Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Why Scotland’s indie bands, from Belle & Sebastian to Mogwai, are shouting “YES” to independence

Scottish Saltires at T in the Park/VisitScotland.org

At this July’s T In The Park, the world’s fifth-largest music festival, which hosts 85,000 people in the Scottish countryside every year, the view was clear: a sea of amped-up fans, pop tents, and waving blue Saltires, the national flag of Scotland, printed with a bold “YES.”

Franz Ferdinand’s indie-rock tent revival came complete with stickers, flags, and Alex Kapranos as “YES” hype man. Hometown favorite rock band Biffy Clyro, at its 10th T In The Park, played a rowdy headlining set where lead singer Simon Neil set the crowd screaming as he wrapped himself in a “YES” Saltire.


Musically, Scotland has had a big year. Albums and tours flowed from the thrumming Glasgow music scene—legacy indie acts like Franz Ferdinand, The Pastels, Mogwai, Camera Obscura, and, soon, The Vaselines—plus the movie with soundtrack, God Help The Girl, filmed on only sunny days in Glasgow, from Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. Branching from Glasgow’s tradition of literate twee pop and club music, young synthpop trio Chvrches and frequent Hot 100 chart resident Calvin Harris have continued to rise. Edinburgh and Glasgow hosted tens of thousands for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, paired with the roving music festival East End Social in Glasgow clubs and streets.

“Glasgow’s just a very, very vibrant, exciting place to be if you’re in the business of music,” said Stewart Henderson, founder of long-running Glasgow rock label, Chemikal Underground, who also works with the Scottish Music Industry Association (SMIA). “Scotland’s national identity, if you like, is inextricably linked with its relationship to the arts. Scotland is, for the size of the country that we are, we are a cultural powerhouse.”

Perhaps the biggest event for musicians, like everyone in Scotland this year, is the September 18 vote on Scottish independence. Scottish citizens residing in the country and over the age of 16 will decide whether to leave a 307-year-old union with the United Kingdom and become an independent nation.

Scots on both sides of the debate, who are mostly liberal regardless of party affiliation, want greater control of spending their tax monies to continue public healthcare and social services; membership in the European Union; and separation from the austerity measures, international, and defense policies of the U.K. and English conservatives. As the campaigns have come to an end, Scotland’s culture and musicians have been at the forefront.


Both the opposing campaigns—the pro-independence “YES Scotland” and pro-union “Better Together”—in the search for a distinctively Scottish anthem tried to use the optimistic ’80s pop hit “In A Big Country” (by Big Country), which features Scottish bagpipes.

Big Country declined to endorse either the “Yes” or the “No” campaign. But they are in the minority of popular Scottish pop and rock bands, who have gradually aligned more with the pro-independence movement.


“It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people that I know in the creative industries generally tend to be more in favor of a yes vote,” said Henderson. “We’re maybe not as naturally conservative as other people are.”

Scotland is big, in natural and human resources. According to the current majority Scottish National Party (SNP), who created the independence referendum, Scotland could become “the richest nation to ever gain independence.” Since the ’60s, when drilling began in the North Sea, Scotland has provided more than half of the entire U.K.’s supply of oil and gas, as well as added alternative energies and space to house the U.K.’s Trident nuclear submarines.


But the small population—5.3 million in a greater U.K. alliance of about 64 million, or less than 10 percent—gives Scotland small representation and therefore weaker voting power in the U.K. Parliament at Westminster.

Since last fall, a pro-independence grassroots movement has grown in the contemporary music communities. The National Collective, “the non-party movement for artists and creatives who support Scottish independence,” claims to have more than 2,000 endorsements. Belle & Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, Frightened Rabbit, Mogwai, and a host of other well-known pop and rock artists who are citizens and currently live in Scotland—and therefore are eligible to vote on the referendum—support the pro-independence movement.


Scottish pop musicians who may be more pro-union have largely been quiet. Some, like Chvrches, Calvin Harris, Emeli Sande, and half of Camera Obscura, have decided not to enter a public discussion on independence saying the decision is “personal” or “political” or they haven’t yet decided. Many classical musicians who perform in the national repertories are pro-union.

Across the borders, an impressive list of English, Welsh, and Northern Irish artists and musicians including David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and Sir Paul McCartney, have signed a public letter asking Scotland to stay in the union, part of the “Let’s Stay Together” campaign.


Scotland has fared somewhat better and remained peaceful during the past several years of recession and poverty weighing on the welfare system in the U.K. Its separate parliament established in 1999, called Holyrood, has allowed the country to govern its own spending on healthcare, education, and several areas of government funding.

Early on, many musicians including some of the current independence supporters, also expressed reservations about breaking that prosperity for what could be perceived as nationalist pride under the current majority Scottish National Party (SNP)—which was founded expressly to achieve separation from the U.K. in 1934—or a possible power play by Scotland’s current first minister, Alex Salmond, who would become the independent country’s first leader.


Additional concerns over losing larger U.K. government support and services, the generally stable British pound and cultural alliances have kept U.K. union supporters and a large group of undecided voters in the majority for the past couple of years. But within a matter of weeks leading up to vote for independence, the results have flipped and several polls show a near tie between “Yes” and “No.”

