Mass culture demands a platform

<em>London's growth sectors</em> - Art & Music

London is one of the world's great cities of culture. It has the opera, ballet and orchestras that you would expect of such a high-profile city. Yet its reputation as a cultural centre rests on its great fashion designers, pop musicians, film-makers and novelists, as well as the very high standard of skilled technical labour that supports these artists. Popular culture is what has given London its dynamism over the past decades. Yet all of the big subsidies go to what are known collectively as "The Arts" - that is, London's opera, ballet and orchestras, none of them world-beaters. More than that, the authorities still consider that their job is to support and develop these art forms, under the pretence that "serious" art must be brought to the "deprived" masses.

Yet the culture of these same masses is ignored. Seats are subsidised at Covent Garden, but not at Stamford Bridge. Ordinary people have been priced out of the opera, and many cannot afford to attend Premiership games at leading clubs. Subsidised season tickets to London's smaller non-Premiership clubs could help them to make ends meet in a market swamped with TV money, and might also begin to overcome the Man-U obsession in our nation's playgrounds.

Popular culture brings people with money to spend to London, but little encouragement is given to this sector of the arts. As a huge row blows up over the sale of Rover and the loss of the British car- making industry, there has been no similar outcry over the sale of the last big British record company, EMI. David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead and even the crown jewels themselves, The Beatles, are now foreign-owned. If that were not bad enough, a few transnational mega-corporations have the muscle to dominate what is heard on the radio and TV and what makes it on to the shelves of the high-street shops.

What can the government do about this? Several things. The British music industry now consists of those independent labels that have not sold out to the multi-media corporations. By its nature, independent music is cutting-edge, challenging, different. Consequently commercial radio stations are reluctant to give it airtime, particularly when they are being fed a diet of pap by the major labels. Radio could be unleashed. It does not cost much to open a radio station - most US colleges have one - but getting a licence costs a fortune. There is no shortage of bandwidth for short-range stations, and provision could be made to ensure that digital radio is not kept safe for big money.

Furthermore, artists need space to work in, be that for performance or exhibition. London is a large city, and it makes no sense to concentrate such facilities in the centre. Each borough needs to open up unused spaces and turn them over to artists to run. Youth in the suburbs would be encouraged to either create or spend money on culture if it is seen to be inspired by their own experience. Young people will want to stay up late dancing and not bother with their exams, but this is to be expected. Not one of those featured in the cultural section of the Observer's recently published "Young Rich" list went to university. Young people want to have a good time, not pass exams. Shouldn't the government be prepared to spend money to ensure that they spend the good time expressing themselves rather than allowing them to piss away their future pursuing a hedonistic impulse born of boredom?

This may seem Utopian at a time when the government is no longer willing to subsidise university education, and when Jack Straw is on the verge of introducing curfews for young people. But this is not a call for a subsidised record industry. What is needed is a loosening of the reins of cultural control and a revision of the official view of what is and what is not culture. I am bound at this juncture to point out, for those of you too young or too new Labour to remember, that this is what the GLC was striving to achieve in the 1980s. It realised that the best way to support the artistic community was to spend money employing it. The GLC funded huge, multi-stage free festivals in the London parks. Why couldn't British Airways do that for a bit of promotion, instead of clogging up the skyline with a space-age Ferris wheel?

London's other great advantage is that it is a magnet to English-speaking people from all over the world. The days when it was an outpost of American popular culture have passed. Since grunge, a great divergence in musical taste has occurred - check out the difference between the US and UK pop charts. These days the music heard in clubs is more likely to come from the Continent than from across the pond. We should be welcoming young and creative people from all over who want to come to London as the first step to conquering the world using our greatest asset - the English language.

The teaching of popular arts in school, the opening of spaces to be seen and heard, an improved transport system that runs all night, a more relaxed attitude to people enjoying themselves - all these would contribute to an enlightenment in the cultural life of Londoners. Most artists are prepared to suffer for their art - but they need to eat, and they need to have the means to realise their ideas and time to find out if they are really suited for a life in the arts. London has a diverse wealth of talent: it needs a supportive environment.

12 issues for £12