This time last year, we put together an in-depth look at at Melbourne and its scene that was in the midst of spitting out a range of artists making waves overseas. While hugely positive (with everything from its world-class live music scene to its load-in assisting flat, wide streets singled out for praise), in the interests of balance a question was posed relating to the city’s future and any potential future threats. Again, a largely varied response ensued with mentions for rising rents and the majors creating watered-down copycat clones of some of the city’s indie bands. But a recurring theme was that of a perceived lack of government interest with an attendant lack of funding to match. “They just cut arts funding in Australia, so that’s probably not a step in the right direction…” said Courtney Barnett, adding that “artists do not need the government in order to make art, and nobody should feel entitled to receive monetary help in order to make art, but I do find it absurd when they ‘market’ Melbourne as this groovy grungey, graffiti’d, tattooed, cultural underground hub but then go out of their way to de-regulate and fuck it all up.”
Her words have proven to be painfully prescient in light of the recent dual announcements of funding cuts to the community radio sector and the denying of further government funding to highly respected (and important) music export service Sounds Australia threatening to compromise artists at both a domestic and international level. Reporting on the Sounds Australia funding cuts, FasterLouder summed up its importance with typical Antipodean bluntness via a straight-talking “geographically, Australia is at the arse end of the world. Even with an internet-led musical landscape, it’s still pretty bloody tough for artists to get noticed on the international radar. And let’s get it out of the way now: it is important for Australian acts to get noticed internationally. We’re a small pond, relatively speaking, and opportunities are limited.”
But before getting into the issues surrounding Sounds Australia and the export of Australian music, it’s worth looking at the potential constraints domestically as a result of A$1.4m funding cuts within the community radio sector. Attracting a listenership of over 5.1m (just over 27% of the population) according to last year’s Community Radio National Listener Survey, the sector itself remains a cornerstone of the Australian broadcasting landscape, with an average listener tuning in for over 15 hours a week. Of that, 1.68m (33% of the total listenership) list specialist music programming as a chief reason for tuning in, with a further 1.38m (27%) claiming the support of local/Australian artists as a key draw. Factor in 46% (2.33m) of community radio listeners are between 15 and 40 – the key demographic in the promotion of new music – and it’s easy to see why it’s a key window front for up-and-coming Australian talent.
“Community Radio is often considered the place where artists are first discovered and radio broadcasters get their initial beginnings,” says Adam Christou, station manager for Perth’s RTRFM, a community station which attracts 102,000 weekly listeners. “But I really do think it extends beyond that”, he continues, “some of these stations (including RTRFM) have been on air for nearly 40+ years and have helped shape the cultural landscape of their home cities.”
“You don’t just rock up to a commercial radio station and hand them a demo do you?” adds Fee Bamford-Bracher, host of Monday afternoon drivetime staple MAPS on Melbourne’s Triple R (a station which can boast 440, 000 weekly listeners). “The amount of support community radio has given to up and coming artists and labels, particularly Australian, is mind blowing. The feeling I get when I uncover something special, maybe with a hand written bio, that a musician has put all of their hopes and dreams into is so rewarding.”
Their views are echoed by everyone we spoke to for this piece, all of whom recognise the key role the community radio sector can play in the development of homegrown talent. But, it’s potentially under threat due to cutbacks in the budget for the Community Broadcasting Project, which has had the amount of money available to administer to radio stations cut from A$16.8m to A$15.4m, with stations in key cities forced to forego digital broadcasting and limit themselves to AM and FM bands. “The cuts won’t take us off air overnight” clarifies Christou, “it just means that when the day comes and analogue FM is turned off, we won’t have secured a place on the digital spectrum to continue broadcasting.” So why not turn to online broadcasting? “The realities of online streaming – a one-to-one service, which is incredibly expensive as you gain more listeners – versus a one-to-many transmission service – one broadcast tower, able to reach an unlimited amount of people at a static cost – means that internet streaming is just not a viable option for us to retain our current listeners and sustain ourselves in the short-term”, Christou says. “Until there are significant changes to the way internet broadcasting functions, it’s going to be a very cost-prohibitive option.”
“I guess nothing ever surprises me when it comes to government taking essential funding from the little people. Who’s going to notice, eh? Community radio will certainly be lost if we cannot keep up in a digital future. The government has not said when analogue services will be turned off, but it is certainly going to happen so we need to be ready”, offers a fired-up Bamford-Bracher, adding that while the focus has been on the musical side, community radio also “offers a broad range of programming where you can find specialist talks, current affairs, politics, educational content, while also giving a direct voice to the underrepresented, Indigenous, LGBTIQ, youth, print-handicapped, seniors, ethnic language and multicultural communities. It’s a shame the politicians aren’t listening to ALL of their constituents.”
