The Death of Live Music in Australia: Jon Rose’s Top Six Gripes

How do you maintain live music in a culture that doesn’t value it? Jon Rose, acclaimed improvising violinist and instrument-maker, looks at the decline of live music in Australia, and argues that the problems go beyond downloading and the digital age.

He lists his top six gripes: the internet (of course), real estate (and the invasion of the inner city by families who call for quiet), law (public liability insurance in particular), the bureaucracy (and prohibitive cost) of busking, architects (and the money spent on expensive performance spaces, as opposed to paying musicians) and aesthetics and priorities (the overwhelming dominance of opera when it comes to government funding).

When the Lord Mayor of Sydney authorised an official taskforce into the decline of live music this year, the cultural elite suddenly woke up to how horribly wrong it’s all gone. Thousands packed the State Theatre. You might’ve thought they were going to a concert of live music — but no, they were there to hear the taskforce talk about why there is no live music (or little live music) left in Sydney.

The practice of music has lost its key function and role in our society. This is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon: it’s happening worldwide. Nor is the problem confined to music practiced on the fringes of society. It’s common to all music forms — both popular and unpopular.

When the performance of live music is mentioned in the traditional media or online, you would mostly be forgiven for thinking that music is being played all over Australia, that musicians are having a great time doing what they love and getting handsomely paid for it. We, as practitioners, have to maintain the illusion of success and credibility before the public’s gaze.

Image: Live music photo

If you go to the Australia Council’s website, for example, you will read that in 2011, Australians purchased almost 100 million sound recordings. Audience demand for major music performances reached over 10 million tickets – generating sales of $1.4 billion. (That’s including all the related taxi rides, officious bouncers and overpriced drinks.) Of course the notion of a live music industry is a contradiction in terms these days, if not an out and out insult … as I’m about to reveal.

The Australia Council says of these figures that ‘Australians are consuming music faster than ever’. It’s a sonic feeding frenzy out there.

In 2009, Australian households spent an estimated $2 billion on music related services (whatever that means). That’s more than they spent, apparently, on internet charges, domestic holiday airfares or visits to the dentist.

Fifty-seven per cent of Australians attend live music events each year, making music the biggest art form in Australia. The statisticians don’t mention whether that refers to one concert a year, or the attendance of concerts on a weekly basis.

But let’s consider the insulting term ‘live music industry’. Elsewhere on the Australia Council website, on a page already lost within the maze of statistics, lurks the reality of all this music consumption. The median income for professional musicians in Australia stands at $7,200 a year. This figure includes minor celebrities, second-division pop stars, famous has-beens, the would-have-beens, music managers, academics, and bureaucrats on very comfortable salaries.

Of the 60,000 musicians registered with APRA, only 12,500 musicians are thought to be even approaching the status of a professional praxis in music in this country today. It’s clear, although I have no statistics to prove it, that the overwhelming majority must be living on that traditional form of government subsidy, the dole.

The profession of music is just about over. Outside of heavily subsidised classical music, fashionable DJ-ing, or stadium rock, the practice of live music has become casualised, . The sound of music is ubiquitous, the constant ear-bud film score accompanying our busy lives … but no one is actually playing it.

Here are some of my favourite gripes about the state of live music.

Gripe number 1: The internet

Internet 2.0 drip-feeds us with an inexhaustible supply of music, most of which can be had for free. Even an obscure artist like myself can find a dozen websites my material can be downloaded from for free, or for a few dollars. I don’t have the time or the resources to go chasing after these people – it’s how it is. We accept, we adapt, or we try to get a real job.

The creators of muzak in the 1950s (invented for the American military, like most things) would be nonplussed by the sheer force and magnitude of the current digital deluge. Many commentators have already pointed out that data is not information; information is not knowledge; knowledge is not wisdom. I would add that the digital era doesn’t save time — it takes time … eons of time. And that’s coming from someone who’s been involved with interactive technologies since the mid-1980s.

