You pay the piper and we’ll call the tune

Have a look at this piece in today’s Guardian, and be sure to read the numerous comments that follow.

I find it interesting that the discussion so quickly deteriorates into an argument about market economics versus socialism. One reader extols the virtues of artistic life in Soviet Russia, another suggests that if an art form cannot succeed in the market place, it should be allowed to die or at least contract, while another suggests that if we just played more contemporary music and less Beethoven, everything would be fine (why is it always Beethoven that people like that complain about?).

Not wanting to waste my wisdom (?) on the comments page of the Guardian (unless they’re paying me!), I’ll weigh in here with a few thoughts-

  1. The idea that we must choose between a Soviet-style system of government funded and controlled arts versus a privately system one is a false one. In fact most of Europe has often had a much more enlightened, balanced approach of mixing public money, commercial investment (from record companies and tour promoters), private sponsorship, foundation and corporate sponsorship and ticket sales than is often realized. Sadly, in first the US, and more recently Britain, there has been a tendency to underfund the arts more and more at the state level. In Britain (and Canada) the problem has been that the tax structure has not been adjusted to incentivize philanthropy to help ameliorate the damage of lost state funding.
  2.  State support for the arts does not have to lead to state control of the arts. The heyday of the National Science Foundation in the USA provides a useful, and incredibly successful model. Instead of vetting funding requests through a central council or a legislature, NSF requests were always vetted via blind peer review. Decisions were made not on the potential market value of the proposed research, or the likelihood of outside co-funding, or the political popularity of the proposed research, but solely and exclusively on its SCIENTIFIC VALUE AS DETERMINED BY THE AD HOC COMMITTEE EVALUATING THAT PROPOSAL. This apparently naïve system produced the microchip, the internet, and most of the key scientific breakthroughs from World War II through the early 80s. It showed that support for the pure pursuit of excellence, truth and discovery was the most effective way of developing new economies, curing disease, understanding our world and solving problems ever invented.
  3. State subsidy of the arts is not a manifestation of the lack of economic viability of the arts, but of the economic importance of the arts. States do not invest in the arts because they are unpopular, but because they are very popular and they spur more economic activity than any other arena of public life. Study after study after study has shown that each dollar invested by the state in the arts generates more wealth and more tax revenue than in any other area, including defence, transportation, medical research, infrastructure development or any thing else.
  4. It is not true that only non-profits look for state subsidy of their activities. In fact, no company in America (or most any other country) would open a new factory or call center or warehouse unless they receive a generous array of tax breaks, incentives and free infrastructure. Airlines do no have to pay for the roads that lead to the airports. WalMart does not pay for the roads it uses to distribute its goods. Sports franchises receive hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to build stadia and then receive enormous tax breaks, and yet don’t generate, dollar for dollar, anything like the same return on investment to the community.
  5. Arts organizations suffer when they aren’t adequately subsidized not because they are not popular or valued, but because they are competing with other “entertainment” providers, like sports teams, that are incredibly generously subsidized. Cities build stadia for teams, which they give to the team ownership (or lease for $1 a year or something like that, lest the team move to another city). Teams sell tickets by the tens of thousands to their games, and when they’re not playing, they rent out their stadium at a huge profit to rock bands. Record companies sell millions of records promoted by concerts in publicly funded stadiums, and advertised on the public airwaves (think how little a broadcast has to pay for their spectrum rights in comparison to what those rights are worth). In the last 20 years the arts have been far under funded compared to commercial music, sports, television and other mass media. No wonder we are struggling. Arts don’t get subsidies because they are struggling, they struggle because they are not getting anything like the same level of subsidy as everyone else.


Orchestras that receive generous state support get better audiences, not worse ones, because they can be more focused on developing their artistic mission (which is what the audience wants) instead of developing their brand position (which is what many private financial supporters want). They can be bolder in their programming (still doing lots of Beethoven, please), and can invest in the future of the art form through educational programs that reach out to new audiences and develop new artists.

We, as nations, should be seeing more government funding not only for orchestras and opera but should also be looking at other cultural projects that could benefit society artistically and financially were they better supported. In looking at all of them, and at classical music, museums and so on, we should be focused on supporting the best art our nations can produce, not on supporting the most easily marketed, or pandering to political correctness by trying to represent every facet of society regardless of the quality of work being done in it.Philippa Ibottson writes “Even if there were sufficient resources to sustain them, the interest in classical music seems still to have dwindled badly.” What she doesn’t make clear enough is that the interest in classical music has dwindled badly because there are insufficient resources to sustain it. 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

1 comment on “You pay the piper and we’ll call the tune”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Fight the power

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *