Mass Culture Demands a Platform

By Bragg, Billy | New Statesman (1996), April 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Mass Culture Demands a Platform


Bragg, Billy, New Statesman (1996)


London is one of the world's great cities of culture. It has the opera, ballet and orchestras that you would expect of such a high-profile city. Yet its reputation as a cultural centre rests on its great fashion designers, pop musicians, filmmakers and novelists, as well as the very high standard of skilled technical labour that supports these artists. Popular culture is what has given London its dynamism over the past decades. Yet all of the big subsidies go to what are known collectively as "The Arts" - that is, London's opera, ballet and orchestras, none of them world-beaters. More than that, the authorities still consider that their job is to support and develop these art forms, under the pretence that "serious" art must be brought to the "deprived" masses.

Yet the culture of these same masses is ignored. Seats are subsidised at Covent Garden, but not at Stamford Bridge. Ordinary people have been priced out of the opera, and many cannot afford to attend Premiership games at leading clubs. Subsidised season tickets to London's smaller non-Premiership clubs could help them to make ends meet in a market swamped with TV money, and might also begin to overcome the Man-U obsession in our nation's playgrounds.

Popular culture brings people with money to spend to London, but little encouragement is given to this sector of the arts. As a huge row blows up over the sale of Rover and the loss of the British car-making industry, there has been no similar outcry over the sale of the last big British record company, EMI. David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead and even the crown jewels themselves, The Beatles, are now foreign-owned. If that were not bad enough, a few transnational mega-corporations have the muscle to dominate what is heard on the radio and TV and what makes it on to the shelves of the high-street shops.

What can the government do about this? Several things. The British music industry now consists of those independent labels that have not sold out to the multi-media corporations. By its nature, independent music is cutting-edge, challenging, different. Consequently commercial radio stations are reluctant to give it airtime, particularly when they are being fed a diet of pap by the major labels. Radio could be unleashed. It does not cost much to open a radio station - most US colleges have one - but getting a licence costs a fortune. There is no shortage of bandwidth for short-range stations, and provision could be made to ensure that digital radio is not kept safe for big money.

Furthermore, artists need space to work in, be that for performance or exhibition. London is a large city, and it makes no sense to concentrate such facilities in the centre. …

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