This essay, begun during the 2020 lockdown in Victoria, grew out of a growing (and widely shared) frustration at the Federal Government’s apparent willingness to let the arts and cultural sector, especially live performance, go to the wall. Rather than berate the government – there were many doing that – I wanted to look at how the arts and cultural sector had got to where it was in public policy. In particular I wanted to look at how the advocacy around ‘culture as industry’, embraced so warmly since 1994’s Creative Nation, bore some responsibility for this predicament. I take as a starting point Jenny Morris’ National Press Club Address in August 2020, but, as I try to stress throughout, this is not a ‘critique’ of her position but an attempt to pull out the implications of the advocacy path she takes – a path on which she is by no means alone.
List of Sections
- Music: A History of Neglect
How the neglect by current and former governments has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, showing how arguments for the economic value of music have failed dismally. Why then do we continue to make them?
- Industry and Nation
How ideas of music as ‘industry’ developed at the very moment industrial policy in Australia changed drastically, and how growing the industry does not mean that all boats get floated.
- Double-Edged Swords…
How arguments about music as industry can cut both ways, judging music and music education on its economic performance, just like any other industry. Once set in motion it is hard to turn around and start talking about ‘culture’.
- … And Dangerous Petards
How music education should not be seen as ‘industry training’ but rather as an educational philosophy of developing the whole individual. Educational policy has always been pragmatic but also part of a faith in the future. To reduce Australian music, the ‘songlines’, to part of a strategic export drive, is to betray the 60,000 years of music making on this continent.
- Dream Factories
How music became part of a consumption and leisure sector – wants not needs – which had very little chance of gaining the kinds of ‘industry support’ advocates sought from government.
- Credit Ratings
How current industry policy is not about securing national capacity but facilitating profitable businesses, and these are supported mainly on the basis of how they can represent themselves to government. This favours large, well-organised industries able to demonstrate commercial success and pay for lobbyists. Most of the music industry is unable to do either.
- Real Estate: Extraction from the Commons
How music ecosystems can be seen as part of the commons, producing public goods, but they have been used to generate returns to developers, up-market hospitality and retail. This hyper-gentrification is destroying music scenes in many places.
- From Public Good to Public Extraction
How music can be seen as a public good, part of cultural citizenship, the social infrastructure of equitable living. Over the last forty years these public goods have been either privatised or their delivery outsourced to a highly extractive private sector. In this process, the opportunities for extraction provided by the music industry, outside some highly commercial sectors, is limited and thus commands limited government attention.
- Culture as Basic Infrastructure
How we can use heterodox economy thinking to help us move away from culture as industry to culture as part of an essential social infrastructure, aligned with health, education, social services and other publicly provided services.
- Rethinking Music as Public Good
How thinking music as a public good can help us radically rethink how to approach music policy, how to support it. Music as a public good does not mean public subsidy, though this is involved, but recognising the public value, the ‘communal luxury’ music provides to all of us.
- Australian Music
How only by such a radical rethink can we really be true to the ‘songlines’, the 60,000 (+ 232) years of music on this continent.
- Music: A History of Neglect
On August 5th, Jenny Morris, chair of the Australasian Performing Rights Association gave a National Press Club Address. It was a heartfelt evocation of the power and potential of Australian music, of its current painful contraction in face of the viral emergency, and a direct accusation of government (State and Federal) neglect not just in the present disaster but over many long years. It was a strong and well-informed articulation – succinctly summarised by Laura Tingle at the ABC – of a question raised repeatedly right across the arts and cultural sector: not only are we culturally important but we are a real (and potential) export industry, so why do you ignore us?
Jenny Morris’ accusatory plea comes out of her role as APRA chair, an organisation crucial to the livelihood of Australasian musicians and the flourishing of its ecosystem, making sure that at least some of the money sloshing around this multi-billion-dollar industry gets redirected to its creators. In being a major advocate for music and musicians, she is one of the good guys and can be counted amongst those that actually put some money where their mouth is. What follows is not meant to be a critique of Jenny Morris, or indeed Gordi (who spoke her words at the address) but tries to account both for why this plea was necessary and why it is likely to fall on deaf ears. It is an attempt at reculer pour mieux sauter, to just pull back and think, the better to leap into a future that is coming at us hard and fast.
Morris’s argument represents the ‘new normal’ in cultural policy advocacy, one that combines a self-evident appeal to cultural value – ‘humanity’s pulse’, ‘our connection to time and place’, ‘bridges between people’ – with economic value – ‘a good song creates jobs’, adds to ‘Australia’s property assets’, ‘generating big incomes’. This is the ‘win win’ scenario that found expression in 1994’s Creative Nation, and which went onto inspire a hundred advocacy documents, often under the moniker of UK New Labour’s ‘creative industries’, re-imported later that decade. Its rhetorical logic is irresistible – the power of popular culture, in the form of a major export industry, delivering a positive international profile where ‘our global popularity multiplies every year’. However – for this is ultimately is the point of Morris’ address – it is resistible, very much so, music’s historic relationship with government one of being ‘publicly adored but rarely supported, often seen as a nuisance, and regularly shut down’. Why?
In part, according to Morris, this is something specific to the music industry, or what is variously described as ‘Australian music’, ‘rock music’, contemporary music’ or just ‘songs’. Although literature and other arts (including classical music), along with film, were supported through the establishment of the Australia Council in the 1970s, only in the 1980s was ‘contemporary music’ deemed, by a ‘government committee’, worthy of support. This belated recognition was based on its popularity and economic potential. According to the committee, “rock music is Australia’s most popular performance art, is the country’s largest cultural industry (larger than all the others put together) and is capable of producing high export earnings”. So why has government support been so unforthcoming, given that, according to Morris, this statement remains true today?
Morris gives four reasons. First, music policy is challenging, as it would not just involve the Arts portfolio but those of Trade (exports/ tourism), Foreign Affairs (cultural diplomacy/ touring), Small Business (‘we’re all small businesses’), Planning (regulation of venues), and Education – and of course the complex State-Federal interface. So basically, the need for joined-up thinking has knocked it into the too-hard basket. Second, poor quality music education and (something to which we will return) an over-emphasis on classical music. Third, ‘absurd planning decisions’ and ‘over-zealous council… red tape’, closing down live venues or regulating them to within an inch of their lives. Fourth, a ‘cultural strait-jacket’, which is in effect a trade policy strait jacket: we do not protect our music industry through content quotas, either because of negotiated international treaties – such as the ‘US Free Trade Agreement’ – or complaints from local radio and TV broadcasters and foot-dragging from global streaming services on local content reporting. The government has not acted on this, coming up with neither carrot nor stick to support Australian music production and performance.
Is this an explanation? The ‘music industry’ is a very complex thing, often described as an ecosystem or ecology, involving a range of different skills and roles (musicians, sound technicians, managers, accountants, events management, marketing, web builders and so on) and economic interests (creators, rights holders, labels, studios, events, set designers and builders, logistics, IP lawyers, streaming services, global corporations, marketing, A&R services, and venues – from the back-room of a pub to huge stadia). Supporting popular music is, on the surface, very different to say, providing grants to creative writers, visual artists or contemporary classical composers. But much the same could be said about the challenges of supporting the film industry, or radio and TV, or publishing, or video games. Basically, any cultural industry – defined roughly as the mass reproduction and distribution of cultural goods – is a complex entity which would require some kind of the all-of-government approach Morris seeks for music. In fact, scratch a bit deeper and there are similar challenges in contemporary visual and performing arts, with their own complex institutional and educational infrastructures. In the end though, in terms of public policy, it should not be such a tall order to support such activities. It’s a bit fiddly, and fast-moving, each sub-sector facing their own distinct challenges (music is different from film and games), but what public policy object isn’t like this? Other countries manage it (look at France, or Canada, or South Korea), and so too could Australia: if there was a will.
