In Britain, government subsidies for the arts have traditionally been focused on ballet, opera and theater. But now, they are giving a boost to a rather less exalted area of creativity: thrash metal bands, acid punk and nu-grunge groups.
The aim is to promote British musical talent abroad by subsidising the cost of mounting a foreign tour. The grants – which have so far totaled more than three quarters of a million dollars – have caused outrage in conservative circles and have stirred criticism from low-tax campaigners.
But the recipients have defended the subsidy.
"As a band trying to break through, the cost of touring abroad can be prohibitive," argues Dave Silver, lead singer of the heavy metal band Savage Messiah. The band is getting $25,000 of public money.
Is this sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll at the taxpayers’ expense?
“Absolutely not !” says Silver “ There are strict controls on how you can spend the money. It can only be used for things like marketing costs, tour support, venue costs, international travel and so on.”
The taxpayer will not be footing the bill for: tattoos, studs, chin spikes or other body piercing… let alone picking up the tab for wrecked hotel rooms and wild parties. Not that Silver indulges in such excesses.
“I don’t actually drink alcohol at all. I don’t smoke. I don’t take drugs. So yeah, we’re pretty well behaved, really," he says.
The bands say they need state aid because they’re losing money from illegal downloads. And the only way to make a decent living is to break through into the live touring circuit.
The government clearly believes that it’s worthwhile offering a helping hand to up and coming talent and supporting the smaller, independent record labels.
Music is an important export for Britain. The British Recorded Music Industry – a trade body – claims that one in ten of all the albums sold in the United States are by British artists; the figure for continental Europe is one in four.
None of this cuts any ice with the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a group that campaigns for lower taxes. Political director Dia Chakravarty claims that the touring subsidy is wasteful and unnecessary.
“British bands have a long history of breaking overseas markets but that’s because they had great songs to sing, not because of taxpayers’ subsidies,” she argues.
Chakravarty takes a keen personal interest in the music industry.
“I’ve actually just finished working on my first album of Bangladeshi songs but I’ve supported that by having a day job….working at the Taxpayers’ Alliance,” she says. “I’ve not taken a single penny from taxpayers.”
Oddly enough, her argument against subsidy strikes a chord with Dave Silver. The lead singer of Savage Messiah divides his time between headbanging and studying economics and he’s a real fan of the Austrian School of Economics which favors the free market. So why accept the government grant?
“We’re a band. We’re four people in the band and not everyone in the band is of the Austrian School, so what can we do?" saysSilver. And he laughs: “ Yeah in an ideal world privatize everything that moves and have no state intervention in the economy. But that’s not where we’re at now. We've got to break into overseas touring.”