The Australia Council turns its back on contemporary culture … again

The Australia Council has just released a major new piece of audience research. Entitled More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, it’s a weighty and significant contribution to the field which features statistically significant market research surveys of more than 3,000 ordinary Australians.

Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the typical prejudices and problems of so much Australia Council policy and research.

Most notable is the definition of “the arts.” Perhaps for reasons of funding, or perhaps for political reasons, the research has defined “the arts” in a very narrow sense, essentially confining “the arts” to music, writing, visual arts and performance. Film and television – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most popularly consumed form of culture – are ignored, and, astonishingly, so are the digital arts and cultural expressions, like gaming.

It’s hard to believe that after all the debate and criticism of  the Australia Council’s recent history by people like Keith Gallasch, Marcus Westbury and myself, when it comes to the most significant piece of audience research by the agency in a decade, vast swathes of Australia cultural participation are simply ignored. But it’s happened. Again.

Here is the relevant paragraph, on page 13 of the report:

The focus of the study is upon the art forms that are supported by the Australia Council (visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre, literature). The definitions were agreed after a thorough consultation within the Australia Council and with key stakeholders.

So there you go: “the arts” are what the Australia Council funds. Unfortunately, this not only leaves out the most important cultural expression of the 20th century (cinema), it also ignores many of the important emerging cultural expressions of the 21st (gaming and digital culture). Sure, there are some cursory reference to “digital/video art” in the visual arts section, but you won’t actually find the words “games” or “gaming” anywhere in the report. Gobsmacking.

Moreover, it seems like a step back from recent well-intentioned efforts by OzCo to address digital culture. After looking at today’s  effort, one has to ask why the Australia Council even bothers with its “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategy if it’s not going to bother to measure the most important forms of interactive digital culture.

It’s not that this isn’t a highly informative piece of research. Like the last such exercise, the Saatchi research report from the early 2000s, More than bums on seats represents important new data on the state of cultural participation in this country. I”ll be delving into it in more detail this week.

Still, it’s another piece of evidence of the ostrich-headed policy direction of the Australia Council under Kathy Keele. More than bums on seats is rather less than the full picture of cultural participation. What a shame.

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.

Two important Australian copyright cases: BitTorrent all you like, but don’t borrow a flute riff

It’s been a big week for Australian copyright law with two important cases decided.

First up we had the case of iiNet versus Roadshow Films. This case   saw mid-sized Australian ISP iiNet sued for by a federation of Hollywood movie studios and local broadcasters for copyright contraventions by its users, chiefly on BitTorrent. The case was always expected to have wide ramifications, as it called into question whether ISP’s would be responsible for the rampant illegal downloading of their users. The movie studios hired private detectives to track user downloads and then informed iiNet about the activity.

When iiNet refused to disconnect users, they sued, arguing thata iiNet had a legal obligation to stop users from illegal activity.  iiNet argued that it had no legal right under privacy law to snoop on what its users were doing,, and that in any case BitTorrent can be used for many legitimate activities.

iiNet won. In his judgment, Justice Cowdrey comprehensively demolished the Big Media case. “I find that iiNet did not authorise the infringements of copyright of the iiNet users,” he wrote, going on to point out that even if iiNet had done so, it would still “have been entitled to take advantage of the safe harbour provisions in Division 2AA of Part V of the Copyright Act if it needed to do so.” Translation: not only did iiNet not authorise the illegal downloading, it also enjoyed the “safe harbour” protections of the Copyright Act like any other ISP or telco. It’s a comprehensive slap-down for the copyright lobby.

And then there was the plagiarism case concerning Men at Work’s famous 1981 song “Down Under.”

This is one of the most famous songs in Australian contemporary music, selling millions and reaching No.1 in both US and Australian charts. I  vividly remember hearing it played endlessly as a child when Australia won the America’s Cup yacht race in 1983, for which it had become a kind of de facto national anthem.

The case involved the publishers of a song entitled “Kookaburra Sits in an old Gum Tree”, a well-known children’s ditty penned for the Girl Guides in the 1930s b y a woman named Marion Sinclair. But afteer Ms Sinclair’s death, the song was bought by music publisher Larrikin Publishing, who then sued in 2007 after the similarity in the two songs was noted in an ABC music quiz show, Spicks and Specks.  In a canny piece of copyright trolling, Larrikin argued that the flute riff in “Down Under” included two bars of the melody of “Kookaburra”, and that Larrikin was therefore owed a substantial part of the publishing and songwriting royalties of the hit song.