That this comes down to lack of will can be seen in the failure/ refusal to impose local content quotas, and indeed the further deregulation of audio-visual content in the current crisis. The legal scope for such interventions is amply provided by the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, to which Australia is signatory. Many countries have used the treaty’s notion of ‘cultural exception’ and avoided (mostly) WTO censure, especially now this agency has become a ‘paper tiger’ whose strictures are regularly flouted by the global hegemon itself. Australia has chosen not to use it. More tellingly, this lack of will can be seen in the failure by the current government to do anything significant to alleviate the suffering of the music sector during the pandemic. This neglect, which it shares with the rest of the cultural sector (and of course, higher education, especially arts and humanities), is pretty well documented by now.
Musicians give their ‘time and money to the nation’ whenever there is a crisis (such as the recent bushfire benefits) and they now need support in return, letting out a ‘scream for help’ in a recent open letter to government, the signatories of which ‘read like the greatest homegrown festival bill of all-time’. But the current crisis, Morris tells us, merely exacerbates long-standing issues in the music industry. Music is the ‘original gig economy’, ‘we are just small businesses’ earning money from live performance and licenses from businesses using music, both now severely curtailed. Musicians work a lot of the time for free, being ‘the biggest subsidisers of our artform’, giving just ‘for the love of it’. The government continues to look away.
Yet despite this long history of neglect from government, and her portrait of a sector marked by the precarity of a gig economy which is ‘unsustainable’ (backed up by multiple studies right across the cultural sector) Morris’ response is to double down on ‘music as industry’. Goldman Sachs estimate the global music market will be worth US$140 billion by 2030. Australia has a potential to earn a 5% market share. Australia can be a ‘net exporter’ of music (if Sweden, Canada, or Korea, why not Australia?): “With the right approach, and a singularity of purpose, Australia can join that handful of nations who are net exporters of music, and create a sustainable and thriving local industry”.
This argument has run now for a quarter of a century, and it has failed dismally. Not only has the government failed to buy into ‘music as industry’ in any meaningful way, but the very growth of the global industry, and Australia’s ever more visible mark upon it, has still resulted in widespread precarity, with musicians themselves the primary subsidisers of the industry at its grassroots levels. It appears as if the music sector – and the cultural sector generally – are the very last believers in trickle-down economics. That there is a ‘national industry’, which can, with government support, become a ‘net exporter’, capturing 5% of the global market, and that this would somehow result in a ‘sustainable and thriving local industry’ – this is the illusion that keeps us crashing in the same car.
- Industry and Nation
Essential to this illusion is the idea of a ‘national industry’, one that can be grasped in terms such as ‘net exports’ and ‘global market share’, the steady increase of which will add to a shared national (music) pie, providing sustainable income and employment. It took flight from 1994’s Creative Nation, which repositioned commercial culture as an ‘industry’. This was something more than an accountant’s totting up of employment and value-added. It came after a long recession – ‘one that Australia had to have’, according to Paul Keating – and a prior decade in which older manufacturing industries had been left to decline and state-owned companies, such as the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Telstra, privatised. Culture – contemporary, commercial, multicultural – was part of Keating’s optimistic embrace of a global trading future for Australia, with the cultural industries representing a new source of employment. Creative Nation needs to be read alongside 1993’s Working Nation, with its concern to get back to something like full-employment in a new global era.
However, if music was the new car industry, it would not be one protected by tariffs, integrated into government industrial planning systems, along with the labor unions, or be privileged recipient of government procurement contracts. It would not be patted on the head but expected to stand on its own two feet, left to sink or swim – just like the shrinking car industry. Music was recognised as an industry at the very moment industry policy itself was effectively abolished as a central pillar of national capacity building. The nation was no longer the self-contained economic unit, exports paying for imports, governments looking nervously at ‘balance of payments’ charts. Australia was now part of a global trading economy, and it was not the job of governments to support industries in the old way. Global competition was good, and markets were the most efficient way of punishing the inefficient and rewarding winners. The Australian music industry, thriving commercially as part of an expanding global market for (mainly) US-Anglo ‘rock’, could be expected to get out there and score some goals.
The first problem this scenario encountered was the classic one of challenging incumbent players. The ‘global’ music industry was dominated by long established US, UK and Western European corporations. The 1990s saw a process of concentration (mergers/ take-overs) and cross-ownership (music, film, TV, leisure, telcos), as the music industry moved from basket-case maverick to corporate respectability, multiplying its ‘feeder-routes’ from local scenes through the integration of the ‘indie’ record labels. After some serious wobbles, the arrival of the internet, MP3 and the rise of streaming platforms have reconfigured the global music industry but still not dented the vast inequalities of wealth and power within it. Nor, despite great creative success, have any major Australian corporations broken into this global playing field. It is symptomatic that Morris’ main focus is on the amazing rota of Australian artists who have ‘made it’ – these provide the ‘cultural capital’ and the intellectual ‘property assets’ (managed in part by APRA) of the Australian industry. But this is not where the big money is, which remains with distributors and aggregators. As we have seen, despite the growing numbers of successes, musicians are still living precarious lives and subsidising the sector via their labour of love – or what Andrew Ross called ‘sacrificial labour’.
The problem of structural inequality internationally is reflected in the domestic music industry, something masked by arguments about the music industry as a ‘net exporter’, suggesting a rising tide floats all boats. The ending of national industrial policy was part of a shift to neoliberal forms of governance. Since WWII GDP and export metrics had been indexes of a national productive growth, distributed within that nation via a commitment to full employment, subsidised public services, redistributive taxation and the integration of Trades Unions into the state system. Economic nationalism meant import replacement and self-sufficiency, plus exports to pay for the imports that were needed. It meant ensuring private capital was productive for the nation as well as generating profit. Hawke and Keating saw this system off and Howard built on their legacy. GDP growth and export metrics still counted, but in a different way. They were indicators of an economic health now attuned more to global credit ratings and uncoupled from any actual commitment to full employment and redistributive taxation.
In the new orthodoxy of the 1990s such commitments, along with the burden of public services and employment protection that went with them, were seen as liabilities to be managed not the central goals of a nation’s political economy. Economic growth, driven by deregulated markets, would makes its way, after some initial pain (the Kuznets curve) down to the least well-off members of the community, primarily via employment along with welfare payments and public services. These last two were now dependent on the unhindered ability of the wealth creators to create wealth, and ultimately accountable to ‘taxpayers’, who were to oversee this transfer of funds from the ‘productive’ (profitable) to the ‘unproductive’ (unprofitable) sections of economy and society.
After 40 years and an ever-growing mountain of data, it is clear that this wealth has not been shared, at least not equally. Australia has now been in continuous (compound, not simple) growth for 28 years, but the proportion of the growth accruing to wages rather than capital has barely moved. The country has witnessed rising inequality, stagnant wages, declining demand, festering student loans, growing household debt and over-leveraged mortgages, accompanied by the exclusion of many sections of the population from access to secure employment, home ownership or affordable rental housing, viable superannuation and the rest. Social services and welfare benefits have received ever small percentages of national spending and have barely kept pace with inflation in the last decade.
Yet music (and other creative) industry advocates still imagine, when promoting net exports and industry development strategies, that ‘we are all in this together’, that industry growth would necessarily ‘float all boats’: as opposed to some very successful artists, rights holding corporations, plus some commercial radio and TV, one or two big festivals or promotion agencies, a few on-line marketing and PR firms, not to mention the global streaming services which already reach into the living rooms and ear-pods of millions of Australians.
These arguments are as old as the hills. Simon Frith and colleagues in the UK made them repeatedly, as the rhetoric of ‘the music industry is bigger than steel’ took off under New Labour in the late 1990s. The ‘music industry’, they suggested was in fact a ramshackle ‘ecosystem’, as we outlined above, encompassing garage bands and student unions all the way to stadium rock and global music and streaming corporations. When the UK government finally spoke to the ‘music industry’ (as opposed to staged PR events) it was precisely these big players that they invited to Number 10 for orange juice and Danish (beer and sandwiches having long disappeared). This was pretty understandable from a government point of view: who else would they talk to if they were to take these ‘invisible’ exports seriously? The question then, and remains – whose industry, whose interests?
- Double-Edged Swords….
‘Now’s the time for Australia to make a big statement about the economic value of our culture’ – but what if that economic value is lacking? If Australia is not yet, despite its creative successes, a ‘net exporter’ of music then perhaps we should simply apply Paul Keating’s ‘hammer test’. If it takes $15 to make a hammer in Australia but $5 in China, then import the latter and release the other $10 dollars into the consumption economy. (Indeed, along with expanded credit – more hammers and coffees – this is basically how western economies have grown over the last few decades)? It’s what happened to the textile industry, which employed far more than music could ever hope to. Should not the same be true of music – or films, books, TV content, games for that matter? If Netflix and Spotify can do it cheaper and more efficiently, why not let them? This is the logic of global trade, a logic the 2005 UNESCO Convention set out to resist; in effect it is more or less the attitude of the current government, prodded along by the Institute of Public Affairs. Music-as-industry, it turns out, is not always win-win. After arguing for the power of music based on it being a cultural industry ‘bigger than all the others combined’, it can be hard to suddenly slam on the brakes and start talking about the need to protect music as part of our national identity.
What if an industry strategy cut against our wider cultural values? What if Australia became a ‘net exporter’, based on one or two massive talents, doing what Abba did for Sweden (‘bigger than Volvo’)? The question then would not only be how this success could be made to benefit the industry generally (not guaranteed), but also whether the industry strategy should now be to try to produce more of the same, ramp up investment and generate some kind of ‘new Aussie pop’ as a lead brand. Or promote First Nations as a new kind of antipodean ‘world music’ brand? Or, as I have heard proposed, we use digital analytics to identify what genres, and sub-genres, of Australian music are doing well, where and with whom, and seek to ramp up supply to satisfy that market – perhaps in a just-in-time system like fast fashion. I assume there would be some serious qualms about such instrumentalization of Australian, and First Nations’, music. There are values in music that don’t stand being reduced to pure economic calculation, and sometimes these might require to be asserted against music-as-industry.
We can see this in music education, one of the four strategic areas on which Morris focuses. Music education, she says, is good in all sorts of ways, encouraging participation and attendance from First Nations’ children and in ‘low socio-economic and remote areas’, generally improving students’ grades and achievements. Good, but ‘even better, teaching composition and songwriting invests in Australia’s intellectual property, so we’re creating careers and generating income for the nation’. How should we read this statement in the middle of this viral emergency, where, in response to a catastrophic collapse in overseas student numbers, the government (in a bad omen for music industry advocacy) has let higher education, the country’s fourth largest export sector, swing in the wind? All the better to push through reforms, deeply rooted in an ideological antipathy to the quasi-independent universities, which seek to marginalise the arts and humanities, and other unproductive indulgences, all in the name of ‘job ready’ degrees. It is highly unlikely that this government would ever countenance making ‘song-writing’ part of the national curriculum for schools or, something Morris did not call for, exempting popular music degrees from the degree price hike. Yet how is this educational rationale – songwriting ‘to generate income for the nation’ – different from Minister Tehan’s concern to produce those ‘job ready’ engineers, nurses and teachers for the nation?
Leaving ideological antipathy aside for the moment, if this industry rationale for including songwriting in the school curriculum was to be taken seriously, then it should be subject to stricter economic – ‘job-ready’ – tests. South Korea is the current posterchild for its national music industry, building, according to Morris, ‘national pride’ (AKA soft power) around its songs. They have a powerful, government-led industry strategy (through KOCCA) around K-Pop, mobilising its large scale ‘developmental state’ apparatus to apply industrial development techniques acquired (with Japanese and Singaporean help) since the 1950s. As part of the new music content strategy large numbers of young, good-looking (though singing ability helps) kids are taken, via talent spotting operations, into very competitive industry training programmes, then selected for a very efficient and well-resourced music production machine which has moved the country from a purely local, to East Asian and now global player.
This is an industry strategy, but it has little concern for anything called ‘culture’, other than ‘soft power’. It is not in the slightest grassroots led, but certainly does have an all-of-government approach. Be careful what you wish for. South Korea’s ‘net export’ success inevitably enhances the nation’s economic and cultural capital, both of which recirculate through the local music scenes to a degree. But the ‘indie’ music scene and the livelihood of musicians outside the K-Pop corporations have not benefited significantly. The rapid gentrification of the hip parts of Seoul through an influx of K-Pop money is well-documented. I doubt if Morris had this kind of industry strategy in mind. Her (and Gordi’s) emphasis is on songwriters, creators and performers of original content and with an ‘authenticity’ suited to a particular kind of career path whose milestones are ‘Coachella, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza and Governors Ball’. Education for this industry would require a specific kind of professional songwriting training, one that combines (as per all the advice on the Reality TV talent shows) ‘finding one’s voice’ and ‘being yourself’, with a practical knowledge of what will sell. It would not just be about the craft of songwriting but also the coaching of creative selves, how to nurture and present them to the right people. This something at which schools are likely to be very bad. Which is why this is best learned in a ‘garage’, and the aesthetic sensibility, the intuitive knowledge of the field, the swagger of the habitus, better honed by those daggy music venues and sticky hangouts that form the real basis of a grassroots music industry.
It follows that school songwriting programmes, as an industrial investment, should surely be subject to some kind of economic evaluation. If the key goal (apart from boosting school attendance) is ‘creating careers and generating income for the nation’, then some kind of graduate earning test could be applied. But as Morris shows, and it’s backed up by reams of evidence, most musicians are working in unsustainable conditions. Should we be educating kids for a lifetime of precarious employment? Or is it that the education of more songwriters would boost the talent pool and enhance exports, ‘growing the pie’? But is not the problem always too many song writers, too many artists, driving down the price of labour, wannabe stars two-a-penny? A more rational strategy would surely be some kind of musicians’ guild that would strictly limit entry, and enforce guild-only workplaces with set rates, like US media unions. They might then want to take songwriting out of schools and put it under the control of, say, a musicians’ guild academy, or the TAFEs, or the growing number of private sector popular music courses currently available. If kids want a future earning potential for themselves as musicians, then they ought to pay for it.
I’m extrapolating the argument to suggest that there are other reasons to value music – and of course Jenny Morris and Gordi are completely aware of this – than contributions to exports and GDP, and that these other reasons are frequently at odds with the logic of music-as-industry. The response to this might be that this is a question of balance. So it is, and I will have something to say about this below; but these kinds of arguments are not really about balance, they are about justifying one kind of value (cultural) in the language of another, more dominant, one (economic). Arguing for music education in terms of future careers and export earnings is doing precisely this work of translation, and if it uses this advocacy sword it must be prepared to die by it too.
4.… And Dangerous Petards
Education has been linked to some kind of industrial logic since the 19th century. Compulsory elementary schools teaching literacy, numeracy and self-discipline required for factory work; compulsory secondary schools and technical colleges for a more complex advanced economy; state-funded higher education from the 1960s, for technicians, engineers, scientists and legal and medical professionals; the explosion of paid-for university degrees from the mid-1990s in light of the new ‘knowledge economy’. But it has never been just about industry. Education has also been about citizenship, about the ability of individuals to participate (economically, socially, politically) in the nation, whether in its liberal humanist or state corporatist versions. In both ‘advanced’ and ‘developing’ countries investment in education, the long view has been about building a nation’s ‘culture’ in the broad, civilisational sense of that term – the collective store of scientific, artistic, technical knowledge whose (in theory) common possession is held to ensure that nation’s collective development, materially but also spiritually.
There has always been an instrumental approach to education, making it serve the immediate needs of the nation, though these needs are highly differentiated, such as between the professional and governing class (an elite non-instrumental learning) and for the ‘learning to labour’ industrial workforce (skills-based, job-ready). Governments are right to try and identify what these needs might be and tailor educational opportunities accordingly, just as we are right to argue about the (in)equities of class, gender and ethnic access to such opportunities. However, there have always been limits to what governments can actually predict about future jobs, not just because of ‘disruption’ (photographic chemists to pixel engineers etc.) but because societies get more complex and globally connected. What actually interests students is also unpredictable, as with the explosion of social sciences and humanities in the 1960s and 70s, or media and cultural studies in the 1990s. These are the known unknowns of mass education in the modern world, and they need to be managed of course. States try to direct via a range of carrots and sticks, but they do so also with a view to the more general capacity building of hard-working, law-abiding citizens (or taxpayers), and to the wider cultural (intellectual, technical, scientific, artistic) capacity of the nation to adapt to the future and make it their own.
Such investment in mass education marked the era of nation-building, giving people an education to get them the jobs that the nation needed. It was never exactly sure what kind of jobs or if they would properly utilise the education given to them at public expense. Education was general – though in some countries there was a STEM/ Humanities divide from age 16 – with specialisation at university, college or through apprenticeships. The value of such investment for the future is described in economics as a ‘social discount rate’ – the relation between present investment and future benefit. It is often applied to climate change – pay now for benefit later. Without getting into arcane mathematics or philosophical discussions of Pascal’s Mugging, let us say that it is impossible to determine future benefits in direct cost-benefit terms, there are way too many variables, the unknown unknowns. Whilst we have good reason to invest in education now for future collective benefit, seeking to broadly direct it towards what we need as far as we can determine this, we are unable to put a precise cost-benefit figure on it. We invest in education, in part with instrumental economic reasons, as far as we can determine these, and in part as a compact of hope with the future. We are passing onto the next generations the best of what we know so as to give them the best chance of flourishing in the future. Education has thus always been central to a national (and international) culture viewed as a process of individual and collective development, through tools, knowledge and our understanding of the world.
To return to songwriting. The idea that education in such a ‘craft’ would be provided by the state via the national schools’ curriculum, because it can lead to a career in songwriting, is not only fanciful but something to be resisted. What other element of the national curriculum is so directly tied to a specific industry career, and one that employs such a small number of people at below average wages (if they get any). Chemistry students might go on to be chemists, a field far wider than ‘songwriter’ – from those people behind the glass in Chemist Warehouse, to those mass-testing Covid-19, or assessing the quality of crude oil, or turning coal waste into fertiliser and so on. We can say the same about English, Physics and Art classes.
Music education – and it has to be framed in this broad way if it is to make any dint on a school curriculum – might be justified in terms of ‘creative thinking’, or cognitive development (‘listening to Mozart makes you good at maths’), or improving school attendance. It cannot be tied to a specific career in the ‘cultural industries (around 2-3 percent of national employment), let alone music, let alone songwriting. The pressing task at the moment is to defend the continued existence of music, and the other creative arts, in the school curriculum. The current strategy is to talk about creativity as a skill applicable across all professions and industries, and that these creative skills can occupy a ‘gap in the market’ left by the rise and rise of AI technologies. These are both dubious propositions, analytically (creative arts have no monopoly on creativity) and ethically (‘become an artist and keep your job whilst others lose theirs to a machine’). But nested in the kernel of the creativity argument is an unconditional gift from the present to the future, passing down a capacity for knowledge different to that of the technical and scientific disciplines, one essential for individual and collective flourishing.
That music education – like other creative arts – can and should be part of this future capacity is the argument that needs to be made. Some people will make a career from it, Australian might become a net exporter. All of that would be welcome, but it cannot provide the foundational rationale for music education. To make it so is to be hoist on your own petard.
The current government’s education policy doesn’t believe in social discount rates either, but rather than providing a generous gift to the future, it simply doubles down on present cost-benefit. Governments can’t know what the job market will be, just like they can’t plan the economy. Only markets, Hayek’s social calculating machine, are capable of processing this information. The best way to determine the value of the economy is to let its consumers decide. Education is an investment in human capital, often by the older family members in the younger. Degree students get the benefit of high wages so they should pay (not the working-class taxpayer), and if they have to pay then they will calculate what is most beneficial to them. At the same time as Hawke and Keating abandoned a national industrial policy, they also ended a national education policy, turning it into a state facilitated market. Given that students had to pay, and universities (increasingly) dependent on these payments, then the market would decide what was the most valuable degree, based on future job prospects. Faith in the future was now a privatised economic transaction between universities, the job market and students (or their parents).
The impending multiple catastrophes resulting from this way of thinking go beyond university education and research, reaching down into student and family debt, across to a collapse in a shared sense of public good and solidarity, and forward into deeply troubling social, economic and environmental challenges which this government does not think are worth the present cost of trying to mitigate. Its most immediate flaw can be seen in the current government intervention. Humanities and creative arts have been immensely popular in terms of market choice – these
kids sovereign consumers actually pay for the privilege of being indoctrinated by Cultural Marxism after all – but they are now to be ‘nudged’ by fee hikes because those sovereign consumers were making the wrong choice. In the current governmental bin-fire of ideology and incompetence, it is best if advocates for music industry education step back, slip on an N95 mask, and move to higher ground.
Musicians need to earn to live. If they make it internationally all the better. The Australian music industry office attending South-by-South West is good too, and how it should be. I attended MIDEM in Cannes on two occasions with the Manchester Music Office. It would be stupid for Australian music not to be represented, though I’m not sure what the direct ‘cost-benefit’ is, apart from what it says if you are not there. It’s a sign of support and compared to the huge expenses incurred by just one Australian university international marketing event, the handful of people sent to these global music conventions is bargain basement. So too there is good reason for music development offices in the states and territories. But saying this is different from justifying music education, and the whole state support for music in Australia, and its collective heritage of 60,000 (+ 232) years, in terms of a music industry export drive.
Why are they forced into making their argument in this way; why must they translate the cumulative cultural value of Australian musical heritage into an economic value? Why must an aspirational vision for the flourishing and prospering of our national music be expressed as becoming a ‘net exporter’.
Arguing for the value of music education based on jobs and exports is symptomatic of the widespread corruption of language and understanding by a long-rampant economic rationalism. This language is no friend to music advocacy and should be avoided like the plague. Its wholesale adoption by music and other cultural sector advocates from the 1990s was an abandonment of art’s long historical opposition to life being defined in purely economic utilitarian terms, that there were other meanings, of sense and spirituality, that ‘made life worth living’. It has paid dearly for this culturally but also, in the end, economically.
Morris places contemporary Australian music in a long historical context. We should not be surprised by so many acts breaking internationally: ‘For tens of thousands of years the songlines of First Peoples shaped this sacred land. There’s something about this place.’ Is this then to hoovered up into the necessary infrastructure for a net export industry with 5% global market share? Is this what the songlines have passed down to future generations? Or is this language not precisely part of that brutally instrumental exploitation of the continent’s indigenous human and natural ‘resources’, still hell-bent on an ever-expanding growth, with little thought for what it might pass to the future beyond a burnt-out, pock-marked landscape, and a First Peoples scarred by dispossession, incarceration and poverty?
- Dream Factories
What the response to the C-19 pandemic has only confirmed is that this government is not interested in arguments about the economic impact of the music, or any other creative, industry. When it stepped forwards onto the policy stage in the late 1980s, blinking in the unfamiliar spotlight as one of Australia’s new modern industries, it assumed it would now be treated like the rest, an industry of ‘proper jobs’ deserving of government investment and support. This was not to be. Even with Labor it was mostly a rhetorical flourish with little by way of actual policy. Music advocates presented themselves as an ‘industry’ to the new Howard Coalition government in 1996, but it did not take them seriously an industry and persisted in seeing them as a culture, one it did not like, popular music situated deep inside the culture warzone. In a sense the Coalition was right.
Music could only become an ‘industry’ by redefining what an industry was. Industry, more or less equated with manufacture, used to mean integrated systems for the production and distribution of goods for need (demand) and profit. The decline of traditional manufacturing and the growth of the service sector shifted the weight of ‘industry’ from factory-based production to home-based consumption. So too the emphasis moved from needs to wants, or desires. In the 1970s it would have been the Holden car in the picture above that spoke ‘industry’. In the 1990s it’s the beach party, consumers and their desires that count, the Holden becoming simply a stylised life choice amongst others. Music and the cultural industries were about desire, and as we all know desires are endless. You can have too many cars, but never too much music.
