Is employment in the Australian cultural industries falling? John Black can’t tell us

In today’s Australian Financial Review, former Labor Senator John Black has an interesting opinion piece about Australian unemployment trends since 2008.

Black’s research company, Australian Development Strategies, has undertaken some economic modelling on the issue, published in a web paper entitled Australian Jobs Profile for 2010.

In the paper, repeated in his column for the AFR, Black makes the startling claim that:

The industry with the biggest loss in jobs – 25,000 – since November 2007 has been the media – which includes publishers, the music industry, television, the internet, web search providers, ISPs, data processors, telecommunications workers and librarians. These skilled jobs of particular interest to younger Australians have fallen by 11 percent since November 2007, despite the National Broadband Network.
I’m often in violent disagreement with Black’s political analysis, but, if true, his article uncovers an interesting point about unemployment in the Australian media and cultural industries that the gold standard Australian Bureau of Statistics data can’t capture (because it is based on Census data, held only every five years).
Unfortunately, because of the opaque nature of the report, it’s almost impossible to determine where Black has derived his figures from. There’s no methodology section to the report, and about the most detail that can be discovered is the following, buried in a paragraph on page page 3:
This paper looks at the comparison of original or raw monthly unemployment rates in 69 Labour Force regions, across Australia, and uses simple modelling to benchmark these percentage figures against our Elaborate database.
But there is no description of the Elaborate database, so we can’t really tell. It’s the opposite of rigorous. This survey tells us nothing meaningful about employment in the Australian cultural industries.
Conclusion? Australian Database Strategies might enjoy a high media profile thanks to former Senator John Black, but that doesn’t mean we should take factoids like this too seriously.

Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.

John Nicoll on the cargo-cult of screenwriting in Australia

The Black Balloon, which featured an AFI-winning script by writer Jimmy Jack, is a rare example of Australian film in which a script was developed by a non-writer/director

In today’s Australian Financial Review (a paywalled site, so there’s no link I can show you), John Nicoll has an excellent dissection of the script-mania that sees to be gripping Australian screen funding bodies.

Nicolls makes the point that:

the big funding agencies have themselves elevated scripts to god-like status with the creation of super script workshops, where a handful of carefully selected are put through intensive work-shops.

I’m going to reproduce some of Nicoll’s article at length over the fold, because I think its such a worthwhile exploration of this issue. What emerges is yet another false idol in the ongoing cargo-cult mentality of Australin screen policy (a problem I’ve analysed with my colleague Alex Burns in a forthcoming academic paper for Media International Australia) .

Continue reading

The best article about freelancing – ever

Richard Morgan has written the best article about freelancing I’ve ever read at The Awl.

Excerpt below, but make sure you read the entire bitter-sweet funny-sad melancholy-hilarious magnum opus.

Heroes be damned; a writer should not model themselves after an editor. That is probably the single best realization I have made as a freelancer.

Moss said the thing that all editors inevitably tell all writers—something along the lines of “I really admire your determination, because I tried freelancing and didn’t last six months.” Editors like to talk about how much they need freelancers and how much they envy our freedom and our work ethic and our Rolodex. Whenever a friend loses his staff job at a magazine or newspaper, his ensuing panic reminds me that they put all their eggs in one basket and that I am cushioned because I have my eggs spread across so many baskets (which is a different kind of panic). Freelancing has great rewards, but trajectory is not really one of them. You do not go from being a freelance writer to a freelance editor to a freelance deputy managing editor. Essentially, I’m doing the same thing I was doing in 2003. The market for my vaudevillian sales of wonder tonic can dry up at any moment. An editor leaves. A magazine folds. And poof! Gone.

For the record, I’ve been freelancing for nine years and I’ve liked nearly all the editors I’ve ever written for. Editors are a writer’s best friend!

Special series on innovation theory: 2: Paul Stoneman’s Soft Innovation

Paul Stoneman's Soft Innovation is a major new monograph on innovation as it applies to the creative and cultural industries. Image: Amazon/OUP

I haven’t read the book, but you can read his previous discussion paper on soft innovation for NESTA. Relevant quote:

We define ‘soft innovation’ as a concept that reflects changes of an aesthetic nature. Such changes are considered significant if they are economically important. We show how important are new books, films, plays and video games in markets which exhibit regular novelty. Such innovations can also encompass a new line of clothing or the redesign of a car or a new advertising campaign. No-frills budget airlines or cosmetic surgery are further examples of markets in which firms rely on changes in aesthetics more than changes in technology to thrive or survive.
In short, we are concerned with changes in goods and services that primarily impact on sensory or intellectual perception and aesthetic appeal rather than functional performance. Soft innovation mainly concerns product innovation and, with that, product differentiation. Emphasising product differentiation allows that innovation may involve differences from the status quo and not just improvements, which is quite different from the standard approach where innovations in functionality require any new product to be an improvement; soft innovations may involve reductions in quality rather than just improvements (if price falls more than quality), as with budget airlines.
We identify two main types of soft innovation. The first involves changes in products in the creative industries, which are worth 6.4 per cent of UK gross value added, and include new books or movies. The second relates to aesthetic innovation in goods and services that are primarily functional in nature, such as new furniture or a new car model.

