Why Aus music is worth its weight in gold

The debate about Olympic funding has overshadowed the fact that contemporary musicians are having to subsist off the smell of an oily rag, writes DARREN LEVIN.

Australia’s recent Olympics bid has once again highlighted the vast funding discrepancies between sports and contemporary music.

According to a story in The Age this week, the Australian Institute of Sport spent $310-million on our London Olympics campaign. It included more than $70-million spent on swimming and athletics alone, with each of our seven gold medals costing approximately $10-million a pop.

Now contrast this with that other great Australian export: contemporary music. Despite a year in which local artists have been making significant strides overseas – from Gotye and Kimbra’s raid on the US charts to international deals for the likes of Chet Faker, Last Dinosaurs, Royal Headache, Husky and emma louise – the Australian government could only commit to $3-million over four years in May’s Federal Budget. That’s roughly $750,000 a year, divvied up mostly between Sounds Australia ($1.7-million) and the West Australian Music Industry Association ($1.3-million).

That figure improves slightly when you factor in the extra budget allocated to the Australia Council, as well as state-based industry bodies such as Music Victoria and Music NSW, but it still pales in comparison to the millions pledged to the AIS in pursuit of gold.

While comparing arts to sports funding is kinda like comparing Skrillex to Slipknot, it’s worth considering that Wally de Backer – arguably Australia’s greatest success story of the year, musically or otherwise – reached #1 in 25 countries around the world without a cent of government investment in his album Making Mirrors. Add to that a recent report by accounting firm Ernst & Young, which concluded that live music fuels the Australian economy to the tune of $1.2 billion, and you start to question whether the government has its funding priorities straight.

While Helen Marcou from musicians’ lobby group Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) is loathe to weigh in on the sport-versus-music funding debate, she says musicians have traditionally had to subsist off the smell of an oily rag.

“We scratch our heads and wonder why The Swedish are net exporters of music and our musicians are still running the marathon in bare feet.”

“Australian musicians have clawed success while being neglected by countless governments, comparatively different to Olympic sportspeople,” Marcou told FL this week. “Our musicians suffer a diminished national touring circuit, venues closing down, shrinking local radio quotas, their music illegally downloaded, very few support opportunities with International touring bands, limited superannuation – should I go on? We scratch our heads and wonder why The Swedish are net exporters of music and our musicians are still running the marathon in bare feet.”

But selling the idea of contemporary music as something worth investing in might require a cultural shift, says Nick O’Byrne from the Australian Independent Record Labels Association. He says the amount of funding allocated to sports in Australia is indicative of a much wider issue, namely our reliance on athletic achievement as a measure of national worth. “I think sport is also, as a whole, considered by politicians to be more egalitarian. Its an easier sell to government because success can be celebrated by everyone, tradies, lawyers, doctors, teachers, adults and kids.”

Still, Marcou says that a cash injection akin to our recent Olympic campaign could see a “tenfold return to the Australian economy”, not to mention the contribution to the social and culture fabric of society. She urged the government to show some leadership and drop the cultural cringe.

“Economics aside, $310-million over four years could make a big dent in the problems plaguing the sector, the same stuff that we’ve made noise about for 30 years like pay equity for artists, superannuation, sound attenuation and preservation of cultural clusters, music in the school curriculum, a reinvigorated regional music scene,” she says. “Our sector is being smothered in bureaucratic red tape and is a regulatory mess. The musical talent pool in this country is robust and word class. Our artists are resilient and the public love their music, you could argue more than their sport.”