Another fly on the wall conversation among Sydney musicians

Last week Daily Review published a transcript of a conversation among musicians at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Sydney on October 13. This transcript now moves to the discussion of concert series in Sydney that are self-organised.

The invitees represented the area of new, exploratory, and improvised musics – from concerts and productions that are government and privately funded to performance series and festivals that exist largely without any financial backing at all.

Those taking part were: Stephen Adams (composer and ABC broadcaster, New Waves), Elaine Chia (CEO, City Recital Hall, Angel Place), Jim Denley(musician and organiser of West Head project, Machine for Making Sense), Andree Greenwell (composer, organiser of Green Room Music, teacher), Cat Hope (composer, bass player, leader of Decibel, academic), Zubin Kanga (pianist, member of Ensemble Offspring), Lisa McCowage(clarinetist and co-organiser of La La La), Kaylie Melville (speak Percussion and New Music Network), Damien Ricketson (composer, ex- co-artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, and academic), Freya Schack-Arnott (cellist, co-organiser of Opus Now), David Sharpe (strategic and business adviser for creative industries) Gabriella Smart (pianist, head of Soundstream), Clayton Thomas (double bass player and organiser of the NOWnow festival and series), Erkki Veltheim (violinist, composer), Jon Rose (musician, organiser of Evenings@Peggy’s, convener of this meeting) and Paul Mason (Director of Music, Australia Council, observer at this meeting).

Jon Rose made a written text and precis, based on a three-hour audio recording. He has mixed the direct quotes and observations in a conversational narrative where the speakers are not identified (indeed some speakers might wish on reflection to be un-identified!). Some of those taking part sent additional material to him post-meeting, and he has included what they sent.

A Meeting of Minds at The Peggy Glanville-Hicks House – Part Two

Transcript by Jon Rose (Peggy Glanville-Hicks Resident 2017)

The uniqueness of many of the musicians assembled is highlighted – they cannot be replicated by anyone. Live performance in the future will be valued because the experience cannot be replaced or digitally transmitted. It could be that the more ubiquitous the download file becomes, a small but significant counter-movement will develop. But very few people are going to make a living out of it.

Two members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra have salaries and give back to the community by putting on concerts, guaranteeing a fee to the musicians. The Opus Now series has free access to an art collective at Alpha Gallery in Newtown, so the rent is free, which in Sydney is a substantial contribution. Such an old-style artist collective and community is very rare now in Sydney. Because there is a Beethoven String Quartet in the middle of a New Music concert, people are happy to pay more than if there is no Beethoven.

Do people complain about the mix? Yes, without fail! Mostly people complain about the contemporary, not the Beethoven. Others try to sneak in without paying, or bring their own booze so they don’t have to use the bar (which is supporting the gallery).

La La La is basically funded by our salaries (full time music teacher, SSO bass player). We want to nurture and support both new and old music culture in Sydney. We never break even, but we don’t lose heaps either, maybe a few hundred dollars each concert. We see it as an investment in the community. The upper echelons of society will only put money into classical groups playing old European music. We will persist.

Yes, that says it – the upper echelons and classical music. It’s reaffirming white supremacy, really.

It’s not funding per se, it’s context. And as funding dries up, what is left goes to the powerful. We will rely more and more on the development of networks that take time to grow, but then our advantage is ‘in kind’ contributions to events. The initiatives taken by Sydney and Adelaide city councils in providing free or low-rent buildings to artists and musicians is noted. The problem with these spaces is that you can be out on your arse with a month’s notice when the property gets sold on to developers.

What does New Music actually need? An audience!

What does New Music actually need? A space (normally not so big), seats, a PA sometimes, accommodating neighbours?

An audience!

Nick Shimmin runs The People’s Republic of Australasia in Camperdown. It’s his own place and a loft-style space with a high ceiling, wooden floor, great acoustics; somehow he has persuaded his neighbours that live music is acceptable (providing it’s not too often, I guess). Arguably the best place in Sydney to play new music, with audiences of 60-100 comfortably accommodated. Entrance by donation, all the money goes to the musicians. There are some nights when the musicians walk out of there with $800 cash in their pockets and it feels very good indeed! There’s no denying that.