Simon and Schuster CEO: We still don’t get e-publishing

US e-book sales, 2002-2010. Source: Neilsen BookScan, International Digital Publishing Forum, AFR.

The Australian Financial Review, paradoxically one the best newspapers for coverage of the Australian cultural industries even as its own circulation dwindles away towards marginality, has an excellent article on e-publishing today.

In an ironic twist, you can’t actually see it online, because the geniuses at Fairfax are still firewalling their content the internet. (Great business strategy, guys). This means that the AFR‘s typically excellent Katrina Strickland is denied to web readers, just as today’s article by Emma Connors is.

No matter: you’re humble correspondent still likes to read newspapers and has gone out and bought a physical copy of one.

The article contains a long and interesting interview with Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy.

In 2007 the New York based publisher began digitising 12,000 of its backlist titles, and creating a digital distribution network. It was a leap of faith that cost ‘close to eight figures’, says Reidy, who laughs when asked about the return on investment.

“I would say there has not been enough of one yet,” says Reidy.

“Some of those titles are not even available for sale as e-books because we are still clearing the necessary agreements with authors from the deep back catalogue, making sure the contractual work is done.”

The quotes from Reidy are not particularly groundbreaking, but what the article does reveal is how publishers continue to struggle with the cultural implications of the transformation of their industry – from a creator of bespoke physical objects, to the digital distributor of bulk creative commodities.  As Reidy tells Connors,

“We are trying to build on our experience physical sales to make sense of digital, but there’s no doubt we are experimenting. No one feels they have the answer yet.

We don’t know if we will sell more books overall because it is easier for people to buy online where they just have to push a button.

We are not sure if the cultural role books have played – one that is so central – will be maintained as the digital model progresses.

These are all questions that are coming up.”

In other words, publishers are a l0t like newspaper editors and journalists: in deep, deep denial.

I think I can answer those questions really quickly: Will more books be sold online? Yes. Will the central cultural role of books continue? No.

YouTube turns 5

Above: The Evolution of Dance, YouTube’s third-top all-time video and certainly one of my favourites.

It’s hard to believe, but the paradigmatic web video  site has now turned 5. The New York Times has an interview with Chad Hurley, while there  some other good links here, here and here.

YouTube serves 2 billion page views, but does it make a profit? Google doesn’t break down the figures in its accounts, but analysts still think the site may not yet be making money. Perhaps soon.

Big record labels sue gyms and win big

Gyms that play copyrighted music in Australia are up for a big hike in their licensing fees. Image: Chicagonow.com

Today marks another victory in the inexorable legal campaign for more licensing fee revenue by big Australian record labels, led by their industry body, the PPCA.

As Bellinda Kontminas in The Age reports today, the Copyright Tribunal has ruled that gyms must now pay significantly greater royalty fees to labels for the right to play copyrighted music to exercising gym-goers:

The decision, handed down today by the Copyright Tribunal, means that fitness centres will be slugged $15 each class for the use of the music or $1 per attendee of each class.
Gyms had previously been charged 96.8 cents a class, with a cap of $2654 a year.
Fitness Australia said it was “disappointed” with the decision which it said represented a 1500 per cent increase in music costs for an average-size fitness centre.
Chief executive Loretta Stace said it was now reviewing the decision to determine whether there were grounds for appeal.
She said record companies had “shot themselves in the foot” as many fitness centres were already starting to use music that was not subject to PPCA copyright.
Susan Kingsmill, owner of Hiscoes Fitness Centre, said music artists would would now be disadvantaged.
“This decision will lead all fitness centres to seek more affordable music alternatives to the detriment of Australian performing artists, but the artists only have the record companies to blame for this.”

For those of you not aware of the background of this case, it stems from a similar suit brought by the PPCA three years ago against the nightclub industry, in which the big labels similarly won a massive royalty hike. I covered that decision, and the opaque governance structure of the PPCA, in an in-depth article for Arts Hub in 2007.  Representing around 75% of the recorded music industry by sales, the PPCA is effect a legalized cartel (like APRA, it even has a special dispensation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in order to operate as a monopolistic collection agency).