Now songwriter Colin Hay and publisher EMI stand liable for millions in back-royalties.

In a statement yesterday, Hay slammed  the decision, stating that:

“It is indeed true, that Greg Ham, (not a writer of the song) unconsciously referenced two bars of ‘Kookaburra’ on the flute, during live shows after he joined the band in 1979, and it did end up in the Men at Work recording.”

“It may well be noted, that Marion Sinclair herself never made any claim that we had appropriated any part of her song ‘Kookaburra,’ and she wrote it, and was most definitely alive, when Men at Work’s version of ‘Down Under’ was a big hit. Apparently she didn’t notice either.”

More liquor licensing and music venues coverage

The controversy over liquor licensing regulation and its effect on small bars continues, with coverage in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun today. One of the interesting points – which I think sums up some of the issues of over-regulation in the sector – is the laws currently causing concern have actually been on the statutes since the 1990s. It’s just that they have only begun to be enforced now, in the wake of community concern about alcohol-fueled violence:

The rules covering late-trading venues with amplified music had been unchanged since the late 1990s. But the crackdown started in the middle of last year when a new compliance directorate, nicknamed “Sue’s Stormtroopers”, started work.
Removing the link between live music and a venue being classified as high risk would not involve a change to the law, Perring says.
Gigs, where people come together to share their love of music, are “exactly the kind of thing you want happening” in licensed venues, he says.
“People who go to see live music are part of a community, they’re there to see a band — and it’s generally all over by 1am.”
The Tote’s closure is unfortunate timing. After years of being hit by nightclubs, live music is having a renaissance.
“Considering all the woes of the record industry, the live industry in Melbourne is alive and well,” tour promoter and record company boss Michael Gudinski says.
“I have full respect for the police and Sue Maclellan trying to clean up the trouble, but live music venues, particularly the ones that support Australian music, aren’t the trouble places. Live music venues are completely different to the nightclub scene. They’re looking in the wrong places.”
Young says the new laws are hitting the Cherry hard.
“I might want to put on Spencer P. Jones on a Tuesday night to play for an hour and hopefully bring in 20 people who are music fans. You wouldn’t do that now because you have to pay security $35-$40 an hour, you have to have two of them working for a minimum of five hours,” he says.
“You’re in a scenario where the musician gets paid $200 and the security guard gets $500 — and you only expected to attract 20 people. So you close on Tuesday and close on Sunday.”

Unintended consequences: will digital TV make your wireless mic stop working?

Wireless microphones like these Sennheisers work using radio spectrum sandwiched between the domestic analogue TV channels. When the government sells off that spectrum in 2013, those mics will stop working.

There’s a fascinating article by Dominic White in Saturday’s Australian Financial Review about the looming crisis for Australia’s wireless microphone users.

Wireless mics, like the ones used by film crews, stage managers and rock musicians, work by using radio spectrum that is set to be sold off by the federal government (most likely to mobile phone companies) in 2013.

Why is that? The reason is that Australian TV is finally going digital. Digital TV uses far less spectrum than analogue TV, and the result is that the federal government can take back that lucrative spectrum to sell to the highest bidder. It’s an attractive proposition to telcos, who can use it for 4G mobile phones. The problem is, that old analogue spectrum used by the TV stations had small gaps between the channels, which wireless mics used for their transmissions. As White reports:

The proposals would mean that 85% of the 130,000 wireless audio devices used in Australia – which operate in the gap between TV stations – would be made obsolete, according to the Australian Wirelss Audio Group.

The Sydney Opera House alone could face a huge bill as a result of the change. The 200 wireless devices it uses, which cost about $10,000 per kit, would have to be replaced with microphones tuned to lower frequencies.

“We rely critically on wireless microphones,” technical director David Claringbold told the Weekend AFR.

“Our devices are in operation fro seven in the morning til midnight every day to make dramas, musicals and all kinds of performances run smoothly.”

