Does America Also Need Cultural Health Care?

By Rob Patterson

Irony was unavoidable as the 24th annual South By Southwest Music & Media Conference and Music Festival (SXSW) took over Austin, Texas, at the same time as Congress headed into the health care vote. As a battle raged in the House and on public forums over a small step towards parity with what most all other civilized first world nations do as a matter of course — make health care affordable to all citizens — creeping socialism came to the city where I reside with a slew of government subsidized musical acts, parties, showcases and trade booths from a number of those same countries.

And what were they trying to sell to the American music industry, media and fans? Rock, alternative and popular music — one of this nation’s most powerful cultural exports for the last half century or so.

Okay. The Feds certainly aren’t going to bail out the fumbling corporate record companies like they did AIG and the banks. Nor should they. The major labels largely brought their troubles on themselves. And as a result that’s only too obvious at SXSW Music, independent record labels — classic small entrepreneurial businesses, the proverbial backbone of our economy — have flourished as the digital revolution, along with missteps and a lack of vision by the majors, has opened up the marketplace.

As SXSW grew from a regional and grassroots music gathering to the leading US confab and industry-oriented festival for rock music (and allied styles) in the mid 1990s, the major labels stepped in to sponsor the artist showcases and parties that attract to the event many thousands of record and music business professionals as well as the media (and now bloggers) that cover the music and the biz. The majors were an almost ghostly presence at SXSW 2010; the indies have now seized the day within the leading-edge music market. (Disclosure: I worked for SXSW doing sales for its 1990 and ’91 meets and part time on its professional panels through ’95.)

And aside from consumer product companies like Chevy, Levi’s, Miller beer, Pepsi, Zone nutrition bars, SoBe teas and Monster energy drinks who sponsored shows, parties and other activities to align their goods with the hip cachet of music, the largest obvious moneyed presence at SXSW was foreign: government funded, subsidized and/or supported arts councils and export initiatives from such nations as Great Britain (including specific events for Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and Liverpool), Ireland, Canada, Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and even tiny Barbados, as well as such cities as Berlin, The Hague, Liverpool and Belfast, all sponsoring parties, shows and/or trade show booths spotlighting their offerings as well as musical acts.

Yep, many of them are also nations that provide some form of universal and affordable health care for all their citizens. At last year’s SXSW, its managing director, Roland Swenson, admitted that the international efforts were also a major factor in the continuing good health of the music segment within its tripartite family of conferences and festivals (which includes film and interactive components). More than a quarter of the 1900 or so official SXSW showcase acts this year were foreign.

Sure, it’s anecdotal evidence. But talk to visiting foreign musicians and music industry people about the struggle here to even achieve minimal reform — as well as the ugliness of the rhetoric from the opposition — and they scratch their heads to try and understand how it’s even an issue. American musical artists and business people I know who have needed health care while on tour in Europe have marveled more at how they’ve quickly gotten quality treatment as visitors at minimal and even no charge.

Given the current political climate and national debt, it’s near insane to even imagine our national government giving a commercial art like popular music any tangible support (to its credit, the state of Louisiana stepped up with a SXSW party). But with all the talk about America possibly losing its competitive international economic edge, it’s a compound irony indeed that foreign nations are bringing coal to Newcastle by supporting the export of a popular art form largely born and bred in the USA. Just as with health care, there’s something amiss in this equation when one compares America to the rest of the first world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email This column previously appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010

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