Monday, November 27, 2006

Music's "rock diplomacy"

An interesting new international development, the practice of "rock diplomacy," is becoming prevalent in a series of mostly European countries sending independent rock bands to the United States. By providing mostly unknown bands with grants sometimes topping $18,000 in funding for touring, recording, and other expenses, a variety of governments from Scandinavia to Australia hope to gain goodwill, cultural influence, and economic remuneration.

These bands have been offered, in some cases, large amounts of money by government arts councils so they can travel to the U.S. to promote their music. Ontario rock group Broken Social Scene and its record label, for instance, were offered $140,000 by a publicly-funded Canadian music promotion agency. The organization, called Factor, has a $12.4 million dollar endowment and has distributed money to one third of over 3,800 applicants which included sub-popular bands The Arcade Fire and Stars. The program is justified in part as a way to help define a "Canadian identity" against ubiquitous American ones. However, the project may overlook that, as Adam Shore, former signer of musical trainwreck The Brian Jonestown Massacre who now works closely with the Swedish consulate promoting bands in America, astutely points out, many of the immigrating rock groups "sound like bands we already have."

Aside from undercutting their rebel posturing, though, it is unclear what this use of occasionally large amounts of public money accomplishes. Certainly, it is good for indie music, which places a premium on the exotic, weird, and free-of-charge. But even in cases where bands are modestly successful, the benefit to their home country in the areas described above appears to be minimal at best. Could it be that the reason why many of these bands sound exactly like their ephemeral indie counterparts in America is because "American culture" is increasingly indistinguishable from the more global one shared by these bands?

In an age of increasingly mobile and cheaply made music, it is unclear why this expenditure is necessary. It seems that, if bands are good enough to generate their own buzz, the rest will follow — and taxpayers around the world will avoid paying for their airline tickets.

Tyler Bleau
DI columnist

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