Sometimes they drink it spiked with vodka. But on a recent trip through Idaho, on a desolate road outside Boise, one band member was drinking it straight from the can.
Catching a glimpse through the van’s window, a passing trucker saw the shiny can and mistook it, somehow, for a gun. Within minutes, the police were ordering the band out of the vehicle. “We had to get down on our knees on the highway,” Christian Hjelm, the lead singer and guitarist, said, and they then found themselves handcuffed and sitting in the back of a squad car.
It might be a typical war story for a rumpled rock band on the road. But the Figurines, who played at the recent CMJ Music Marathon in New York, aren’t just a rumpled rock band on the road. They’re part of an unusual class of cultural ambassadors and trade envoys, hand-picked by their government to represent their nation to the rest of the world.
The Figurines, who received more than $18,000 in financing through Denmark’s export agency this year, are just one of hundreds of bands that occupy this odd dual status: on the one hand, road-weary independent musicians; on the other, appointed emissaries of their homelands.
In a little-understood chapter in the history of cultural exchange, nations from around the world have been choosing musical outfits and sending them to the biggest music markets abroad in hopes of raising their international profile and generating export sales. In a way, it makes perfect sense.
In a global economy that is blurring geographic borders, more and more nations view intellectual property — films, software and the like — as valuable commodities, easily transferred exports that can sell in previously inaccessible markets. That includes intellectual property like pop-punk or death metal. Digitally distributed, music is easier to export than ever. And the artists, many of whom have long dreamed of taking a shot at the Billboard chart, are mostly happy to play along.
But even viewed as a product, rock ’n’ roll might not seem ready-made for government promotion. The diplomatic corps and, say, college radio darlings don’t have much experience speaking each other’s languages. (In America, where acts like Green Day and Pearl Jam have been racking up radio hits with songs that attack the administration, musicians aren’t accustomed to speaking to the government at all.) And the efforts don’t lend themselves to easy analysis. What white-paper policy report could quantify the value of an upbeat review in Spin? And how reliable is an export that might have a taste for trashing hotel rooms and wearing perilously tight pants?
Can would-be music stars really be put to this new use?
“It ultimately comes down to what one thinks of activity of the state on behalf of art or commerce,” said Brent Grulke, creative director of the annual Austin festival South by Southwest, which along with CMJ has emerged as a bazaar of internationally financed talent. “Clearly one of the more inexpensive things that we can produce that potentially has great financial rewards is our culture. For nations that have any kind of forethought into the future of their economies, it’s a no-brainer.”
One way or another, between the musicians who are representing their countries abroad and the government officials who are seeking out and signing new talent, the international trend has forced all parties to invent new rules, and new roles, in situations that none of them could have anticipated.
IN 2002 the Hives, an immaculately tailored garage-rock band from Fagersta, Sweden, seized the spotlight with the American release of the album “Veni Vidi Vicious,” and before long Swedish acts like Division of Laura Lee and Sahara Hotnights were having their moment too. They got the gigs, but to a large degree their home country got the credit: “Sweden Rocks,” declared Rolling Stone.
The Hives’ second major United States release flopped. But by then talent scouts had been booking trans-Pacific flights to see rock acts like the Datsuns and the D4 in New Zealand, which some described as “the new Sweden.” The year 2004 unquestionably belonged to Canada, which bred indie-rock bands like the Arcade Fire, Stars and Broken Social Scene just in time to draw praise from the emerging music blogosphere.
From outward appearances, it might seem that the cultural compass just spins at random from one country to the next. But more and more the “next big thing” title may reflect the deliberate efforts of government trade and culture officials, who routinely attend American music festivals, organize junkets for critics and record executives, and arrange coaching and subsidies for their homegrown acts. In Canada, which has one of the most established programs, artists can apply for an array of grants or loans to finance up to 75 percent of recording costs, advertising, marketing or touring expenses.
Heather Ostertag, chief executive of Factor, the public-private Canadian agency that oversees music funds, said it controls a budget of roughly $12.4 million and handed out awards to one-third or more of the 3,800 applicants who sought support last year. Broken Social Scene and its label, for example, have been offered more than $140,000, she said. The Arcade Fire and Stars were also beneficiaries.
Why does the government of the world’s second biggest land mass bother? “The government recognizes the importance of a cultural spend for a cultural identity,” Ms. Ostertag said. “I think that we struggle as Canadians for our own Canadian identity. American dominance is so prevalent wherever you go.” Part of maintaining the nation’s place on the cultural map, she added, “is happening through identifying ourselves through the success of other Canadians.”
In Australia state and federal governments offer a series of programs. The country’s main export program offers to cover up to 50 percent of an act’s costs above the equivalent of $11,600. Over the last year trade officials provided roughly $1.8 million in grants to 80 recipients aimed at exporting their music. Past recipients included the Wiggles, the phenomenally popular music group catering to children.
