The announcement by the Arts Council NI that the band sector funding has not been renewed or has been temporarily suspended for this year, at least until the June monitoring round, may not really be as bad as it first appears.
While any cut in financial aid for the promotion of the band culture and the provision of musical instruments for young bands people is regrettable, the underlying truth is that the Arts Council NI funding strategy appears to totally discriminate or fails to adequately fund the main bulk of the marching bands sector in any way that would significantly improve it.
Whether this is a deliberate policy or just a case of marching bands underselling their significance or position within the musical arts and traditional music sector of our country is hard to determine.
We at the Londonderry Bands Forum (LBF) would prefer to deal with funded awards to groups or individual players in order to encourage young people to pursue a music career, and keep us on an equal footing with mainstream Irish traditional or classical musicians who can access money individually and learn in centres of excellence also heavily funded.
Given that the total awarded to help with the purchase of musical instruments each year is usually £200,000 this money is completely disproportionate to the numbers that participate in the band sector, some 30,000 musicians.
If you look at it simply in terms of mathematics, bands could potentially receive £5,000 less £1000 pounds for a mandatory insurance policy covering five years, however given the fact that there are 660 or so bands in NI this means that you may receive this money once every sixteen and a half years.
Also the paperwork and obstacles involved in applying for the grant are very daunting for a lot of bands. The Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín announced in her press release that she had supported the bands sector with over half a million pounds in the past three years but contrast this to the more accepted mainstream traditional, classical musicians and the Irish language or culture sector and the figures awarded to the bands, which make up the biggest sector of musicians, makes for dismal reading.
In the current list of 2015 ACNI funding if we look at the only four of the first six awards in alphabetical order we find that An Droichead, Ormeau Road, Belfast, An Gaelaras Ltd. based in Culturlann in Londonderry, Andersonstown Traditional music school in Belfast, and the Armagh Rhymers club we find that the total awarded to these four groups alone is £245,424 for this year alone.
All of these groups would have a website offering a cross community aspect but the reality is that they are almost exclusively single identity in their participants, catering for Irish Language and music associated with the Irish Culture only.
This amount is only £4,454 less than the same groups received last year. Now we only highlight these four because to go through the entire list might make a case for some form of serious discrimination against the bands, although we do not believe this to be the case.
We would highlight at this point that the DUP and Sinn Féin have shared this post almost equally over the past seven years and the same inequalities have existed in funding for all of that timeframe.
In September 2014 the Londonderry Bands Forum coordinator Derek Moore went to an Arts Council of Northern Ireland meeting in Belfast, uninvited, which was discussing an audit into the Traditional Music sector in Northern Ireland.
At this meeting he received an admission from the ACNI that marching bands and their music should be recognised as a big part of the Traditional Music sector in general and the part they play must be acknowledged.
The Arts Council agreed to send the author of the audit Mr Dermot Mc Laughlin, to Londonderry to collect information from the LBF about our needs and concerns, and also to discuss our complaints about the vast difference in funding opportunities in the different music sectors. In discussions within the LBF we have highlighted that the ACNI “Support for the Individual Artist Programme” stream of funding should be looked into in greater detail and maybe discussed with the ACNI with a view to tailoring this type of grant to suit the bands sector.
This in turn could help with developing young people from the bands in areas of music skills and training that we previously never have before. By their own admission the ACNI say very few, if any young people or more mature people from the bands sector have applied to this very competitive fund and it is unclear if any ever received funding from it, or if it would even be available to them as it is presently structured. In its current format it may not be the complete answer but the frequency that this fund can be applied for is something we feel would be of interest for us to discuss with the ACNI.
The Audit report which is to be published shortly is to be used to form a strategy for the ACNI going forward that we hope will be fairer to all bands regardless of genre. The LBF argued that the vast difference in costs of instruments between different bands made a mockery of the ACNI assumption that a Brass Band and a First Flute band could be accommodated by the same form of grant, given that one B flat flute may cost from £100 to £400 and one Bass Clarinet costs about £2000 each.
This argument was taken on board by the report’s author who, probably for the first time was able to engage with the bands representatives at this level.
