Kevin Buckle: The squeezed middle is losing out in battle for funds

The middle ground misses out when arts funding is being shared out
The middle ground misses out when arts funding is being shared out
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When there was first talk of the Chinese middle classes coming to Edinburgh, I remember, it was said that this wouldn’t be so good for business.

The reason being, it was said, that they tended to take photos of “cool” things rather than buy them.

Bjork's record label has put her album on sale with no name, tracklisting or artwork

Bjork's record label has put her album on sale with no name, tracklisting or artwork

Once when meeting somebody in the Grassmarket just next to the fossil shop a group of Chinese tourists were all having their picture taken one by one outside the shop, which was closed.

Just as they were finishing the shop opened but instead of going in, if nothing else just to see what there was apart from what was in the window, they all just walked away. The thing is that now this seems to be the case with most people and not just visitors.

Of course with music there is a double whammy in that listening is free and going to gigs has far more competition now from binge watching TV shows to hours spent on social media. However, whether it is original drawings and paintings, handmade pottery and jewellery or something a little quirkier but interesting it is now becoming progressively harder for artists to make a living from their talents.

The arguments rumbling on just now about the disproportionate support for the highbrow arts with public funding doesn’t tell the whole story of how the middle ground is slowly being squeezed out of existence.

From music to the visual arts certain sectors are well versed in gaining funding on the simple basis that they are not popular enough to survive otherwise. What has happened gradually over the last decade is that popular art, be that music folk actually like or paintings and drawings people recognise, has suffered because people no longer feel the need to buy such things.

On the other hand their counterparts at either end of the spectrum have always been used to not making a living from their “art” and are far better versed in obtaining grants.

It isn’t just classical music and opera that gets huge chunks of funding for something enjoyed by the few but the leftfield/experimental world is also given hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not the millions enjoyed by others. In the visual arts it was mentioned in the report done for Creative Scotland that much of the art in a gallery was not for sale and in fact as I have mentioned before only 16 per cent of income comes from sales – and that you would have to assume includes cafes!

The question has to be asked: who will protect this middle ground of popular art that has no bodies and organisations to represent it? There is little argument except from those it affects that to fund something enjoyed regularly by no more than a few per cent of the population but do nothing about the growing issue facing the popular arts would be grossly unfair but the problem is that unless these “popular artists” apply for funding nothing can be done and they come from a culture of making their own way.

Edinburgh Council could certainly help too and provide artists with a city centre location that is well promoted. Regular readers will know that with wages always being a big issue, I’ve advocated a large area very like antique sellers have, with dozens of different dealers having their wares on display but not actually present. A similar area with artists’ work and a small number of dedicated people working there familiar with the work would be ideal.

Those with the huge funding guaranteed for three years will just sit tight and hope the bad publicity goes away. With the middle ground that needs the help unused to the funding system and funding bodies rarely proactive in trying to attract new applications given they are massively oversubscribed anyway it is a perfect storm that does not bode well for many artists.

Heaven knows fans are out of pocket now

I was surprised to see that the new Bjork album had gone on sale by her label with no information whatsoever. No track listing, no artwork and no indication if the vinyl would be a single or double album.

You may wonder who would buy this way when clearly the album will be easily available from many places on its release and there was no incentive of signed copies or bonus material to tempt a purchase. The answer of course is the dedicated fan who simply cannot see the listing without buying.

While providing a loyal fan base with “extras” directly causes endless problems to shops frozen out from such goodies there is also a line which some artists cross in trying to obtain every last penny from fans who feel the need to own everything.

While this does no harm to fans who enjoy having a complete collection there is no doubt some spend far more than they can afford and there is in many cases a cynical exploitation of loyal fans by artists who certainly don’t need the money.

We have now reached the point where a perfectly good album like The Smiths’ Queen Is Dead is somehow expanded to a 5xLP box set and 3CD/DVD release and then is put on PledgeMusic as if that could possibly be needed.

As the Smiths said themselves – and with thanks to the online retailer Norman Records for pointing it out:

Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!

Re-evaluate the songs

Double-pack with a photograph

Extra track (and a tacky badge)

Splash the cash

Classical music is very lucky to have fantastic financial support from the Dunard Fund which helped greatly with their involvement in the City Deal and the building of a new concert hall. It is a shame there are no other knights in shining armour to help other Edinburgh venues from the Filmhouse to the Queen’s Hall and Leith Theatre and I do wonder if such folk are out there and what could be done to get them to come forward.

Recently when the Music Venue Trust failed to get funding there was a lengthy message of support from Sir Paul McCartney on just how important small venues had been in his life. A friend of mine made the comment, that I think is fair in the context of what I’ve just said, that his support didn’t appear to extend to any financial help.

Now some people prefer to help anonymously, as was the case with George Michael, but in this instance public financial support from major artists would be a real help. Maybe Mr Sheeran will step forward!