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Smaller Musical Genres: Scotland

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023

I will call Pete Wishart to move the motion, and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up because the debate is too short. I will not call any Members to make speeches other than Mr Wishart and the Minister, so other Members can make interventions only.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for smaller musical genres in Scotland.

I look forward to serving under you in the Chair, Sir Mark, in this afternoon’s short but hopefully important debate. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

When I was thinking about how to open this debate, I thought I would start with something profound and interesting—perhaps that music is the sustenance and nourishment of the soul. It is the one thing we turn to when we feel happy, and when we are trying to escape or evade any feelings of melancholy. It is what we turn to when we have that special occasion or anniversary, during time with friends, and when going out in the evening. Music is absolutely everywhere, and it has a multiplicity of genres. Music is a great chronicler. It takes you back to that time in your life, that special experience, that moment. It is almost instant recall: a song comes on, and we remember exactly where we were and what we were feeling in that moment. Everybody has a favourite song, or several favourite songs.

Then I thought that as the debate is about musical genres, I could perhaps look at the sheer infinity of music available, and the multiplicity of genres everywhere around the world—at how those 12 available notes have fired human imagination, and how we have managed to sequence and organise them in so many different and profound ways to create a huge catalogue of wonderful works of artistry—songs, compositions and beautiful sounds.

After all that, I thought I would open this debate with what is probably the most profound thing that anyone has ever said about music—what Eric Morecambe said to André Previn as he grabbed his lapels: “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.” That sums it up for me: not necessarily in the right order. Music takes us where the imagination dictates and determines. Music is only semi-constructed sonorous chaos, and that is the way it should be.

I have probably bored you before, Sir Mark, by telling you about my life in music. I had 16 wonderful years in the music industry, playing keyboards with Runrig. We were lucky and had great success, but I come from what is probably the smallest of the small genres: I played in a Gaelic folk-rock band. When I started out, we were probably the only Gaelic folk-rock band in existence. We were never going to get played on commercial radio, or on Radio 1—there was not great demand for Gaelic songs about medieval clan battles on Skye, or cuddy fishing in the Minch—so it was to the specialist radio stations and programmes that we turned for some sort of support.

The support was there on Radio Scotland, in the guise of the people who championed us and backed us—people such as Iain Anderson, Tom Ferrie and Robbie Shepherd, all providing a fantastic service. That gave us a break, and an audience to build. It helped to develop and shape our career. More than anything else, it gave us hope; here were our songs being performed on Radio Scotland. The songs of this Gaelic folk-rock band—it was never going to be the trendiest band in the world—were being played, and that was so important to us. We went on to become one of the top rock bands in Scotland, selling millions of albums worldwide and sustaining a great touring career. That is what it is all about. That is what small, specialist radio programmes and stations can provide. They give opportunity, but more than anything else, they give hope.

Why this debate, and why today? Because of the simply appalling decision by the BBC and BBC Scotland to cancel “Jazz Nights”, “Pipeline” and “Classics Unwrapped”. These are indispensable specialist programmes that serve a distinct and particular audience—programmes that do not really exist anywhere else, and that the audience turn to for the services that they want, and aspire to be on.

I do not think I have ever seen anything like the overwhelmingly negative response to the decision to axe these three important programmes. It has united the whole of Scotland’s musical community in condemnation. Already, three distinct petitions exist to have the programmes restored and put in the right places, so that they continue to be a feature of BBC Scotland’s scheduling. In the last few minutes I have heard that they have collected a combined 20,997 signatures, such is the interest, and the desire to save these programmes.

The head of jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Tommy Smith, has co-ordinated an open letter, which I think he has sent to the Minister, as well as Ministers in the Scottish Government. The letter is signed by the cream of Scotland’s cultural voice—people such as Nicola Benedetti, who is responsible for the delivery of the Edinburgh festival; Sir James MacMillan, one of Scotland’s prime composers; our national Makar; Scottish Opera; and of course various luminaries from the jazz world. All have voiced their concern about what will happen if these programmes are taken off air.

The letter rightly notes that this decision comes at an extremely difficult time for all parts of the cultural and creative industries. I do not think I need say that to the Minister, because she is more than aware of the distinct challenges that everybody in the cultural sector is experiencing. The pressure on the music industry is acute. I think what that letter said is that we must do everything we can to protect the infrastructure that supports our fragile but world-leading Scottish cultural ecosystem. More than that, what comes across in the letter is passion—passion for the music that these programmes support; passion from those who assemble the programmes and put them together; and passion from the broadcasters who present them, and from the audiences who lap them up and love every minute. Nicola Benedetti from the Edinburgh festival, one of the signatories, said:

“Axing these programmes is to perform a heartbreaking disservice to the irreplaceable role they have played in the lives of musicians and music lovers across the country and all parts of society.”

