Soundtrack Australia: a promising start, but where is the next ‘Blue Poles’?

A new and noteworthy music policy

Kim Cunio

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

21 March 2019

Australia’s Labor Party is on the right track to helping the country’s music and musicians prosper, but more needs to be done for them to reach their full potential, Kim Cunio writes.

The recent release of an Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) music policy passed most people by at the end of what was a tiring year in politics. Several months later, and with an election looming, it is even more worthy of response.

The fact that a major political party has released a music policy at all is noteworthy. For many years, talking about music or the arts during election or budget time was implausible; a tune that would never be heard over the cacophony of economic analysis driving public discussion.

Does the release of the policy mean that better times are in sight? Could it even be possible for some bipartisanship given what we know about how the arts contribute both to the economy and our public sphere? Perhaps, even, the coalition is writing its own music policy in response?

There is no doubt that both parties have learned from the heavy-handed and punitive policies contained in the 2014 Budget. This is a great positive, yet we are still light years away from the bold vision that enabled the modern arts in Australia.

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Could we imagine any government in an election year buying a major artwork such as Blue Poles as Whitlam did in 1973? Or even see them drastically boost music or arts funding in the knowledge that parts of our society will always argue virulently against the arts? Can we even perceive the pressure on our fledgling country when it gave the first arts grant of two cows in 1818-19, reported by both the Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Dictionary of Biography?

The recent announcement made by the ALP is as close as we may ever get to witnessing the halcyon days of old. For musicians and the music sector, it is a long overdue policy that acknowledges Australian music and its great significance, despite our modest spending compared to the Nordic countries, Germany, and France.

What does the ALP offer?  Some $28 million in the music industry, including $10 million for Sounds Australia to export Australian music, $5 million for the community to set up new music hubs, $7.5 million for youth initiatives, and $4.2 million for music and mental health. It also promises an increase in funds for the ARIA teacher of the Year Award, the Australia Council’s New Recordings Program, and the Association of Artist Managers.

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To any musician lucky enough to directly benefit from a part of this policy, the results will be significant.

The median income for musicians and artists within their creative practice is low and decreasing further, down from $10,400 in 2000-1 to $6000 in 2014-15. The ALP’s music policy considers our musicians as professionals who can generate both wealth and wellbeing for our country.

On the surface this is impressive. Not only is $28 million is a lot of new money, but the premise of supporting Australian music as an exportable commodity is farsighted and sustainable.

When we see, however, that our GDP for 2017 was a staggering $1.69 trillion, we might still feel – and rightly so – that more can be done. When a country is happy to spend $5 billion refunding franking credits, we see that music is, despite its massive potential for economic growth and its undervalued capacity for soft diplomacy, still waiting in the wings for another great moment.

If this ALP announcement is the start of better times, then we still have to define and argue for something better. We have to find the boldness of the 1970s and have faith that our musicians and artists can transform our country and economy over time. The upcoming election might be an opportunity for Australia’s musicians to start singing their own song.

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