Following persistent lobbying, two members James Kee and Derek Moore, from the North West cultural group made up of Bready Ulster Scots, Sollus Cultural Productions, Blue Eagle Productions, Sollus School of Highland Dance, and the LBF were offered places on an Education Committee of the ACNI to pursue an ongoing strategic approach to the promotion and teaching of the arts and music in the schools system. The North West group are working to expand and develop music, musicians and other aspects of Arts and Culture including dance and theatre through a similar format that the Irish Traditional Music and Dance sector enjoy.
This would involve the provision of facilities and tutors for young talented musicians, dancers and actors as well as opportunities for backstage and theatre production.
Although we have only been to two meetings so far it is plain to see that the cosy atmosphere that existed between funded groups within the committee before is now being challenged by us on the basis that we have no other agenda but the promotion of culture, and an equal chance for all young people.
The only organisation representing bands that are still receiving funding from ACNI is the Royal Scottish Pipe Bands Association of Northern Ireland, while other groups like the North of Ireland Bands Association, Flute, Brass, Accordion Bands Associations and Confederation of Ulster Bands bodies who represent the vast bulk of the bands receive nothing. This situation is of concern to us but not a surprise, given that the RSPBNI seem to distance themselves from the overall bands movement in Northern Ireland at any ACNI meetings we have attended so far.
The lack of contact between the ACNI and the people from the various groups or associations who represent the bulk of the bands community is very limited and not solely the fault of the ACNI alone and we are trying to persuade the bands governing bodies to engage with the ACNI to improve this situation, and we will be encouraging these groups to lobby on behalf of their respective genres of bands.
Closer to home for the Londonderry Bands Forum, and of immediate concern has been the lack of coordination of our own local “Legacy Fund “which was set up in 2014 to continue with the excellent work that had been done during the UK City of Culture Year. This fund which is jointly administered by the senior representatives of the city council and the Arts Council was supposed to channel £900,000 over 3 years to projects that would form a lasting cultural legacy for the city. The fund however has spent £610,000 in the first 14 months and as far as the Londonderry Bands Forum is concerned not too many of the funded projects would lead us to believe that much of a cultural legacy is being created by the fund.
Events like the Walled City Tattoo that strongly featured members of the LBF, and in our opinion did a great deal more than any other event to promote musical and cross community integration may have to be cancelled this year due to lack of funding support.
We suggest that the powers who administer the fund have allowed projects that promote one off or limited legacy aspects to drain off a lot of the funds that would have been better spent on true legacy projects that involve all the community.
Our initial contact with the fund led us to submit a small project to promote the re-introduction of young bagpipe players in the Northwest to be organised and run by Alan Campbell from Kildoag Pipe Band.
It was envisaged that young pipe players from all the Pipe Bands in the city could avail of this tuition and experience. However the bulk of the project was initially turned down and it took a great deal of effort and argument by the LBF to force the project through.
We felt that this should never have been the case given some of the funded projects that had been approved, and the clear legacy for the city of Alan’s idea.
We had intended to submit bigger proposals on ideas that we had formulated for year 2 and 3 on the assumption that the fund wanted to support projects based solely on legacy aspects.
The fund however has been apparently overspent as I have mentioned, and in an attempt to salvage some form of project we have partnered up with St Columb’s Park House for an ambitious music and drama project for next year, but now fear that most money is no longer available for any substantial event.
This could mean that the LBF, one of the main groups who featured most prominently and with great courage in community engagement during the UK City of Culture year, in events like the All Ireland Fleadh and Walled City Tattoo will have received about £27,000 out of a £900,000 pot that was portrayed as for Legacy.
The recent face to face confrontation at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis with the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has prompted her to ask for further submissions of our concerns regarding the actions or inactions of the ACNI and cultural funding in general and how we feel this could be improved.
The total acceptance by the bands sector up to this time to be content with funding structure which in the eyes of the LBF is a dismissive gesture will now be challenged by us at all levels and by any means we can, this is initially to benefit our own members in the LBF but may help others by association.
The current awards for this year, by the ACNI will be studied as will the upcoming Legacy Funding decisions, and we will challenge any awards that we feel may be discriminatory against our interests or not in the interests of Legacy in our city.
We are well aware that certain groups feel that they deserve to be funded regardless of anyone else and will not be happy with our approach, but we feel that value for money and access to our particular music medium in marching bands by young people and their families and friends must be factored into future decisions.
We will do this because as we recently said “If we do not challenge decisions on our own behalf at the highest level, nothing will ever change or get done”.