New Zealand has for several years helped cover recording costs, and recently created subsidies, overseen by music and broadcasting professionals, for artists and labels aiming to sell overseas. One recent grant went to Michael Tucker, who wanted to open a United States office for his independent label and marketing company, Loop Recordings. A fast-talking former hairdresser and fashion photographer, Mr. Tucker recently oversaw a show by one of his bands, the funk-reggae outfit the Black Seeds, at a swanky Los Angeles lounge. But not long ago he found himself at a government function hobnobbing with his government’s top ministers. “I can shave,” he laughed. “I can play that game.”
To many artists, even to many bands involved in these programs, federal financing may not initially seem very rock ’n’ roll. After the Hives took Sweden’s money, the band’s lead singer, Pelle Almqvist, fumed that tax-financed rock was “like working for the Man.” “Plus,” he added, “we were” — well, they weren’t very good — “at filling in all the paperwork.”
Samuel Scott, a singer and guitarist in a New Zealand rock band called the Phoenix Foundation, sympathizes. “I think that image, that rock ’n’ roll is a thing of rebellion and that you should be flipping the bird to the government, is prevalent,” he said. “In most parts of the world it’s a situation where you might give up for the sake of not starving to death. In New Zealand I think you have a bit longer to look at it before you have to make that choice.”
And in America, it seems, you have to look at it longest of all. “People over here are shocked when we tell them you can get economical support from the government,” said Mr. Hjelm of the Figurines. “It’s not because of the money that people know us over here. It’s because of the music. But you need that financial support to do those tours. We know we have the support, and it makes us concentrate 100 percent on the music.”
Andrew Wilson, the lead singer of the New Zealand art-rock band Die! Die! Die!, said that when he and his chums received approval for their first grant — about $3,300 in United States dollars for studio time and a producer to help record a demo single — they used the money to buy a van instead. (An acquaintance recorded their single free.) That allowed them to tour, and eventually to scrape together enough money to buy airfare to the United States, where they spent three weeks playing house parties and crashing on strangers’ floors.
The band later applied for, and received, more financing — about $4,000 — to return to America for another sweep. That tour included a stop in Austin for South by Southwest, several East Coast dates and a visit to Oakland, Calif., where Mr. Wilson smashed his white Stratocaster guitar and leapt onto a fan at a club called Grandma’s — a moment in cultural diplomacy now immortalized on YouTube.
That led to another trip, which in August brought the band back to New York, where Mr. Wilson said he was mugged at gunpoint one night by two young men on bicycles. “They stole my iPod and all my money,” he recalled. “It was totally like my cliché idea of America.”
Good times. But Mr. Wilson, whose trips to the United States helped find the band find a manager and a contract with the independent label S.A.F. Records, says he thinks that while the national subsidies may have strengthened New Zealand’s music industry, they have also bred complacency. “Bands are a lot more reliant on grants than they should be,” he said.
That perception is something these government agencies work hard to avoid. Scotland’s Arts Council, for example, commissioned an independent entrepreneur to perform a cost analysis of the money the country devoted to South by Southwest in 2005. The 45-page report concludes that Scotland got its money’s worth from the £6,000 it gave the band the Delgados and their label, Chemikal Underground, to cover travel expenses for a gig. As a result of meetings held there, one of the Delgados’ songs was used in the television show “The O.C.,” at a fee of £6,667 (about $13,000) and the band was featured in a spread in the music magazine NME that the government valued at more than £13,000.
Alas, the band broke up. But does it make sense — is it even really possible — to apply a cost-benefit analysis to the export of indie rock? It all depends on what the purpose of these programs is, beyond broad platitudes. Most export officials say they are trying to gin up acts that can achieve commercial success — steady concert ticket sales and, potentially radio airplay — without sounding like copycats of existing United States acts. “We don’t want to bring sand to the Arabs,” said Gary Fortune, a former executive at BMG who now heads New Zealand’s fledgling export program.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Adam Shore, who runs the Vice Recordings label and magazine, and who recently promoted an event at CMJ with the Norwegian consulate, says certain Scandinavian countries always “wind up sending over bands that sound like bands we already have.”
“Is the endgame selling a lot of records in America,” he asked, “or is the endgame exposing America to their culture and their kind of people?”
Last year Australia’s trade commission hired a former talent executive from BMI, which represents songwriters in the United States and collects their royalties, to help introduce their musicians to American listeners. Now you can listen to an all-Aussie podcast or visit an Aussie singer-songwriter show every other month. And whether coincidentally or not, this year the music establishment has been abuzz over the Led Zeppelinish rock trio Wolfmother, which despite selling 300,000 copies of its American debut will still apply to have the government reimburse its travel expenses.
The more such successes these early experiments produce, the more are likely to be undertaken. Which will result in more frequent-flyer miles, and more strange encounters from the world of government rock.
In their home country, Finland, and at European rock festivals, the earnest rockers Bloodpit are used to playing to hordes of fans. But when a government grant brought the band to America earlier this year, it played at a Los Angeles club during Musexpo, an upstart music conference specializing in international talent.
“The only thing that was different,” said Matthau Mikojan, who sings and plays guitar with the band, “was that in the audience, instead of our fans, there were suits.”