Elin Williams looks at the complex issue of language promotion in her article Miles beyond Glyndwr: What Does the Future Hold for Welsh Language Music?
Since 2007, there has been an ongoing dispute over The Performing Rights Society cutting Radio Cymru artists’ airplay royalties by more than 80%. This has understandably caused outrage and sparked a series of strikes. Many of these strikes were facilitated by Radio Cymru’s decision to not play records by the Welsh artists who took part in those strikes. Radio Cymru consequently had to cut its airtime after losing the right to play over 30,000 songs by Welsh musicians. Many blamed the cuts on a general feeling of outsider ignorance; that the BBC administrators in London were largely unaware of what a Welsh music broadcasting station is, and what it does. For some the cuts have been seen as a marginalisation of a ‘minority language’ imposed by forces from the other end of the M4. But in truth, it is not always just the people outside of Wales who see the travails of the Welsh language as those of a dying culture.
Unfortunately Wales is a country where less than 20% of the population speak the native tongue. That’s significantly more than Gaelic speakers in Ireland, and unlike Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh Language Act of 1993 requires English and Welsh to be treated equally throughout the public sector. Most Western languages have their basic rights, and in this day and age, one of those rights is its media output. Restricting the media output goes hand-in-hand with the degeneration of the language; the less you put out, the less that will come in.
It’s slightly poignant that these cuts are musical in nature, when Wales, not to dwell on the stereotype here, is seen as ‘the land of song’. We have a musical history which is so rich and distinctive, it’s almost unbelievable that they are proposing an 80% cut to a station which is the sole output for exclusively Welsh music. It’s difficult to see the issue completely objectively, to blame financial issues for the cuts, because when it is being enforced on a culture and language which isn’t exactly thriving, it seems to be rooted deeper; it seems to be highlighting this ignorance of Welsh culture of those outside, and indeed of many inside of Wales. The tendency is to always see things like this as a direct blow to Wales’ efforts to develop. The perception of the Welsh language is often distorted by figures, because when you look at 20%, it seems a negligible amount, but it doesn’t feel that way. Cultural events such as The National Eisteddfod always seem to fill Wales for several weeks a year, and the number of Welsh schools makes it difficult to believe that only 20% are able to speak the language. Last weekend saw Theatr Genedlaethol’s exclusive promenade production of Y Bont, performed in Aberystwyth on the 50th anniversary of the Pont Trefechan Protest, a protest which set the wheels in motion for the official status of the Welsh language. With such definite steps into the future of Welsh Arts, can we afford to be taking these giant steps back simultaneously?
The people who feel sufficiently impassioned by such cuts are reacting by taking the BBC and the Performing Right’s Society head on. But perhaps these efforts should be concentrated and focused on creating more radio stations to support our Welsh musicians. Surely it’s more important to take things into our own hands and create something which increases the demand for Welsh music? There has always been a certain tension surrounding the Welsh language, for whatever reason, and it feels like a constant battle. Even looking back to some of Wales’ most influential writers such as Dylan Thomas or Gwyn Thomas: these were Welsh men who wrote in English, albeit about Wales most of the time. And why not?
It has made them universally popular figures; especially Dylan Thomas. This isn’t an issue. It’s when Welsh people are able to openly criticise the Welsh tongue in the media that harm can be done to the development of the culture. It can be detrimental to a language. Gwyn Thomas, a fantastic writer, satirist and general personality, was always extremely open about his hostility towards the Welsh language and indeed, toward the Nationalist movement. He seemed to have little sympathy with the national aspirations of Wales, and even though he was a gifted linguist, he didn’t speak Welsh. Being a popular Welsh personality, vocalising such aversions to the language in the media was potentially jeopardising. He wrote about Wales of course, and often expressed his love for Welsh music: ‘Welsh hymn singing. Hearing it, I walk again amongst all those loved and loving people who gave warmth and beauty to the first years of my pilgrimage’.
It seems in this instance, although Thomas felt a certain disregard for the language of Wales, he embraced its culture as it was able to evoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia. Even if Welsh people do not speak the language themselves, it is vital that they support it regardless, and don not condemn it.
There has been, however, more unfortunate media-related incidents, which have been more destructive to the perception of the Welsh language outside of Wales. The infamous ‘Welsh Taliban’ article in the Daily Mail sparked outrage, with Wales conveyed as the language of ‘regional backwardness’, where children were stopped from going to the toilet unless they asked in Welsh. Such accusations are laughable, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that an apparent Welshman felt this way about his own culture.
Even though coming from an ignorant point of view, such condemnations were seen as inexcusable. Something in the Welsh-speaking Welsh was stirred; the article provoked one of the most populous responses recorded on ‘Wales Online’. Such public outcry has parallels in the number and nature of responses to the news of the Welsh music cuts. A group representing Welsh musicians, Eos, has been set up to promote a different Welsh music act every day. This is certainly positive, but perhaps this should be happening anyway. Obviously Wales can’t rely on these small niches of broadcasting opportunity, so perhaps it’s time to be creative, and to be independent.
There are demonstrably enough people who feel passionate enough about Welsh cultural rights, so why should we have to rely on the BBC? Wales is capable of creating its own media output, and this way, Wales would gain more independence.
If the incentive is to be broadcast and to be generally successful as a Welsh artist, what happens when that output is taken away? What happens to the incentive? It is 2013, and the Welsh still seem to be caught in a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ predicament. It seems that more action needs to be taken. This goes beyond Welsh Nationalism: it’s become a matter of having to be productive. To do less talking and less bargaining, and to actually do something ourselves.