When cultural policy becomes an election issue

Protestors gather outside Melbourne's Parliament House to rally in support of live music venues. Photograph: Sarah-Jane Woulahan

More than 10,000 protesters gathered outside Victoria’s Parliament House today to protest an unpopular Victorian government policy.

What were they protesting about? Climate change? The war in Afghanistan? Taxes?

No, they were protesting about a cultural policy. In possibly the first popular protest of its kind in this country since the Rum Rebellion, today’s large rally was a protest about harsh new liquor regulations, particularly in live contemporary music venues.

As I’ve chronicled here before, the closure of The Tote and the protest it engendered has snowballed into an astonishing popular protest movement against the new licensing laws. It’s a surprising development in a community often mocked for its political apathy.

I once asked Cory Doctorow what would be required for cultural policy to be taken seriously in Australia. “You should make cultural policy an issue that could lead to the break-up of your country,” the Canadian author replied with a quick grin.

But in Melbourne, rock and roll matters. The city is famous for its small bars and rock pubs and has named a laneway after favourite sons AC/DC. Today’s protest featured a reprise of the famous “band on a back of a truck” film clip shot by AC/DC for “It’s a Long Way to the Top” in Melbourne in 1974, including the original bagpipe players.

Now the Labor government of John Brumby is scrambling to control the damage caused by over-zealous liquor licensing inspectors. The government announced today it had signed an accord with representatives of the Victorian contemporary music industry to roll back the most disliked regulations, such as the requirements for extra security guards for any venue featuring live music.

While it is a win for the industry, it is unlikely to mark the end of the issue. This is an election year in the state of Victoria and The Greens are expected to poll well in many rock-friendly inner-city seats currently held by Labor. It’s an object lesson for governments everywhere of the unintended consequences of over-regulation, particularly in cultural industries where crucial infrastructure is both widely popular and only marginally profitable.

Why Triple J matters: an essay for Meanjin Quarterly

In this September’s issue of Meanjin Quarterly I have a long essay on the role and curious significance of the ABC’s national youth network, triple j.

The full essay can be found on the Meanjin website, and you can also listen to a MP3 interview I recorded in May with triple j’s music director, Richard Kingsmill and his deputy, Nick Findlay. It’s a long and interesting discussion that is well worth the download.

Popular music policy in Australia and New Zealand: Part Two: “A portrait of a politician as a young rocker”: Shane Homan on live music venue regulation in NSW

Today I have a look at Shane Homan’s 2008 article in Popular Music, “A portrait of the politician as a young pub rocker: live music venue reform in Australia”, 27(2): 243-256.

For non-Australians, the Joyce reference in the title refers not to Australia’s arts minister, Peter Garrett, the former lead singer for seminal Australian rock band Midnight Oil, but New South Wales’ former Premier (Chief Minister), Morris Iemma, who rediscovered a teenage love of attending pub rock gigs after taking office in the mid 2000’s .  But Homan’s article is really about the policy framework that regulates Australia’s live contemporary music venues in this country’s largest state, New South Wales, and the demographic and regulatory trends that have affected it.

Sydney’s famous “pub rock” scene produced a number of world-famous acts in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, including Midnight Oil, the Hunters and Collectors, INXS, Icehouse and a slew of others. Homan’s paper does a good job of explaining this scene: “the Australian pub rock experience in particular distinguished the local product in a global market; the renowned ferocity of bands and ‘punters’ provided a distinctive regional characteristic to a local industry built upon an imported cultural form.”

By the mid-1990s, however, the commercial live music sector was confronting some significant problems: rapid gentrification of the inner-city neighbourhoods where live music pubs were located was leading to complaints against live venues and regulatory enforcement by local governments; this issue was exacerbated by state laws aimed at suppressing alcohol-related violence and public disorder. “Gambling law changes also made an impact,” Homan writes, as slot machines rapidly proliferated in New South Wales pubs, often at the expense of support for live music.

Ironically, it is the cosmopolitan and cultural nature of inner-city districts that is typically the selling point for urban redevelopment and inner-city gentrification; Homan argues that “the property boom, and subsequent changes to residential populations, has thus provoked a perverse programme of social selection, where the more controlled urban environment sought by the new residents is distinctly at odds with its earlier vibrant, cosmopolitan reputation.”