Economic growth came from expanded domestic consumption now centred on leisure-based wants rather than the family ‘necessities’ required for the (mostly female) work of domestic reproduction of the (mostly male) workforce. Cultural goods, previously divided between the cheap popular and more restricted ‘up-market’ middle class, now became mass consumption items driven by desires that could translate into significant levels of expenditure. This has been exaggerated. In the 1980s John Myerscough estimated UK spend on cultural goods at around 4 percent of total national expenditure. Recently A New Approach put this at 5 percent – hardly a world transforming rise but significant. Of course, if we add in electronic hardware/ software and the telecoms and internet providers the figure goes up, though we need to remember that Australia is a ‘net importer’ of hardware and software, just as it is of cultural goods.
Music-as-industry supplied leisure goods to households and individual consumers. It was an ‘industry’ like gambling, footy, sex-services, hospitality, accommodation, tourism and so on. These industries do not sell themselves to governments based on the needs of the nation but on its wants, in the form of discretionary spending. The market decides, sink or swim. Governments promote such spending in general, as the more, and more frequent, transactions there are, the greater the growth in GDP, and thus tax returns, especially after the introduction of GST. The problem was always visibility to government. Tourism is a huge earner, from visitors domestic and international (‘exports’), and has been organised enough to get direct state investment – Tourism Australia, and its state and territory versions – and other tourism friendly legislation. Last year, for example, retail and hospitality lobbying got the government to reduce penalty rates. Sports Australia won huge amounts of investment, as witnessed in the ‘sports rorts’ scandal. Casinos are routinely given VIP treatment by governments. Urban and regional infrastructure and planning decisions are built around large retail chains. ‘Big Pharm’ is deeply embedded in the lobby system.
In order to flag their needs to government as something more than a mendicant arts sector, music had to present itself as industry. This meant counting as an industry, producing the impacts statement: tourism is worth $X billion per year, so too retail and hospitality. Music learned this in the 1990s, aggregating its ramshackle ecosystem into a single ‘spend’ or value-added figure, coupled with employment statistics. Music is bigger than steel, culture employs more than mining, and so on. It learned to see itself as an industry, got comfortable with market shares and value-adds. The first production of the new music industry was itself as an industry.
The ‘creative industries’, newly re-imported from the UK in 1998, only confirmed these beliefs. Creative industries floated on the back of the ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’, expanded to include a cutting edge ‘creativity’, Schumpeter meets the artistic avant-garde in creative destruction: ‘breaking is making’. This was to be a small and micro-business economy, grassroots, disruptive and entrepreneurial. Had not the music industry pioneered this, before it was given a name, bands and labels and festivals and venues the original start-ups? The old Holden got a thorough pimping-up with the help of a few Ted Talks. Music business seminars were as important as guitar lessons, and music export agencies now sharp-elbowed symphony orchestras at consulates and embassies celebrating Australia Day.
What they did not realise, and nor had Keating, was that in this new post-National global economy it was not ‘production’ – those who organised it and those who did the work – that was to count, but ownership of property, capital and wealth. The music industry, beyond a few top players, was historically short on all of these.
- Credit Ratings
Industries need to present powerful single voice to government, one that can authoritatively promise to give them what they want. The single voice is not just so as to reduce confusing, multiple messages: we’ve all been to cultural sector conferences, where the cats, yet again, refused to be herded. More importantly, this single voice ensures that governments are rewarded, given credit. Quite understandably they want to be seen to be helping. This can be done via hi-viz events and shiny new buildings, at both of which, on occasions, culture excels. Sitting a minister next to Cate Blanchette at an awards event will do more for advocacy than a thousand KPMG multiplier equations. Politicians like all that, but they also seek long term political reward for services rendered, which boils down to donations, votes and jobs (for them, that is, not on Deloitte spreadsheets).
The Pharmacists Guild has an inordinate amount of lobbying clout. It donates primarily to the Coalition and, one assumes, when it comes to voting, its members know precisely on what side their bread is buttered. Construction, real estate, banking similarly. Mineral and fossil fuel extraction involve less a revolving door between government and industry, more like an office co-share. The recent ‘sports rorts’ scandal is interesting for more than just being a particularly egregious example of ‘pork-barrelling’, which of course has a long history. What stands out is a new level of careful calibration to marginal constituencies, integrated with sophisticated modern electioneering techniques, now linked to the robust assertion that such decisions are ultimately the gift of the minister not any intermediary bodies. The diminishing of the ethos of public service is not simply about a particularly sleazy bunch of ‘pollies’, but far more systemic.
As governments have moved away from any attempt to think about national ‘need’ as far as industry is concerned, trusting the market to make these decisions on their behalf, then their relation to that industry has inevitably changed. The walls between government and industry, enshrined in various codes of conduct and ‘Westminster’ systems, have become paper thin. Indeed, if public administration is now built on the quasi-market principles of New Public Management, and governments themselves are expected to operate in the ‘marketplace of ideas’, then the influence of lobbyists and the ability of government to directly respond to these, is a sign of efficiency. Governments represent those industries that are best able to represent themselves. They respond not to abstractly aggregated ‘industries’, where breathy advocates try to convince them with consultancy metrics, but to companies or associations of companies that can operate effectively within the government’s clientele networks. Governments and their industry lobbyists share the same belief, that public interest is served best by market efficiency, as indicated by profitability, or a high rating from ‘the markets’. In delivering industry policy it is to those large companies or associations, built on market efficiency, that government looks. The recovery from the Pandemic will be business-led, we are told, and so it makes sense to pack the Covid-19 Coordination Commission with those large, efficiently profitable businesses.
At a systemic level this ‘market conformity’ is policed by global financial markets, who are able to materially affect any government tempted to break ranks by the threat of lowering their credit rating. Jenny Morris is by no means alone in calling for an ‘all-of-government’ industry policy, it’s just that there already is one: deregulation of markets, reduction of ‘inflexible’ employment rights, wage reduction through the restricting union bargaining, lower penalty rates and unemployment benefits set below poverty levels. These all help establish a healthy, growth economy in the eyes of ‘the markets’. And, as we know from the history of the last forty years, and especially since the 2008-9 financial crisis, market conformity requires restriction on the oversight reach of the democratic organs of government. Efficient governmental response to the organised lobbying of powerful industries is oiled further by sharing personnel; ministers might not be businesspeople before they go into politics, but they frequently become so the moment they step down. The ‘revolving door’ between political office and the corporate boardroom ensures that for the politician’s own career at least, calculation of future benefit is made fairly straightforward.
The cultural sector in general, outside a few big players – Foxtel, News Corp, the Nine and Seven Groups, local offices of Netflix, Amazon and so on – has little money to donate, and probably wouldn’t want to anyway. It is not really an industry worth speaking to, and mostly not one with which one can do business. The more high-profile subsidised arts are useful for the acquisition of cultural capital by corporate professionals and businesspeople, who now crowd out most others from their boards and committees, and are attractive to some politicians (Brandis, Turnbull) though not to others (Abbott, Morrison). Even for the more supportive Coalition ministers, faced by an artists’ boycott of Transfield sponsorship, the cultural sector was seen to lack the requisite gratitude, constantly ‘biting the hand that feeds it’. The boycott brought immediate punishment from the arts minister of the time, threatening that no cultural organisation should receive money if it engaged in such politically motivated actions.
Few in the Coalition believe there are many votes in the cultural sector; it is more likely to gain votes by the deploying a fashionably populist anti-metropolitan, anti-elite rhetoric, added to a well-worn Australian distrust of artists and intellectuals. It is a combination of ideology and political calculation perfectly illustrated by Prime Minister Morrison’s justification of ‘relief’ money for the sector: ‘it was as much about supporting the tradies who build the stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers’.
Music and other cultural industries get more traction at state and local levels, as we shall see in a moment, but even here, the ease whereby the New South Wales government were willing to hobble Sydney’s late-night music sector for over three years (Casino excepted, naturally) speaks volumes about the importance accorded to the ‘music industry’. Labor generally is more sympathetic, for in Australia at least it ‘owns’ creative industry policy and can be expected to reap the gratitude and the votes. But its ‘industry policy’ is mostly rhetoric, the vast bulk of the resources going to the public cultural sector. It’s as ‘culture’, rather than as ‘industry’, that the ALP embraces music, resulting in that odd juxtaposition of cultural value and market rhetoric which so marks the music advocacy we are discussing here.
