Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Cities that rate highly against liveability indicators have strong night-time arts economies and assess cultural capital and arts tourism as a valuable domestic product. Technology, appropriately applied, can enhance connected, sustaining cities — but digital disruption can also present a pervasive barrier to entry.
It is clear that the Australian Music Industry is under threat. What is less clear is why current governments continue to approach a 21st Century problem with a (mid) 20th Century mindset.
Political platforms, budget cycles and short-sighted policy.
The most recent Federal budget demonstrates that support for the music industry is being approached with little vision or integrated strategy, benignly ignored, or worse, deliberately underfunded between elections, and only elevated to policy discussion in election years when proactive arts workers remind the major parties that the arts, are in fact, a valuable economic product, and a decent sized voting community. This lack of creativity or integrated thinking around investment in the music industry sees the arts reduced to a commodity, an economic product, with no focus on their wider socio-cultural value.
Almost a decade of systemic funding cuts to arts organisations coupled with economic downturn has seen the live music industry sink into malaise, with Sydney-siders decrying the ‘death’ of live music as a result of pro-gambling venues, pro-development lock-out laws and prohibitive festival regulation, and original Western Australian artists barely able to find a handful of venues that will pay them to play.
Even post the recent Federal and NSW Parliamentary Inquiries into industry sustainability, the almost predictable response to this ecosystem decline is to provide funding to venues to upgrade facilities and provide better equipment. However, what the industry knows, but governments fail to acknowledge, is that investment into venues and infrastructure does not guarantee income to artists.
This approach is the political equivalent of putting a band-aid on cancer. It does not address the illness, nor its attack on the holistic system — it simply hides the oozing exit wound.
While a focus on live music is important, it only addresses one part of the broader ecosystem, and fails to acknowledge the equally damaging economic impacts of digital disruption and the global streaming of recorded music. This is, in effect, a major policy failure in the making. Federal politics are currently blind to music streaming as an issue to be addressed in Australian music policy or funding.
The short-term political imperative to be seen to be ‘doing something’ immediate and concrete is understandable. Approaching funding from a strategic and systemic perspective, and addressing the complex, integrated nature of the industry, its interdependent marketplaces and the parallel threats to these is far harder to communicate to the wider public and the music community than highly visible investments into venues and recording. Regardless, the music industry is an ecosystem as rich as any other industry, wherein no one part can exist without the other.
Political preoccupation with funding for music industry ‘infrastructure’ represents a short-sighted, anti-creative approach to arts funding. It fails to appreciate the impacts of diminishing audiences in the face of instant (inexpensive) home entertainment, growing social anxiety and a perceived lack of patron safety in many music venues. It fails to factor in the dearth of enforceable ‘fair play’ policy around minimum performance fees and undercutting behaviours across the industry. It fails to acknowledge that there is an accepted culture of cronyism and sexism in the venue bookings and festival management space, and an entrenched culture of general artist exploitation in many live music venues and festivals.
The alternative of providing direct funding for the recording of new music falls into the same fallacy of an overly simplistic intervention in the system. Although well-intentioned it is largely meaningless if there are no viable avenues for musicians to sell their recorded product. This simply represents an investment with no return. No venture capitalist would invest in a product without a market fit, but in effect, that is exactly what this intervention suggests.
While calling for voluntary quotas of Australian music on commercial radio, and even on streaming services (largely unenforceable, by virtue of anti-competition laws) may go some way toward propelling a lucky few more artists towards elusive financial freedom, it cannot redress global streaming impacts on industry revenue potential as standalone policy. This may be an improvement on other ineffective approaches, but only marginally so.
So, while taking these interventions to be individually and collectively, better than no intervention at all, not holistically addressing these systemic disruptions is not an option when the vibrancy and viability of the Australian music scene is at stake.
In a war where our industry is besieged from all sides by technology and digital disruption, we have brought our knife to a gunfight. We’re attempting to address the digital, with the traditional. We are allowing global streaming giants to reap the benefits of largely unpaid Australian arts labour, while we watch our creative culture erode in the face of insurmountable economic pressures.
It is time now to approach the Australian music industry as a whole, to take a systems-thinking approach and to focus not on doling out band-aids, but on healing the system. Governments could take this opportunity to tap into the multiple social and economic benefits of a healthy music industry. We could up-skill our artists for a digital age, and approach arts funding as though we were living in the 21st Century. We have an opportunity to play the game differently.
We have an opportunity to fight tech with tech — to come out swinging against the global giants, and to address their impacts using their own disruptive technologies.
This will take more than Parliamentary Inquiries and reports to be summarily shelved — it will take a creative meeting of minds across an entire industry. It will require a decadal commitment, a re-thinking of funding and real-world models of support, and an intellectual shift around valuing local, artistic product.
Through Smart Cities and Suburbs funding, through Cooperative Research Centres, through Industry Acceleration opportunities, through well-planned seed funding and investment in arts tech and innovation; governments could support a floundering industry — however these funds are routinely directed into STEM related industries, and into agriculture, mining and resources research.
My question to those with at least a little political foresight is this: what industries will we rely on when we are no longer able to exploit our finite resources? Without resources and agriculture, on which the threat of climate change (which our foresightful politicians are also deliberately ignoring) weighs heavily, what industries will this wide brown land hold as its most precious export? And how will it attract visitors to its shores? Will international visitors come to view our lovely abandoned mines and stranded fossil fuel energy assets? Will they travel thousands of kilometres to visit our plastic polluted beaches and our artistically bankrupt cities? Or will it be our intellectual, creative and cultural capital on which this country’s flailing tourism economy rests?
The arts are conspicuously absent from current Australian Research Priorities and funding at any meaningful level, and therefore devalued despite having major social, health, economic and cultural benefits. In 2013, a large-scale review of 400 research papers on the neurochemistry of music found that music can improve the function of the body’s immune system and reduce levels of stress. Since global research consistently demonstrates the value of music for physical and mental health, for socio-cultural benefits and for economic growth, this is short-sighted policy at best.
Concurrently, traditional government arts funding is also missing the mark, by being ‘traditional’ in both its application and its vision. Australian arts funding bodies seemingly have a similar vision to our Innovation and Research agencies — that arts and innovation simply don’t mix.
We have an opportunity to put scarce government funding to use in creative ways — to fund innovation incubators and new enterprise in the arts tech industries, to up-skill musicians in the dark arts of digital marketing, to build engagement with tech based arts interventions— live gig streaming, online community connection systems, localised music streaming.
We also have an opportunity to invest in our music advocacy bodies and the coalitions of forward-thinking cultural organisations working to address the whole music ecology, who are more intimately integrated into the fabric of the music industry than governments currently are — and without proactive arts research prioritisation, perhaps than they will ever be.
The future is here. We are living in the digital age. We are the generation who may never again play a cassette, or spin a CD, other than for a nostalgic road-trip to times gone past. In short, the future is right here, right now.
If independent artists consistently struggle to earn a living wage from their labours the quality of our cultural capital is eroded; our ability to compete on a global stage is diminished; and scarce government investment is overextended or misdirected into unsustainable, competitive funding pathways. Approaching music policy and funding in the same way we did 20 years ago is simply not appropriate to the soundscape of our future.
Unsigned Australian artists are creatively starving in an era of illusory musical prosperity, threatening the uniqueness of Australia’s creative capital, and risking the already vulnerable health of our creative community.
But we can rebuild it… we have the technology!
If you’d like to know more about how The Pack Australia is working towards addressing the impacts of global streaming on local music communities, download our White Paper here.
Melanie Bainbridge is Co-Founder of The Pack Australia, a music streaming social enterprise changing the economic paradigm around local music consumption.