Yes, I hear you say, but what about crowd sourcing, the ease of access of everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask, distance-shrinking capabilities, the sharing of ideas via the creative commons, self-publishing, Wikipedia, etc.? Some of this might be intellectually useful, a genuine freedom of information, entertaining even, but I don’t see any of these 21st-century consumerist glories creating more properly paid work for live music. People won’t pay the adult cost of what it takes to put a good musician on stage to play music for an audience. The inherent problem of music and late capitalism is that live music lives out a transitory experience. When it’s finished, nothing is left, except maybe the t-shirt.

I’m used to playing to small audience numbers around the world, because I play unpopular music. Early in my career, I played popular music in order to subsidise my desire to experiment and explore the world of improvisation – in which I assumed I would never make a living. It turned out differently than expected, and I’ve survived 40 years in what used to be known as the avant-garde. Then, it was postmodernism. Now I haven’t a clue how to describe it – hence, I refer to what I do as unpopular music. You have to work extremely hard as a musician in diverse, if not sometimes perverse, situations in many countries to get by. I’m happy to play for small audiences: it’s what you expect when you’re outside the mainstream. But there is nothing more depressing than seeing a rock band with a sizable PA thrashing away at what should be popular music, in front of half a dozen depressed young souls huddled in the corner of a darkened pub room with a sticky carpet. That’s if you can find a pub, or even a sticky carpet.

But it’s not just the internet that’s destroying live music.

Gripe 2. Real estate

The house or apartment buyers who want to live in the inner city are also part of the problem. The desire to live where the creatives live when you are young and groovy is understandable. But then they complain like hell when they’ve bought into the mortgage and the baby (and all they want to do is sleep, not listen to live music thumping in an adjacent building at all hours).

The Annandale Hotel, a famous Sydney rock venue, was closed down by three complaining residents in their sparkling new apartments opposite. The previous council supported the closure, even though the noise of Parramatta Road in peak hour is louder than any noise leaking from a band playing in the pub. The new, young, enthusiastic mayor of inner-city Leichhardt wants to turn Parramatta Road (a suffocating, stinking hell of a blocked artery) into a cultural hub. He’s got to be joking. After a hundred thousand dollars of legal fees, I believe the pub is going to continue as some sort of restrained, safe, legal, clean, excitement killing, music venue, probably with more shaved head bouncer thug types at the door to keep the kids under control.

Real Estate can be a criminal enterprise in places like Sydney. But we pay the crims what we want, and they give it to us, the city is made in our compliant consuming image.

Gripe 3. Law

As a lawyer recently pointed out to me, there is never less law, only more law. We just keep piling additional laws on top of our towering stack of regulations.

In the last century, I played a variety of musics in every conceivable venue (and indeed often outside and beyond venues). This would have included RSL clubs, sports clubs, art galleries, university unions, cafes, radio stations, restaurants, nightclubs, beaches, supermarkets, trade union Clubs, jazz clubs — and even a drunken divorce party on an expensive boat in Sydney Harbour. I was never asked if I had public liability insurance … though I was questioned on occasion if what I did was actually music.

In this century, the issue of public liability has risen from a murmur to a loud corporate roar. That roar is hollow of course; it is based on convincing a poor and disenfranchised part of the community (the performing artists) that somehow there has always been PLI, it’s for our own good, and we should stop complaining and pay up.

For those who are not performers, I should explain. Most venues are required to have some kind of insurance against the building burning or falling down, which I guess is reasonable to a degree, but PLI is another scam altogether. It demands that each individual artist carry it by law, in case someone in the audience trips over their shoelaces and lands on their head and the idiot decides to sue the musician because the music was out of tune, too loud, too modern, too interesting, too complex, too minimal, too anything (and thus caused the accident). The responsible musician will be covered if this piece of insanity ever makes it to court.

Of course, it is not likely to, but this doesn’t stop the insurance industry, and the politicians who helped them create this culturally choking nonsense, from ripping off every performer in this country. The minimum premium is $2000. That figure is for basic cover and even includes cover for that excessively violent, accident-inducing group known as ‘singing teachers’. I’m not making this up. If you do anything considered more dangerous than strum a guitar in public, the premium can go way above $10,000. And remember: our median musician annual income is just $7,200.

