A few days ago a former lecturer of mine, where I studied for my undergraduate degree in creative music technology, posted an article on Facebook that cites the involvement of the town’s university with international musical and media achievements. He lamented on this that such worthy achievements were being met with the shrinking of the 13 teaching staff by five, and wider programme restructuring. The result of budget cuts that have their origin in the manufactured conditions of austerity. The achievements the list cites include being the venue of Led Zeppelin’s first gig, as well as various songwriters, composers, and technical innovators who studied there. But I’d say that such an ideologically motivated decimation of a facility of higher education in the arts would be a disgrace even if no one from the programmes had become famous enough to be compiled on a list.

Very few people in the arts and humanities, and this is increasingly the case for music, get to earn a living from the activity they studied. Those that do fall into two categories: those with near-psychotic, monastic dedication (though the results for this are patchy) and the lucky (who may also be from the former camp). Mostly people make a living doing something else (something that hardly needs stating on a website run by enthusiastic volunteers from across the arts and humanities). But the hack comedian’s trope of mocking the economic future afforded by their personal arts education (whilst partaking in an arts career) is picked up by so many on their way to further indebtedness with an MBA. The inability to cast off this narrative has been the real failure of arts and humanities education, with some of its roots in programme marketing but really in the mythos of capitalism.

Macon Holt

Macon Holt is an academic cultural theorist, writer and musician. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop on pop music as a utopian political project.

When we point to the validity of activity through the most famous alumni there is a frisson at the possibility they represent. But this comes at the expense of the innumerate other less-sexy examples that make up the majority of graduates. I’m trying not to call for a nostalgic laudation of the masses, but even those on the political left often seem stuck with an Atlas Shrugged-like conception of humanity and ability. There are some people from my program who have become DJs and producers, but their work is often in music that won’t be featured on such a general audience list. So many others, though, have gone on to become educators, therapists, organisers, and people. People interacting in the world everyday. People who, for whatever reason (one of which is at least some amount of hubris), ended up accessing higher education through the creative application of music technology and were thus able to be exposed to the ideas and tools found there. This is not the only way to get these skills, just one that works for a lot of (but too few) people.

I spent the last couple of days failing, amongst other things, to try to put together a blog post about Tidal, Jay Z’s new music streaming service. Jay Z hopes that both he and we (though mostly he) will stop paying Sean Parker (a totem for apps like Spotify) and pay him instead. Also artists might get a slightly larger cut, but this is complicated. But aside from the King Cnut-esque folly that Tidal represents, I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say about it. Because “wealthy man finds new way to make money” has built-in limits to how interesting it can be to those not interested in the ranking of the large bank balances of others. ‘But Jay Z’s is an up-by-his-bootstraps story’, some may protest, which is remarkable, yes, but it has an implicit underside. For that to be remarkable, the poverty that Jay Z came from must continue to exist. This is an extreme example, but this logic is at work in every laudation of the noteworthy, however deserving. This is also why when you hold these examples up to save a programme, or community centre, or theatre, you will always be at least one example short of winning the argument. They change nothing.

I could go on to argue (or perhaps, with the wealth of literature available at this point, describe would be the more accurate term) the political underpinning of this shift. The privatisation of education, the individualization of debt, etc. But that has already been written. So with that a given, an important thing to do is change that impulse that individualises success. And I think some of this can come from breaking down what success means in terms of education. In my previous post here I talked about Father John Misty’s song “Bored in The U.S.A”, which features the line, “They gave me a useless education”. I take this as a satire on the aforementioned hack comedian’s gag. The same “they” that deem an education useless also provide it. Many of the “they” received such a ‘useless education’ themselves and now want it to be removed for all but the very privileged few. It makes you wonder if they actually think it’s so useless. But if we suppose it is, perhaps this is a sort ‘uselessness’ we should revel in.

To end with an example, I am radically under-qualified to design a weapons system, write an international law that allows such a system to be sold, or design tax structures that allow for the financing of the system, which would turn a profit at the expense of, say, hospitals. What I can do is work with a room full of kids making noises with a computer, and for that moment reshape the world.


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