Our rights are most on our minds when we are denied them.

Loudmouth periodically passes on reports by Freemuse on the gaoling of musicians for having the temerity to sing something that displeased the state – something that the state is afraid might weaken its hold, its domination.

There are plenty of countries where this happens. But in Australia, so far as we know musicians don’t talk among themselves about risks of imprisonment because of something they might perform. Even songs with lyrics directly criticising the government are not ‘illegal’.

Right wing governments in Australia seem often to suspect that artists lean left. A response can be to reduce support to the arts or even to criticise particular sorts of artworks of the more adventurous kind. That’s not actual repression. But the infamous Arts Minister from a few years ago, George Brandis, took most of the funds of the Australia Council under his direct charge and then announced that he would give no funding support to individual artists because, essentially, they were of flawed character. It is fair to assume that at the next election, artists did not surge to the Liberal Party at the ballot box.

Brandis could starve the artists but he couldn’t shut them up. The arts sector rallied against Brandis, overtly criticising his intentions and decisions and no-one was charged. We have that right.

This is not the case in many countries and so early this century, the International Music Council formulated and adopted as its basic platform the Five Musical Rights. Here they are.

You can see that the first three rights are for everybody and the last two are to cover the extra needs of professional musicians.

These, like the rights in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Right, are rights that the Council asserts that everyone should have. Indeed, they fit with some declarations of rights in no less than nine international conventions agreed under the UN or UNESCO.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts fundamental rights, such as those defined in Article 1.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Its repression would make it difficult or impossible to exercise cultural rights as defined in Article 27:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits

or the rights enunciated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

to hold opinions without interference

and to exercise

the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of arts, or through any other media of his choice.

Australia has a history of censorship, justified on grounds of morality or community standards. Such censorship has been applied most obviously to books and films. Censorship of music is really about censorship of lyrics, not the music itself, and this is largely the case internationally.

It is conceivable that under proposed new laws of religious freedom, which are about the right of religious people or organisations not to accept certain freedoms of others, that those freedoms could include freedom of expression. On the other side of the argument, Israel Folau was said to have the right to say highly critical things about offenders against religion but seemed liable to receive a civil penalty. On the margins, it is a perplexing area.

To the Five Music Rights as we might confront them in Australia.

The right for all children and adults

  1. To express themselves musically in all freedom

We can sing in the shower or on the street, even though the latter is a freedom we don’t much exercise. We probably can’t play the bass drum, uninvited, in the cinema or even on the train. But who would want to assert that freedom? We are not really claiming ALL freedom. The thing is, are we faced with constraints that we do not wish to accept?

  1. To learn musical language and skills

No-one actively prevents us from learning musical language and skills. To an extent, we learn some musical language just by living in the Australian culture.

On the other hand, acquisition of musical skills in our society depends upon more than cultural osmosis. Beyond a very basic level, it depends upon education. In our culture, most young children do not learn musical skills through the education system. The skills are not taught because the teachers have not learned how.

So is the intention of Musical Right 2 that everyone has the right to be taught to make music? That would imply state expenditure on the provision of music education. Is it credible or reasonable to make such a claim? Yes, perhaps it could be so.

In one of the UNESCO conventions, a right is asserted for every person to practice their own culture. Is there then an implied obligation on the state to fund education in any musical genre practised by citizens of one our diverse cultural groups? Is that practicable?

Ahh well, questions of feasibility could be genuine or they could be used as a way of excusing inaction.

  1. To have access to musical involvement through participation, listening, creation and information.

As with education, there is no obvious governmental obstruction to any of these types of musical involvement.

The opportunities for involvement may be lacking and it can be asserted that the problem could be solved by government intervention. Sometimes it is. Community music projects can be funded to give opportunities for people to create music together. Government-funded libraries or TAFE courses can provide information. But do we have a right to insist on such government assistance? Are there enough opportunities to go round?

To the rights for professional artists.

The right for all musical artists

  1. To develop their artistry and communicate through all media, with proper facilities at their disposal.

The issue of freedom of expression has been addressed in Right #1. It does not seem problematical to assert the right of all artists to develop their artistry although as with the children, there could be a question about the extent of the provision of professional education.

The assertion of the right of all artists to communicate through all media, with proper facilities at their disposal again runs into two issues. Are some artists not able to access and use proper media facilities because governments are preventing it, or allowing other parties to obstruct it, or because as with education, they simply do not provide enough facilities and opportunity? What is feasible and reasonable? Which artists can be counted as professional? How is that decision made? And not abused?

  1. To obtain just recognition and fair remuneration for their work.

Legally in Australia, just recognition is supposed to be assured through moral rights law. So in principle, the right is assured if the law is enforced.

Fair remuneration is plainly not guaranteed for musicians other than those in an employment relationship, such as orchestral musicians. For others, the market decides.

Musicians are not in a strong position in the market. At an everyday level, good musicians can be undercut by others of lesser musical standing but sufficient skill to satisfy an audience or employer of modest musical requirements. Door deals can mean the musician is a contractor unprotected by employment law or wage scales.

This article will not pretend to offer a solution beyond saying that the market has no clear reason to address the problem and it can only be solved by government.

The International Music Council’s Five Music Rights offer a platform of principles to assist in identifying and addressing some important issues in the Australian polity and culture. Their source in an important international organisation lends them credibility and gravitas.

It is obvious: we need a number of musical colours on our palette to have a real freedom of expression. […] People must find in their near environment, live music, recorded music, musical materials, instruments, and opportunities to participate in music making. […] There needs to be ‘room’ for the creative artist, he or she who jumps without any safety net: the uneasy person, the herald, the inventor. By ‘room’ I mean acceptance, support, financial resources, and good working conditions.” Einar Solbu, a leading contributor to the formulation of the Five Music Rights, 1999.


Richard Letts AM is Director of The Music Trust. He was President of the International Music Council from 2005-2009.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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