She is spot on.

This chorus of disapproval underlines just how much support there is in our small nation. It is a nation that excels way beyond what might be expected, given the number of people in it, in every sphere of cultural activity—a nation that is internationally renowned, and a brand that is known. We feel this is important. There is a real sense that we in Scotland will do everything we can to defend and protect our cultural output, and ensure that we recognise the distinctive flavour of all its different parts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. A fantastic example of how Scotland’s cultural and music scene can be shared with the entire world is the Celtic Connections festival, which we are right in the middle of, and which is celebrating its 30th year. That forum has nurtured the kinds of bands and different genres that he has talked about, and has brought them to a wider audience, helping people not just in Scotland but around the world to understand and explore the whole range of music that can be connected to through such a festival.

Absolutely; my hon. Friend is quite right to mention Celtic Connections, because they do not come any better than that. I remember when it all kicked off, back in 1993. It was a few concerts in the concert hall in Glasgow. It is now at practically every venue in central Glasgow, and I think it goes on for 10 days. Of course, like my hon. Friend, I will have the great pleasure of attending a performance on Friday evening. We are all looking forward to that, although I think he will probably have better luck than me at cadging tickets for the club activities in the evening, but we will see how that all ends up. I am looking forward to it. It is a great example of how smaller, niche music is supported, although the festival not small anymore because of the support it has been given over the years.

I want to come to jazz in particular, because it is important. The cutting of “Jazz Nights” comes at a time when Scottish jazz is really doing well. Jazz has flourished in Scotland in recent years, and our emerging artists have started to gain national and international recognition. One of those, of course, is the wonderful Fergus McCreadie, who won the Scottish album of the year and was nominated for last year’s Mercury prize. I do not know if the Minister has had an opportunity to listen to his album, “Forest Floor”; I know that she will rush to stream it this evening, because it is a wonderful example of virtuosity, and it combines a number of genres and disciplines. It is a wonderful piece of work, and he is only in his 20s. I mention him because he is a great example of what “Jazz Nights” did: he got his first break from it. It supported and sustained him; it played his music, and now he is on the point of embarking on an international career. That is the type of thing it should be doing.

We should recognise that Edinburgh is the home of international festivals, particularly the jazz festival. Edinburgh is becoming increasingly renowned as a European, if not world, centre for classical music. No wonder, with facilities such as the redeveloped Usher Hall. It is a great place to watch classical music. Again, if the Minister is looking for recommendations, she should go there some day to see some of the wonderful concerts that it puts on.

My hon. Friend has strayed too far into Glasgow for my liking. Would he agree that the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, based in my Glasgow Central constituency, is a huge part of that flourishing scene, in which there is classical, jazz and pipe music, and that there is now collaboration between those three? It is key that young people hear that music on the radio, and that it reaches a wider audience, because it will not be picked up by the commercial stations. The BBC has a key role in identifying and promoting young talent, which can then go on to great success.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in her assessment and description of the wonderful work that goes on in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It has fantastic staff. I have not had an opportunity to visit for a while, so I will put that on my list now; I will definitely go and see it. John Wallace, a distinguished former leader of the conservatoire, asked what the point of cutting all these programmes is. He is right to ask. We must ensure that young artists get to hear themselves on the radio.

When we want to hear these genres of music, we naturally turn to the BBC. The BBC remains the dominant force in UK broadcasting because of its distinctive funding arrangement, and because the licence fee allows it to do things that no other operator can. We turn to it when trying to find the things that we want. Even with all the increased competition over the years, the BBC still accounts for 47% of radio consumption. That privileged position makes it especially important that BBC radio provides programmes that are distinctive and of public value. The BBC has statutory responsibilities and obligations to do so, and Ofcom is there to ensure that the BBC fulfils them. The BBC has a clear commitment to ensure that all genres of music are played, and to serve an audience beyond the mainstream. That is what the BBC is supposed to do. Instead, there has been a reduction in important public value obligations, and a loss of distinctiveness.

Ofcom is consulting, and is expected to produce its final proposals in a few months’ time, and a new operating licence comes into effect from April. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also having its mid-term review of the BBC, and of course we are all expecting the White Paper with great anticipation. The Minister and I discussed that at length when she appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee. There are lots of things going on. With all this activity and all these reviews, I plead with her not to lose sight of the prime objective of serving all audiences and ensuring that everyone has something that they can listen to. It is so tempting to play to the mainstream only—to appeal to the mass audience. We should ensure that everyone is served.

