there is an inevitable warping of the entire culture within which music is created and received.”

It’s not simply a matter of “taste.” No entertainment exec would admit to there being a political agenda behind their decision to release or not release certain material. But even a cursory glance over the past fifteen years shows exactly what private enterprise has brought to music.

There’s been the deregulation of radio under Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996. Clear Channel’s infamous “9/11 memorandum,” which effectively banned 166 songs from airplay—including Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and every song ever released by Rage Against the Machine.

Eighteen months later, Clear Channel lead the witch-hunt against the Dixie Chicks after their anti-war, anti-Bush statements to a London crowd. In 2007, AT&T (another beneficiary of the Telecom Act) cut out similar statements made by Pearl Jam during a Webcast of their set at Lollapalooza.

Those who were hoping Barack Obama would rein in this kind of unchecked corporate power in the midst of economic crisis were similarly disappointed. In January of 2010, Obama’s Justice Department approved the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation. The concert promoters, who have both been repeatedly caught price-gouging, now constitute an effective monopoly over the live music market.

Indeed, the Black Eyed Peas, who were trotted out during Obama’s campaign as the musical embodiment of the candidate’s “Yes We Can” slogan, have shown themselves to be the perfect compliment to this kind of agenda. Six months before the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, the Peas released The E.N.D. Fergie, in essence the public face of the group, told Rolling Stone that the album was “meant as escapism. We specifically wanted people to forget about their money problems, losing their jobs, their homes.”

Of course, the disconnect from reality is palpable here (how exactly does one “forget” that they’re homeless?) but this is coming from a group whose 2008 endorsement of Obama was held up as the gold standard of arts-activism!

Those raised on the sounds of the Baby Boomer generation—steeped as they were in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements—are certainly right when they point out that today’s music doesn’t have much to say. Looking back at such rebellious, innovative artists like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, it’s easy to ask “what happened?”

Back in 2002, Andy Taylor, whose Sanctuary Artist Management represents such acts as ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac and Velvet Revolver, provided an answer to Britain’s Independent newspaper:

“If you go back to the Sixties, we had bubble gum pop acts then. But we were developing long-term acts too. We had labels like Island and Chrysalis and hundreds of independent record labels driven by entrepreneurs who wanted to break new acts. Then consolidation came and the major record labels bought up the independents. But they squashed the entrepreneurialism by putting it in the structure of a conglomerate. They were still required to show growth, though, so the easiest thing to do was produce short-term products that would drive short-term growth. That’s why acts started being broken by in-your-face-marketing. It’s become like the Christmas toy market.”

In other words, it’s the market. Left to its own devices, it can’t help but consolidate into fewer and fewer hands. Much as the free-marketeers love to prattle on about freedom of expression and opportunity, the fact is that—in music at least—it’s lead to neither.

The Alternative: Culture is a Right!

Championing the free-market isn’t just about politicians knowing where their bread is buttered. It’s true that the executives of Clear Channel give big money to the Republicans, while recording moguls like David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine prefer the Dems. But like the debates around universal healthcare, there is an much bigger idea at play—one that industry fears with all its being. After all, if there is viable “public option,” and if culture is considered a right rather than a privilege, then why exactly do we need the business in the first place?

At the start of the Great Depression, many musicians were asking themselves the same question. The crash had bankrupted most record labels. Not only was the capital gone, but in the age of bread-lines and unemployment, the parlor songs and novelty jingles that had been their bread and butter no longer seemed relevant.

Mat Callahan calls this the time when distinctly “popular” culture came into its own. The blues, jazz and folk records—which had previously been segregated into cynical categories of “race records” and “hillbilly music”—found a hearing. Songs that profiled the everyday struggles of workers, the poor, people of color and even women resonated like never before.

Then came the founding of “Federal Project Number One,” Roosevelt’s New Deal program geared specifically for the arts. Federal One wasn’t merely handed down. Far from it; the later, more robust version of the New Deal had been an attempt by FDR to stave off social revolution. At its most vibrant, Federal One and its departments would provide a cultural space for artists to develop and find a platform, shielded from the slings and arrows of the market.

Originally, the Federal Music Project only focused on publicly-funded symphonies, with little regard for more “low-brow” music. After Charles Seeger (father of the legendary Pete) became assistant director, it branched out, studying and recording cowboy songs, blues standards, Creole and gospel. Without the FMP, it’s questionable whether such giants as Woody Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Leadbelly or Billie Holiday would have reached such a large audience.

