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With Welsh Music Under Fire, Gruff Rhys Schools Us

With Welsh Music Under Fire, Gruff Rhys Schools Us

In Wales, a dispute over airplay royalties from the BBC extends beyond the cash, spanning issues from politics to the marginalization of a minority language. We spoke to Welsh artist Gruff Rhys (from Super Furry Animals) about the ongoing dispute -- and on Welsh culture in general.

By Halley Bondy
January 9, 2013

Only a small population of the world has ever heard Welsh-language music. Yet, an airplay royalty dispute for Wales musicians has thrust the ancient artform into the international limelight, calling into question everything from Welsh marginalization to the BBC’s cultural monopoly over UK airwaves.

Editors Update: The dispute revolves around Radio Cymru, the Welsh arm of the BBC and the sole outlet for exclusively Welsh music. The Performing Rights Society — a sort of union that mandates and collects artist royalties in the UK — cut artist airplay royalty rates on Cymru by 80 percent, prompting a strike. Right now, talks are ongoing between the units and the group representing Welsh musicians, called Eos.

(Scroll to the bottom for a statement issued to MTV Iggy by BBC’s Radio Cymru, and for corrections issued in this story).

To put a few things in context — including ‘what is Welsh-language music anyway?’ — we talked to Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, who is NOT a member of Eos, but is one of the more vocal and known Welsh musicians to come forward during the debacle.

How much does Welsh culture play into your personal identity as a musician?

Well, I grew up in what was at the time pretty much a totally Welsh speaking valley, so in the 1980s and 90s on one hand I was exposed to a thriving Welsh language rock and DIY punk scene, and Welsh language media, Radio Cymru, magazines, fanzines etc. Parallel to this I got Irish pop radio from Dublin, John Peel from London, the weekly London music papers, German techno at illegal raves etc., so it was a real mixture. Generally I rebelled from any traditional Welsh folk (harps and angelic voices) and saw John Cale as the model Welsh-speaking artist, at least musically. Welsh, however after centuries of active suppression is a minority language in most urban areas. And is spoken by only 20 percent of the population.

Tell me a little about the Welsh language and tradition. To an English speaker, what are some of its most notable characteristics, and how does the language impact its lyrics and music itself?

…It sounds completely different than English, the grammar is more like French or Spanish as is about a third of the vocabulary. It’s a Celtic language that has some heavy guttural sounds akin to Dutch or Arabic. The Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages are vaguely similar languages to Welsh — the difference being that they are Celtic languages with a Nordic influence — they managed to keep the Romans out whilst we didn’t! The closest language to Welsh is Breton, The language of Brittany – the Peninsular nation that sticks out of the North West of France. From my understanding to some it sounds like Lord Of The Rings or something. It’s true that it has a very old tradition of poetry and myths, and is one of the oldest languages spoken in Europe, yet to those who speak it today it’s just a contemporary language like any other. Obviously, with the right set of pipes it sounds magical — as do all languages coming from a human who can sing — likewise, it can sound great and expressive from an off-key angry raconteur also.

From your perspective, can you give me the rundown of the Cymru radio dispute?

On one hand it can be perceived as a banal and complicated financial dispute, but personally I think it’s deeper rooted.  It’s a really nasty time. There’s an extreme neo-liberal right wing government in London lead by David Cameron trying to push severe public service cuts (25 percent enforced on Wales). There’s a kind of State parliament in Cardiff, but it has even less power than an American state.

Wales always votes to the left of center, so in this instance there’s a real democratic deficit. …For many in this government, public broadcasting is something to be dismantled and privatized like the process that happened in the US.

The dispute started around five years ago when the Performing Rights Society who collect royalty payments (and set the rates all over the UK) downgraded the status of BBC Radio Cymru (the Welsh language public radio channel) from that of the national channel. It’s pretty much the only radio station that plays Welsh-language music, and suddenly royalties are cut by 80% and the whole music scene went into a tailspin. Only a handful of largely MOR [middle of the road] artists could make a living from the radio airplay and a few publishing companies employed a lot of people, now they obviously are facing collapse…

Most bands and artists however just relied on the Radio Cymru royalties to buy equipment, or just to fund recording more records. It’s had a terrible effect on a scene that is largely DIY and amateur in the sense that bands largely need day jobs. The only solution for these bands was to leave the Performing Rights Society, and renegotiate royalty terms directly with the BBC.

However the BBC administrators in London didn’t seem to have really have any understanding of the the body blow taken by the scene, as for the most part I imagine they are largely ignorant to its existence – as they are never exposed to these Welsh-language artists — they are geographically removed.

