| home   authors | new | about | newsfeed | print |  
volume 2
july 1999

Popular music policy and the articulation of regional identities


  The case of Scotland and Ireland
  by Simon Frith
  In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe" and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This critical contribution on the question of the regional identities of Scottish and Irish rock music was written for the occasion by Simon Frith.
  Music has become a focus of fears about the threat to local identities from globally organized entertainment industries. If our music no longer carries traces of our immediate histories, then what makes it "ours" in the first place becomes diffused into a vague sense of nostalgia, and musicians have to look for new ways of making a difference. The question is whether this difference is now locally or nationally defined: in what sense are the Cranberries (photo left) an Irish group or Wet Wet Wet a Scottish one? Does their Irishness or Scottishness have any effect on how they are heard? That question is the theme of this essay by Simon Frith.

1 The peculiarities of music. The composer Constant Lambert once referred to "the appalling popularity of music", alluding presumably to peoples' urge to fill silence with sound, to use music to define themselves, their lives and their communities. We certainly take it for granted now, in the 1990's, that music is everywhere, that we can surround ourselves with the sounds we love at home and create our own mobile soundscapes outside (in the car or on the walkman), and that, whether we like it or not, we will spend much our time moving through other people's sonic programming (in shopping centres and bars, in airports and offices). If music is one way we define who we are and where we are, it is an increasingly confusing definition, a swirl of private and public sounds, of local and global noise.
  To put this another way, because music is ubiquitous — we cannot avoid it even if we want to — it is accepted as a kind of public property: "our music" is something which belongs to us, whether individually or because we are members of a particular nation or community. What is available for us to hear (whether as consumers in record shops or as audiences for radio and television shows or simply as citizens at work and play) thus becomes a factor in our sense of ourselves as members of a public. It is not surprising, then, that music is a focus of fears about the threat to local identities from globally organized entertainment industries. If our music no longer carries traces of our immediate histories (the way it has always been used by migrants, for example) then what makes it "ours" in the first place becomes diffused into a vague sense of nostalgia, and musicians have to look for new ways of making a difference. The question is whether this difference is now locally or nationally defined: in what sense are the Cranberries an Irish group or Wet Wet Wet a Scottish one? Does their Irishness or Scottishness have any effect on how they are heard — whether nationally or internationally?
  The issue here is that the music that reaches us as somehow "ours" is in fact the result of specific musicians' skills, ideas and energies, made available through a complex industrial process: in the modern world music is also the "property" of its creators and publishers.
  The fact that music, like other contemporary art forms, is the property of both its authors and its audience, that individual creativity is a uniquely public good, has underpinned the economic organization of musical production since the end of the eighteenth century. The policy goal has been to ensure, on the one hand, that creativity and invention are developed for the good of the community, that works of music become as widely available as possible, and, on the other, that writers and composers benefit from their work, that their rewards are sufficient to keep them (and their publishers) solvent. The solution to this problem — how to make a private gift publicly available — is the copyright system. A piece of music remains the property of its creator but the public has the right to use it — such use is "licensed" by the composer; it has to be paid for.
  The contradictory sense of the phrase "my music" — a claim made equally validly by the musicians who made a record and the fans who bought it — is thus regulated by copyright law, which is equally relevant to discussions about national musics. On the one hand, for example, we may define Scottish music as that music which expresses the Scottish nation, which articulates national values and national aspirations, drawing on a musical history in which these values and aspirations are embedded and taking note of new sounds, new circumstances, and new media. On the other hand, we may define Scottish music as music made by a Scottish musicians working in a Scottish music industry, the rewards from whose labours benefit a Scottish economy. The question is whether these two definitions are necessarily compatible. How can we ensure that the most successful Scottish music expressively is also the most successful economically? That the money earned by Scottish musical talent returns to Scotland? The key is to devise a rights system which can address both sides of this equation (as the copyright system was devised to address both individual and public good), a rights system which can promote both cultural and economic ends.
  The music industry is built on the income that can be realized from the ownership of musical property, and the basic musical property remains today what it has always been, the piece of music itself (called as a matter of convenience, whether or not it has lyrics, the song). Over the last hundred years technology has changed the ways in which songs can be made publicly available (how music is stored, in what form it is sold) but as the musical commodity has shifted form sheet music to gramophone to cassette to compact disc (and now perhaps to the virtual reality of digital information) the underlying principle of the music business has not altered: what matters is not how music is "carried" to the public but who owns the rights to that music in the first place.
  Under European copyright law, owners of artistic properties like songs realize an income from them by retaining legal control of their use and thus charging a licence fee. The possibilities of a musical income thus depend on the possibilities of music itself as a form of public and private entertainment (possibilities which are, of course, themselves changed by technology). Most people still think of the music industry as the record industry, but in day-to-day terms the sale of records in shops to individual members of the public is probably the least obvious use of songs. They come into our lives, rather, from radio and television, as the soundtracks of films and commercials, as the background for shopping, drinking and working, as the entertainment offered by clubs and concert halls and discos. All these uses must be paid for, and it is now widely assumed in the industry (though the statistics are difficult to gather) that such public or mediated uses of music bring in more rights income to composers and publishers than record sales.
