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NYTimes: ‘The New Ambassadors’ or, ‘How (Foreign) Indie Artists Are Getting Money From Their Governm

NYTimes: 'The New Ambassadors' or, 'How (Foreign) Indie Artists Are Getting Money From Their Governm

For the Sunday New York Times, Jeff Leeds takes a fine look at a growing stateside phenomenon: foreign governments allocating funds for indie rockers’ travel to America. This is a trend we are quite familiar with, at the SXSW Music Festival for starters, as culture festivals in the States provide a wonderful opportunity for obscure artists to come overseas and make a name for themselves… and their countries. There are some film organizations around the globe that provide a similar service for filmmakers, on a film-by-film basis. The differences between government-funded filmmaker travel and government-funded rock tours are certainly vast, particularly in the eyes of those nations signing checks (it should come as no shock that America doesn’t really have a similar infrastructure for its own artists). So, why use indie-rockers or filmmakers as cultural ambassadors? SXSW’s Brent Grulke is quoted in the article as saying:

“It ultimately comes down to what one thinks of activity of the state on behalf of art or commerce,” said Brent Grulke, creative director of the annual Austin festival South by Southwest, which along with CMJ has emerged as a bazaar of internationally financed talent. “Clearly one of the more inexpensive things that we can produce that potentially has great financial rewards is our culture. For nations that have any kind of forethought into the future of their economies, it’s a no-brainer.”

I have to agree with Brent, and not only because I see him every day at the office. In a job that has me working with supportive foreign organizations every year, it’s frustrating for American artists not to receive similar assistance when screening their films at overseas fests. But, of course, since some of these same international organizations place mandates on homemade art in their own territories, it would probably be difficult for an independent American musician or filmmaker to break out overseas, even if they were granted funds. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, for American filmmakers to have access to government funds that would help with overseas travel? One lead singer from a popular Danish band puts it in perspective:

“People over here are shocked when we tell them you can get economical support from the government,” said [Christian] Hjelm of the Figurines. “It’s not because of the money that people know us over here. It’s because of the music. But you need that financial support to do those tours. We know we have the support, and it makes us concentrate 100 percent on the music.”

It especially helps when an entire nation’s music scene – as was the recent case with Sweden and Canada, to name two – can grab hold of the Rolling Stone or Spin headlines. All of sudden, that nation is labeled “cool.” As he examines closer for the article, Jim Leeds offers a case where Scotland got its money’s worth:

Scotland’s Arts Council, for example, commissioned an independent entrepreneur to perform a cost analysis of the money the country devoted to South by Southwest in 2005. The 45-page report concludes that Scotland got its money’s worth from the £6,000 it gave the band the Delgados and their label, Chemikal Underground, to cover travel expenses for a gig. As a result of meetings held there, one of the Delgados’ songs was used in the television show “The O.C.,” at a fee of £6,667 (about $13,000) and the band was featured in a spread in the music magazine NME that the government valued at more than £13,000.

Alas, the band broke up. But does it make sense — is it even really possible — to apply a cost-benefit analysis to the export of indie rock? It all depends on what the purpose of these programs is, beyond broad platitudes. Most export officials say they are trying to gin up acts that can achieve commercial success — steady concert ticket sales and, potentially radio airplay — without sounding like copycats of existing United States acts.

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