Geoff Johnson: Music fund should include education in schools

The new $7.5-million B.C. government music fund has, as its stated goals, to find emerging artists, foster up-and-coming talent and support live music events in the province.

So far, so good. The music business in B.C. needs all the help it can get; it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. Promoting performing arts and live music is a risky business, whether in a stadium, a small restaurant or a pub.

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According to a statement from Creative B.C., the province is home to about 285 music companies, 160 recording studios and 200 music festivals.

Beyond that, there are hundreds of small hospitality-related businesses that support live music because they believe music enhances any experience.

The music industry brings in around $400 million to the provincial economy every year. That, according to those who know the industry, is a conservative estimate.

Profitability in the music business and the advantages to the economy are not always balanced toward the artists producing the music.

Most deals between big-time headline artists and promoters are supposed (and that is the key word) to guarantee a minimum amount the artist will take home. Then there are the legions of non-headliners “playing for pizza” or “the door” at venues across the province.

As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, perhaps a little harshly, about the world of big-time music promotion: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

But here is my concern, as an educator, about the allocation of that $7.5 million from government to the industry — whether or not the music business needs taxpayer dollars is moot, but it is music education in the province’s public schools that, without any question, needs at least the same kind of support afforded science and technology.

Music education in some B.C. schools is still an important part of education. Two Vancouver Island schools were recognized recently for their commitment to music education.

Each year, the CBC holds a Canadian Music Class Challenge, and last year École Arbutus Global Middle School in Saanich won the junior high instrumental category with their rendition of the CBC Olympic Games theme.

Playing the same music, Campus View Elementary in Victoria won in the elementary instrumental category.

In order to graduate in B.C., a student must earn a minimum of four credits in the fine arts or applied skills subject areas or both. Fine arts can include visual arts, drama or dance, and music.

So music education is part of the B.C. curriculum — sort of.

The not-so-good news is that there is often a marked difference between what music programs urban and rural schools are able to offer.

Small rural schools, for example, have challenges maintaining consistency in their music programs because they have difficulty keeping music teachers. Qualified or specialist music teachers often tend to seek greener fields where they can teach music full time, after a year or two in a rural school teaching some music, but mostly other subjects.

None of this is to demean the government decision to allocate the $7.5-million grant essentially to the industry. But an industry with 285 music companies and 160 recording studios will quickly absorb that amount.

Working musicians will argue on behalf of a subsidy to support the myriad small restaurant and bar owners who are committed to supporting live music because they believe it enhances what the hospitality industry offers, and who pay their weekly duet and trio musician whether the house produced a profit that night or was nearly empty.

But at the foundation of all this, it is support for music education in our schools that, beyond anything else, will guarantee the future growth of the music arts in B.C.

It is in music classes where teachers find emerging artists, and foster up-and-coming talent. It is in music classes where an understanding of the role music plays, and the value music provides in our lives, will take seed.

To do those things, music education needs fully trained music teachers, instruments for kids to learn on, school music rooms set up specifically to accommodate full-volume practice for both individuals and for full school bands, as well as basic recording equipment so kids can hear what they sound like to an audience.

A second $7.5 million allocated just to music in the schools would go a long way toward accomplishing that.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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