by Fergal Kinney
SHORTLY before last Christmas, Lambeth council was instructed by Whitehall to find another £18 billion of cuts in addition to the overall 50% reduction in funding it has been forced to make in the last three years. Already, Lambeth council have proposed the sale of two libraries and stopping the funding of three more libraries. Round the corner from Brixton library, one of the libraries affected by Lambeth council’s cuts, is the Brixton Academy, home last night to the annual NME Awards. The NME itself faces a future as uncertain as the public services in Lambeth, with talks currently being held by its owner Time Inc UK over making the NME a free paper to be distributed in stores such as Topshop and Urban Outfitters. Whilst the dramatic fall in circulation (23% year on year to just 13,995 in the second half of 2014) suffered by the NME mirrors the challenges faced by all print media, that the NME’s primarily young readership have endured the brunt of the coalition government’s austerity measures can’t have helped the paper’s fortunes. All of which makes even more perverse the choice of the NME in awarding their Hero of the Year, for the second year running, to Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. Last July, the Times reported in a front page scoop that Arctic Monkeys had been involved in the aggressive tax avoidance Liberty scheme, sheltering up to £1.1 million in the Channel Islands.
Though the revelations about the band’s tax affairs were reported over six months ago, the band have remained curiously and uncharacteristically silent on the topic. Even the Conservative donor and Take That frontman Gary Barlow managed a measly semi-apology to “anyone who was offended by the tax stories” – ‘offended’ and ‘stories’ adding bizarre subjectivity to what is surely quite a clear cut affair.
Pop music has long had an unfortunately illustrious relationship with tax avoidance; be it George Harrison’s sneer against the Wilson government’s economic policy, the Rolling Stones decamping from swinging London to become tax exiles in France and even the recent association with a Swiss HSBC account under the name of one David Bowie. All of the above have been, quite rightly, celebrated by the NME through the years, and nobody is calling for the NME to make total pariahs of the Arctic Monkeys, but for the NME to single out Turner as a ‘Hero of the Year’ is unsettling. More perverse still, 2014 has been a relatively quiet year for the band – rounding off an extensive world tour but releasing no new music – and it is doubtful that any furore would have existed had Turner not been given the prize.
There is an argument that the NME is a music publication, not a newspaper, and issues of politics and economics fall well away from the NME’s jurisdiction. This would hold some sway were it not for the fact that on the same night, the NME’s Villain of the Year went – quite deservedly for this writer – to Nigel Farage. Indeed, there has been much to commend in recent years when it comes to the NME’s record on giving coverage to political issues, in the last year alone giving coverage to anti-austerity campaigns, the passing of Tony Benn and the grave problems facing the live music circuit in the UK.
Amidst a backdrop of the huge international scandal of HSBC’s industrial tax avoidance endeavours, and a wider row that has engulfed many of Gary Barlow’s fellow Tory donors, for the NME to celebrate and label a ‘hero’ someone who still refuses to pay up money owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Does the NME really view the Arctic Monkeys – as ubiquitous in the paper now as the Smiths were in the 1980’s – as really that untouchable? Taxation pays for hospitals, libraries, council housing, rape crisis centres, schools – the wages of Alex Turner’s two teacher parents. And as the sun came up in Brixton this morning, and council cleaners swept away from Brixton streets the mess left by well-heeled music industry revellers, one can only hope that those who made the decision spared a thought for who really is deserved of the title ‘hero’.