On Resident Advisor’s Culture Recovery Fund

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{Originally Published the Nov 12,2020 on medium.com}

Author : Mathys Rennela

On October 12th 2020, Resident Advisor (RA) was awarded a Culture Recovery Fund grant of 750,000 pounds from the Arts Council England. Much of the public discussion on this event has focused on whether RA qualified as an arts organisation, and whether that grant was justified in a time where the dance music industry is severely struggling to keep itself afloat. It’d be easy to argue that the nature of RA in itself is at the heart of this line of questioning: after all, as a ticketing company (RA Tickets) which doubles as a cultural institution (which promotes ticket sales activities), the two-fold nature of RA seems to be quite opaque.

For the sake of transparency, and in order to provide some context to other cultural institutions and art organisations which might be interested in similar schemes, but also in order to share knowledge across the multiple communities which are affected by RA’s cultural activities, I have requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, documents detailing the justification and purposes of the grant obtained by the Arts Council England.

As 90% of the grant will be paid in two instalments and before the submission of any activity report form, it is likely that RA will be able, to some extent, to make use of the grant as it sees fit. The grant is attached to a certain commitment in terms of visibility of the grant, such as alerting relevant media outlets, sharing the news across social media, and then, for the duration of the grant, participating to the communication efforts of the Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Both RA and the Arts Council England have publicly claimed that RA’s significant contribution in shaping and developing electronic music represented a vital source of exposure for the dance music industry, by helping it reach a wider international audience. In light of several and long-standing complaints about RA’s apparent lack of diversity and commitment to a more inclusive editorial coverage, it is important to zoom in on what RA actually committed to.

RA was awarded a grant of 750,000 pounds, running from October 1st 2020 until March 31st 2021. In what follows, I will try to summarise what this grant entails, all while sharing information gathered on the financial activities of Resident Advisor Ltd.

RA makes light of its dire situation: 90% of its revenue is down, 20 to 50% “voluntary salary reduction” for all remaining staff (with a reduced headcount), and the directors have retained all the money in the business (including salary). Grants applications have been made in the UK, in the US and in Germany.

While the grant application claims that the funds will be used for essential business expenditure, it is important to remember that RA Ltd and RA Tickets Ltd are making rental payments to the trust owned by its directors. For example, publicly available financial statements from RA Ltd and RA Tickets Ltd mention that rental payments have been made to that trust for an amount of 100,000 pounds in 2016 and 130,000 pounds in 2017. Overall, the directors have received millions in dividends, salaries, freelance fees and rental payments between 2015 and 2018, according to financial statements submitted to Companies House.

Additionally, the grant application mentions RA editorial team’s desire to continue to work with freelance writers and content creators (photographers, filmmakers), with a particular focus on “grassroots and mid-career” artists. As evidence of their claim that RA’s coverage is essential to underground artists in the dance music industry, a South Asian artist is quoted on the impact that RA’s coverage had on their financial stability during this pandemic.

It is apparent that questions surrounding cultural significance and equity are significant factors in the attribution of this grant. While arguing that RA Ltd is a global editorial platform, the applicant makes the claim that RA is a leading platform in terms of socio-economic issues within the dance music sector, citing in particular streaming services and climate change, and more curiously, BAME representation.

On that last point, as it is now standard for grant applications, RA was asked to state its commitment to diversity. RA has diversified its work force since 2018 (bringing the “BAME & LGBTQI staff count” from 6 to 23), but it is important to point out that this only came after much outrage from their readership, especially after the publication of a racist Gottwood festival review in 2019. And while RA re-iterates a commitment to more diversity in its editorial (50% of features written by women and non-binary writers, 35% by BAME writers, gender parity and 30% BAME in podcasts), the editors have previously failed to properly report on the diversity goals they intended to achieve this summer. In particular, it is rather unclear whether RA achieved its own commitment to Black communities.

Finally, while it seems clear that this grant will play a vital role in keeping RA afloat, RA’s actual commitment to marginalised communities and dance music scenes (and how much this grant enforces this commitment), is really up for discussion. RA’s commitment to diversity is described in the grant application as the standard diversity corporate package: all staff are going and will continue to go through diversity and inclusion training, a special Diversity and Inclusion advisory board will be appointed with external expertise, possibly coming from artists and the audience. As part of the structural changes within RA’s editorial team, a senior Head of Community has been appointed with quantifiable goals in terms of coverage, such as focusing 60% of the reviews on Black music, and 60% of the films on Black artists and collectives, as well as a commitment to the development of a feature series which highlights underrepresented minorities in the electronic music scene, and their history.

Can we reasonably expect RA to fulfill this commitment? I do not rule out that possibility, but now more than ever, marginalised communities in dance music need to engage in intra-community and cross-community dialogues about their attachment to platforms which are resistant to the type of scrutiny which would make any relationship mutually beneficial.