But suppose that, as an Australian musician, you succeeded in using community radio as a springboard to something greater, and were ready to make the next step and go international. There’ll be an organisation there to help you achieve that, right? Right? Well, here’s the thing…
Since 2009, Sounds Australia has worked in exporting Australian music to international markets, facilitating opportunities for up-and-coming artists and offering a supportive environment. Considering it’s Australia’s only contemporary music export organisation, and run on a crack team of three people, the raw numbers it’s achieved in six years make for staggering reading. It’s supported 620 artists in 52 cities in 19 countries, resulting in 1292 new performance opportunities and 1593 business outcomes for Australian artists (signing record deals, booking agents, distributors, publicists, synch deals, publishing deals, generating international press and brand endorsements). It’s also produced 97 B2B and networking events and 152 showcases, and can count Chet Faker, Vance Joy and Courtney Barnett in their alumni, all of whom played Sounds showcases during their first year on the international scene.
With this in mind, you’d think they’d be a shoo-in for government arts funding. And they were, until the last round of funding was distributed, where they became a painfully glaring omission. Unsurprisingly, the music community is up in arms at the situation, and for anyone who thinks that’s an overreaction Karen Tinman from APRA AMCOS (the Australasian Performing Rights Association, Sounds Australia’s media liaison partner), puts it in the straightest possible terms: “Without secure, ongoing funding, Sounds Australia’s current level of activity and service in key international markets is in jeopardy. We will definitely need to review the scope of programs and service if the funding shortfall is not secured for 2017 and beyond”
A similarly stark warning comes from Laura Wallbridge, an artist manager who started an online petition which, prior to its closure, attracted over 6,000 signatures and support from the likes of SXSW. “[At its inception] the service filled a major gap that we had and has made exporting a real prospect for Australian artists. Without a team on-ground for these acts to maximise their showcase and networking opportunities (that come at substantial personal investment) I believe we will see a huge drop in the number of acts even being able to play these show cases. It really limits their options and that is a distressing thought.” It’s a view echoed by Claire Collins of Bossy Music, the management and publicity agent which lists Gotye, Flume and Chet Faker on its books. Speaking to ABC news, she mused that “Flume is a good example. Flume’s very first overseas jaunt, they set up shows for them at the CMJ conference which happens in New York and also a few months later at the SXSW conference. Those shows were really great opportunities for everyone in the industry from all over the world to see that act. Those kinds of shows are very hard to set up by yourself and it’s very hard to get the right people along. Sounds Australia are very integral at inviting those people along.”
“The reason why Sounds Australia has been such a huge shock is that they’re a body set up to showcase Australian music overseas, so they’re not even benefiting directly like funding for a theatre company or band” rails Jen Cloher, the Melbourne singer songwriter who co-founded Milk! Records with Courtney Barnett and runs a series of music management workshops for up-and-coming musicians, add that “it’s incredibly shortsighted to stop funding what is basically an advocacy group for Australian music on the global market. Since 2009 they’ve showcased over 500 bands across international markets which is an increase of 437% in just five years. So the statistics are there to back what an incredible job Millie Millgate, Glen Dickie and the gang at Sounds Australia have achieved.”
Sounds Australia’s showcases at SXSW, The Great Escape, CMJ and several other key international industry events have afforded an invaluable opportunity not only in building a new fanbase and generating interest and coverage, but also in doing it in a supportive and community-minded way. “It can be quite daunting to go over internationally and start again in a territory that you haven’t been before and don’t have the support yet,” offers Helen Croome, a singer-songwriter via her Gossling moniker “Sounds Australia help artists that are going over(seas) by putting on showcases so that when they go over there they’re not just playing one show to five people, they’re playing multiple shows. And also they’re on-the-ground support for artists and their management.” Cloher agrees, adding that in her view the showcases to date have afforded “Australian artists a safe haven when travelling to a new country for the first time. A lot of the artists showcasing don’t yet have management or any kind of international representation so it’s super scary going into these places for the first time. That alone is a great reason to have Sounds Australia at those showcasing events.”
— SXSW (@sxsw) May 10, 2016
The road to the position Sounds Australia finds itself in is a long and twisting one. In 2014 Tony Abbott’s administration announced over A$85m of arts funding cuts (including A$28m from federal arts body Australia Council) over four years. Following that, in 2015, then federal Culture Secretary George Brandis (since succeeded by Mitch Fyfield) announced plans to direct a further A$104.8m – eventually reduced by A$32m – into a new four-year scheme that would eventually become known as Catalyst and offer A$12m a year of funding distributed directly for the Ministry For The Arts. That scheme, under the latest raft of announcements, then elected not to offer any funding to Sounds Australia (along with over 60 other organisations) beyond the end of this year. Commenting on Catalyst’s impact on the arts sector, The Australian’s Matthew Westwood described it as having “disrupted the arts funding infrastructure and aspects of its rollout have not been in the spirit the sector was led to expect. It is vulnerable to political motivations, such as the pre-election grant-giving spree that has wiped out a second year of allotted funding, and some grants appear at odds with the stated priority for small to medium organisations.”
But Westwood was writing in a piece entitled ‘Catalyst program alone not to blame for arts losing funds’, and it’s a fair comment. Supporters can rightly point to its focus on local and aboriginal projects and an upswing in recent spending (though that in itself is a potential issue, with half – A$23m – of its four year budget having been spent in six months). Rather, it’s a question of the arts sector receiving insufficient funding to operate fully. “The Australia Council is not allocated enough in the Federal Budget to properly achieve its mission,” says theatre director and Brisbane Festival arts director David Berthold in a recent blog post “This is despite the fact that each year the creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against an investment of $7 billion. The Australia Council’s budget is a tiny fraction of that investment, but is one of the principal drivers. It’s difficult to understand the reluctance to more reasonably support arts and culture. More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to the AFL and NRL combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or even mining, and indeed contribute as much as 75% of the economic benefit of the mining sector.”