Music is an integral part of the contemporary economy of discretional leisure spending, but its dispersal across a ramshackle ecosystem, lacking large-scale, highly capitalised companies who can give the government what it wants – donations, voter gratitude, future employment – means music simply doesn’t cut it. The coalition has little to gain from supporting music either as culture or as industry. Music is ubiquitous and cheap, going on free. The majority of its creative workforce are willing to work for a pittance, providing the give-away content by which others make money. In the grand marquee that is the leisure economy, host to gym chains, global aggregators, internet providers, marketing behemoths, audio-visual hardware manufacturers, telecoms companies, sports/ leisure brands, promoters and big venue operators, music is always present, but, excuse me, madam, sir, could you step away from the cocktails please? Those are for the guests, not the band.
- Real Estate: Extraction from the Commons
Morris, like many others, is deeply concerned with the survival of live music venues in the face of ‘noise’ abatement which she puts down to ‘red tape’ and ‘over-zealous councils’. No doubt that happens, but for the most part it is nothing to do with ‘red tape’ (that’s usually around security staffing, alcohol and health and safety regulations) but a response to complaints from residents about the night-life whose ‘urban vibe’ often brought them there in the first place. State governments can deal with this when they want to, as did Victoria after the famous protests around the Tote Hotel. Its ‘agent of change’ principle prevented developers coming in, and then objecting. As shown by the special legislation passed by that state to see off a developer challenge to its new Collingwood Yards cultural precinct, it is able to this stretch this principle if required.
The real problem is the general rise in property prices, and the reclassification of older (lower rent, noise friendly) industrial zones for both commercial and residential use. ‘Gentrification’, that quant word for the systematic giving over of the spaces of the city for the purpose of increasing ‘return on investment’, rental income and tax yields, is a global problem. A hugely expanded financial sector, no longer investing in productive industry, now roams the globe in search of high-return property investment opportunities. Music industry advocates (as in other cultural sectors) attempt to tot-up live music spend (tickets, drinks), travel, accommodation, band and staff wages, and so on. This misses where the real value-added is, and which accrues elsewhere. It goes to all those leisure industries gathered in the grand marquee, but also to the real estate company that has just brought the ground it stands on and whose nearby development it is intended to promote.
Music scenes – the venues, cafes, pubs, bars, clubs, record shops, rehearsal and recording spaces, indie clothes shops, along with the wider set of (public and private) art, culture and fashion scenes of which they often form part – are immensely valued for what they give to the image and attractiveness of cities. In the 1990s city governments bought the arguments, from Charles Landry and others, subsequently quantified by Richard Florida in the 2000s, for the ‘creative city’: art and culture, as high as you like and as bohemian-multicultural as you like, are good for cities. As we know now (so too Landry and Florida) the proposition that the ‘creative city’ is good for the employment and economic prospects of the city as a whole is dubious; but that it is good for real estate developers, and associated accommodation and hospitality companies, is not at all disputed. Artists and musicians move into an area; it gets hip; prices go up; artists and musicians move out. This is an old story, going back to SoHo and Soho. Some suggested this was good and natural, they can move on to other parts of the city and work the same magic. By now though the game is up.
In the novel Catch-22 there is a Native American, Chief White Halfoat, whose tribe gets thrown off their reservation because they found oil. They find oil on the next place they moved, and the next. By the end, some bright things at the oil company invented a way to predict where the Chief was headed and got there before he did. In the new millennium, Cool was the new oil. Developers were not looking for ‘going concerns’ to buy, profitable music businesses they might take over; rather, they sought the cultural capital value generated through networks of cultural producers and the rising economic potential bestowed by the urban consumers drawn to the area. Picking up on these urban value currents demanded new skills. Cayce Pollard, lead character in William Gibson’s 2003 book Pattern Recognition, was a ‘cool hunter’, who could walk the city, the eddies of urban vibes feeding directly into her sensorium, and through her to the corporations. We’ve all met them. Now companies such as We Work – who managed to scale up the distributed back-room, old factories and above-the-shop workplaces of the creative sector into a global stock floatation offer – have turned to algorithms, the digital AI sensorium ensuring that wherever the cool-oil is, they get there first.
What cities are belatedly recognising – from London to Berlin, New York to Singapore – is that is it very easy to kill off the scenes that made the city attractive. The problem is that the developers and landowners killing off the scenes are rarely the ones who have to live with the consequences: sales have been made, anchor tenants locked in, city councils inevitably committed to making them work (who wants a failed development on their doorstep?). Local music coalitions may try to assert long-term interests, and all the shops, cafes, hotels and (most) residents want ‘vibrancy’; but as effective demand this pales next to the tsunami-like business model of a cashed-up developer. One can make a ‘business case’ for live music, but it rarely washes with anybody outside a few like-minded council officers. By the time it gets close to treasury it is usually dead in the water. Though councils might ultimately have to live with the declining occupancy and street blight this causes, it takes many years for the pea of a vacant building in Brunswick to irritate the skin of a real estate corporation in Singapore. Developers, like the fossil fuel extractors, tend not to concern themselves so much with Social Discount Rates.
Music scenes, music ecosystems, their producers, intermediaries and paying participants generate value beyond that which provides income (sustainable or otherwise) for those whose work in it. They produce collective social and cultural benefits, which, rather than being shared as part of the urban commons, have been increasingly annexed as private profit by those who own – or seek to own – the land on which these take place. Though Morris and others call for urgent action to defend the live music ecology as part of an ‘industry strategy’, such a call ignores how the language and practice of economic rationalism has transformed planning systems into facilitators of the city as real estate market, the most important metrics for treasury ( and ‘taxpayers’) being increased rental yields and land prices, feeding into tax receipts. Music-as-industry stands no chance (in fact, neither does industry-as-industry).
Many cities are coming to realise that the only grounds on which to protect such urban music ecosystems are socio-cultural ones, that they provide public value – liveability, ‘place-making’, vibrancy and so on. The challenge here is to develop a new way of talking about music less as an industry, and more as a public good. But if we are to ensure that this public good is not simply extracted by developers, along with large-scale hospitality, accommodation and tourism companies, we have to think more clearly about this public good.
- From Public Good to Public Extraction
Cultural economists talk about mass reproducible cultural goods as ‘non-rivalrous goods’, by which they mean goods which are not used up in consumption. The Holden car cannot be bought by two people at the same time; my listening to the music coming out if its radio does not prevent all the others on the beach listening to it. Finding ways to make them ‘excludable’, to ensure user-pays, in these circumstances is one of the distinct challenges for the cultural industries, involving a complex mix of turnstiles, tickets and bouncers, subscriptions, distinct physical objects (vinyl, books), digital watermarks and paywalls, and (as with APRA) enforceable copyright. It is common to assert that non-rivalrous cultural goods tend towards non-excludable public goods over time (rights holders struggle desperately against this).
This abuts onto another notion of a public good: a good (a benefit) provided for the collective enjoyment of the public. In the 19th century cities, and later nations, provided public goods involving physical infrastructure – gas, water, electricity, roads, housing – and services – public health, hospitals, education, and social welfare. Cultural infrastructure – theatres, libraries, galleries, museums, concert halls, parks, public sculpture – was part of this. In the second half of the 20th century this public service infrastructure – whether provided publicly or privately, by nations, states, cities or ‘civil society’, became part of our ‘social citizenship’. This was not the ‘welfare state’ conceived as a distribution of social benefits to the needy but a broader political economic compact with its citizens, to ensure each one had (as TH Marshall wrote in 1963)
‘the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to… share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevalent in society’.
