Peter Strong: Why Australia’s music industry needs more Cat Empires and less bureaucratic empires

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Council Of Small Business Of Australia chief executive Peter Strong. Source: AAP/Joel Carrett.

Are performing artists actually small businesses? Yes. Are they self-employed or are they contractors? Is the manager of a band a small-business owner or the chief executive officer of an artist’s business?

As we know, it’s a long way to the top, which apparently involves “gettin’ old, gettin’ grey, gettin’ ripped off, under-paid, gettin’ sold second hand, and that’s how it goes playin’ in a band”.

Does it have to be like that? In any profession, getting to the top does involve hard work, but not necessarily being underpaid or not paid at all. It is a fact that emerging talent in any industry will need to do the hard yards to establish their reputation before they move onto bigger and better things. But it is also a fact that the professional artists and managers of Australia do it tougher than they should.

Our Australian small-business music people need more recognition. They need fairer rewards for their efforts. We need incentives to help others invest in the careers of new and emerging artists. In return, there will be social and cultural yields for the broader community. As well as a positive hit for the economy as we keep more royalties in Australia.

The truth is that quite often, a band or a solo performer of some sort will be asked to provide entertainment at an event. That’s okay, but they are also too often asked to do the work for free. That is especially true for charity events and often for charities that aren’t short of a dollar.

There is probably a lack of understanding from the general community, others in the business and not-for-profit sectors on the amount of effort involved in developing the skills needed to perform, and prepare for an event or gig. Artists spend many, many years developing their skills. They make sacrifices. While the rest of us are going out and having a good time, they will be practising, practising and practising. They will be paying for expensive sheet music and for their instruments. They will pay for tutors and specialist education. Their families will also be involved in some way with transport or just putting up with the sound of endless practising (and perhaps managing the ‘I’m not good enough’ crisis). They will also self-fund recording sessions and the travel required for touring, often for years before any profitable return.

Many performing artists, bands and solo performers also have their own families, mortgages and normal life expenses. They need an income. They need reward for effort.

There is also recognition needed for the economic and creative relationship between an artist and a manager. They are co-dependent. The manager does not get paid until the returns are there. They are a team. A business team. Taking a risk together. Using different skills. Having a go.

What can we do to change perceptions? What can we do to create better understanding?

It starts at the top

Perhaps we can work more closely with key organisations in the music sector who have the resources. This includes APRA AMCOS and the PPCA, who collect copyright fees for musicians and associated artists. We know that APRA AMCOS has a gross revenue in excess of $400 million annually and recently disclosed that over $55 million (that’s an awful lot of money) is retained for overheads, costs, investment in technology and awards. They also recently stated that $6 out of every $10 goes to Australian artists and publishers. However, that includes local publishers collecting a lot of money on behalf of international artists, which then goes overseas. So clearly a lot less than 50% of funds stay with Australian-owned businesses — in other words, with the artists, managers and publishers

APRA AMCOS will likely say (monopolies never admit fault) that it’s not their fault (see). They’ll say it all has to do with how much Australian music we (the people) choose to listen to on the radio. If that is the case, they need to do even more to assist emerging artists to get played. They need to do more so that Australia’s undeniable talent pool is converted into success and into playtime. Then we (the people) will demand to listen to more Australian music and revenue will flow back to Australian talent.

Also, it appears that knowing exactly which songs are being played is very important in order to give out royalties. Has APRA AMCOS done anything to improve their access to information?

There is an opportunity to work differently on supporting the emerging artists and talented community performers in Australia. As one example, APRA AMCOS often send as many as 10 staff per trip to various award events and conferences in Australia and overseas. Perhaps instead of 10 staff, they could send three staff and seven others — managers, authors, musicians — from their membership. Then APRA AMCOS would be developing new knowledge and experiences across the whole sector not just inside their empire. Many members would be getting more return for their membership.

APRA AMCOS has around 350 employees. What if they put many of these highly skilled and obviously motivated people out into the community? That would provide direct support to those who are connected to particular niche music sectors. They’d get more bang for their buck providing real resources to those at the grassroots level. Like all good monopolies, APRA AMCOS will say they do this already — they don’t.

More support needed at all levels

The fact is we need more bands like Cat Empire and less bureaucratic empires.

We also need to communicate with the charity sector and have them understand that charity should begin at home. If charities are making a good income from events then they should ensure that those who perform and make the events worthwhile are rewarded for their effort, skills and time, and that any costs are covered. The established artists are the ones who can give some free time to charity (and do). The emerging artists and their managers need reward for effort so they can continue to emerge.

The various levels of government and their agencies also need to take a leadership role in this activity. The federal and state governments run a lot of events. Let them use the emerging talent in Australia and pay them (many do already). The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently reviewing APRA AMCOS’s licence to collect copyright fees. They should grab this opportunity to ensure that the Australian community is getting the benefit that it should from this activity.

On a positive note, local governments can often be a good source of support and will pay some local talent to perform at important community events. There are also the more community-focused corporates who will offer an opportunity to emerging artists, or to a particularly talented individual who has been ‘discovered’ by the chief executive officer of the company. They tend to pay well for entertainment. Plenty of other small businesses such as cafes and the like also provide their premises free of charge for practice or for the very first public performances (and do they then have to pay APRA AMCOS for doing so?)

The big message is this: if someone is worth chasing to perform for your organisation, charity or business, they are also worth paying. Then our culture can continue to grow and change as it always has — our next ACDC or Alice Giles or Jenny Morris or Missy Higgins can emerge and entertain us all.

If we don’t provide better support to these musical businesses then a generation of talented individuals will fall by the wayside. They will have to survive by pushing pens instead of guitar picks, banging a computer keyboard instead of drums, managing duty rosters instead of a hot, hard, rock ‘n’ roll band or playing office politics instead of the slide trombone.

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