I heard once that Pete Murray used to survive on a single roast chicken a week in his early career. I contemplated this when I had maxed out my credit card for the third time trying to tour overseas. Artists are constantly confronted with the question—how do I sustain a career? All too often, the answer is: to come from privilege. Our cultural legacy as a nation should not be gate kept by those who can afford to create it.
Artists need time to make art, and they need up front capital to create income from that art. Like any small business, an artist doesn’t make much money in the first few years, and typically, needs some hefty investment to get off the ground—either from their own pocket, a record label, or a grant.
I’ve never liked the word ‘grant’. It feels synonymous with ‘favour’ or ‘charity’. For the past decade, the conversation around funding for the arts has left the industry feeling like a stray dog begging for scraps. But we weren’t asking for charity. We were asking for investment. The announcement of a National Cultural Policy, aptly named ‘Revive’, on January 30th was a welcome paradigm shift. ‘Revive’ is a commitment to substantially increase the investment in the arts and cultural sector.
Early in my career, I would pay for studio time with my Youth Allowance cheques and money squirrelled away from a summer job working in a plant nursery. I was halfway through studying Medicine at UNSW, and playing gigs every other night was just an expensive hobby. The first significant step in making music my career, was having my songs played on Triple J, which is why restoring funding to the ABC is a vital part of ‘Revive’. The second step was receiving an Australia Council grant, which paid for me to tour the United States—one of the most important export markets for Australian music.
That early exposure to the US market meant I secured a record deal with a US label, I was invited on subsequent tours with notable artists, such as Of Monsters and Men, and I appeared on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon alongside Bon Iver. From that initial Australia Council investment, my business grew, and instead of paying my band in cases of beer I could pay them wages. Instead of my manager working for ‘the love of it’, I could pay him a commission. I could hire a photographer, a publicist, a social media coordinator, a tour manager, a lighting director, a front of house engineer. I could pay for more studio time, I spent more money on flights and hotels and hiring vans and equipment. I played my songs in countries around the world and made more money from royalties and paid more tax. That’s what you call a return on investment.
It feels fitting that a key pillar of the ‘Revive’ policy is ‘The Centrality of the Artist’, because in the case of the contemporary music industry, trickle-down economics doesn’t happen by giving the largest corporations the most money. It happens by investing in artists.
A good song builds Australia’s intellectual property assets and generates income both domestically and through export earnings. Integral to this process are two peak bodies—the Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (APRA AMCOS), who ensure artists are paid for their intellectual property, and Sounds Australia, the music export office. To support their work, ‘Revive’ will establish a national music development agency, Music Australia.
‘Revive’ as a policy is far-reaching, and gives our sector cause for optimism. But there is more work to be done in protecting the industry from corporate monopolies, as well as looking at tax offsets to inspire more live music venues. Local content regulations on radio and streaming services desperately need to be modernised.
The announcement of increased funding to songwriting and recording programs in high schools is crucial, but radical changes to music curriculums across the country must also be considered. As a budding songwriter studying music in high school, I saw no clear pathway into the industry and there was no music curriculum available to me that nurtured contemporary songwriting. Songwriters are songwriters long before they’re making money from their art.
As our sector emerges from an era of survival, ‘Revive’ gives us cause to be hopeful. If efforts and investment are properly directed to support the lifecycle of the artist at every juncture, it should see our industry thrive.