Right in town on Harris Street, Peter Rechniewski runs Foundry 616. He has a staff of three to pay. There are door deals for musicians. He needs to bring in $100,000 through the door every year to break even. He sunk $250,000 of his own money into bringing the space up to council regulations, but they continue to hound him with inspections; he spent $350 on a ramp giving wheelchaired persons access to the stage (required by law) – a council inspector said it was the wrong type of ramp, and the new one cost $3,000. What we are talking about here is bureaucracy run amok, it’s not about denying access to musicians with disability. Public Liability laws, Health & Safety laws, these are killers of live creativity.

I’m currently researching the whole idea of entrepreneurship in Australia. It will be no comfort, but everyone in film, and theatre, is thinking the same thoughts as everyone here. There is this prevailing myth that entrepreneurship means tech start-ups, wearing sneakers and carrying tablets, working in code, sitting in cafes – this is the image. My experience is that those people aren’t making any money either. If you see yourselves as sole traders, then you have to win each customer, supporter, audience member, philanthropist, one by one. The hard slog until a critical mass is reached. A thousand people you can rely on.

The critical mass is one – in Europe, what’s left of the festival circuit for alternative music comes down to one person hanging in there year after year and making it happen.

That’s how Decibel started, the group was concerned about WA composers, curating the local. We never made any money, though.

It’s not about making money, it’s about the amount of time, energy, effort you have to put in to make something happen that’s unpaid – uphill struggles with bureaucracy, that’s not accounted for. You may lose money, but it’s more a question whether you lose your life (in terms of time).

The biggest philanthropists in the arts are the artists themselves.

The biggest philanthropists in the arts are the artists themselves. It comes down to why we do what we do, and what do we want to experience in doing it. We live inside someone else’s business model and we are wrongly trying to apply that to what we do.

At The City Recital Hall the biggest philanthropists are the ticket buyers. And they often spend more on tickets than they do as official philanthropists.

Access and venue problems in Sydney are so huge. In London the venues are cheap and accessible by comparison. Cafe Oto takes all kinds of New Music and it’s the door: even big name conductors and ensembles play there, might do an official symphony concert, get paid, but then drop in and do a gig for less than 100 pounds. Then there’s The London Contemporary Music Festival that holds events in an underground carpark.

We have our carpark concerts too! Seems easier to make it happen in London – here we are hampered by laws, bureaucracy. Class divisions in the UK are still massive, the ruling elite still mostly feature in the symphony concerts, the poor composers and improvisers at Cafe Oto have a job at a regional university (if they’re lucky) to pay the bills. In London, the snob factor is played down, the surface is made to look hip, but the class structure behind it remains solid.

The conversation moves sideways. We get funding also from the local council.

What does that mean? You rock up and they know who you are? We’re all on the drip in Melbourne!

There’s talk about connectedness to ANAM, students, ex-students, donors that cross over. This is community talk, something more difficult to achieve in cut-throat Sydney. Speak Percussion has two full-time employees and two part-time. Hard to imagine. The part-timers have portfolio careers but one at least still makes most of her living from performing.

Is there pressure to keep coming up with new ideas for the round of grant applications, to fill in the forms – to be ahead of the curve?

Clocked Out in Brisbane actually stopped applying for Key Organisations funding so they wouldn’t have to deal with this continual pressure of box-ticking – ‘innovation’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘visionary’, ‘pioneering’. All of these Alice in Wonderland words are in any case applied to organisations like The Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Vivaldi in front of mountain movies.

It’s culturally acceptable to fund the administrators but not the artists.

