What’s better for musicians than a new concert hall?

It’s great that people in government want to encourage cultural activities and give talented people the chance to grow and develop their skills. It’s natural that cities want to enjoy the prestige and economic growth that comes from investment in culture.

At MXF, we’re happy if politicians want to do something to help. The problem is: They don’t know what to do.

Politicians, who normally have little experience of grassroots cultural development, struggle to find ways to stimulate “culture”. They often don’t even fully understand what “culture” is, or what it could be. They sit in a concert hall, enjoy a concert, and think “this is cultural, this is nice, we should have more of this, let’s build concert halls”. They are looking at the tip of the iceberg, and then trying to find ways to make more tips of icebergs, because tips of icebergs look nice.

Voters, most of whom don’t go to concert halls anyway, say “thankyou for doing something for our city”. But of course… they wouldn’t say that if they could see how much it costs, how big the subsidy is, or how little benefit it actually brings to the economy. The politicians don’t even calculate the economic benefits before announcing the concert hall, because when you’re spending other people’s money it’s easy to forget about the return on investment.

At this point, I have to declare that I am myself a politician. After many years making grassroots cultural events in Vilnius without any help from the government, I was elected to the City Council by the people who came to my events. I promised to make culture and nightlife a priority, and my reputation in that area is so strong that people call me the “Night Mayor”. Some people would prefer to call me the “nightmare”, because I have a habit of pointing out their mistakes in the areas I know so much about. I am just trying to help.

So what’s better for musicians than a new concert hall?

First of all, let’s remember where music comes from. It comes from musicians. This seems obvious, but sometimes politicians think music comes from concert halls, because that’s the only part of the musical creation process they can see. It’s like thinking beer comes from bars, because you’ve never been to a brewery, and you’ve never seen hops grow.

Musicians have to learn and practice for years. Musicians need inspiration and experiences. Musicians need encouragement. And musicians, like everybody else, need money to buy food. Let’s start from these things, not from building a concert hall. Because if we don’t start from the grassroots, there can be no grass.

How can we feed the grassroots? The simple knee-jerk answer from politicians might be to throw money at music schools. It’s true that music education is very important, and although “self-taught” musicians do exist – it’s not very efficient to just leave kids alone in a room with some violins and wait ten years for an orchestra to appear. They have to be taught and encouraged.

However, learning music is more than learning how to make an instrument make a sound. Music is probably the most amazingly deep and complex artform, and there’s a big difference between sounds and music. Where do musicians learn more than theory? They learn it from experimenting with other musicians, trying new ideas, failing, rethinking, and growing as human beings. This is the part that you don’t really learn in school, and you certainly can’t learn it in a concert hall.

Now let’s remember that music is not just orchestras in concert halls. Music has a million forms.

In a small city like Vilnius, it’s possible that orchestras are not the most efficient way of developing the music economy or making the city well known throughout the world. We could make a thousand kids into classical musicians at great expense, but then what? Put them in an expensive concert hall and tell them to play old foreign music? And hope that people buy tickets for that? I am not so sure.

Let’s invest where we have the biggest potential

Vilnius, and many cities in Lithuania and across Eastern Europe, have huge potential in other forms of music, and in other forms of performance of music. For example, electronic music or small punk bands. These forms of music don’t need huge government investment or fancy concert halls. Another benefit of prioritising this kinds of music is that it can be recorded and exported relatively cheaply, compared to orchestral music. And the biggest benefit is that kids want to make this music so much that they do it without even being told. Of course, it’s also great that they make new music that defines the city where they live, rather than learning how to perform old music from other countries.

London, for example, has produced many of the world’s most popular genres of music, generating millions in revenue for the state and for the musicians who pioneer new ideas. People come from all over the world to hear London’s music, and to live in the city where it is made. I never heard anyone say that London is cool because of its orchestras, and London’s orchestras very rarely play music made in London. They normally don’t even play music made in this century.

London’s musical success comes from multiculturalism, anti-establishment attitudes, small grassroots venues, and the government’s understanding that it’s better to let musicians do their thing, not to try to understand “culture” or force it to go in one particular direction. When London’s politicians started shutting down the grimy, chaotic, unpredictable, noisy, underground music scene, the damage to the economy and to the vibrancy of the city was so obvious that they created a special task force to rescue grassroots music from certain death. They decided to feed music from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Music is universal, and new recordings are easily globally exportable

I know Vilnius is not London, but music is universal. The same rules apply to Vilnius, and the same benefits could be felt in Vilnius if the government would recognise and understand the potential of the city’s talented young people. Or, if the government doesn’t understand, they should at least allow the grassroots scene to flourish naturally, and not get in the way of progress. They don’t need to cut the grass and they don’t need to build a concert hall on it. Many people argue that it is “shameful” that Vilnius “doesn’t have a world-class concert hall”. I look at this differently. I think it is shameful that we don’t nurture our potentially world-class music producers.

As a politician, I will keep trying to tell my colleagues in power about the opportunities we have in our city, and the ways we can use music to make the city profitable and world-famous. If they don’t listen, MXF will keep working to make it happen anyway. If you’re a musician reading this – don’t give up hope. Contact us, and we’ll show you how to progress in your career, spread your music worldwide, and earn money from your talents. Maybe, if we show politicians our potential, they will start to understand us and start to help us more effectively.

Mark Adam Harold is Director of Music Export Fund and an elected City Councillor in Vilnius, Lithuania.
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