Glasgow, which is the most populous city and the contemporary music capital of Scotland, will be critical to deciding whether Scotland will become independent or remain part of the U.K. It leans more toward “Yes.”


“Glasgow has always been a city that is very socially activated,” said Henderson. “I think that has to do with the fact that you have the ship-building in Glasgow and a lot of heavy industry… It’s a no-nonsense political approach to things… Glasgow tends to find itself at the heart of these decisions and I think the music fits in with all of that.”

The rust belt history and social travails of Glasgow have something in common with Manchester, England, where the amalgam of guitar bands and emerging synthpop mixed with socially aware, sometimes darkly comic lyrics gave root to early ’80s British alternative music. For Glasgow, a Renaissance of contemporary pop and rock came a decade later.


“The mid ’90s felt like a time when Glasgow was kind of taking its seat at the head of the table,” said Henderson, who founded Chemikal Underground in that era and has worked with well-known Scottish indie bands Mogwai, Arab Strap, Aerogramme, and his own band, The Delgados. He references pioneering bands and labels like The Jesus And Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub, as well as electronica labels like the techno- and house-focused Soma Quality Recordings, who released early Daft Punk records. “Glasgow has just continued in the most incredible way to churn out amazingly diverse, high-quality music across a whole raft of genres, whether it’s electronic or traditional indie or kind of rock and pop.”

Other factors in Glasgow’s rise and ability to sustain an influential music scene are varied. Glasgow, much smaller in size and more relaxed in temperament than London, Manchester, or even Dublin, has enjoyed major urban cleanup campaigns and a conducive social environment.


“Glasgow’s always benefited from the fact that there’s a very strong kind of drinking culture, a very strong social culture,” said Henderson. “There’s lots of great bars and venues, lots of very successful art schools and universities, which has always helped to feed the constant percolation of talent through Glasgow.”

Scotland is a leader in its support of pop, jazz, and local folk music (Scottish traditional), also establishing the only funding program for the recording of music in the U.K. In 2008, Glasgow also became “Glasgow City Of Music,” a United Nations World Heritage site.


“That’s what’s really important for a country as small as we are: Our brand and our cultural identity is often through our music,” said Ian Smith, music portfolio manager at Creative Scotland, the national arts funding agency.

While England has reduced its arts budgets in the last few years, Scotland streamlined its initiatives in 2008 under the new “Creative Scotland,” funded by Scottish tax revenue and the EU’s National Lottery ticket sales. Classical has continued to receive support from U.K. programs and the BBC.


Last year, the non-profit maintained its funding levels, spending about £14 million ($22.56 million) on music projects, separate from the fully government-funded national orchestra, opera, and other companies, and a sizable £10 million ($16.11 million) on youth music education programs.

“It’s not always translated into dollars and cents or pounds and pence,” Smith said. “It’s translated into the ability of a person who has accessed music at an early age being a better citizen, being more numerate, being more confident, being more able to express themselves… To me, that’s the economic value just as much as to sustain income and a livelihood.”


Smith has approved funding for more than 100 albums in the past three to four years, across all genres, which include indie rock, classical, jazz, pop, and a host of experimental and more digital ventures like music in gaming.

Scotland wants to stop the brain drain of talent moving to London and elsewhere to find work. Continuing to fund grants and free university tuition would help retain its considerable talent, including graduates of Glasgow’s School Of Art, which provide the city’s music scene both talent and a pool of hip, young music tastemakers flowing into clubs and bars. Alex Salmond said he would want an independent Scotland to model its government after social democracies like Sweden and Norway, with higher tax rates that provide for more social services and government funding, including the arts.


“Obviously your cultural voice goes a long way towards deciding on how you see yourself as a nation,” said Henderson. “So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Scottish government at the moment have had the presence of mind to channel a lot of investment into the arts in the run-up to this referendum.”

Creative Scotland’s funding is locked in for the next three years, until 2018. It has also outlined a 10-year plan including objectives to maintain arts funding, particularly to support more innovation and increased promotion of Scottish musicians. But that is less certain.


“No one can forecast in politics what’s going to happen that far ahead in terms of public funding, but we are being given assurances that’s not going to change,” said Smith. “But of course, what we do know, whatever the result of the votes on September 18, things will not be the same again.”

Over the course of the 16-week referendum (campaigning) period, the “Yes” campaign has been closing the gap within single digit percentages with about 10 percent of voters still undecided. On September 7, the first poll (YouGov) reporting a Yes-vote lead of 51 percent was published, stirring a domino effect of analysis and a more concerted effort by the U.K. government to broker a deal that would keep the union intact. The result of the vote could swing either way depending on voter turnout, last-minute campaigning, and whether Westminster adds enough additional decision-making powers to Scottish parliament to satisfy independence-minded Scots.


The SNP won their current majority in Scottish Parliament in 2011 with last minute leap in the polls and large voter turnout, a momentum they are working to replicate. A record number of voters—4.2 million of the 5.3 million population—are registered to vote on independence.

“If we do become independent, which I think is looking likely at the moment, I don’t think it will fundamentally change or improve the quality of art or music coming out of Scotland,” said Henderson. “People may become more interested in what we do, what we produce as Scotland. People already recognize Scotland as being a country for making great music—I don’t think that’s going to change.”


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