The AWAG wants the federal government to use some of the windfall gain from the spectrum sale to compensate users. It estimates that “$32 billion of economic activity and 140,000 jobs in Australia” are reliant to some degree on wireless microphones.

I’m not  I agree with that figure, but hey, it will certainly make a big difference to audio hire firms, who will have to replace every single wireless Beta-58 and wireless guitar pickup in their rigs.

First The Tote, now the Arthouse: Melbourne liquor licensing crackdown claims another casualty

The Arthouse Hotel in North Melbourne. The low-budget venue has announced it will not be renewing its lease, in part owing to extra security costs imposed by the Victorian government

In sad but utterly predictable news, another low-cost Melbourne rock pub has announced it will be shutting its doors.

As reported in Mess + Noise today, The Arthouse Hotel, a low-budget live music venue in North Melbourne, has announced it will not be renewing its lease.

In a statement to M+N, manager Melanie Bodiam, whose family has run the venue since its inception, said the venue has suffered from the same Liquor Licensing regulations that contributed to The Tote’s demise. “The Arthouse is affected by the new liquor licensing laws that kicked in on the 1st of January this year. As a consequence we are now licensed till 1am opposed to 3am as before. I’m sure you can imagine the impact of loss off revenue and staffs wages.”
A frosty relationship with The Arthouse’s current landlord has also been a major factor in the family’s decision not to renew the lease.

Andrew Crook from Crikey has more coverage. Crook claims that Victorian Labor MPs including The Tote’s local member, Richard Wynne, are so worried about the potential voter backlash over the issue that they are seeking to modify tough new security regulations imposed by Liquor Licensing Victoria:

As hallowed punk-rock incubator The Arthouse announced it was going the way of The Tote and shutting its doors next year, the owner of several live music venues, and a leading candidate to take over The Tote’s license, Jon Perring, told Crikey he will meet next week with Victorian gaming minister Tony Robinson to thrash out a new deal that would see security linked to a venue’s alcohol sales as opposed to current laws which are triggered by the presence of “live or amplified music”.

“I’ll be seeing Tony Robinson. It’s a no-brainer to fix, it just requires the commission to de-link security compliance with live music and relate it to alcohol consumption,” Perring said.

“There’s no relationship between live music and violence. If we can’t fix this problem there’s no way of saving the Tote. It’ll be hasta la vista baby and we’ll be back to watching Lateline.”

A major factor in the demise of The Tote under licensees Bruce and James Milne was a doubling in security expenses from $60,000 to $120,000 a year after the venue was issued with a a new set of demands by Liquor Licensing Victoria chief Sue Maclellan.


The issue of live music venues is considered a serious election issue by the state government, especially in marginal inner-city electorates that could see sitting members skittled by the Greens. The member for Richmond, Richard Wynne, is sitting on a tenuous 3.1% buffer in his electorate, which includes The Tote. The electorate of Melbourne, which includes The Arthouse, is held by Bronwyn Pike by an even slimmer margin of 1.9%.

The level of interest in the issue in inner-suburban Melbourne can be gauged by the media attention focussed on The Tote’s owner, millionaire Computershare Chairman Christopher Morris.

”It’s amazing, it really is,” Mr Morris told The Age’s Mark Hawthorn. ”There’s more interest in a pub in Collingwood than the performance of Computershare.”

The Tote closes: Licensing over-regulation kills another iconic venue

Melbourne's iconic Tote Hotel is shutting due to liquor licensing over-regulation. Source: Mess and Noise.

It had to happen. The moral panic over street violence in Australian cities has resulted in a indiscriminate crack-down by liquor licensing regulators.

Now that crack-down is destroying live music and arts venues, despite the fact that these venues are in almost all cases non-violent and low-risk. Last year, it was Sydney’s Houptoun Hotel, one of the city’s most important small venues for independent bands. The Hopetoun was merely the latest of many long-dead Sydney music venues. Today, Melbourne’s iconic Tote Hotel has gone the same way, pushed under by high fees and over-zealous licensing regulations meant to stem crime in large nightclubs and hotels.

The Tote is a special piece of Melbourne’s rock music scene (chronicled in low-budget documentary Sticky Carpet). I was there watching Toxic Lipstick on Monday night. A small room run on a low cost, low profit basis, the venue has seen many famous bands get their first opportunity. Just as importantly, it also incubates a significant audience for experimental and innovative new music. I’ll be there on Sunday night for last drinks.

