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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Goodbye, Musicscape Groningen

A couple of years ago, when I started my PhD research, I decided it would be nice - me being an ethnomusicologist - to at least sketch the context of the persons I was interviewing for my dissertation. One of the things I wanted to outline was which opportunities they had to listen to live music. I thought such a description would be easy: just use some existing literature, some statistical data sets used in the world of culture policy.

To my surprise, I found out that actually no-one knew what was really going on in the province of Groningen - or in the city of Groningen - or in any other city in the Netherlands, for that matter. At least not in the broad sense I wanted to know it. Yes, there were figures about how the subsidized stages programmed music; but for the less- or not-at-all-subsidized stages there was only scattered and anecdotal information, if there was any information at all.

So I decided to gather the material myself.
As I was just going to use it as some contextual information, I decided to keep it plain and simple. I chose two municipalities in the province of Groningen (a small town - a village really; and the provincial capital Groningen) and for a period of two 'average' weeks (no Christmas, no holidays, no big festivals et cetera) I counted, together with some students, all the concerts on offer. I deliberately did not care about status, about artisticity, about anything; the only thing that mattered to me was that the concerts had to be public live musical events.

A nice picture emerged.I called it 'Musicscape Groningen - Live!' and made a little book of it. It is a picture that never is sketched by anyone else (apart, I must admit, from Martine van der Blij, who did exactly the same in Groningen (!) in 1993 and since then was happily and purposefully forgotten by the world of Culture and the Arts). To limit myself to the city of Groningen: 293 concerts in 2 weeks time; 70 percent charged no admission fee (the jazz scene was free  for nearly one hundred percent); 2/3 of the concerts was outside the 'formal', 'regular', 'official' (and subsidized) scene; the pop/rock sector was evidently by far the biggest sector; average prices for those classical and pop/rock concerts charging an entrance fee were in balance; et cetera.

Enough material to sketch the context of my informants.

At the same time, of course, questions started bugging me. How come that nobody knew those figures and that at the same time an enormous circuit of policy makers decided on a day-to-day basis about financing some concerts and not others? How are those decisions made if they are not based on exact empirical knowledge of the whole of musical life but on roughly 1/3 of it (an optimistic estimate)? Of course the answer is simple. For public financing, only a specific type of concerts is in the picture; and of that specific kind of concerts data áre available because they already have been publicly financed in the past; and the decision makers themselves are recruited from or advised by people who have an enormous knowledge about that already-financed-and-in-the-future-probably-again-financed segment of the musicscape; and they are also the people who determine and apply the criteria which govern the financing decisions.

It sounds like mafia; I don't mean it that way. I know the circuit, and I know many people do what they think they ought to do in an entirely honest way. But what I also know, having inside experience in this funding circuit, is that the circuit does show a fair - or maybe even unfair - amount of circular reasoning (hence my choice of the word 'circuit').

At around the same time, to my surprise, honor, and big pleasure, a colleague from Utrecht University, Philomeen Lelieveldt, called me. She said she wanted to repeat my simple research in Utrecht, a city in many ways comparable to Groningen. And she did; she even invited me for a guest lecture for her students. And what's more, two years later she repeated the research again.

Suddenly new possibilities emerged: we could compare two cities. And, for Utrecht, we could compare the findings of two different years - the study became longitudinal. Of course Groningen was waiting for a repeat of the research too, now.

Yesterday I was in Utrecht at a conference. Together with Philomeen, I presented the Groningen/Utrecht Musicscape projects to an international audience. Due to bad planning (or rather: bad execution of an already not so brilliant planning) we had little time for discussion. The whole session left me with a rather unfulfilled feeling.

Part of that feeling came about because I felt I would have liked to have some more discussion about the ways we spend our money these days on music - I feel there is a lot to say about that, and that the discussion should be more fundamental than it usually is. But another part of the feeling came about because I found myself again in a position in which I was arguing against something, rather than in favor of something. And although that seems to be a natural position for me (I often find myself in the critical corner of the room when it comes to music life) I get a bit tired of it.

So I took a decision. I say goodbye to the Musicscape project. I performed it once, and it served its goal. I wanted to sketch the musical context of the people I researched, and I did. The fact that this led to the possibility to keep track of developments in the musical soundscape of the city, or that you may compare cities by sketching musicscapes, is interesting, but not for me, I guess; let those who care about musical city life take that over - I care first and foremost about individuals, not about cities and musicscapes. So although I was tempted, I am not going to repeat the study.

The same counts for the music policy debate. I think much of formal music policies are based on the wrong sort of axiomas. But so be it; it is enough work to contribute in my work to a slight readjustment of conservatoire education. The reform of cultural policies is somebody else's business. I will keep playing my part in cultural policy as an adviser as long as I am asked to do so, but just let me be the person on the fringe of it.

Musicscape Groningen has done for me what it should have done. May it Rest in Peace.

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