Let us look at the BBC’s obligations and responsibilities as outlined by Ofcom. It says that the BBC should ensure a

“range of programming is provided”

across all its services. Specifically on radio services, Ofcom says:

“the BBC should ensure its portfolio of stations offer the broadest variety of output and that the range of musical output on its popular radio services is broader than that of comparable providers”.

The BBC’s decision to cut jazz, classical and piping programming will vastly reduce its fulfilment of that commitment, and the way that it represents and platforms some of Scotland’s most dynamic and emerging music scenes. It is clearly a breach of what is set out in the charter and in regulation. I hope that the Minister will remind BBC Scotland of its obligations and responsibilities.

In response to the chorus of disapproval, the BBC has got in touch with all of us about the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) met the BBC last Friday, I believe, and heard some of its alternative proposals. None of what has been suggested comes close to beating it on satisfaction grounds or to making up for the loss of these programmes. The BBC seems to be proposing a series of amalgamations where it takes these programmes off-spectrum, puts them online and diverts people to other services. That is simply not good enough. It does not even start to address what is being lost.

My appeal to the BBC is to listen to people on the frontline, such as those at the meeting with my hon. Friend. They are the ones who know the genres, how they work and operate and what they require in order to survive, sustain and develop. Is there anything the Minister could do to encourage the BBC to engage positively with them? The BBC has engaged positively in the past, and I know that the people at BBC Scotland are good guys. I believe they have the best interests of our nation at heart. They want to serve these audiences, but they just need encouragement to do the right thing and make sure the services are safe.

This is a hard time to be a musician. I would have hated to be a musician during this period. I was one in the ’80s and ’90s, which were days of bounty. It is an entirely different regime now. Streaming accounts mean that musicians earn very little from their recorded work. Then there are the effects of the pandemic and a cost of living crisis. I think I saw a survey showing that over 90% of musicians are now concerned about the impact of the cost of living crisis on their ability to perform. There was a report yesterday about the loss of venues and clubs, which is restricting live performance.

We have had the impact of Brexit. Europe is practically closed to new artists with all the different paperwork that is required. This is not a good time. We do not need these difficulties to be compounded with the loss of an opportunity to be played on the radio. We may not get all the right notes in the right order, as specified by our good friend the great late Eric Morecambe, but I hope we can bring some support to the sector and encourage people to think again and look at the damage this might bring to the sector. I hope the Minister will do all she can to ensure that people are aware of the responsibilities and obligations and think again about the damage.

Just before I bring the Minister in, there is the possibility of a Division fairly shortly, but I will apply any injury time from the vote to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and I hope we are not interrupted by votes. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for calling the debate and for our exchanges last week as part of his Committee’s examination of broadcasting in Scotland. I look forward to receiving his recommendations about the best approach. He talks of sonorous chaos in his beautiful speech, and it makes me think about the behaviour of the SNP at Prime Minister’s questions every Wednesday.

I absolutely agree about the importance of music, and the hon. Gentleman spoke beautifully about that. Scotland has such a rich and vibrant cultural heritage, and it is a pleasure to speak to that. I know that that music is at the core of Scottish identity, but it is also at the core of British identity. As he was speaking, I was thinking back to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral. It was opened by a band of pipers, which was extremely moving, and then closed by a lone piper in Windsor. That sound and image was a thing of beauty that has stuck in many of our minds, and that music will be noted internationally as something that both makes up a very strong cultural identity and can move the human soul.

The Minister talks about the importance of piping both here and internationally. Is she aware that there is no back-cataloguing of piping, because it is live, meaning that the “Pipeline” programme is, in effect, the back catalogue of the nation’s piping, and that is why it is so important?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I was not aware of that. I know how strongly people feel about “Pipeline”. I suspect the BBC has been surprised by the strength of feeling expressed about not just these particular programmes but the local radio changes proposed by the organisation.

Music is an absolutely essential part of our arts and cultural sector, but it is also big business. Pre pandemic, the music sector was worth about £5.8 billion and exported music and services were worth £2.9 billion—I think we are all familiar with how many UK artists make waves internationally. As well as fuelling tens of thousands of jobs, it is a huge source of soft power on the world stage. Scotland’s music ecosystem forms a valuable component of that, having produced a wealth of internationally renowned artists, including Lewis Capaldi, Annie Lennox and Calvin Harris. It would be wrong of me not to mention the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who I believe was the first representative of the House of Commons to have appeared on “Top of the Pops”. I am also told that he has sold something in the region of a million records—I do not know whether he can verify that. I confess that I had no idea that Gaelic folk rock, while seemingly niche, has such a broad and dedicated audience. Of course, his crowning glory is being a member of MP4.