Homan then goes on to take an in-depth look at New South Wales’ live music venue regulations. Predictably, he finds they are expensive, opaque and typically at odds with other aspects of cultural policy, such as live music initiatives. It’s a fascinating discussion for those interested in the policy minutiae, and a valuable lesson in one jurisdiction’s regulatory overhead  on cultural expression for the rest of us.

Homan concludes that “within more orderly, gentrified constructions of the night-time economy, the presence of the ‘noisy’ live music venue remains a key means of assessing our commitment to a diversity of cultural leisure communities.”

VCA Puppetry Course on the chopping block

The Victorian College of the Arts faces a deeply uncertain future as Melbourne University makes swinging cuts to courses and jobs there.

Earlier this month Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster reported that jobs were slashed, writing:

In its first month the VCAM have let go at least 12 casual professional staff, moved others to different employee agreements and implemented a hiring freeze. A new announcement in the next fortnight is expected to include further staff and course cuts.

It’s pretty evident the university is ready to slash and burn,” says Alison Hose of the Victorian College of the Arts Student Union, which permanently closes in June due to a lack of funding. “Staff are extremely concerned and everyone is walking around looking panic stricken about their jobs at the moment.”

And as Robin Usher reported today in The Age, the School of Puppetry will be “suspended” in a plan that will ultimately see the VCA amalgamate the existing six schools into three or even two.

Students are so concerned they have set up a website, on which they have posted a leaked business plan which outlines the university’s intentions to cut 11 million in funding from the VCA and implement the controversial “Melbourne model” course structure:

The Dean of the VCA, Professor Sharman Pretty, is a highly polarising figure who has prior “form” in forced amalgamations of university courses. Her tenure at Auckland University saw her described as a “chainsaw” and led to staff and student protests after the unhappy departure of distinguished Yale architecture Professor Peggy Deamer. Staff and students told Chris Barton at the New Zealand Herald of a “climate of fear”, a “climate of cynicism”, a “climate of asphyxiation” and a “toxic environment”. Before that, professor Pretty was involved in a restructure at the Sydney Conservatorium.

The VCA’s problems stem from its long-term underfunding by the federal Education department. Institutions like the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) are funded by Peter Garrett’s Arts portfolio and receive much higher funding levels per student than Education-funded institutions like VCA. Addressing this mismatch in funding levels was a recommendation of Terry Cutler’s Innovation report, Venturous Australia, released last year, but so far Julia Gillard’s Education department has yet to come to the party.

The result of the VCA’s funding problems was a shotgun marriage with Melbourne University in 2007. Under Professor Pretty, the University is now implementing savage cost-cuts to make the newly-named VCA “sustainable,” but it looks very much as much of the unique character of the VCA will be lost in the process.

The Puppetry School, for instance, is the only school of its type in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is not at all clear that demand will exist for expensive post-graduate courses in the new model. After all, even successful VCA graduates often go on to risky and impoverished careers in the performing and fine arts.

As student Alison Hope told The Age, “the fear is that no actor or dancer will be able to pay the post-grad fees. It’s not as if they earn the equivalent of doctors or engineers.”

But Deans of universities do, which is perhaps why the indefatigable Sharman Pretty seems determined to cut and slash her way through the third controversial academic restructure of her career.

Ellie Rennie on SYN FM

There’s a great article by Ellie Rennie about Melbourne student radio station SYN FM in the upcoming Griffith Review:

SYN stands for the much-too-serious Student Youth Network; nobody
can be bothered saying that on air. Audiences like the station because it has a
child-like innocence – it has none of the polished, fast-paced, ad-ridden hype
of commercial radio. If you live in Melbourne you can fi nd SYN on the radio,
television and the web. If you search hard you can also fi nd a few old copies of
its magazine, Pecado (which means ‘sin’ in Spanish), lying around its inner-city
headquarters. SYNners will be listening to their peer-produced content in their
rooms, watching it on television or downloading it to their iPods to take on the
train. Some tune in and decide ‘I can do better’, so they call up and book in for
a training program, others are online building the technologies, or in studios
telling the newbies which buttons to press.
For all of the talk of a new communications paradigm there are very few
stories of the people who are actually making it. SYN is a very small enterprise
where people go to learn about, and become part of, the media. The high dramas
of media dynasties, acquisitions and political infl uence lie pretty far from
their reality. But the ‘radical changes’ occurring in the mediascape come from
the sudden, wide-scale participation of ordinary folk in media production and
distribution. New ideas and technologies are emerging out of non-marketbased
activities – friendship groups and hobbies – outside of professionalised
industry. It is these stories that now need telling.
The life of SYN is also a story of digital literacy – a new literacy involving
the ability to write, not just read, the forms and languages of digital media
content. Through this poorly funded and only loosely organised institution,
young people are planning their response to the hard questions: ‘Where does
new media participation lead to?’ ‘Who is it benefi ting?’


