The economic value of magazine street vendors

From today’s Brisbane Times comes an article reporting about a study of the economic value of The Big Issue street vendors:

The Economic Value of Street Vendor Program report released today estimates the concept – in which vendors sell the magazine for $5 and keep half for themselves – saves tax payers $20,000 per vendor per year in welfare services which the vendors would not otherwise have been able to pay for.

In addition to the $7 million saved in welfare services, the vendor program generates commercial benefits of $3 million from sales of the magazine.

It strikes me this strategy of street-level economic development may have wider implications for pubic and cultural policy. What do you think? 

I haven’t been able to find a copy of the report on the web, but I’ve put a request in with The Big Issue for a copy. Hopefully I will be able to profile it here in coming days.


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

Williams and Currid’s “2 Cities, 5 Industries”

CORRECTION: In the initial version of this post, I wrongly confused Sarah Williams and Ezliabeth Currid’s paper “2 Cities, 5 Industries” with their “Geography of Buzz” paper. Thanks to Elaine for pointing out my error.

With that in mind, this post is about Williams and Currid’s new paper “Two Cities, Five Industries: Similarities and Differences Within and Between Cultural Industries in New York and Los Angeles” is marked “Do Not Cite Without the Permission of the Authors”, but as it is online and as Sarah Williams was interviewed by the New York Times today, I think it’s worth a look.

Currid and Williams drill down literally to street level to examine diaggregated data about the cultural industries in New York and Los Angeles. In doing so, they are able to generate a far more fine-grained analysis of cultural industries location and co-location that previous analyses: Continue reading

Culture in hard times: Cowen and Westbury

Hannah Arendt once wrote a fine book of essays called Men in Dark Times. As the economic storm clouds gather, we appear to be entering a similarly difficult time (though let us hope it is not as bleak as inter-war Europe). 

Two items of interest in this sphere of thinking:

1) Tyler Cowen’s early February article in the New York Times on the cultural and social effects of recessions:

In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations and N.B.A. box seats.

In any recession, the poor suffer the most pain. But in cultural influence, it may well be the rich who lose the most in the current crisis. This downturn is bringing a larger-than-usual decline in consumption by the wealthy.

The shift has been documented by Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgenson, finance professors at Northwestern University, in their recent paper, “Who Bears Aggregate Fluctuations and How? Estimates and Implications for Consumption Inequality.” Of course, people who held much wealth in real estate or stocks have taken heavy losses. But most important, the paper says, the labor incomes of high earners have declined more than in past recessions, as seen in the financial sector.

Popular culture’s catering to the wealthy may also decline in this downturn. We can expect a shift away from the lionizing of fancy restaurants, for example, and toward more use of public libraries. Such changes tend to occur in downturns, but this time they may be especially pronounced.

2) Marcus Westbury on the culture of hard times:

It is probably a good time to remind myself just how much of the culture that i find interesting is the product not of the big budget top end of town but of the unique possibilities of the down side of the economic cycle. It seems obvious to me that in cultural policy – as with almost everything else – changing times call for changing approaches.

Yet the impending new realities have not gained much traction in our cultural debates. Over the last few months, I’ve been travelling up and down the east coast and dealing with arts agencies and organisations at various levels. I’ve been a little surprised at how little recognition there is that cultural policy – like most forms of government policy – can and must adapt and respond to economic conditions.

Tina Kaufman begs the question on Screen Australia

Those of you who read my essay on Australian culture at will know I’ve got a keen interest in Australia’s evolving screen policy controversy.

Now Tina Kaufman at Inside Story has a long feature that covers the birth pains of the new body, Screen Australia, that has replaced the AFC and FFC. Kaufman covers some of the same territory I travelled, including the Schembri controversy,  as well as examining the specific controversies emerging over Screen Australia’s decision to curtail short film funding and support for so-called “emerging” film-makers.