It took 18 years to get Ensemble Offspring to the point where they could get funding. Before that, even dole payments were redirected to the group. Now I have a job at the Conservatorium. There are ethical problems around philanthropy – the give, the get or get-off culture of boards and governance that are required for an organisation like Offspring presents structural risk for diverse artist-led infrastructure. In recent years, between joining the Australia Council club and getting new philanthropic income, funding almost tripled but it only resulted in limited growth of the number of concerts we put on because everything had to be professionalised and the money went on that – wheelchair ramps, three layers of public liability insurance, etc. The extra funding mostly goes to lawyers to pay for compliance and talking to bureaucracy. It’s culturally acceptable to fund the administrators but not the artists.

On philanthropy: several people, including Stephen Adams, have said to me they now think the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is one of the foremost orchestras to support New Music in this country because of their new three-year Composer in Residency Program, commencing with Catherine Milliken in 2018. What they don’t know is that the passionate advocate (and supporter of Soundstream) Mary Lou Simpson is the sole benefactor of this new residency program. One person can make a life-changing difference. So Mary Lou has by default created the beginnings of a bridge between Soundstream and the ASO, something I have tried to do unsuccessfully for years.

What would constitute a musical culture or a more musical culture than the one we now inhabit? In 1890s central Adelaide, there were seventeen registered Italian String Bands playing on the street, there were even by-laws insisting that they keep one foot on the kerbstone at all times because they were getting in the way of the horses and carts – too much live music in central Adelaide causing traffic flow problems! But that did constitute a musical culture. What’s there now? Not much, a few forlorn guitar strummers.

Our New Music sector has no guild, has no one who will go into bat for us. Bureaucrats speak the same language, tick boxes, understand the rules of engagement, and are generally more comfortable dealing with each other than musicians or artists. Our sector is always excluded from any discourse in general culture (even on ABC Radio National we barely exist).

Our status as artists is being eroded. I’ve noticed the change in the language of funding bodies over time. There are many things we can do in terms of advocacy – it’s a long haul, but changing the language of grant applications is one area. I’m sick of ‘Are you a mature artist?’ If you mean ‘How old are you?’, then say it!…Yes, I’m over 30!

A surprising fact is that Classic FM is more diverse in age and socio-economic range that any of the other networks at the ABC.

Talking of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I think it will continue to exist, although the form broadcasting will take is a big unknown. We thought in the last 12 months that we would be turned into an algorithm-run digital playback platform. It didn’t happen largely due to Musica Viva, APRA and other institutions screaming at the ABC board. The ABC is under constant pressure to make everything cheaper with bigger audience figures. There are tensions between the various levels of management, between those genuinely interested in culture and others who want bland MOD programming, something to just fill up the digital space which costs nothing. But I have a suspicion there may be a return to late evening programming of New Music that may be more challenging and require some intellectual effort and curiosity about the world we live in.

What are the listener figures? Figures for radio are vague: we can quantify how many are listening during a certain part of the day, but the incidence of audiences switching on or off during a difficult piece of New Music, we can’t say. A surprising fact is that Classic FM is more diverse in age and socio-economic range that any of the other networks at the ABC. Podcast stats are now clear, but coming from a very low base. It depends on what is being podcast – it’s not like a functioning subscriber base where the audience listens to everything that is available. The New Waves podcast is still nowhere near the audience for New Music Up Late. So an on-air program makes a huge difference to the reach. Radio is something you may or may not bump into by chance, a podcast is a different kind of activity – you already know what you are about to hear. There are no quotas for local content, but there are targets. Most broadcast material is live or recent, the archives are not used very much unless someone famous dies. That’s so typical of classical music. (much laughter).

As with all culture, consumption becomes a reinforcement of your identity. The user pays model is the user decides model. You only go to what you know. It’s the Facebook, YouTube algorithm at work – you like that, you’ll like this. The convergence of culture into a targeted audience of one.

That’s why recordings are still important. Bands are data-mining downloads and social media to see what their potential audience is listening to, and based on that, they determine where they’ll put a concert on.

