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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]

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