The Gang of Four, or was it Five?
By Howard Snell
Reading the first few words of the statement issued by the Gang
of Four or Five, it was 'instant dayjahvoo' as the TV footie people
like to say. Nothing new under the sun, seen it all before, etc.,
my mind went back a dozen or so years to the second of the two Brass
Conferences I ran at the Royal Northern College of Music. Richard
Evans and I put forward a proposal, constitution included, for an
English Brass Band Forum. We offered to be midwives and nothing
more, for one year and no longer, to help set up an organisation
similar to the one that runs New Zealand banding so well.
All English Bands were to participate equally (if they wished),
with sensible but limited separation between sections, and all topics
of interest were to be voted on at an annual conference, with one
band, one vote. Delegates' voting would be as mandated by their
bands, with that vote openly decided, pre-conference, by the players
in their bandrooms. Our overall concern was the health of English
Banding. We offered democracy in its plainest form, with nil start-up
bureaucracy. The cost? About that of a round of drinks for each
band. After the opening presentation, which about thirteen or fourteen
bands attended, the initiative sank without trace. Interest zero.
End of story. I threw away all the paperwork and moved on to the
next thing on my to-do list.
So why are English bands and players so uninterested in the overall
health of their banding? Some players lend their loyalty to bands
for as long as it suits while others are stalwarts who work impossibly
hard to keep their ensembles afloat. I am not going to say that
the former are selfish and the latter selfless: both types need
banding to be run well so that it is there for them in their different
ways. What is out of order, however, is for either of these banding
types to grumble about pro-active entrepreneurs doing what comes
naturally to them in their turn, i.e. making off with the spoils,
if they do nothing to take matters into their own hands.
Why did Richard and I bother? Speaking just for myself, if an idea
interests me I will almost always have a go at it, unless reality,
usually in the form of my wife, intervenes too strongly. Success
comes only with good management, whether of oneself or of an organisation,
and in that regard both Richard and I had been very impressed by
the management of banding in New Zealand. I also think that banding
is immensely valuable on many levels, musical and social, and this
idea seemed one which could release more of the good in banding
and wash away something of the bad. England, still unarguably the
centre of banding, has just about the least democratic institutions
in the Western World: the individuals are great, but the institutions
are almost all dire. (Just my opinion, mind you.)
At the time of presenting this idea I got into trouble with the
British Federation for describing it as 'a dead duck'. I have to
admit that a great deal of squawking and flapping ensued so there
must have been some life left in the old bird. But what has actually
happened since, in practical terms, to help bands and banders on
the ground? Have I missed something? Bands struggle, complaining
as they go, contest conditions remain poor, prize money deteriorates
… I could on.
Lest anyone thinks that banding is unique, the big wide world of
music is the same as any other business. The small cosy world of
brass band music is the same as any other music business, just with
much less money in it. And like all other areas of activity the
distinction between amateur and professional is meaningless. If
it moves someone has to pay. The person who does their own thing
for satisfaction and no financial reward makes the choice freely,
but has still got to pay the bus fare. He/she has therefore chosen
to subsidise their activity. (In this regard bands are in fact the
major sponsors of banding events, and should have the biggest banners
above contest and concert stages.) The professional has made the
reverse choice, to work only for money: someone else pays.
But don't worry, it is not only in banding that people are exploited.
The broadcasting organisations regularly try to shaft writers of
music with royalty conditions that are close to illegal. In the
even rougher world of pop music, artists (their word, not mine)
will routinely demand 'a part of the publishing' before performing
a song totally written by other people. In other words, 'Unless
you give me a large part of what is rightfully yours I will not
perform your song' … the do-ers and creators naturally just
want to get on with their thing. So the business people just get
on with their thing: taking as many slices as possible off the loaf
created by the former. The demand to 'stand and deliver your rights
to us because we say so and we will keep you out if you don't' is
fairly standard. The UK Government has a Communications Bill coming
before the London Parliament in which the rights of those who create
the materials to be communicated …. musicians, writers, artists
… shall I say it again? …. without whom there is nothing
to communicate ….. are almost totally ignored! What's it about
then, you might ask? Oh, the slices of the cake and the bread for
business interests and their pals the lawyer/politicians. Why should
banding be any different? Abraham Lincoln was reputed to have said
that the meek shall inherit the earth, but only after the bold have
first made off with what they want. He was obviously a realistic
man, although better known for rather more high-flown stuff!
So back to reality. In this little local difficulty the promoters
hold the high ground and have a choice of weapons. The four bands
have merely words, fickle friends and a sense of injustice. Like
Samson, they have the feeling that they are slaves at someone else's
mill. Does this latest fire have real heat or is it, once again,
like my garden bonfires, just smoke and smouldering? These pressure
groups have appeared before, to disappear just as quickly after
a couple of meetings.
Has the group tried to enlist the Federation's help? And failed?
Perhaps the Fed would like to be asked to help? Or are they part
of the problem? I ask in the hope of enlightenment. The group definitely
needs help, because past performance suggests strongly that it will
fail, even though it has presented its case well, neatly and responsibly.
A group of six, with two more big bands, would be a force to be
reckoned with, because the banding public, fragile in numbers as
it is, once turned off would never return. The thread and the plot
would be broken, never to be mended, as the hapless Boosey and Hawkes
discovered during the eighties. But even with six bands the struggle
would be enormous, because there is no structure that relates to
banding as a whole inside which the group could negotiate. And banding
as a whole is the real issue, the key issue.
The likely result? Some small scraps will be tossed to the bands.
A few pennies on the prize money here, there, one or two trimmings
of expenses and timetables, but root and branch improvement? Nah!
The bands that made no effort will get the benefits equally with
the Four and the smiling suits will carry on slicing the bread.
Suggestions? None. I made my effort a decade or more ago. I said
'that' was 'it'. 'It' was 'it'. So …. Carry on just Contesting!
© Howard Snell 2002 [© 4BarsRest]