I’d like to work towards 40 musician houses like the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House across a town like Sydney. The musician/composer/sound artist/whatever would be responsible for improving the music in that area, and also responsible for the sonic ecology. The local council is responsible for the road signs, the lights, the sewage, the parks… they should also be responsible for the sound of their neighbourhood and employ a musician to fix it. It would be a job contract for a year and they would live there and work in the community, transforming the culture in a continual, incremental way, a way that a once-a-year festival does not.

The mayor of Leichhardt had a plan to turn Parramatta Road into a cultural precinct. That’s ambitious and advanced thinking, he’s a young guy, but what he’s after is probably Mission Impossible. Would the Australia Council go into bat for this and approach the local councils, suggest part funding? The Australia Council pays the artist’s salary and a practical working fund, the council foregoes the rates and pays for electricity, services, any renovations.

This is the idea of the musician as ‘animateur’, the person who makes stuff happen within a variety of social contexts.

Wealthy people should be encouraged to leave their property to the nation and its artists, not to their boring children.

Shane Simpson has set up two more houses in Perth and in Adelaide. They are National Trust houses and they are sitting there doing nothing. He uses the word ‘cultural engagement’. This is a possibility all over the country: there are houses being bequeathed to the NT, not to artists, but artists could get hold of these buildings.

The Bundanon Trust works quite well and draws sizeable audiences from Nowra and surrounds, and it’s also responsible for running all four houses under the program Prelude.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ generous and forward-thinking gift of a house to the nation for the purpose of music is an extraordinary model. Wealthy people should be encouraged to leave their property to the nation and its artists, not to their boring children. It’s not a bad deal – your name lives on in perpetuity. You get an official plaque on the door, and your name on the signposts at each end of the street!

In Sydney, Clare Cooper’s Frontyard Project is a great community model. The property was acquired during an interim 6-month lease period before they put it to public tender. The deal was to pay $40 per month. We’re now on a rolling month-to-month lease with the new council (Inner West). It costs just under $500 to run the space each month (electricity, water, internet, subsidised rent, basic tea and coffee and cleaning supplies). We have to have public liability for our events and residency program. The art gallery DA stipulates NO LIVE MUSIC on site! Musicians in residence are giving workshops and composing, but no concerts are allowed per se.

The refurbishment of buildings such as The Studio at the Opera House and Carriageworks haven’t delivered for New Music. If we’ve spent all this taxpayer money on such places, then there should be quotas for Australian New Music. They wasted $14 million on The Studio (which was once a perfectly useable space for New Music), spent up to $60 million on Carriageworks, $202 million more on the Opera House, $139 million to redevelop Walsh Bay. These are staggering sums of money!

Major performing arts companies should have to put money into small arts organisations.

The new concert halls in Melbourne are the same – they say they’re going to incorporate local New Music groups, but almost immediately they’re priced out of the building.

There are other models. In Amsterdam, the artists themselves own and run the place (though they also get substantial funding), but you’d need agreement between the various groups for it to be viable. Singapore gives over a new floor to cultural activities when there is a tower block re-development.

To be fair, Sydney City Council is incorporating cultural spaces within new developments like Green Square. But I’ve been trying to get a response from Sydney City Council to bring me up-to-date on their 5-year Live Music and Performance plan, but no response after four calls and two emails.

Anyway, the website says the following:

The 5-year plan: 60 actions, 1846 free student rehearsal bookings made by 139 users across 31 city spaces, $572,696 paid in artist fees for city produced events, $10.89 million in grants to live music and performances since July 2014, $2.77 million in small grants (under $100,000) to live music since July 2014, $20,650 average small grant, 8 musicians and performers housed in City of Sydney live/work spaces.

Is this real money or in kind? Because City of Sydney ‘gave’ me $110,000 worth of access to one of their commercial venues but it was bullshit because I wouldn’t have been able to give them $1,000 to use it. So they’re paying themselves – like Third World development funds go straight back to the donor country because that’s where the work is farmed out.

Major performing arts companies should have to put money into small arts organisations – you can’t have one without the other, so it would be a legal requirement on receipt of taxpayers money. That also deals with the class thing too.

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