How social citizenship was extended to embrace ‘cultural citizenship’, especially in the 1970s, and the effects of this democratising force on how we think of culture and cultural policy, have been of central importance politically. Which is why right-wing governments have been so concerned to wage a war on such culture. Jenny Morris is correct. Whilst popular music from the 1960s onwards became part of the weft and warp of a modern democratic and popular culture, it rarely had a voice in cultural policy, aside from the occasional bandstand in the park. Unfortunately, as we have tried to show, when popular music was finally ‘discovered’, its articulation as ‘industry’ meant its relationship with this infrastructure of public goods was inevitably distorted. Although attitudes had so changed by the 1990s that ‘commercial music’ was no longer a term of abuse but an index of a vibrant popularity, this merely confirmed it as part of a leisure industry fuelled by private discretionary spending.
How are we to think of popular music as a public good?
If ‘industry’ is now about wants expressed as purchases, and the leisure industry about the stimulation and satisfaction of theoretically unlimited desire, the public sector is the one that has traditionally dealt with needs. In democratic countries, from the 1940s public utilities and physical infrastructure were mainly (the US is a famous exception) provided directly by states as part of an economy strategy focused on the needs of the nation. Energy, agriculture, mining, transport and manufacture were all set within a strategic planning framework aimed at satisfying national needs, even if these were primarily privately owned. What became known as the ‘welfare state’ provided a huge range of public services in health, education, housing, and social relief payments which were seen to be more efficiently and equitably provided by the state for collective consumption. These services were inevitably based on decisions made by government not individual consumers, who cannot choose to have a free schooling system or health service. They were also set within a broader redistributive goal, in which wealth was transferred from the richer to the poorer sections of society.
In the 1980s cultural policy began to heat up as the public cultural infrastructure suddenly looked like a 19th century whale stranded next to our 20th century beach party. The problem was not only the kinds of art being presented in the concert halls, galleries and theatre (or if art should be locked up in these antiquated places) but how to accommodate the explosion of interest in actually making and doing art and culture. The was a desire driven by more leisure time, more education, more money, as well as new technologies and new aspirations, of which rock music was a quintessential expression. The very first iterations of ‘cultural industries’, before Keating reduced it into post-manufacturing employment, was an attempt to grapple with the two questions: how to reconcile a democratic public sphere with the ever-expanding commercial interests within it (newspapers, publishing, film and broadcasting mainly) and how to support this upsurge of popular creativity and participation.
Creative Nation was a turning point, though it didn’t seem so at the time. After 1996 the public cultural sector – including broadcasting – would be pushed ever-backwards as its guiding principle became, as arts minister and IPA member Mitch Fifield suggested in 2018, ‘let the markets decide’. Popular culture – ‘now creative industries’ – would be left to that market, with the state taking an ever-declining responsibility for the arts, now in a terminal state of ‘market failure’. Returning popular music to the public good would require that we revisit some of those earlier debates, but at the same time recognising that the whole landscape of public services and social citizenship has changed almost beyond recognition.
The 1990s saw the progressive privatisation of big state-owned companies, inspired by the UK example. This was on grounds of efficiency, now equated with profitability, itself expressed as returns to shareholders. The shifts brought about by ‘shareholder value’, where management renumeration was increasingly tied to both dividends and credit rating (by ‘markets’ and new agencies such as Moodies), meant that profitability bore little (and sometimes inverse) relation to levels of employment, wages or productive re-investment. As the decade progressed this model was applied not only to private corporations but to the full range of government services, which were provided on need but delivered by profitability. National and local services – health, social benefits, social services, education, transport, pensions, post, roads, prisons, security, garbage – were outright- or semi-privatised, or their delivery outsourced and subject to quasi-market efficiency measures. As with the privatised industries, government sought to turn them into attractive investment opportunities for a growing global finance sector looking for high returns. Rentier Capitalism.
What was being sold or subcontracted was the public’s needs (some of them natural monopolies) in health, education, social services, transport and so on, to be delivered by companies seeking profits. In the 19th century the railways in the UK and across Europe were built with finance on a long-term yield of 5 percent. The current rate of return sought by these companies is 11 or 12 percent or more. This is good for finance but also for governments; it means their public services do not weigh down their credit ratings and the reduction in social spending underscores their robust dedication to GDP growth. It also provides for a whole new set of clientele networks, with these public services run by government appointees or deeply enmeshed in the government-lobby system. Even government planning regulations and mechanisms are predicated on a quasi-market system, such as the now abolished carbon-pricing and the infamous Murray-Darling plan.
In consequence public services, rather than being seen as underpinning social citizenship, or providing essential social foundations, are now for those who have ‘fallen through the net’, quasi-market systems, underwritten by state credits, providing high levels of return for the efficient operators willing to take them on. As we have seen recent in the aged-care sector, the primary form of efficiency is cutting wages and costs, whilst demanding government pay more. Culture as a public service is entirely privatised where possible (commercial television, newspapers, the NBN, Foxtel etc.) and otherwise it is to have its funding squeezed. The music industry, along with other ramshackle low-pay, low-productivity, low-yield creative industries, barely registers in these calculations. There are few water buy-backs in culture.
- Culture as Basic Infrastructure
Even before the Pandemic this situation was being challenged by heterodox economists. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics was a best-seller, arguing for an economic model which provided for the basic social foundations (need) and restricted overall resource consumption to what was planetary possibly. Economic goals ought to be returned to the sphere of human values and needs, not given over to the mathematics of endless growth. Mariana Mazzucato dismantled the idea that the state can only be a dead weight on private entrepreneurship rather than act as a dynamic agent of change. She sought “a new and deeper understanding of public value, an expression found in philosophy but almost lost in today’s economics”. “Value”, she says, “is not created exclusively inside or outside a private-sector market, but rather by a whole society; it is also a goal which can be used to shape markets”. And, we might add, radically rethink what we mean by ‘markets’.
This is not Economics but Political Economy, and it has direct implications for culture in general, and music in particular. Cultural economists have long told us that culture has value other than the economic, and have itemised these variously as social, cultural, historical, aesthetic and so on. Cultural advocates have sought to emphasise these social and cultural values, attacking the exclusive emphasis on the economic as reductionist or instrumental. What they don’t do is question these compartmentalisations. The economic is what economists tells us it is; we can choose to emphasise cultural or social values but we are not allowed to question how this economic has come to be and who has the power to determine how it is organised. Yet this is what both social democracy/ socialism (explicitly) and neoliberalism (hiding behind ‘there is no alternative’) have done. The burning question then is not about identifying the social and cultural value of these music (or other cultural) ecosystems, but how to transform their economic structure in ways that better deliver to whatever values with which we invest culture. This cannot be done through orthodox, neoclassical micro-economics.
A group of UK economists and historians identified what they called the ‘everyday’ or ‘foundational’ economy. This is the material and immaterial infrastructure of electricity, water, gas, housing, transport, health, education, social services and benefits, and food. These foundational economies account for between 40 and 60 percent of local economies. They – to which they also added the ‘mundane’ services such as cafes, hairdressers, basic furniture, holidays – are the basics without which it is not possible to say we have that ‘modicum of economic welfare and security’, and we would not be fully participatory citizens. The foundational economy is far bigger than those advanced manufacture, business services or creative industries which are routinely identified as the key to local economic development. Though hollowed out by outsourcing and financial super-extraction, they still provide the needs of the vast majority of the population, those who have few savings, high-debts and over-leveraged home mortgages, relying on wage income and social benefits not rent, capital or wealth. It is these foundational economies to which we have anxiously turned in this pandemic and which many see as providing the basis for a more equitable post-pandemic recovery. Rather than trying to defibrillate collapsed discretional spending through consumption vouchers or cash transfers (such as a new kitchen top) we might look at direct public investment into these foundational services, including social housing, a needs-led economic recovery.
Yet what stands out in all these three accounts is their lack of any mention of culture (though libraries get a brief mention). Televisions are basic necessities, but not the content they show. Raworth, ‘social foundations’ is similar to the basic rights of social citizenship enumerated in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These SDGs do not include culture, despite intense lobbying from UNESCO. In the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, culture is there in Article 28. 70 years later it’s not worth a mention. One of the first tasks for a radical reboot of our thinking about culture is to learn how to speak about it as part of a foundational economy, or even – breaking with the individualising program of Universal Basic Income – a more collective Universal Basic Infrastructure.