There was a series of strikes by musicians last year, leading up to the formation of Eos, the new organization [representing Welsh musicians]. They will not allow Radio Cymru to play their music (royalties are so low now it’s hardly of any consequence to the musicians) until the royalty payments are returned to a normal level.

Poets (a big part of the culture, and the station) have joined the strike and many are boycotting the station — the irony being that many in the station are sympathetic with the musicians but have no power over the decision, which is centralized in London. Suddenly a station that was 40 percent music is not allowed legally to play records governed by the new organization.

The musicians had to break away from the centralized royalty collection service (PRS) as the PRS were completely ignorant to their plight – the obvious solution for me is for the Welsh parliament to oversee public broadcasting in Wales, and maintain an official devolved royalty collecting agency.

I joined the strikes last year. They were facilitated by Radio Cymru, kindly agreeing not to play records by musicians who signed up for the strikes. This in turn put pressure on the BBC centrally. I’m on strike again now (I’ve asked Radio Cymru not to play my songs) until the dispute is over. For largely prosaic reasons I’m not a member of Eos, but I agree with their stand, and I will not cross their imaginary picket line in the airwaves!

Is it important to have Welsh-language radio, and outlets for Welsh music specifically?  

Very important – a basic right for any culture, but especially when it’s a culture under threat. Since the 1960s and the age of protest the language has gained many rights, but it’s a language that’s still dying in many communities. Although, it’s growing in some urban areas as a result of a rural brain-drain and more education.

If you want to kill off a language, suffocating its media from the oxygen of music goes a long way.

Watch Gruff singing in Welsh on his single “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru.”

Apparently there were well over 400 musicians and 30,000 songs affected by this. From your perspective, when we talk about Welsh-language music, what exactly is the scope of the musicians in the scene, what kind of music are we talking about?  Who is it serving?

It’s like any other country but in miniature. The scene is dominated by MOR populist and  (because of the nature of the community) often MOR political singers (kind of unique), but there’s pockets of punk rock (in the radical sense) gold.  If you delve through Welsh language music’s past you could, for example, compile a reggae, hip-hop or a whacked out psychedelic mix tape.

These artists play to a population of less than half a million – but listenership figures for Radio Cymru are high because it’s pretty much the only channel that plays the language. It has around a third of the audience of the parallel English language national channel Radio Wales, but musicians receive an airplay royalty that’s only one twentieth of the royalty rate on the Radio Wales channel.

Besides the radio Cymru dispute, do you feel like Welsh-language music (and I suppose overall culture) has been marginalized in the industry?

Until the 1990′s Welsh music was definitely marginalized – even for bands that sung in English – with honorable exceptions (Bonnie Tyler, Scritti Politti, Badfinger, for example)!

English-language pop culture in general became a world wide soft power currency after the second world war, I think that era is drawing to a close and the future seems very pluralistic. You could hold Psy as an example of that change.

However I do enjoy Anglo and American Pop culture – I grew up in that era and I enjoy writing in both English and Welsh. English is the majority language in Wales and I love being able to communicate to everyone.  But it’s a different era and I love that I can listen to insane electronic music from South Africa, Brazil, Germany and Korea just by switching on the radio.

For strictly Welsh-language acts (and there are many great ones) maybe the model act for any small European culture is someone like Sigur Ros – (Welsh has around the same amount of speakers – maybe a bit more- as Icelandic).

A band like Sigur Ros have created their own space by the sheer force of their music. They haven’t needed to sing in English, and international audiences have never been freaked out by that — they just like the music, and people in general are learning to accept and enjoy each others differences a bit more these days I think.

When contacted, BBC’s Radio Cymru issued this statement:

“We’re still engaged in discussions with EOS, the body that represents Welsh musicians, over broadcast rights to Welsh language music and our priority remains finding a sensible and sustainable solution. Negotiations are set to continue later this week.

We can keep you updated with developments, but in the meantime the Radio Cymru service will continue with an extended repertoire including a broader mix of music (popular classical and instrumental as well as English language and international music). In terms of impact, naturally our priority is to find a fair solution to protect the station’s output in the best interests of audiences, license fee payers and Welsh music.”

Important corrections were issued in this article. The Performing Rights Society, not the BBC, cut the artist royalties by 80 percent. It was also stated that Radio Cymru was the sole outlet for Welsh-language music, when the intention was not clear — Cymru is the exclusive outlet for Welsh music at the BBC. Thank you for issuing your corrections below.

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