Saturday, July 04, 2015

You can't write that because it will deter sponsors


My intention to leave the hot potato of the ethics of funding alone has been blown out of the water by the letter in the Guardian from composers and academics opposing BP's sponsorship of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. What role ethics should play in classical music sponsorship has been a recurring and often unpopular theme On An Overgrown Path over the years. A series of posts here in 2011 explored classical music's ethically compromised sponsors and in 2012 two posts shifted the spotlight onto BP. One of these highlighted the sponsorship by BP of Jonathan Harvey's Weltethos - the last major work of a composer I admire deeply. Another post pointed out that sponsorship for the high profile Aldeburgh World Orchestra at that year's Aldeburgh Festival - an institution I admire deeply - was linked to Sir William Castell.

As the latter post explained, Sir William Castell served on the board of BP for six years and was their senior independent director and also safety committee chairman for two of those years. In February 2012 Sir William left BP, this was a year after his re-election as a director was opposed in a shareholder revolt over the company's safety record following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster*. My post did not suggest that Aldeburgh Music should not have accepted the sponsorship; but it made constructive suggestions as to how much-needed funding of classical music could be separated from the process of sponsors buying social legitimacy. This post triggered one of the most unpleasant incidents in more than ten years of music blogging. Within hours of the post appearing, a senior music industry figure phoned me and applied extreme pressure for the post to be withdrawn, because to quote a phrase used several times "This kind of coverage will make attracting future sponsors very difficult". However I stuck by the facts in the post, which were corroborated by independent linked sources, and refused to modify or withdraw it.

I am very aware that I have criticised celebrity musicians for using activism for personal gain. But the signatories to the Guardian letter are not celebrities, and people like John Luther Adams and Paul Griffiths have nothing to gain from this sort of publicity. In fact I would suggest the profile of signatories and the singular lack of intelligent debate about the Guardian letter in the music media is very significant. There are no signatories with close links to the Royal Opera House. Or, putting it another way, professionals depending on the considerable largesse of Covent Garden - and don't forget it has close links to the BBC - are unwilling to risk their livelihood by becoming involved. For the same reason music journalists are unwilling to become involved, and instead stick to safe and distant targets such as the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow.

Norman Lebrecht's snide dismissal of John Luther Adams and his co-signatories as time-wasting idealists does them and classical music a grave disservice. Classical music's profligate business model may well mean that the art form cannot survive without financial support from ethically compromised corporations and regimes. But a wider debate is needed before this is conveniently accepted, and, if it is accepted, alternative voices counterbalancing the shrill spin of those buying social legitimacy become even more important. So bravo to those who have dared criticise that bastion of the classical music establishment, the Royal Opera House. That institution's dependency on literally toxic sponsorship from BP needs highlighting and debating; as does the control that the classical music establishment can exert over dissenting voices.

* Header photo is from the Guardian BP Oil Spill Timeline and the caption reads: "A bird covered in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill struggles to climb on to a boom in Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP". Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

2 comments:

Philip Amos said...

Bravo, Bob! And also a high accolade used by Flamenco aficionados, 'Eso es', which shows appreciation for a truly inspired step or gesture. 'That's it!' What could be more appropriate when you once again hit the nail on the noggin. Surely few understand just what courage it takes for people to stand in opposition to the powers that rule the arena of classical music, and I am at this moment thinking of the co-signatories of the Guardian letter and of you, for I have a fair idea of just what descends upon you when you 'Speak truth to power', to use the Quaker dictum.

At the heart of that phrase lies the point that doing so may well be dangerous, sometimes seriously so, and I want to make that clear. We are not just talking about a music critic being denied comps for future performances by some musical organization or other.

But I'm not a little angry this morning, so I turn now to the obverse, not to say perverse. Not for the first time, I have to think that Lebrecht has little sense of logic. His latest post, on the awarding of the Grand Prix at the Tchaikovsky Competition, finishes with a leap over a logical abyss so vast it rather takes one's breath away. Re the letter, there can be no logic at all in his post, for he takes as 'givens' things he cannot know. He is like the lawyer who fatally asks a question he doesn't already know the answer to. Most obviously, I have no reason to suppose that any of the signatories are clamouring for public support from "bad governments", in any case an apples-and-oranges analogy. Especially now, financial support for the Arts has to be wrung from governments, good or bad, and they don't give it as a way of applying the proverbial lipstick to a pig. Also, asking how the signatories run their cars or heat their houses is asking for answers Lebrecht might not like. There are ways of doing both that do not involve BP.

By giving money to Arts organizations or events, buy the right to put their names on concert halls, arenas, stadiums, etc., self-application of lipstick is precisely what corporations are doing, and generally speaking, the worse the image of the corporation, the more cosmetics. No corporation so desperately needs that lipstick than BP. The Deepwater Horizon disaster cost 11 human lives, loss of innumerable lives of marine creatures, and to this day the devastation of the coast of Louisiana and its fishing industry. But I nota bene here how BP CEO Hayward said in his public statement that he wanted his life back. In other words, he wanted what he called a "tiny" matter done with so BP could return to business as usual, the status quo ante, notwithstanding that BP was found guilty of gross negligence and reckless conduct. There's the gist of it, for doling out money to the ROH and whatever else is part of the strategy to get back to business as usual, more gross negligence and reckless conduct of which, and worse, it has a long, long history.

Accepting money from BP, and others of that ilk, is tantamount to aiding and abetting the PR strategy behind those donations. Bloggers who defend the ROH and BP are just as complicit.

Mark Berry said...

I was ticked off more than once (not, I hasten to add, by my publisher) for having dared to mention Shell's sponsorship - now, mercifully, defunct - of a South Bank Centre concert series in the introduction to a recent book. Not helpful, apparently.

Not everything is perfect in Germany, by any means (even leaving aside the disgraceful treatment of Greece). But it was heartening this evening to go to the Nationaltheater in Munich, and have a programme book 156 pages long, with several essays, interviews, extracts, photographs, the libretto, biographies, etc. Precisely one page was an advert. Public funding is a great part of the answer, whereas our government wishes to encourage 'philanthropy', so that it can concentrate on renewing Trident, etc.