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hours of the post appearing, a senior music industry figure phoned me and applied extreme pressure for the post to be withdrawn, because to quote a phrase used several times "This kind of coverage will make attracting future sponsors very difficult".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.