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A frank, fly on the wall discussion among Sydney’s musicians

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On October 13, 2017 at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Sydney, a meeting of minds took place to discuss ‘the state of performed New Music and the options for making the situation better’. The idea was to unlock and air any ideas, however radical, which could be relevant to this debate and which could be carried forward as freelance practice or institutional policy.

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).

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.

The first part of the evening was taken up with discussion about how our various activities come into existence; e.g. what resources are required, what it costs to hire a venue, do the musicians get paid?, does the audience pay appropriately for the music?, do we break even or lose a pile of money?, etc. In other words, along with facts and figures, an anecdotal survey of the state of things.

Perhaps there are just too many musicians and types of music. And they all hate each other!

The second part was the hard bit. Most musicians play their cards close to their chest as it is an extremely competitive world in which to survive, let alone thrive. But here was a chance for a few hours of altruism and venting. How could we improve the situation, how could we use our resources better, are there loopholes in late capitalism to exploit, could we organise better?

Aided by a few glasses of wine and food, the meeting was collegial, friendly, filled with equal amounts of serious and sometimes passionate talk, witty asides and laughter.

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

I made a written text and precis, based on a three-hour audio recording. But as I read through the ‘Fred said this, Jane said that’, it struck me that the result was pedantic, even tiresome if you hadn’t been there, and way too long. So I have 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 me post-meeting, and I have included what they sent. Enjoy! – Jon Rose.


After acknowledgements to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the land question is immediately shoved to centre stage, the massive psychological block at the centre of our political and cultural identity is also a large part of the problem for the survival of the more interesting new music(s) in a town like Sydney.

Other groups such as dancers, writers, theatre people, have informal conferences such as this, but it is rare in music. Perhaps there are just too many musicians and types of music. And they all hate each other! But we often have a common enemy down at Bennelong Point.

Here’s the general state of affairs: the median income of performing artists is going down (currently at $10,000 per annum), the population is ageing, people are spending more time on their creative work and getting less for it. It’s a bleak set of figures. But the disconnect is this: music is still the number one thing that Australian audiences are interested in, much more than sport. There are exceptions to the decline as a few commercially viable types have manipulated the internet as a method of financial compensation.

The post WW2 European model of funded arts has been in decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Eastern bloc model of comprehensive government funding died immediately in 1989 too, of course. In a place like Berlin, it meant the operas and orchestras took most of the cake and the alternative music scenes lost out (e.g. the end of generous New Music funding at the arts centre Podewil). The other trajectory is that which prevails in the USA and is based on a philanthropic model of wealthy people donating – most goes to opera and symphony but there are a dedicated few who put their money into the more interesting end of New Music, e.g. National Sawdust and Greene Space. The options in the US are an academic job, or you were just born wealthy with a trust fund (common in the various US music scenes).

Music (any kind) has little value. People may say they love it, but they don’t love it enough to pay for it.

In Australia as in Europe, government funding is always going to be less not more. The problem is even more basic – nobody will pay the real cost of what it takes to put a musician on stage, whether that be the NOWnow or the Opera House. In other words, music (any kind) has little value. People may say they love it, but they don’t love it enough to pay for it (they will pay for a car, house, holiday, and – around here – the notorious smashed avocado breakfast). People are constantly told they are ‘consumers of product’ (even the ABC is non-stop with this propaganda on the ubiquitous talking head shows)

The notion of the professional musician is maybe over for most musicians. ‘Creative Industries’ is a furphy used by bureaucrats when talking to other bureaucrats, but to call what goes on in New Music an ‘industry’ is a misuse of the English language. John Blacking’s How Musical is Man? looks to the Venda people in South Africa in the 1970s where everyone in town, young and old, talented and not so, was still engaged in music making, active and amateur.

‘Creative Industry’: the worst term ever, almost everybody seems to agree. It’s a bad joke.

There are other models – in Indonesia, villagers work a full day then turn up for three hours of practice on the newly acquired gamelan, an expensive instrument collection collectively paid for by poor villagers. Other values have gone missing in our age of instant gratification. The story of Schoenberg refusing to give Varese the permission to perform Pierrot Lunaire in New York is told (the composer not believing that they would put enough time into rehearsing such New Music) seems quaint in terms of today’s mad rush to put on concerts with the minimum of time expended on rehearsal or preparation.

With respect to Andrew Ford’s ABC program, the show perpetuates the illusion that there are hundreds of musicians whizzing around Australia playing dozens of shows, making good money, before disappearing into the sunset. No one dare say what the real situation is because musicians have to boast about how busy they are, how loved and adored by their fans.

The regular mail out for the NOWnow series of improvised music has the signature ‘Money isn’t the only value system’. $10 is the entrance charge, musicians know they may get paid or not, and 20% of what comes in goes to helping asylum seekers in Newtown. The NOWnow raised $2,000 this year. This is what we stand for, this is what the music stands for, there is no conversation about how do we pay rent. That’s another issue.

All the music schools across the country are losing money. If they aren’t, it’s because they have cut all the important activities that make music what it is. Music students are not looking for a career as a star, but they are looking to change something. They don’t buy the master/apprentice model anymore.

Is any musician in screen culture making money? Very little, it seems.