We would need to think about music as an economy but not always as an ‘industry’, in the sense of a set of activities organised around the mass production of culture for profit. The majority of music and the ‘popular arts’ is produced in the interstices of the everyday economy. Music has industry tentacles reaching out to SXSW and Spotify’s corporate headquarters, but the vast majority of the action takes place at the level of inter-locking local ramshackle ecosystems. Much of the value it produces is public value, adding in different ways and at different levels to the social and cultural life of the city – and beyond that to state and nation. It also provides a livelihood and a lifeworld for those involved in its production, though currently withering on the altar of sacrificial labour. But can music be about social need, when it is so obviously about individual desires, tastes and identities, quintessentially private goods?
This is economists’ smoke and mirrors. The very concept of culture is collective, by definition it is about shared meanings; which is not to say it can’t also be unequal and oppressive, but these too are social effects. Art, as articulated since the beginnings of industrial civilisation in the 18th century, has emphasised values beyond utilitarian necessity, but it was a human spiritual need, not a discretionary spend hived off to sovereign consumers. Going beyond the utilitarian has always been what art does, though it often looked down at those deprived of the time and money this often required. Art, beauty, form, aesthetic meaning – all these have long been claimed as necessary to life, even amongst those deprived, who sought it in popular culture. This necessity was accepted in patrician fashion by those who built the 19th century cultural infrastructures, ‘elevating’ the masses. But it was valued by the revolutionaries, as in the Paris Commune, who linked it to free worker and to provide for the collective enjoyment of beauty, what they called ‘communal luxury’. This persisted very strongly in social democratic, socialist and communist movements, especially at municipal levels.
The extension of social citizenship in the 1970s to encompass culture involved new aspirations, new conceptions of ‘the good life’, opening participation in making culture and judging what was of benefit. It connected with those broader social movements seeking to democratise and extent social citizenship, the social democratic ‘welfare state’ itself. Cities responded by a revitalisation of their cultural infrastructure, not just the buildings but who and how they funded or facilitated the cultural life. Australian cities were ahead of the global curve in the 1980s and early 1990s. These were unashamedly political debates and demands, and extremely rambunctious, especially compared to the whimpered supplication that characterises todays arts advocacy.
- Rethinking Music as Public Good
This is a place to which we need to return. To recognise music making and music enjoyment as above all about public value, the social and sonic ecosystem as part of our ‘communal luxury’. Music policy should aim at facilitating its flourishing and helping musicians, managers, technicians and everyday workers make a living, as far as possible. Infrastructure is useful in highlighting the basic, everyday needs which make life possible, and which should rightfully be available to all citizens. Access to cultural goods is essential, but this need has been privatised, both in terms of individual ‘expressed preference’ and as private profit. Even the technical infrastructures – such as the NBN – have been privatised. The live music ecology, the pulsating heart of music culture and the main source of income for musicians and the rest, is difficult to privatise; rather its value-add is recouped by developers, or brushed aside in search of better returns, but in any respect has been left to the predations of the urban land market.
Music cannot be supported only by local states providing buildings as infrastructure – city or state-owned venues can be useful but necessarily limited in number – nor by direct subsidies as with the traditional arts, as would never ever be enough grants to go around. Infrastructure as ecosystem demands a much more complex set of initiatives, and any such policy would have to radically shift its principle from top-down provision (and all that reporting) to democratic partnership and participation. But ‘ecosystem’ should not make us think of some self-regulating system, which requires only an occasional tinkering. The current urban ecosystem, where a few alpha predators are about to swallow the few remaining herbivores, should disabuse us of this. Political economy requires management, a ‘husbandry’ of this ecosystem within shared, explicit public values and goals.
Reframe our values and goals: break with music-as-industry, focus on music as part of a flourishing public culture. If acts start to make it overseas – as they hopefully will – then these should be supported and encouraged. Breaking from music-as-industry will move us away from the dominance of Ted-Talk ‘creative entrepreneurialism’ which bears little relation to the way the contemporary economy is actually organised, let alone music. The ‘entrepreneurial self’ is about internalising risk and precarity, uncoupling your own life chances from any collective security and solidarity; if you fail that’s your failure and it’s on you. This has blighted many of the lives of the younger generation.
We could then be released to explore other forms, some that have been around for many years, marginalised (or made safer as ‘social entrepreneurship’), others quite new. A state Music Office might start to explore the role of co-operatives in the whole music ecosystem. Venues, aided by grants, cheap loans, and some expertise, might be shifted towards these collective, not-for-profit models (often a recognition of what they are de facto). There is now a lot of work on co-operatives in the cultural sector internationally, and in Australia. Music venues conceived as social spaces and given support and funding on that basis is long-established in Europe and in Australia, though usually linked to recognisable ‘arts’ venues. These can be extended. The Music Office could encourage and promote networks of such venues across the state and inter-state, as part of enhancing the ecosystem.
There are a range of shared-ownership (including crowdfunding) and secure leasing models; as well as ‘planning gain’ options, where developers need to provide cheap space, and percent-funding, based on the value they gain from such activities. This is not about piece-meal interventions by smart consultants or of-the-peg ideas – pop-ups, short-term creative use, placemaking and activation grants – none of which can make significant long-term changes. This would also extend to the promotion of public digital infrastructure – platform urbanism and the digital commons.
Urban planning is central to this, and music-as-ecosystem thinking would have to engage with this as did early interventions such as Postcode 3000 in Melbourne, a radical reboot of the planning imagination. The prioritization of increased rental and land-value in this would need to be confronted, involving a political economy battle that would not be pleasant. It would have to be part of a wider question of land-use after the pandemic. The lock-down has ripped through retail and local cafes (as well as music) and pushed it towards on-line (as in culture). Though governments want the workers back in their offices, will it ever be the same again? Can we expect those men and women in smart suits, with a coffee and sandwich in a paper bag to be there forever? Bringing these spaces back does not have to be some market-based solution through state primed private spending, but active choices to bring local back into being. It would be linked at one end with our thinking about food and industry supply chains, their dependencies and susceptibilities to momentary disruption exposed. At the other end street activation needs to be more than increasing footfall for renters, but a more holistic conception of urban living in communal luxury. Read Dan Hill’s Slowdown Papers for a glimpse of what this might involve. We might even think of directly employing artists (and thus musicians) as job creation in the form of public works can take inspiration from the practices of the New Deal in the US.
All this would require multiple conversations and deep thinking, and it would have to be done in a more open and participative way. Rather than hand over millions to an accountancy firms to tell you about market share, we might be better places to spend the millions on those laborious conversations between experts and community – citizen assemblies for sure, but also well-resourced local authority planning offices and universities actually capable of engaging in public benefit rather than their own corporate gain. Public goods can only come out of a public service with an ethos of the public good.
This might come with the promotion of new training programmes on the legal options for running not-for-profits, and university ‘arts admin’ courses might be re-tooled to include these issues, not just grant writing and marketing. We might connect with new forms of heterodox economics, and looking to the developing world for models, not just waiting for a new paper from Harvard Business School to trickle down to the antipodes.
11. Australian Music
As I said at the beginning, this is not a critique of Jenny (or Gordi), who was speaking in good faith to a situation of great urgency. It is to say simply that we cannot go on making these arguments as we have done for twenty years, crashing in the same Holden in an ever-shrinking cycle of repetition. It is time to break out.
How exciting would this be? To think about the music ecosystem – resources, aspirations, possibilities. To think of it as our communal luxury, as part of our universal basic infrastructure, as an essential part of our social needs without which our lives are diminished, with no songs to save them.
Is this not a better way to start to be true to First Peoples, to think of connecting our common musical practices and spaces, to their sense that life and culture and not separable? To start the work of thinking life like this rather than another attempt to re-float the rusty hulk of music-as-industry rhetoric; let’s just leave this, like one of those failed engineering projects, concrete and twisted metal jutting out into nothing, as a monument to our folly. This attempt would speak to the songlines in a way ‘net exports’ cannot. It would not only talk the language of de-colonisation but begin to materially implement it, and actually begin to listen to a culture that would never, in 60,000 years, attempt to call itself an industry.