Music is a Natural Diplomat’: US Ambassador on UK/US Songwriting Relations

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‘Music is a natural diplomat,’ says Matthew Barzun, US Ambassador to the UK. He’s a massive anglophile, having fallen in love with the New Romantic sounds of Duran Duran back in 1981 – and there’s no doubt he understands the power of music.

‘People in the US and UK are pulling music into their lives without us telling them to. They are building transatlantic links millions of times a day. I think of those as great connections as a really powerful thing,’ he goes on.

‘But we can’t take this all for granted because it doesn’t happen by accident.’

Since his posting to the UK in 2013, Barzun has actively engaged with British songwriters and musicians, co-opting them to perform gigs at his London residency for government officials, lobbyists and decision-makers.

From hosting Belle and Sebastian to Annie Lennox, Ed Sheeran to Ellie Goulding, he’s committed to entertaining those in government while bringing them closer to songwriters and the wider music industry.

We interviewed him after he delivered his keynote speech at the Music Publishers Association Annual General Meeting on 1 July about his thoughts on Intellectual Property (IP) protection and the special cultural relationship enjoyed by the UK and US.

Your love of British music is well documented. Which UK acts did you discover first?
To me, it’s 1981 and it’s Duran Duran. That’s where it all began. My whole generation was called, somewhat disparagingly, the MTV generation. I would say, ‘Guilty’. I was. And while Duran Duran made beautiful music they also had beautiful music videos that brought it to life. Then I went back to The Beatles and all that stuff.

You’re known for hosting gigs at your residence. What do the musicians make of it?
The ones who’ve said yes so far have been incredibly generous because they’re really busy and they have lots of choices but they come share their gifts with us – which is incredibly nice of them. We provide an interesting group of people who love music. If you just got a bunch of people who wanted to have a cocktail party with some music in the background, well that kills it and drives me nuts. So what I try to do is try to have a fun cocktail party and then shift – let’s listen with intent to this incredible artist, and then go back to talking.

Do these events provide a platform to discuss current music industry issues?
We may talk about IP rights – it’s something I like to discuss. These great musicians have to make a living and the people who support them need to make a living. We can’t take this all for granted because it doesn’t happen by accident. We have high standards in the United States, we have high standards in the UK, they may not be identical, but how we set those IP standards and how we try to shift them with the changes in technology, how we use cooperation with law enforcement to catch the people who are cheating and stealing – that’s all an important part of it too.

How important is it to bring government and the music industry together?
I think of the Great British mathematician John Venn who invented the Venn diagram based on two overlapping circles. I think about the music industry and the government as two overlapping circles. There are two bad outcomes: one is that those two circles pull apart and there is distrust and they are pointing fingers at each other saying they just don’t get it. The second thing to look out for is of they become too similar. If those two circles overlap you lose a lot of power. They ought to be different and they ought to be constructively engaging with each other, as they are today.

You speak of a unique cultural relationship between the UK and US – could you explain that?
Music is a natural diplomat. This is happening every day. People in the US and UK are pulling music into their lives without us telling them to. They are building transatlantic links millions of times a day. I think of those as great connections, it’s a really powerful thing.

Sometimes, when you’re listening to a UK band you know it. But other times, if you’re listening to a great American artist like Taylor Swift you might not know Imogen Heap collaborated with her to create the 1989 album.

We’ve just heard that a third of albums in the US Billboard 100 last year involved UK songwriters. Why is British music so popular in the States?
Clearly we’re good at it in the States, you’re good at it in the UK, and we make it even better by working together.

How do you think the digital music market affects songwriters, and how do you see the industry evolving?
I remember when I was ambassador to Sweden in 2009, things were in a pretty rough spot. I think we’ve already seen a lot of positive changes, but there’s always more that needs to happen. As you have technology changing rapidly, consumer preferences and convenience changing rapidly, underlying intellectual property needs to change – how do you do that? There’s no one simple answer to that because there are a lot of interconnecting issues.

Part of this is looking at the situation in the spirit of, ‘Look how far we’ve come together’. Look at the high standards we’ve set in the US and UK, look at the number of artists, the music communities and the larger economies they support. That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s happened through decades of good legal work, great artistic work, great technology, innovation, great law enforcement – all of these things have a role to play. It’s not good for us to stand still. In order to keep things going we have to constantly keep changing.

Do you have a message to PRS for Music’s 100,000+ songwriters?
Please keep doing what you’re doing because we love it and the next generation loves it too.

Courtesy of PRS