  It follows that any policy concerned with musical creativity — how to support national music making as both a cultural and economic practice — must also be concerned with musical mediation, with the uses made of music made by radio and television, by clubs and shops. Our sense that national musical cultures are "threatened" by global sounds, after all, comes as I have suggested less from knowledge of what musicians in different countries are actually doing, than from the homogeneity of the sounds that seem to reach us wherever we are. And the economic reality is that for local musicians to sustain themselves from their musical activities and to have a cultural impact they must, at the least, have access to contemporary means of musical transmission — to recording studios, radio programmes, and so on. Their musical properties, that is say, must be a source of licence income. This is the context in which I want to look a Scottish and Irish music policy.
2 A wealth of musical talent. In broad musicological terms the Irish and the Scots have a shared history: their musicians draw from long-planted Gaelic/Celtic roots; and both countries had to develop musical ways of expressing their complex colonial and post-colonial relationship to the English (and, in particular, to the English language). Scottish and Irish cultures are both marked, if in different ways, by religious disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism, disputes which have; for three hundred years or more, been marked by movements of people to and from across the Irish sea. For as long the Scots and Irish have also migrated across the Atlantic, embedding their music in the popular culture of North America too. In both countries, one could say, music has been a key to cultural identity, to a sense of history and tradition; in both countries music has been a way of defending oneself against English cultural hegemony and sustaining a sense of community in foreign lands and circumstances. This is the historical context for a number of shared features in the contemporary musical life of Scotland and Ireland:
  • The importance of live music for everyday leisure and pleasures, whether bands and Karaoke nights in pubs and bars, or ceilidhs and dances in hotels.
  • The strength of the folk scene, in terms of performers and record issues, clubs and festivals. In both Ireland and Scotland (in contrast to England) "folk" is able to encompass sounds from the most traditional (including the Gaelic tradition) to the most contemporary.
  • The special relationship with North American music. Country music is an important strand of Scottish and Irish musical cultures, for example (rooted as it is in Scottish and Irish balladry); while generations of young Irish and Scottish musicians, from Van Morrison to Wet Wet Wet, have unselfconsciously adapted American soul vocals as their own.
  This is to give a picture, accurate I think, of countries in which there are a relatively large number of practising musicians, musicians who are, in turn, aware of both their own cultural heritage and of their potential international (i.e. American) appeal. There can certainly be no doubt that Scots and Irish musicians have made a contribution to the global success of Anglo-American rock music quite out of proportion to the size of their countries' populations. And it is equally clear that music has become essential to what one might call both countries' heritage industries — to the construction of sites for tourism and locations for films makers. The Riverdance phenomenon is the most remarkable example of this — from interval entertainment in the Eurovision song contest to long running international stage show, Riverdance's achievement has been less to sell Ireland through its music than to define Ireland as its music. But in Scotland too the popularity of ceilidhs with the country's visitors means that many young musicians now subsidize their rock careers from their earnings in ceilidh bands.
3 A dearth of financial return. The problem of this picture of flourishing musical cultures is that it conceals the economic problems of sustaining it, of ensuring that musicians can make a decent living out their music, that the resources necessary for music making — venues, for example — continue to be available (it is not at all clear, for example, what would have happened to live music in Scotland without the £2 million sponsorship money invested since 1988 by the brewers, Tennents, in their Tennents Livel campaign). There are two issues here — first, that the local market (without exports or tourists) is too small to support a modern music industry; second that "local" markets themselves are now anyway part of global markets — local music makers have to compete with numerous other forms of musical entertainment; local music listeners have access to sounds from around the world. In Dublin and Cork, just as in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the largest record retailers are the London-based chains, HMV and Virgin, stocking the same international product as their branches in Paris and New York; in Dublin and Cork, as in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the cinemas are filled with the latest Hollywood releases, radio play lists are dominated by the promotional strategies of the major international record labels.
  It may well be — for reasons already outlined — that a significant piece of this international action has been grabbed by Irish and Scottish musicians (U2, for example, are certainly global superstars) but the economic point is that the return on local musical talent that is internationally successful accrues not to its country of origin but to the multinational companies that sign it up and make it globally available. Economic research inn Scotland over the last fifteen years has consistently shown that while Scotland produces an abundance of successful writers, performers and instrumentalists, a relatively small amount of the income they have generated has returned to Scotland. Scottish musicians have to move to London to realize their talent, and if Irish acts don't, this is only because the major record companies have Dublin offices. International Irish stars like U2, Enya, the Chieftains and the Cranberries are signed to the English or American divisions of global corporations; their success does not sustain an Irish record industry.
