Protests at orchestral concerts are becoming an increasingly familiar site for London’s concert-goers. So far, most protesters have managed to retain the sympathy of audiences by not disturbing the music itself, but most reactions have been in the middle ground between mild frustration and grudging support. The diversity of causes has been matched by the diversity of targets, with organisers, venues and artists all finding themselves in the firing line for their (usually only implicit) support of unpopular causes.
Support from the audience is clearly the primary aim of most protesters (with the exception of the more militant end of the pro-Palestinians, who seem intent on annoying everybody), yet disruption and dissent are intrinsic to the act of protest, and as these demonstrations get more civilised they seem to lose their power. Consider the protest last month against Shell at the São Paulo Symphony concert at the Festival Hall. The protesters had written a song, incorporating their cause into its lyrics, which they sang beautifully and then left the hall, to some applause from the audience, before the orchestra had even taken the stage.
Everyone seemed to win with this protest. The campaign group, Shell Out Sounds, got their message across and the sympathetic portion of the audience was able to express its support. More surreal though, was the benefit brought to both Shell and the Southbank Centre. I, and I suspect many others, hadn’t noticed all the Shell logos all over the programme, such is their ubiquity, but I’m certainly aware of their financial involvement now. And the Southbank Centre was able to have it both ways, accepting the sponsorship while also giving a platform to those who protest it. Gillian Moore, the Head of Classical Music at the Southbank Centre, even congratulated the protesters on Facebook, a surreal situation indeed.
But perhaps the real reason why the management was so sanguine about the protest was the apparent impossibility of its aim. The protesters were part of an umbrella group campaigning for the disenfranchisement of Shell from all arts organisations, particularly Tate Modern. That in itself seems unlikely, given the huge sums that are no doubt involved, although the campaign certainly has some high-profile supporters. But such a move would imply an ethics-led approach to corporate sponsorship, an idea that’s unlikely to take off any time soon.
You don’t need to be Vladimir Lenin to accept that ethics and capitalism make uneasy bedfellows. In the case of corporate sponsorship, the reasons why big companies fund arts organisations are usually quietly ignored, and for good reason. Oil companies, tobacco firms and tabloid newspapers regularly place their names in concert programmes, and there is rarely any meaningful text attached to tell us why they are doing so: image laundering is the name of the game.
The arts organisations also have very competent image management professionals on-board, and the actual relationship between an orchestra, say, and a tobacco firm that sponsors it is always seen to be at arms-length. In fact, corporate sponsors allow considerable artistic freedom, at least compared to the private benefactors that keep American musical life afloat. The São Paulo/Shell case is an interesting one though. As the campaigners have shown, Shell has a poor environmental record in Brazil – so was their sponsorship of this high-profile concert by the country’s flagship orchestra coincidental?
The reality is that corporate sponsorship is here to stay. Those taking an extremely high moral position may consider all the money that comes through it to be dirty, but for the rest of us it’s a necessary evil. Protesters are right to seek the support of audiences; it’s their views that really matter. London is blessed with a particularly diverse concert-going population, making consensus on individual causes highly unlikely. So perhaps the SBC is onto something with its, at least post facto, support of civilised demonstrations. So why not put them in the programme, and charge for them separately? If nothing else, that might at least provide an ethical income stream.