In 1994 I won a competition to write a theme song for National Music Day. This was its 3rd year in the UK. It had been launched in 1992, following a campaign initiated by Tim Renton MP and Mick Jagger, based on the great success of this national annual event in France. 16 years on, it is a much loved and enjoyed date in the calendar in many other parts of the world. Yet in the UK, by the late 90s, National Music Day had vanished without trace.
In 1982, the then French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang saw his concept of a day to celebrate music and its big part in our lives, come to fruition on June 21. La Fete de la Musique was an instant success. 79% of the population took part either as spectators or musicians.
The Music Day concept quickly spun off and has been joyfully embraced in many countries throughout the world. In Africa, Brazil and Colombia, Music Day is a national holiday. It has really become an important day in those countries. Last year, more than 110 countries and 430 cities celebrated International Music Day.
In Britain, back in the day, the Minister for the Arts handed the whole endeavour over to a hastily assembled group of music industry veterans. Perhaps this is why the project got off to such a disastrous start. Music is often best left to musicians and their audiences, most of whom are deeply suspicious of the ‘music business’, perhaps with good reason.
I was lucky. I won a cash prize and had my song played on the radio for a few weeks in 1994 and 1995. The general music loving public in Britain was not so fortunate. Unless they have witnessed ‘La Fete de la Musique’ in France, they have no idea what they are missing.
On the 21st of June, music is everywhere in France. Everybody wants to take part. In schools, pupils dress up in order to go parading and performing in the street. Volunteers go into hospitals to play music and bring a little happiness to the patients. Even the prisoners have their Music Day. The bars are full of music lovers, stages are erected in villages for the musical shows, street musicians play and both professional and amateur musicians combine to make this night of the Summer Solstice a joyous event. It is a party that involves everyone. People can find events that feature music they like, and go with the whole family.
I believe not nearly enough was done to get it started here in the UK, and what was done didn’t begin to compare with the level of commitment evident in French local authorities and organisations. The year I won my prize, I was dimly aware that an effort was being made to encourage people to organise local events, but that may have been because I had a vested interested. Certainly very little actually took place near where I lived. Still we cannot just blame the organisers for it not taking off. The British, and particularly the English, are a rum lot.
This year, unaccountably on April 16, will see Ireland celebrating its first National Music Day. With their long tradition of sessions and pub music, I suspect the Irish will grasp Jack Lang’s original concept with a lot more heart than poor old England.
I don’t suppose there will ever be another official attempt to make the event a part of English lives. This is a great shame. If asked, the organisers of the 1990s effort would doubtless say something like, “We tried, but no one was really interested.” Apart from the folk clubs and societies, which struggle on valiantly playing to diminishing audiences, the very real English tradition of getting out, making music and dancing in the streets is all but dead. The kind of behaviour that France now enjoys every year could easily catch on here and do wonders for our battered community spirit.
Couldn’t we musicians and music lovers just start quietly, or even not so quietly, doing it ourselves? In a spirit of solidarity with our French cousins, all it would require is that we get out there and play music, for free, and have one hell of a party…in our thousands! I’m certainly up for that.
Meanwhile if you are interested in hearing or having my winning song, here it is.