SYN stands for the much-too-serious Student Youth Network; nobody can be bothered saying that on air. Audiences like the station because it has a child-like innocence – it has none of the polished, fast-paced, ad-ridden hype of commercial radio. If you live in Melbourne you can fi nd SYN on the radio, television and the web. If you search hard you can also fi nd a few old copies of its magazine, Pecado (which means ‘sin’ in Spanish), lying around its inner-city headquarters. SYNners will be listening to their peer-produced content in their rooms, watching it on television or downloading it to their iPods to take on the train. Some tune in and decide ‘I can do better’, so they call up and book in for a training program, others are online building the technologies, or in studios telling the newbies which buttons to press. Continue reading

Love Your Work: the Australia Council’s supply-side cultural economics

Just a week before Christmas, the Australia Council released an important piece of research entitled Love Your Work: training, retaining and connecting artists in theatre.  

The research paper is the latest in a recent series on the larger end of the performing arts sector – this time dealing with what OzCo calls the “interconnectedness” of the theatre sector – or what I would call the theatre sector’s “industry ecology.”

According to the Australia Council, the research identifies the following issues:

  • creative workforce succession: where are the directors, artistic directors, designers and other key creatives of the future going to come from, and what can the sector do to support their development now?
  • Interconnections: how can the theatre sector’s connections be strengthened to support and manage risk-taking, address issues of talent development and succession, and provide benefit for both small-to-medium and large companies?

As the two dot-points imply, OzCo has suddenly bercome very worried about the succession issues for theatre companies, particularly in terms of key creative staff like artistic directors, directors and designers.  For anyone in the Australian theatre industry, this is no surprise – the opportunities for emerging and mid-level directors are vanishingly rare, as this report explores in some detail. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing is that OzCo has finally identified a lack of opportunities for key creative staff as an issue at all – given that the problem has been staring the sector in the face for at least a decade.

For the academic researcher, there are a number of useful data points published in the paper, which I examine over the fold. Continue reading

(Not) making money out of independent theatre

Apologies are due to Elaine and any other readers of my blog: I’ve been rather silent here of late, owing to some very hard work I’ve been doing producing a play in Melbourne.

The play is called “Venus in Furs” and is a new adaptation by my friend Neal Harvey of the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a minor classic of fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian literature that also gave the world the term “masochism.”

You can read some reviews of the play in The Age, The Australian and a very fine engagement with the piece at Vibewire.

The reason I mention this involvement is that, rather in the style of Edward Epstein, The Hollywood Economist, I’m going to unpick the economics of this independent production on this blog. In the process, it will hopefully illustrate some of the themes of my upcoming confirmation draft concerning the structure of the cultural industries, and the implications (if any) for cultural policy.

I haven’t been totally slacking off on my confirmation, by the way – I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the daytim, and later this afternoon I’m going to post a series of reviews of monographs I’ve recently read – Bruno S. Frey’s Arts and Economics, David Hesmondhalgh’s The Cultural Industries and Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture.

But for for those of you interested in the micro-economics of independent theatre, read on …

Continue reading

Angela McRobbie’s “Making a living in London’s small-scale creative sector”

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading the Dominic Power and Allan J. Scott edited Cultural industries and the production of culture (Routledge, 2004).

It contains some excellent chapter articles by some heavy-hitting contributors. One of the best is “Making a living in London’s small-scale creative sector” by Angela McRobbie, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College in London. McRobbie is perhaps bets known for her insightful writing on contemporary feminism, but this chapter’s discussion of his research into emerging visual artists in London is a gem. Continue reading