Unfortunately, Kaufman’s article is a disappointingly shallow analysis that rounds up what the various mainstream critics think, only to  dismiss them. This paragraph gives you an idea, as Kaufman complains about a lack of substance in media  criticism of Australian film-making, without offering any herself:

So what are we to make of all this? Probably not very much. It’s really just another, if more extensive, episode of what has been a rather regular event, the media getting stuck into Australian films and filmmaking. It would be more valuable if the debate reached some sound and achievable conclusions, but it never really does. So many years, so much money, so many highs, and recently, so many more lows – this must indicate that the whole business is a lot more complex and much harder to get right than what seems to come through much of the commentary: “You are making the wrong kind of movies!”

Near the end of Kaufman’s article, she finally finds the question she should have begun with:

A number of the films the commentators have labelled “dark and depressing” and therefore not worth seeing, have actually been good films and well worth seeing – so why didn’t they reach an audience?

For a more nuanced analysis of exactly this problem, see Robert Miller and Robert Connolly.

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

Australian cultural policy: an essay by me at

Over the 2008-09 summer break, my colleagues at ran a special series on the state of Australian culture. It’s one of the best short courses you can find online on the Australian cultural sector, including some fascinating pieces by noteworthy writes such as Andrew Frost, Ben Gook, Robert Miller, Jeremy Fisher and Scott Rankin.

At the end of the series, I was able to write a long essay drawing some of the threads together with a particular view on cultural policy.  You can find the essay here:

In this essay, I argue that cultural policy in Australia is about bureaucratic fashion, and history, and tradition — but not evidence. Absurd inconsistencies in who we fund and how we regulate cultural expression are not the exception, but the norm.

So, for instance, we fund large companies of professional musicians to play the musical treasures of the European world — but not of the Islamic, Pacific or Chinese traditions. We spend hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian games. We have exhibited contemporary graffiti and street art in the hallowed halls of our key public art galleries, while vigorously prosecuting and even jailing graffiti artists. We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world, without examining the costs of these special industry protections to consumers, schools, libraries and the public sphere.

Australia Council Theatre Board triennial funding decisions

Below is an article I wrote for yesterday’s Crikey:

The Australia Council, an organisation in almost constant flux, has again spun the bingo barrel and pulled out a new round of surprises in its funding announcements — this time in the theatre sector. Eleven new companies have been granted triennial funding by the Council’s Theatre Board, while the same number have had their funding axed.

The announcement continues a recent history of wrenching change in the Commonwealth’s arts funding agency. In 2005, then-CEO Jeniffer Bott pushed through an organisation-wide restructure (labelled a “refocussing”) that led to two of the Australia Council’s funding boards being abolished. Out went specific Boards to support new media and digital arts, and community arts. In came some impressive-sounding “community partnerships” and a special department called the “Inter-Arts Agency”.

As respected ANU academic Jennifer Craik has argued in her book Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy the Bott restructure was not really about addressing the major issues facing the Australia Council and its client organisations. Instead, “the restructure was more about bureau politics than policy reform.”

The current upheaval dates back to 2006, when the Australia Council’s Theatre Board announced a sweeping new policy reform called “Make It New”. “Make It New” was a comprehensive look at the Theatre Board’s funding arrangements in an environment where much of the most exciting work was being made by companies who couldn’t get a look in amongst the Board’s established clients. Theatre Board Director John Baylis acknowledged this problem, and sought to reshape the Board’s funding arrangements towards “contemporary performance” and to allow room for new organisations — “artistic explorers” in the Theatre Board’s jargon — to access three-year funding agreements.

Unfortunately, you have to throw out some babies when you change the bathwater. Take Polyglot Puppet Theatre, for instance, which was de-funded despite an apparently successful recent track record. Or Brisbane’s second theatre company, La Boite, which appears to have been punished for some safe programming in recent years. La Boite may or may not be artistically innovative, but it certainly performs a lot of contemporary Australian drama.

The Theatre Board’s John Baylis makes a good point when he argues that space needs to be made for fresh talent to enter the system. But in terms of the Australia Council’s overall operations, which remain dramatically skewed towards the support of the 29 so-called “major” performing arts organisations, there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the “Make It New” crusade. After all, how “contemporary” are the orchestras or opera companies?

The Major Performing Arts Board hasn’t kicked anyone off for decades and only allows new members on “by invitation.” Apparently, that doesn’t matter — the Major Performing Arts Board is a separate fiefdom of the Australia Council, where making it old is still quite acceptable.

(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