Music and Politics at the European Forum on Music

By Charlotte Hathaway.
Last week I was lucky enough to attend the 4th European Forum on Music in the Swiss capital of Bern. Lucky not only to take part in an exciting international conference, but also because the weather was glorious and Bern is a beautiful city.


By Charlotte Hathaway. 


Last week I was lucky enough to attend the 4th European Forum on Music in the Swiss capital of Bern. Lucky not only to take part in an exciting international conference, but also because the weather was glorious and Bern is a beautiful city. The Trad Music Forum are not members of the European Music Council who organise the conference, but a number of Scottish organisations are (Creative Scotland, Live Music Now Scotland and the Scottish Music Centre, for example) and I believe that it is valuable for Scottish traditional music to take part in the international conversation.

The theme for this year’s forum was ‘Music and Politics’, and featured a range of speakers from the Ambassador of the European Union Mission to Switzerland, to the composer-turned-Croatian President Ivo Josipovic. Music in politics is obviously a huge topic – there were discussions on how music has shaped political events, how musicians have themselves been involved with politics (not only in the form of protest singing, but also as politicians, as activists for change, and how communal music making in itself can have political consequences), and how musical issues are represented in political debate. President Jospovic noted that it is the musician’s ability to connect with ordinary people that makes them ideal political candidate material. You only have to look to the Scottish referendum and the use of music in campaigning (see Yestival) to realise how powerful a unifier and tool for connecting people it can be. Music can be the ideal medium through which to speak to people as it can be far more accessible and emotionally evocative than complex discussions.

© Alexander Basta

A key issue that was raised during the discussions that followed was the shared responsibility between the musical world and political world. Creative Europe’s Karel Bartak noted that an important way music and politics are interacting at the moment is in copyright laws. “Laws have not been adapted to the digital era. Europe is producing quality cultural content but the money ends up in the pockets of multi-national companies who make the tools to distribute the content.” Essentially, it’s easier to get your music out there and to potentially reach new audiences, but at what cost to your ownership of the music and your ability to make money from it? Karel also noted that young people are not going to concert halls but are open to viewing 5 minute YouTube clips, which of course they don’t need to pay for. If the consumer isn’t in favour of paying for cultural content, then the provider (like Google) must pay (says Karel). Otherwise the artist is providing content for nothing. This could become complex, because how do you define what should be paid for? How does this affect everything else and the way consumers use the internet?

The idea was then raised that governments need to do more to support music and musicians, like the Swiss government which has recently voted in an act to provide universal music education in schools. Swiss Parliamentarian Christine Egerszegi said that musicians must engage themselves with politics. “Compare the situation with sport – everyone must do it because you must be healthy. Musicians must fight for music and declare it for the people. Politics isn’t just taxes and health insurance, but how you feel every day. Everyone must have access to culture and participate – this is politics.” The rights of musicians to be paid is therefore a political issue. Swiss singer songwriter, satirist, and comedian Lisa Catena noted, however, that what artists need is a functioning market. She suggested that musicians also need to be business people because they have to be interested in their audience to expect to make a living out of it. Artist-driven activities are therefore “cultural” and audience-driven is “business”. Christine argued that the government should do everything it can to support talent, giving artists the opportunity to have their voices heard. It shouldn’t be about money. The problem then comes as to how you decide who should be government supported. Take a look at the overwhelming amount of competition for artists’ bursaries in Scotland and you’ll realise that not everyone is going to be the lucky recipient of government support. Lisa said that musicians should be creative entrepreneurs: it’s not about selling out, it’s about finding your niche and addressing an audience.

© Alexander Basta

This is something that the traditional music scene is very familiar with already. Because it is somewhat of a niche genre (although I am keen for the music I am involved with to move out of this niche), artists are used to the idea of also being teachers (which is a natural idea in a tradition born in community music), and business-people where recording comes not from labels but from self-production. Trad music is in a fortunate position to have some specialist funds dedicated to it and a fair amount of government support – does it have enough (especially compared to other sectors)? Is it dangerous to rely on that when funding is unpredictable? Should we be more entrepreneurial in our approach to it or should we be more political in our demand for more support?

The intention of these panels and talks was to highlight the different areas that music and politics interact, and what the European Music Council (and individuals) can do to influence the things that affect musical concerns. I hope that Scottish traditional music’s voice is as valid in the discussion as other genres, and I hope that people working in the scene will continue to look for international partnerships (because that’s where all the fun starts). It was a busy conference with more practical sessions like a speed-dating style session on finding European project partners and working groups on developing a European Agenda for Music. In other news, Creative Scotland’s Ian Smith was elected President of the European Music Council Board which is excellent news for Scottish music.

Charlotte Hathaway works for the Traditional Music Forum and members Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin and Unroofed Records. Opinions are her own. The visit to the EFM was funded by Creative Scotland’s Professional Development Fund.