  In Scotland there have been two sorts of policy response to this situation. First, there is the suggestion that a Scottish music industry can only be based on the production of a specifically Scottish music, something with a distinct appeal and a clear (global) market niche. The models here are the folk labels Lismore and Temple, the only successful Scottish independents, which survive by selling traditional music (whether folk groups or pipe bands) to North Americans. These labels were the driving force in creating the Scottish Record Industry Association at the end of the 1980's, to explore ways of developing a specifically Scottish music business. A number of issues were explored (including the possibility of Scottish composers and publishers breaking away from the London-based Performing Rights Society, and creating their own rights licensing agency, one fairer to Scotland in its distributive formulae) and the SRIA was successful for a couple of years in producing a Scottish record sales chart to influence Scottish radio play policy. Unfortunately the chart revealed that Scottish record buying habits weren't that much different from UK patterns generally. If it was relatively easy to sell "distinctive" Scottish music to tourists or expatriates, it was much harder to discern a distinctively Scottish taste being laid over the rock/pop/dance markets.
  A second approach to the development of a Scottish music business is to focus not on products but on facilities. The argument here is that Scottish musicians have to move to London because they haven't the resources to realize their talents at home. Economic studies in the early 1980's tended to have a rather narrow definition of the resources at issues, focusing either on recording facilities or on record companies as such. By the end of the decade, though, most observers were agreed that while easily accessible recording studios are a necessary part of flourishing local music scene they are only a staring point, while given the existing international organization of the music industry, there is no point in attempting to set up national or regional labels to compete with the majors — no small label can have their production, promotion or distribution clout; no small label can complete for talent with the same level of advances and investments. In the new pop world of multimedia, multinational music sales, its is much more commercially sensible for local producers to service the majors, to provide them — for a royalty share — with the music that the large companies are better able to exploit.
  From this perspective, what was missing in Scotland were the facilities which would enable Scottish musicians and companies to enter the music business on their own terms — managerial, legal, accountancy services, rehearsal and promotional resources, the opportunities for talent development before a major label contract. To return to my starting point: in straight financial terms what Scotland needs is a way of retaining the ownership of musical rights and properties. Scottish songs and stars might still be marketed by the major record companies — world-wide success is not possible otherwise — but there would also be a fair return to the musicians and the businesses which nurtured their talent in the first place. And this would also be the context in which Scottish producers could set themselves up to sell something "distinctive" to the world in the first place.
4 Country versus state. In Scotland this has been a rhetorical position but not really a practical one, if only because there are no obvious ways of putting such a policy into effect. There have certainly been encouraging moments — Tennents Live! sponsored the production of a Scottish Music Guide in 1994, precisely as an attempt to map what facilities were available, for example, and there are ongoing educational activities in Glasgow under the umbrella of the Ten Day Weekend festival. But without a government of its own, Scotland is dependent for any state music policy on different cultural strategies — on the Scottish Tourist Board and the promotion of "heritage music" on the Scottish Arts Council and subsidies based on artistic rather than commercial judgements. It is in this respect that Irish music policy (and it seems from a Scottish perspective that very similar arguments took place in Ireland in the 1980's) has been so much more successful (such that contemporary Irish music now both a cultural an a commercial presence as Irish music in a way that Scottish music doesn't).
  Irish music policy, to put this another way, has been part of state policy. On the one hand this means that Irish musical institutions are national institutions — radio and television broadcasts are thus subject to national regulation; Irish composers and publishers belong to an Irish performing rights company, IMRO; on the other hand, this means that Irish legislators, whether considering educational or taxation policy, cultural quotas or cultural subsidies, can be lobbied by music interests. This is not to say that the problems facing an Irish music industry will necessarily be solved (after all, among the interests lobbying the government will be the multinational record companies, and Irish culture is no more immune to the sales talk of global entertainers than anyone else), but, at the very least, the problems of economic and cultural development can be made part of the same policy discussion.
  In Scotland they are not. Rather there are two sorts of schemer. First, the would-be global business mogul. He or she knows that "telephone numbers are the same from Glasgow as from London", and is ambitious to repeat the success of Creation's Alan McGee. He had to move to London to get his company going (though he still first saw his biggest act, Oasis, in a Glasgow club); the would-be mogul wants to makes acts come to him, in Scotland. Second, the would-be nationalist cultural hero. He or she knows that Scottish music can conquer the world, and its ambitious to rewrite the Run Rig story or, perhaps, to find a Gaelic Bob Marley, someone to make the sound of Scotland something to be reckoned with. The question is how to put these dreams together.
  This essay originally appeared in: Rutten, Paul (ed.), Music, culture and society in Europe. Part II of: European Music Office, Music in Europe. Brussels, 1996, 98-103.
  1999 © Soundscapes