Over the years, I have worked in over 30 countries, and I have never come across a double-dipping insurance scam like the one we have here in Australia. Not even in litigation and paranoid central (i.e. the US) have I been asked to show my PLI papers. Don’t we have Medicare for those who become accident-prone while listening to music? We have allowed ourselves to slip into the hands of legislators and insurance weasels.

Gripe 4. Busking

The buskers of Sydney must wade through a 13-page policy document, 18 pages of busking guidelines, 14 pages of site maps and an application form. They must pay a $45 fee, buy the aforementioned public liability insurance at $2000 a pop, be vetted, photographed, fingerprinted (no I made that one up), display their accreditation cards and not sell other people’s CDs. This is all before the impoverished musician is allowed to play one note of music.

As the Sydney City Council’s cultural development officer puts it, in classic Kafkaesque speak: ‘Unless you have written rules, it’s difficult to ask people to comply.’ Yes indeed. Once, we were larrikins.

Gripe 5. The architects

If you were to ask the Australian Institute of Architects about to the state of live music in this country, you would probably hear plenty of positive-sounding mumbles and murmurs. Money has sloshed around this way and that over the last decade or so, on such projects as ‘the completion’ of the Sydney Opera House ($700 million), refurbishment of The Studio at The Sydney Opera House ($14 million), The Recital Hall, Melbourne ($128 million), the ‘new-look’ Hammer Hall ($136 million), the new Sydney Conservatorium ($144 million), Princess Wharf No 1. upgrade, Hobart ($15 million). Well, that’s enough buildings: let’s throw in Opera Australia’s raft with crystal-studded chandelier ($11 million) and see what we get – a cool total of $1.148 billion. None of this actually goes to employing musicians to play music.

We don’t have enough buildings? If the prefects of classical music are saying not only that music belongs in the sanctuary of a museum, but that music itself is a museum, the discourse becomes unsustainable. With the exceptions of stadium rock, festivals, and opera, most live music requires little infrastructure — certainly nothing in the ballpark of these sums of money. Before 1788, of course, all music performance in Australia happened outside.

How many open-air concerts of new music could we get for $1.148 billion, paying each musician $500 a concert at an average of 10 musicians a concert? We’d have 2,296,000 concerts. At 10,000 concerts a year, that might take us way beyond the human race’s use-by date.

Gripe 6. Aesthetics and priorities

In 2009, Opera Australia received more funding from the Australia Council than all the applicants for all six of the Australia Council’s major boards combined. Another set of figures puts total federal funding of music at $84.7 million (2010), of which $72.4 million goes straight to the orchestras and opera, uncontested by any register of music peers. The rest (that’s all other music practice of any genre in Australia) fight over the remaining $5.7 million, which is competitively administered through the Music Board. According to the Music Board, that’s set in stone for the next ten years, short of a revolution. Even if you add to this basic regime the funding of the various states, the balance doesn’t change: it remains seriously warped in favour of nineteenth-century high art forms in expensive big buildings.

It reminds us that the aesthetic preferences of the ruling classes of the late nineteenth century are still largely the dominant code of the cultural power elite in the twenty-first century. Why should the ruling culture of the late nineteenth century hold such sway in the twenty-first century? If we’re going to do historical spectacle, why stop at the nineteenth? Why not do the first century? Wheel in a few gladiators, lions and Christians, and restore the coliseums around the world to their traditional functionality?

If music is promoted and experienced as heritage instead of a volatile, ever-changing contemporaneous medium, it will always be on the back foot, defending its position and preserving its status and privilege. To remain sustainable as art, music must be renewed and transformed every day.

Portrait of Jon Rose

Jon Rose was recently commissioned by the Kronos String Quartet to write and build Music from 4 Fences for the Sydney Opera House. He realised his bicycle-powered Pursuit project at Carriage Works (Sydney) and The Mona Foma Festival (Hobart) and performed a completely new and improvised solo part for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.