Love Supreme Festival reached its fifth birthday this year. An additional Jazz In The Round stage, curated by Jez Nelson, a strong representation from a new generation of British artists, the continuing contribution from the local Brighton scene to the Bandstand and Arena stages, and the enduring smoother-than-silk vitality of the immaculately mustachioed George Benson, all gave reason to celebrate. More than this, from the organiser’s point of view, was the fact that the event finally managed to sell out to capacity for the first time. The green field festival exists in an extremely insecure financial situation; the massive fixed costs involved in creating a medium sized township in an empty field for the weekend, to say nothing of the necessary licences and insurance and the artist fees – headline acts generate up to 80% of sales and consequently can attempt to hoover up 80% of the available budget – mean that anything less than a 100% sell-out will typically leave the backers out of pocket. So attaining the magic sell-out crowd is a real landmark in the festival’s survival – let’s hope that this gives them the confidence to continue to grow, and maybe even sort out the sound quality in the Big Top by next year.
Love Supreme, as many have noted, is a commercial festival – it is backed by investors but it’s primary revenue source is the ticket money collected at the box office. Punters are lured in by the recognisable promise of the big name headliners, but once inside the gates are likely to find themselves exposed to all kinds of sounds that you won’t hear on commercial radio. Jazz, as we’ve noted before, is a broader church than ever in the early years of the 21st century, and it would be a real challenge to represent all its different incarnations equally – the Love Supreme bookers tend to favour those acts that make the sort of muscular, extrovert statements that translate well on a big outdoor stage or a crowded tent, or are associated with the latest developments to have caught the attention of the audience or the attendant media (which drives which being one of the perennial questions of the art versus commerce debate) or are young and photogenic enough to generate a certain amount of free coverage, or all three. Twas ever thus – it’s the realities of creating art in a commercial arena, and while no-one should underestimate the amazing levels of skill and commitment on display from all acts at the festival, there’s no doubt that other equally talented acts won’t get booked because they don’t fit the criteria, which are at least in part set by the implacable forces of commercial necessity.
Cue the entry to this discussion of the noble forces of public arts funding, intended to address this specific imbalance and provide a haven for those deserving artistic vessels which might otherwise founder upon the stormy waters of the music biz. Arts Council England provide a sterling service supporting the grassroots of jazz in the UK. Our own New Generation Jazz project relies upon ACE support to bring its roster of young artists to play sell-out shows; the South Coast Jazz Festival uses it to provide the necessary financial stability for its successful, ever-growing annual feast of talent; many jazz artists would find touring impossible without its support, a fact confirmed to me by one of our most prolifically gigging and best-loved musicians – the combination of the ever-rising cost of hotel rooms and the reduction in CD sales at gigs makes unsupported touring harder than ever. Despite ACE having recently rejected a bid by the Small Venues Trust, the demise of Jazz Services as a dedicated portfolio organisation to support jazz artists, and the massive 85% of available funding that allegedly goes into opera and classical, there’s no doubt that the jazz landscape in the UK would be a far emptier place without their essential financial support. How would this landscape look if jazz were to exist in a purely capitalist environment where the viability of any artistic project would be wholly dependant on its commercial potential?
Artistic funding is an arm of the state, distributing revenues collected by government for the purposes of collective good as determined by the state’s elected or appointed functionaries. The more rabid form of free-marketeers and their Brexiteer colleagues have long argued that state intervention constitutes a distortion of the natural workings of society – proponents of the system, looking with a shudder of Nordic rectitude at those societies where market forces are allowed to run unchecked to the invariable benefit of the few at the expense of the many, support it for exactly that reason. The benefits of state support for the arts are a cornerstone of liberal opinion.
Jazz, however, as we have noted before, has historically been a commercial music form that arose in the hotbed of free market capitalism that was 20th century America. Its transition to a publicly supported art form has been relatively recent, and the change in status has effected changes in the nature of the art itself. In the light of this, let’s examine a statement by man of the moment Shabaka Hutchings, whose reed work featured in no less than three different acts over the Love Supreme weekend. “One of the traits in this generation of musicians that you might associate with the word jazz is that they see what they do as connected to the audience. And weirdly, you might see that as connected to the demise of the arts funding culture. ….that culture is very different than it was 15 years ago, before the Tories got their claws into it. At least as I see it, for a musician to survive you have to be intimately connected to the people that you’re playing for. You are actually linked on a survival level. It was a lot easier before, and I feel like that distorted things, because it meant that you could exist without considering who you’re playing for. All you’re connected to is the funding, and the ideology that says that art can be like that…. maybe that’s the thing that connects all of the music that similar artists of our generation play – we are trying to play music for the people who we are a part of. We’re not trying to to make music based on hierarchy, created in an institution, or in our abstract theory books”
The concept of being obliged to play music that is intimately connected with one’s audience will, of course, be very familiar to those players who augment their livings by playing in bars, clubs and social functions. Like the be-boppers of the 1940s, who made there livings playing in dance bands, many players turn to jazz as the space where they can play for themselves and each other and escape for a while from the pressures of commercial reality. If music simply follows the money, the results are entirely predictable, and paradoxically can ultimately become a complete turn-off for audiences. Jazz musicians have to balance the needs of attracting and retaining an audience, making a living, and creating valid artistic statements – the resulting tensions are part of the gig. Funding can create and sustain audiences but can it also drive a wedge between the artists and the public? There are many sides to this ongoing debate – I’ve heard from a Portuguese promoter that UK artists are under-represented in Europe because the availability of funding in the UK makes it unnecessary for them to reach out and build audiences abroad. For the moment, the availability of public funding plays an essential part in supporting the UK scene, but a profitable partnership with the commercial realm is equally important, and may become more so as the complications of Brexit continue on their unforeseeable pathway.