I’m very conscious that I’m in the cohort of 60 undergraduate composers about to be launched into the market place. There is pressure to force through the ‘student load’ for the tertiary institution to access the funding – a higher student-to-teacher ratio. Courses are changing away from the soloist, the lone composer genius, to preparation for a portfolio career. Curricula are starting to recognise the independent artist will not fund themselves – ideally the Australia Council will fund, but more likely it’s private.

Isn’t ‘vocation’ a better word than ‘profession’?

Is any musician in screen culture making money? Very little, it seems: the serious session work for films went out in the 1980s when synthesisers and sampling came in. Music embedded in games? Yes, an income source for those few dedicated nerds. A bit of functionality there, in the same way that music was made for dancing, the harvest, or getting married, waging war, etc. Clearly the advent of recording changed everything in the 20th century, and music was one of the first activities to be hollowed out by web 2.0.

There are predictions that the whole notion of work is going down the plug hole in any case, with at least 40% of current jobs becoming obsolete by 2030.

Is our music there to support capitalism or there to support humanity? That’s maybe the difference between music made for a consumer and music made by a citizen.

According to the stats from the City of Sydney: in an average venue for live music, 30% goes to the musicians, 40% goes on booze, and the rest goes to the owner or manager.

Money is often the bottom line (it’s how most people in a capitalist economy value most activities and the ownership of things). According to the stats from the City of Sydney: in an average venue for live music, 30% goes to the musicians, 40% goes on booze, and the rest goes to the owner or manager.

Would you reckon on there being more money for music available through taxpayer funding in five years time or less? There are moments when a government might chip in a bit extra, but the overall trend is down. It’s about the same under either party, but under the present lot, it feels like there’s been a sharp decline in support for the medium to small sector.

Governments are concerned with supporting organisations that are best at marketing, so the pool of money can be shown to attract the biggest audience/most voters. They are not interested in what the arts are about: you create the art and we may support you selling it. There is also a strong survival instinct for those in power and with privilege – they are protecting their position at the top of the heap, as Brandis demonstrated with his sudden hit on the Australia Council.

I was mistakenly invited to an up-market visual arts event where wealthy people were writing cheques for really quite cutting edge artworks – normally it just doesn’t happen with any edgy music. Why is that?

Because music has no exchange value.

It’s art collectors essentially hedging their bets. To be seen with the right bunch of philanthropists, it’s transactional. For the Australian pavilion in Venice, $6 million was raised and the government put in $1 million. This does not translate into music.

It might in a place like New York where $16 million was raised for National Sawdust (a new New Music venue). But that ends up primarily in real estate investment. The donors can’t lose as land values continue to rise. But they did provide seeding money for 5 years.

In Australia we have the (David) Walsh thing in Hobar (MONA): certainly he spends more on visual arts and celebrity than music, but he does something for music too. But when the music is over, there is no return.

Would we accept money from straight-out criminals, or do we already?

I have another example from New York. An ex-Mormon who made a pile of money from selling dodgy drugs to Third World countries feels obliged to redress his moral imbalance and he loves New Music, so he supports it with cash.

Would we accept money from straight-out criminals, or do we already? Does anybody feel that government money is cleaner than private money? Or as Robyn Archer once said, funding is like a sausage, you don’t ask what’s in it. Stony silence.

All donors have an agenda and they all want their say, whether they’re putting in $2,000 or $2 million. It’s all getting more corporate, and if they’re investing in music, they want that big public moment, they want bragging rights.

There are three tertiary institutions that are paying for their online lessons with philanthropy instead of university government money. Philanthropy actually encourages the widening of the divide between rich and poor: opera gets more, experimental music less through philanthropy. The agenda of the donors.

A Brief History of the Future by Jacques Attali (who wrote Noise: The Political Economy of Music) suggests that live performance will become more valuable, digital artifacts valueless. Everybody jumps in with ‘that’s not the future, that’s now!’

3 responses to “A frank, fly on the wall discussion among Sydney’s musicians

  1. Parlour music is an initiative attempting to connect audiences with musicians in a way that respects both. Cuts out the necessity of a permanent venue by using homes.

    I saw Oh Pep! and Angie McMahon play on Friday and it was great vibe. Exciting to hear original music in a space that’s someone’s home normally. It’s vibrant and alive.

    Not a new model (folk music house concerts, People’s Republic of C, etc) but seems a good one early career performers.

  2. Most of the Arts are hard work always have been,people don’t want to pay for them there is no answer ,unless you buy a painting that over years increases in value , you can buy a CD of music you love then you contribute to the artists , lack of venues is a real problem nowadays , pubs all have THE POKIES they make more money for them and a lot less work than organizing a concert , State funding is a joke ,they love to fund Opera and Symphony Orchestras but that’s all ,I would never either listen to or attend a performance of either nor would most people I know , but music will always survive in some way because people are inspired by who went before them , from the early days of New Orleans , the Irish folk music , African tribal drums , Indian Sitars , spanish Flamenco , it’s all out there on records , Louis Armstrong , Bing Crosby ,Sinatra ,delta Blues , Jimi Hendrix ,so many players to listen to and try to be like or better, there is no way you can stop it but we need more venues to perform in and bums on seats to pay for it , wishful thinking? ?

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