The BBC National Orchestra Of Wales. Photo: BBC/Guy Levy
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Budget 2015: Why George Osborne’s tax cut for orchestras is really unfair

When is an orchestra not an orchestra? The way this policy defines it, northern brass bands and Scottish bagpipe groups will be excluded from the tax relief.

Orchestras in the UK are going to get a tax cut from April 2016. I’m sure when George Osborne first decided to include that particular pledge in today’s Budget, he was quite pleased with himself. It sounds like a sure-fire winner, doesn’t it? The classical music equivalent of knocking a penny off the price of a pint of beer. Who could possibly oppose it? Especially given that orchestras have been much affected already under this government by the cuts to funding for the arts.

But I’m afraid, George, that person is me. I am the one who is frustrated and annoyed by your apparently generous offer to find a bit of extra cash for an under-supported creative industry. Because, according to this policy, not all orchestras are equal. The tax break is likely to benefit a small number of institutions while leaving a whole lot of others – many of which are not based in London and don’t focus on traditional concert hall repertoire – still paying the full whack.

Despite the cuts (public funding for Britain’s orchestras has fallen by 14 per cent since 2009/10), the most recent stats from the Association of British Orchestras show that there is still a healthy appetite for orchestral music in the UK. Over 4.5 million people went to a performance in 2012/13 (up 16 per cent on 2009/10). Donations and sponsorship are up (by 30 per cent), and ensembles have doubled the number of performances streamed over the internet. Given this buoyancy in the sector at a difficult time, it stands to reason that a little bit of help from the Treasury could go a long way.

The mention in today’s Budget isn’t even the first we’ve heard of this tax break. It’s actually a reannouncement from last year’s Autumn Statement, in which the Chancellor declared that he would be extending to orchestras the kind of tax relief that theatre companies have been enjoying for a while now. Touring theatre productions get 25 per cent tax relief on their production costs, others 20 per cent. (This is an adaptation of a 2012 arrangement made for high-end drama, the so-called “Downton Abbey tax break”.)

Following the Autumn Statement, a consultation was launched by the Treasury. In his introduction to it, George Osborne even stated that the purpose of this new tax relief for orchestras was to encourage them to perform “across the whole of the UK”. Like a lot of things in the UK, classical music has a tendency to be very London-centric, and anything that encourages world-class ensembles to get out of the capital is welcome.

Except that the way this policy is planned will mostly likely do the opposite.

It all has to do with the way “orchestra” is defined. According to the consultation document:

To qualify, the majority of performances for which relief is being claimed must be played by a musical ensemble consisting of 14 or more performers and must include players drawn from each of the following four sections: string instruments, woodwind instruments, brass instruments and percussion instruments.

What this seems to be describing, quite explicitly, is the traditional make up of a western symphony orchestra:

You know, one that performs in big venues like the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall and looks like this:

Of course, the UK has many excellent ensembles that fit this description and they will no doubt appreciate the Chancellor’s gesture. Not all of them are based in London, by any means: the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Wales all spring to mind as examples of ensembles that would benefit from the tax relief.

But by using such a specific definition – and particularly by demanding that the group include percussion to be eligible – the policy rules out a whole range of instrumental ensembles that would surely be considered to be an “orchestra” by the casual concert-goer. It really is as arbitrary a definition as Jaffa cakes being cake, not biscuits, for VAT-related reasons. Percussion-less groups like the London Mozart Players, or period-specific ensembles like Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, or chamber groups like the Britten Sinfonia would all miss out.

And that’s not all. As the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) pointed out in its response to the consultation, there is a strong whiff of “cultural snobbery” about the way this tax relief is being planned. Brass bands – a big deal in the north of England – wouldn’t count, nor would Scottish bagpipe groups. It also explicitly excludes pop and rock ensembles (see 3.3).

The message this sends is clear: tax breaks are available, but only if you play the right kind of music on the right instruments. The sort generally associated with a middle-class, southern elite.

The ICAEW sums this up well:

We are concerned that targeting it at a particular combination of performers, playing a particular type of music in a particular environment, is unfair and may even be discriminatory.

The definitions will be almost impossible to legislate and will be unworkable and the need to try to satisfy the definitions may stifle the very creativity the relief seeks to support as orchestras adjust to make sure they meet the criteria for relief.

These objections have been bouncing around for months now – since this tax relief was originally announced, in fact. It’s almost like the Chancellor isn’t listening.

Update, 19 March 16:00:

PoliticsHome report that the government are going to amend the orchestra tax relief proposal to include brass and pipe bands.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times