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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Free Music and Beer

“I never ask to be paid for my music,” said the Frisian singer-songwriter. “I ask for beer. As long as there is a crate of beer and they compensate my travel costs, I am fine.”

I met him at a concert I played in a small pub, somewhere in Friesland. It was a joint concert: the singer-songwriter and one of my bands played, and because the singer-songwriter had a new band (he played with an accordionist and a drummer – acoustic, that is) he was lacking enough repertoire to fill half the evening so we invited my other band as a guest. An interesting evening: the singer-songwriter started off with Frisian-language ego-documentary songs, then my one band played Irish, Scottish and Bluegrass repertoire, than my other band played Frisian-language covers of well-known songs by Kylie Minogue, Tom Waits, REM and some others, and then we finished with the Irish etcetera repertoire. Explaining why precisely this repertoire at precisely this place and this moment in time with precisely this audience held together, no actually made up a fine evening, is something I will try to do another time. Although many of those present will not be aware, part of the explanation is a certain definition of “Frisianness” – or, broader, Dutch (West-European? Western?) “regionalness” or “localness”.

But back to the singer-songwriter. Not only did he tell me he sang for beer, he also told me that one of the things he liked most was the concert-party he organised every year in his neighbourhood. “Everybody who comes has to do something. I invite some fellow-musicians, but also everyone else is expected to do something: read a poem, tell a story, sing a song. And of course everybody who comes has to bring food and drink. For the rest, it is free. Now that is what music is all about. You know, trying to become famous in a small language-based community like the Frisians is senseless. Singing in Frisian is for other ends.” (The Frisian community, if such a thing exists, is indeed mainly defined by language, and is restricted to one province of the Netherlands and a couple of hundred thousand people; dependent on how you count, it sums up to maybe 600.000 understanding Frisian, 450.000 speaking it, 350.000 native speakers, or a 100.000 writing it. Not a basis for grand-scale fame.).

Now I am not going to argue whether or not it is true that “this is what music is all about”, although I must say I sympathise with the idea. Neither am I going to defend the idea that this musical partying is something extraordinary. On the contrary. I think actually things like this are done all the time, everywhere. We, the Dutch, say that the role of music is dwindling in society; that we need to foster musical life; and we do that by writing policy documents on it and targeting budgets, in the form of government grants, towards professional as well as amateur musicians, and to cooperation between them; and by arguing that we need to raise the quality standards of amateur musicianship. And although I will applaud anything that enables people to do more “musicking” in their life, I think all the policy and granting business and quality concerns are often a bit besides the real point.

I would say musicking, in all forms, is as alive as ever. Those busy with the more formalised music world tend to believe too often that the role of music in society is dependent on their capacity to make life into a problem and then offer solutions. Asking “To whose question is this solution an answer?” often baffles them, let alone asking them “To which question is this an answer?”. For the concert we played, we all earned an amount of 17 euros and 50 eurocents plus a couple of drinks. The audience paid no entrance fee but were asked to give voluntary what they thought was justified. No-one complained. Everybody said they would turn up next time.
Actually I think the organisation behind all this receives some government funding by the Frisian authorities. I will happily refrain from earning 17 euros and 50 eurocents if this would mean the organisation could do without this government funding, because I actually think government should stay out of simple businesses like this. It is not so hard to organise an evening of music in a bar without the government spending tax payer’s money on it.

I am not saying that government funding of music is out of the question. In some cases some music can’t do without it. I am simply saying that we should put more trust in what people can organise themselves. We should show more pride of it. And, to start with, we should not ignore it but simply be aware of it. Without wanting to install policies to expand it, raise its quality, or fund it.

A little less conversation. And a little less action, please.

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