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July 15, 2013 | by  | in Arts Music |
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Rattle Ya Dags

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Fergus Barrowman, the head honcho of the VUP (Victoria University Press) who has recently added a recording label, Rattle, to his flourishing entertainment empire. I was curious: what exactly was his role in this new acquisition? “I’m the manager… it’ll be managed out of the VUP as a kind of parallel project to the Victoria University Press. I’m in the process of learning the music business.” “I hope you’re a fast learner!” I impudently quip, momentarily forgetting my manners. “In principle it’s kind of the same as publishing – it’s just the system and learnt habits that are different,” he ripostes, a little frostily.

Victoria University Press is notable for publishing both heavy-hitters, à la Elizabeth Knox, Emily Perkins, and what Barrowman terms ‘minority interests’: poetry, biographies of obscure or specific interest, experimental first books. This dedication to publishing all manner of styles and mediums is, I gather, part of the company’s ethos and a source of pride to Barrowman – however, though they sell their books locally, nationally and internationally, they still require partial funding from the University in order to maintain the eclecticism they pride themselves on.

A recent addition to their oeuvre, for example, is Amy Brown’s ‘The Odour of Sanctity’, an 8000-word epic poem about candidates she believes are deserving of sainthood (including Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel fame). Is it a ruckus, imaginative and frequently ingenious text worthy of publishing? Absolutely. Is it likely to sell? Well… And therein lies the problem, and indeed the solution – under the University’s partial patronage, VUP can have it both ways. It can afford (literally and figuratively) to publish the arcane and the obscure without fearing financial turmoil.

Which isn’t to say that they’re under the beck and call of the University, or that the University has any untoward influence over them. In my first faux pas of the interview, I congratulated him on Mark and Jane’s anthology of New Zealand literature that I thought was published by VUP. “That wasn’t ours,” he said with an absolving smile, “that was the Auckland University Press.” And conversely, there are a lot of scholars from Auckland University on the VUP payroll; the University is not territorial, or disingenuous in its commitment to the artistic.

But how will this translate to Rattle records? Rattle focuses on ‘art’ music—avant-garde, Pacific, classical, jazz—that is beloved in a certain ‘musical community’ in New Zealand but more or less unknown elsewhere. I put it to Barrowman that the music on Rattle is almost exclusively of a niche interest, without the pulling power that VUP’s top authors offer; I also mention the problem of an internet culture permeated by music piracy and torrenting.

He addresses my second query by pointing out that piracy happens with books as well. “Stephanie Meyer mentioned Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter on a holiday-reading blog and immediately after that Elizabeth checked a torrenting website… 15,000 people had downloaded it.” Here, Barrowman gets philosophical: “do you think ‘oh, that’s 15,000 new readers that I wouldn’t otherwise have got?’ Or do you think ‘oh, that’s 15,000 lost sales, lost royalties of 15,000 books?’ And it’s somewhere in between, though it’s much closer to the bigger audience.” This is a luxury no doubt afforded by the VUP’s relationship with the University, and this luxury will now be afforded to music too. “Unless you want all music to be highly commercial, bigger cultural institutions—like universities—are going to have to foster music in the same way they do books.” Could this, I ponder aloud, be the future of the music industry? To function under the auspices of charitable, art-minded institutions? “It’s going to be an important part of the future – you’re always going to have blockbuster publishing and a lively indie scene, but there has to be a place for specialist recordings… and I’m very pleased that the University sees it that way.”

It seems to me that Rattle is under sound control and in safe hands, courtesy of Barrowman’s business savvy. But, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder – are cultural institutions increasing involvement in the Arts a good thing? The answer, I think, is yes – it ensures that though a piece of art may not be profitable in our current market, it is still produced purely for its cultural worth, and its indispensable cultural worth is reason enough, I think, for the fees incurred by university subsidies. The heady climate of 1992 is long gone; there will probably never be another ‘Symphony No. 3’ success-story. But, with the shift of recording labels to cultural institutions, the future for ‘art’ music is more brimming with potential that it is has ever been. I, for one, am excited for what the future holds.

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