The decision is something of a win for the big labels, who have run into serious troubles in the past decade owing to high debt loads, falling CD sales, rampant downloading and an industry shift towards touring and merchandise.  It’s also another example of the increasingly skewed nature of copyright law in Australia, which is now titled decisively towards copyright holders, like famous artists and big publishers, and away from rights-users, like libraries, schools and gyms.

The EU’s new Green Paper on the cultural and creative industries

The boffins at the European Union have released a new Green Paper on the “cultural and creative industires”. Entitled Unlocking the potential of cultural and creative industries, the paper is an important clue as to the future development of cultural policy in Europe.

While I won’t summarise the entire paper here, it’s certainly worthwhile reading for the cultural policy w0nk. For instance, the paper estimates that the creative and cultural industries make up something like 2.6% of Euro-zone GDP. It also thinks  that digitalisation is the biggest ongoing trend in the sector, and that small-to-medium enterprises are vital to its health and growth:

Even in sectors where major international companies play a leading role, small and micro-enterprises play a crucial role in creativity and innovation. They are typically the risk takers and early adopters and play decisive roles when it comes to scouting for new talents, developing new trends and designing new aesthetics.
A diverse range of entrepreneurs and the free movement of their services is a prerequisite for a culturally diverse offer to consumers. This is possible only if fair access to the market is guaranteed. Creating and maintaining the level playing field which ensures that there are no unjustified barriers to entry will require combined efforts in different policy fields, especially competition policy.
There’s plenty more in the Green Paper; various industry and media reactions can be found here, here and here.

Ken Auletta on the iPad, the Kindle and the future of books

The Papyrus Bodmer II, an early Christian codex (125 AD). Source: Logos Resource Page.

In the New Yorker, Ken Auletta has a highly-researched and rewarding piece on the industry manouvering behind the e-book revolution. It is a fascinating account a gyrating sentiments inside the big publishers, as the book industry confronts rapid technological change:

In the weeks before [the launch of the iPad], the book industry had been full of unaccustomed optimism; in some publishing circles, the device had been referred to as “the Jesus tablet.” The industry was desperate for a savior. Between 2002 and 2008, annual sales had grown just 1.6 per cent, and profit margins were shrinking. Like other struggling businesses, publishers had slashed expenditures, laying off editors and publicists and taking fewer chances on unknown writers.

The industry’s great hope was that the iPad would bring electronic books to the masses—and help make them profitable. E-books are booming. Although they account for only an estimated three to five per cent of the market, their sales increased a hundred and seventy-seven per cent in 2009, and it was projected that they would eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty per cent of all books sold. But publishers were concerned that lower prices would decimate their profits. Amazon had been buying many e-books from publishers for about thirteen dollars and selling them for $9.99, taking a loss on each book in order to gain market share and encourage sales of its electronic reading device, the Kindle. By the end of last year, Amazon accounted for an estimated eighty per cent of all electronic-book sales, and $9.99 seemed to be established as the price of an e-book. Publishers were panicked. David Young, the chairman and C.E.O. of Hachette Book Group USA, said, “The big concern—and it’s a massive concern—is the $9.99 pricing point. If it’s allowed to take hold in the consumer’s mind that a book is worth ten bucks, to my mind it’s game over for this business.”

It’s a great article that examines the fears and hopes of publishers, the shift in business models from physical objects to electronic entertainment experiences, and the incompatibility of spreadsheet-savvy IT behemoths and clubby, author-friendly book publishers. The article’s conlcusion? Unexpectedly, publishers may have leveraged their position as producers of compelling content to play various device operators off against each other, potentially saving the industry.

For now, many publishers believe that they have won the chess match that Sargent started. “We have three behemoths now competing,” the C.E.O. of one house said. “So one of them can’t force us to do anything unless the others go along.” Early sales of the iPad are promising: Apple said that more than three hundred thousand sold the first day, and analysts have guessed that between five and seven million will be sold this year. And a dozen other digital reading devices were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, in January, providing more competition for the Kindle.

Publishers have another reason to hope. The recession has changed the thinking of Silicon Valley companies, shaking their faith in advertising as their only source of revenue. YouTube has begun charging for some independent movies, in an effort to compete with Netflix, and its managers know that to succeed it must have professionally produced content that advertisers—and consumers—will pay for. As digital companies begin charging for content, they are met in the middle by old-media companies looking for ways to charge for what they produce. The incentives for old and new media to form partnerships seem to converge.

I think that’s wishful thinking, to say the least.  But then again, the major record labels haven’t disappeared (yet) either. Ultimately, authors need a way to fuind consumers, and as musicians have found, that problem is as much about industry connections and marketing savvy as it is about the distribution of their content to places where readers and listeners can find it.