The 1940s and saw the FMP and the rest of Federal One all but disbanded under cries of “communist infiltration” by Congressional right-wingers. It was only with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs that the National Endowment for the Arts was formed.

Compared to its predecessor, the NEA was weak tea. It proved to be well behind the curve on recognizing rock & roll and soul music, and to this day one would be hard pressed to find any mention of punk or hip-hop. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a valuable cultural space. Countless community arts programs might not have otherwise survived if not the NEA’s grants.

When Ronald Reagan used the “public obscenity” excuse to try and abolish the NEA in the 1980s, he wasn’t just motivated by prudish social mores or deficit hawkishness.
Doing away with public funding for the arts, along with any other accessible cultural space, was part-and-parcel of rolling back the ability of working people to thrive and resist.

David McNally, in his book Global Slump insists that:

“[C]ultures of resistance were sustained in and through organized infrastructures of dissent… But in the great wave of industrial restructuring, geographic relocation and union-busting that consolidated the neoliberal era, much of this was eroded. As plants closed, union halls disappeared, oppositional spaces died out, and people moved on, workers were literally dispossessed of their cultural resources.”

Rebel Movements, Rebel Music: The Fight for Public Arts

Now, a growing number of ordinary folks seem eager to take those resources back. Not long after the economic crisis took hold, a group of writers—including Jeff Chang, Barbara Ehrenreich and former NEA head Bill Ivey—launched a petition calling for a “Creativity Stimulus” loosely modeled on the Federal One program.

Of course, Federal One didn’t come without a fight, and it won’t this time either. Already there have been stirrings of resistance among artists and musicians. It’s taken on various forms—sometimes against their own subjugation, sometimes against exploitation as a whole. What all share in common is the enthusiastic response they’ve received from fans and listeners.

Despite all attempts to label it as “piracy,” peer-to-peer file sharing persists. The one reason above all else is that it has provided listeners with an avenue to find new music without needing to shell out for an overpriced CD. It’s also provided artists with a way to reach their fans directly, free from the constraints of a record contract.

When Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows in an independent, online “pay-what-you-can” scheme, it was called “idiotic” and “dangerous” by some industry stalwarts. In three days, however, it went platinum.

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who like Radiohead has become known for his contrary and progressive political views, recently was forced to mount his own struggle against his record label. His latest album, Lasers, was delayed for over two years. Atlantic Records had send Lupe back to the drawing board time and time again over the course of two years, claiming his material wasn’t “marketable.” After fans set up a website calling a protest outside of Atlantic headquarters in Manhattan (a demonstration dubbed “Fiasco Friday”), the label relented and announced a release date.

The World Wide Web, threatened as it is by end of Net Neutrality, continues to be a potential hotbed for subversive spaces. Commentators spilled endless amounts of ink praising the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as ushered in by Facebook and Twitter—often ignoring the actual people power that drove the revolts. Arab rebel songs inspired by the rebellions, in particular rap and hip-hop, have found their way to American ears via the Web, free from Western spin.

In short, real, interesting music, whose goal is uplift and empowerment rather than vapid consumerism, can take its rightful place at center-stage when masses of ordinary people start to hit back. In the midst of these struggles, even the seemingly unshakable “mainstream” can be punctured.

One of the many artists who flew last-minute to Wisconsin and played for the tens of thousands marching on and occupying the State Capitol in Madison was Tim McIlrath, lead-singer of the hardcore punk band Rise Against. The group’s new album, Endgame, hardly seems the normal fare of the Billboard charts: hard, often dissonant guitar-work, lyrics that tackle anti-gay bullying and the BP oil spill while invoking the “sleeping giant” of America’s poor to rise up.

Upon its release, coming only days after McIlrath performed in Madison, Endgame debuted at number 2. Though the band’s own sweat and tears no doubt played a role (they’ve spent a decade building up a serious fan-base), it’s hard to imagine their recent success as separate from general and widespread opposition to austerity and union-busting.

For the past thirty years, moments like these have been all-too-rare in music. Though they may yet prove to be little more than fleeting glimpses, they nonetheless reveal that art and music aren’t mere commodities to be shoved down our throats. The “do-it-yourself” ethics of punk, hip-hop and indie, along with the presence of the Internet, have made it possible to speak of art without a market.

The brewing struggle against austerity also makes it possible to talk about where we want our money going. Rather than bailing out the upper one percent, it should be going to where we need it the most: jobs, healthcare, culture. As the saying goes, “we want bread, but roses too.” At its most basic, our art is more inspiring than anything coming from a boardroom; it deserves to be protected, nurtured and fought for.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, PopMatters.com and CounterPunch. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.