Traditional Scottish music is internationally recognised as the sound of Scotland, but it is also recognised for its richness and diversity, which spans and often blends an array of musical genres and styles. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned the burgeoning jazz scene, particularly around Edinburgh, and I agree that it is crucial that that music is preserved and remains as culturally relevant today as it has been in the past.

Radio and television are fantastic ways to celebrate culture, and the BBC has played an important role in producing audio and visual content across the UK. The Government believe it is essential that the BBC continues to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities across the entire country, including in Scotland, and I recognise that audiences value BBC Scotland’s showcasing all genres of musical talent that that nation has to offer.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire raised some profound concerns about changes to “Pipeline”, “Classics Unwrapped” and “Jazz Nights”. I am glad that the BBC is aware of the strength of feeling, and I recommend that hon. Members continue to make that strength of feeling known, because the BBC is independent of the Government and therefore makes its own decisions. Although it is influenced by the funding envelope it receives, my understanding is that a lot of the radio changes are funding neutral. They are part of the drive towards a “digital first” model for the BBC, so it is important that we in this House continue to express what we are hearing from our constituents about the services that are valued the most. They might not have the largest audiences, but they have a profound meaning in a lot of people’s lives. They serve particular pockets of culture that are important to our national identity, and I advise the hon. Member to continue to liaise with the BBC and make clear the level of feeling.

We believe it is important that the BBC continues to cultivate the partnerships that have made it such an important mechanism for making sure that local musicians can get an audience. Last year, the BBC extended its partnership with Creative Scotland to December 2024. It is also renewing its collaboration agreement with MG Alba, which I spoke to very recently, and it has been working with the Scottish Government and others to deliver “SpeakGaelic”, which is a suite of resources—including a website, podcast, and radio and TV programmes —to support learners.

However, talent must start somewhere and has to be nurtured. Musicians, particularly those practising in lesser-known genres, have to be afforded a platform so that they can excel in the music industry and reach their potential. In response to the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members, the BBC has set out some of things it is doing to support emerging musical talents, such as “BBC Introducing in Scotland” and the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award. I urge the BBC to consider how its changes will impact on its ability to deliver for audiences across our country. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned, it is a requirement of the charter, and it is important that Ofcom holds the BBC to account for its delivery in that regard.

The hon. Member raised a number of other issues in relation to the music industry, which I am very alive to. We are drawing up a strategy in our creative sector vision, which will touch on some of those issues. He raised the issue of streaming, which I know the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been looking at in great detail. The Competition and Markets Authority has looked at this issue extensively, and it is also being looked at by the Intellectual Property Office. We will be coming forward with further workstreams in the coming weeks and months.

We also do a lot of work on music export. There is always more we can do in this regard, but we work closely with the Department for International Trade on the music export growth scheme, which is helping to break new artists into other markets, including the Scottish singer-songwriter Nina Nesbitt. I will continue to work closely with DIT on these kinds of initiatives.

As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire knows, many aspects of culture are devolved, so spending on arts and culture in Scotland is mainly carried out by the Scottish Government. I know that he has taken up some of his concerns with Angus Robertson, and it is for him to decide how to allocate some of the cultural spend. It may be that he wishes to look at some of the programmes in relation to the musical genres that the hon. Member talks about. We are always keen to work collaboratively with the Scottish Government.

The creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK. As I mentioned, we are drawing up a creative sector vision, which will look at a range of ways in which we can ensure that that sector continues to thrive. That includes looking at creative clusters across the UK. Dundee is a great cluster for video gaming, when looking at the some of the skills required for the workforce and some of the issues that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire highlighted in his very good speech.

We support culture in a range of ways, including through the cultural recovery fund, which is devolved in the Scottish context. The hon. Member mentioned music venues and it has been a time of profound challenge, with the pandemic closing a number of venues, and a reluctance of audiences to go back to them. The cost of living pressures on households might make going to such venues an item of expenditure that many people feel they can cut out. We are trying to support venues, mainly through the energy support scheme, which will continue in a slightly different form from April this year.

I conclude by thanking the hon. Gentleman for raising his concerns with such passion and beauty. Music is profoundly important for us all. It serves us in many purposes and guides us as a companion through life’s journeys. It has an important heritage in Scotland that people value very much. I hope the BBC is listening to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and is alive to what hon. Members are talking about on the subject of radio cuts. I will continue to raise those matters in the regular meetings I have with the director-general.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.