He goes on to detail the A$4bn of mining subsidies a year, A$6bn in the banking sector, and a 2012 Olympic campaign which cost the taxpayer A$10m for every medal won. So with the Sounds Australia funding announcement coming in the lead-up to Courtney Barnett’s Saturday Night Live appearance and at a time where the organisation was nominated for two Yearly Music Convention Awards for Best Showcase and Best Music Export Office the question is whether Australian music is undervalued at a governmental level and if so does it stem from ignorance or indifference? “Government has never fully understood the music industry’s complex ecology” says Joel Edmondson from QMusic, Queensland’s regional music advocacy organisation “It’s too complex to fit within one government portfolio – things like that usually end up getting missed or deprioritised. People within the music industry are shocked at the cuts, but that’s because we understand the value of Sounds Australia and community radio. The unfortunate reality is that the value of the creative industries is not recognised because our Federal government’s economic policy is almost totally focused on fossil fuels and the housing and financial sectors.”
“Over the last 3 or so years, the industry has amassed a lot of really compelling information about the value of contemporary music to the Australian economy” he continues “even from that purely economic rationalist perspective, there is a very strong argument for investment in the sector. But this evidence has done nothing to meaningfully change the funding landscape. To me that’s a clear sign that decision-making about arts funding remains more about vested interests in other art forms and preconceived notions of the cultural value of contemporary music than it is about evidence/facts.”
“Unless politicians are on the ground to witness what artists are up against they’ll never really understand just how brutal it is trying to build a career both here and overseas” offers Jen Cloher, adding that “perhaps we need to fund more advocacy groups like Music Victoria, that spend time explaining the importance of music to politicians.” Though Edmondson disagrees with the idea that in the wake of the funding cute advocacy has taken on a greater role (“it won’t make advocacy organisations any less or more important”) both he and Cloher agree that the cuts feel like the latest move in an ongoing grudge match. “It feels like the recent cuts are a personal vendetta by the government to silence the arts, the only people alongside journalists that have the guts to stand up against them” says the latter, not mincing her words “At the moment it feels like a war on the arts. This is no exaggeration. People across all art forms dance, theatre, film, music, visual arts are absolutely stunned. A country without culture has no democracy right?” Edmondson goes further, as he opines that “the arts sector in Australia needs to do is find new allies. The political war on artists in Australia is fundamentally the same as that on the funding of science and innovation – it’s a war on ideas and different ways of thinking or expressing yourself. There’s a common struggle but we are still too divided/fragmented to get a clear message across to the public.”
Hurt and shocked by the recent double blow of funding cuts, Australia’s music industry finds itself at a time when it should rightfully be bullish instead of worried and deeply concerned for its future ability to mix it on the international scene (it’s telling that almost everyone we contacted took the time to issue a thanks for highlighting the issue). But where next? With Sounds Australia and community radio being two channels for emerging music that have no direct replacements or easily comparable ‘plan B’ alternatives it’s hard to say. With an election looming both the Green and Labour oppositions have pledged to restore community radio funding, with the latter also making encouraging noises about upping the federal arts budget. (though as anyone who has lived in Britain during the last half decade, election promises and results can often prove to be two very different things). With a 20,000 strong march in Melbourne against potential venue closures and similarly populous marches in Sydney against their late night licensing restrictions the public have shown themselves more than capable of standing up for what they believe in. But can they do it again? “It seems kind of crazy that those campaigns even have to exist right?” argues Bamford-Bracher – “to be honest, we all get tired of having to mobilise and rally the troops, we just shouldn’t have to but we will – every single time. Important voices and communities will be left behind and I don’t want to live in that world.”
Many have started asking the international community to join in the fight, whether it be to sign the respective Sounds Australia (now closed) and community radio (which is still open, has over 50,000 signatures and can be found here) petitions, writing to Australian MPs to highlight how this is an issue that has far reaching global effects or for touring international artists to speak out on the issue while over there – in short, anything which continues to spread word of the issues. “We shouldn’t have to ask the international community to help us,” says Bamford-Bracher “even though their support is so important and many of them have asked how they can support us.”
Australian contemporary music’s funding crisis is one not only of artists not getting the breaks they deserve, but also of how Australian culture is perceived globally and the further knock-on effects that could stem from that. The funding cuts to community radio threaten to stifle the development of the next generation of musicians, and the Sounds Australia cuts could compromise the impact they could make overseas. If all of that comes to pass in the next few years, to what extent will the international media take the time to look at the reasons for the drop in numbers of Australian acts crossing their paths, or will they simply assume the bubble’s burst and its recent purple patch has come to an end? Having been musically spoiled for choice in recent years, maybe it’s time for the overseas community to stand alongside Australian music to ensure the next wave get that same chance.