As the Tote’s Bruce Milne sadly records in his last press release, the venue is very safe but is still being levied a huge fee by the Victorian liquor licensing authorities as a supposedly “high risk” venue:

I can’t afford to keep fighting Liquor Licensing.  The “high risk” conditions they have placed on the Tote’s license make it impossible to trade profitably.  I can’t afford the new “high risk” fees they have imposed. I can’t afford to keep fighting them at VCAT.  I can’t renegotiate a lease in this environment.

So, come into the Tote this weekend to say farewell to the sad staff and to feel the sticky carpet for the last time.

I don’t believe the Tote is a “high risk” venue, in the same category as the nightclubs that make the news for all the wrong reasons.  Despite being on a rough little corner of Collingwood, the Tote has had very, very few incidents.  As a local police officer once said, “The Tote’s the quietest pub in the area.” (!).

It’s not dumb luck that the Tote has escaped serious violence.  I believe the business has been run responsibly.  People don’t come to the Tote to fight.  They come because they have a passion for music and love to be in an historic venue that reeks of that same passion.

Vale The Tote.

The Australian music industry: not drowning, waving


Australian music sales in first half of 2009 versus the same period last year. Source: ARIA

A couple of years ago, it seemed as though the big four music companies were heading for rapid oblivion. CD sales were falling as fast as Lehamn Brother shares and the expected saviour of paid digital downloads had yet to figure significantly on balance sheets.


But in the Australian territory at least, Big Music is ack off the canvas and fighting on. As you can see from the ARIA sales figures above, music sales have finally stabilised, helpped by continued strong growth in digital music sales. While CD sales continued to decline, they were still substantial, grossing $131 million for the first half of 2009 on the back of superstars like Pink and the Kings of Leon. Meanwhile, the dollar value of digital music sales grew by 43% for the first six months of 2009 versus the same period of 2008.

The result is that the Australian music industry is climbing out of the abyss, stemming the bleeding and with broad sunlit uploads of future digital music sales just over the horizon. And remember: these are just sales of recorded music. Attendance at concerts and music festivals is a billion dollar industry in Australia.

Take home message? The record industry is here to stay – even the much-maligned majors, who are still finding and marketing musicians that audiences will pay to see and hear.

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.

Is this what the new business model for popular music looks like?

The New York Times today documents the green shoots of a new model of music business, spurred by the Polyphonic not-label.

It’s not really a new model at all; instead simply a sensible combination of existing ways to make money.

Under the Polyphonic model, bands that receive investments from the firm will operate like start-up companies, recording their own music and choosing outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandise and touring.

Instead of receiving an advance and then possibly reaping royalties later if they have a hit, musicians will share in all the profits from their music and touring. In another departure from tradition in the music business, they will also maintain ownership of their own copyrights and master recordings — meaning they and their heirs can keep earning money from their music.

“We are all witnessing major labels starting to shed artists that are hitting only 80,000 or 100,000 unit sales,” said Adam Driscoll, another Polyphonic founder and chief executive of the British media company MAMA Group. “Do a quick calculation on those sales, with an artist who can tour in multiple cities, and that is a good business. You can take that as a foundation and build on it.”

Exactly. Music business academics have long predicted the death of major music labels, because artists can no reach consumers directly through the internet. And, course, artists are. But that hasn’t meant the immediate detah of the label concept, in part because labels were in many cases merely investment holding companies anyway, and in part because labels still employ and/or contract to a pool of expertise about music marketing, distribution and concert promotion – as the artricle itself admits:

Even the major labels themselves are demonstrating new flexibility for musicians who do not want to sign the immersive partnerships known as 360 deals, in which the label manages and profits from every part of the artist’s business.

In late November, for example, EMI took the unusual step of creating a music services division to provide an array of services — like touring and merchandise support — to musicians who were not signed to the label.

The Polyphony model, therefore, is a sensible way of re-organising music industry capital that takes advantages of the diversified risks of a large artist portfolio, but can still capitalise on the hits and modest successes.  It’s still going to require a lot of clever hit curation. But if Polyphony can’t do that, it shouldn’t be attempting this model.