by Derek Strahan

The basis of this article was written in 1977 and published in the Journal of the Fellowship of Australia Composers. I have updated, expanded and clarified it for posting on this website.

The following comments apply to the area of the performing arts, excluding film, since film is funded under an entirely different system. The term writer is currently used to refer to composers, but this does not entitle composers to have their work funded by direct grant from film funding bodies, as the work of scriptwriters is under the script development category. In film, the work of a composer is generally last call on the budget after the film has been completed.

So the following comments do not apply to so-called screen composers. However, they do apply to all other individual creative artists who must apply for “development” funding from federal and state arts bodies.

At present Australian composers are denied equality of access to the tax-deductible arts dollar. Private sector support of music is alive and well, but only if the donor is offered a Tax benefit The following kinds of art workers in music-related projects are presently able to benefit directly from private donations to the arts: performers such as musicians (instrumentalists), conductors, dancers, singers – in fact every category of art worker who is employed by a performance organisation; also arts administrators, arts PR persons - in fact everyone except composers.

The reason for this is to be found in a directive laid down by DASEIT in the period following the demise of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). The wording is as follows: "... to ensure tax deductibility for donors, donations must be made unconditionally. The trustees (of an approved arts organisation) must not therefore, enter into any arrangement or agreement with donors on the ways in which donations may be used." This directive makes impossible any conversation between a composer, an arts organisation and a donor about a proposed composer commission. If any such conversation were to take place, the donation would cease to be unconditional, and therefore the donor would not be allowed tax deductibility.

It could be said that a composer might benefit indirectly from a donation in the case where the arts organisation has already given prior approval to a composer commission project. However, in practise, as we all know, a composer commission is the very last priority of all arts organisations which are exclusively concerned with maintaining their infrastructure and their ongoing performance program. There is nil chance of the proceeds of private donations finding their way into a composer's pocket, except by prior arrangement, and any such prior arrangement is specifically proscribed by DASETT . A permitted exception to this ruling is the creation of “chairs” in orchestras, by which the public is legally able to make “directed donations” to a specific member of an orchestra, to support his or her salary. This arrangement was created for the Australian Chamber Orchestra and was introduced in 1988, and launched with great fanfare at Parliament House in Sydney , under the name of the “Medici Program”. The program is misnamed, since the Medici's are best known to history for their support of individual creative artists. They did, of course, also maintain orchestras.

To be able to operate with PARITY OF OPPORTUNITY, Australian composers need to be given the same right to benefit from private sponsorship that other music art workers already enjoy. This requires an acknowledgment that a composer commission is a specific project, and, by its very nature, a specific project can only be supported by a conditional donation. If the government of the land declines to accept that such a specific project is worthy of the same kind of support accorded to performers playing works primarily by dead composers, then the government is displaying unfair bias against living Australian composers.

Some composers argue that the kind of music that would result from private sponsorship would be market-driven, not innovative and therefore unworthy of support. Some argue that the government has a duty to support composers and that if it acquitted itself properly of this duty, private sponsorship would not be necessary. Some have a quasi-political distaste for the very idea of private patronage, opining that it smacks of elitism, and that it also echoes the master-servant relationship of patron-composer as it was in previous centuries.

In my opinion these views are themselves desperately old-fashioned.

In answering them, I make the following observations:

1) The day of the private patron is not dead. Private individuals are queuing up to donate to flagship performing arts organisations (which are notoriously reluctant to commission new Australian music). Private individuals also donate generously to various foundations that exist solely to advance the cause of talented young performers. There exist no foundations solely devoted to the support of composers).

2) These views pre-suppose that all potential private sponsors are retrogressive musical conservatives only interested in sponsoring regurgitated museum art. This is mere supposition until tested, and it cannot be tested until composers are allowed to offer properly monitored tax advantages in return for support and, most importantly, are permitted to hold conversations in a three-way dialogue with the composer, the sponsor and the performance organisation without this very act negating the tax deductibility of the support!

3) If the funding basis for Australian composition is broadened to include vigorous support from the private sector (both individual and corporate) then composers will no longer be entirely reliant on funding from federal and state arts funding bodies (and will no longer suckle exclusively on the government teat). If the worst fears of some composers are realised, and if private funding results in an unseemly rash of ideologically unsound scores masquerading as new music, then at least those composers who choose to be market-driven, will not be turning to, say, the Australia Council for support. This would leave the Australia Council with an obligation to fulfil its proper (self-declared) purpose which is to support composition which defines itself as innovative, risk-taking and ahead of its time.

4) Musical content should not in any case be an issue. Given the anarchy of the creative process, a work may transcend its author's intention. A piece intended as “accessible” may lake on a life of its own and become innovative; and vices versa.

5) Composers (and individual artists generally) are their own worst enemies when it comes to acting collectively to create a sound basis for earning a living. They are all far too obsessed with professional jealousy, self-advancement and self-image to be able to co-operate except in style-related cliques. The purpose of these cliques is primarily materialistic – to corner the funding market by a claim to priority based on fashion. It is significant that the only individual artists who have developed an organisation specifically devoted to maintaining their working conditions are scriptwriters working for film and TV. Their organisation, the Australian Writers' Guild, evolved because their members work at the coalface in the commercial area of entertainment. Of equal significance is the fact that there are no less than four organisations which exist to further the interests of music writers, and of these only one concerns itself with the question of wages, and that organisation looks after only music arrangers, to the exclusion of composers.

6) Finally, does any composer have the right to dictate what kind of music any other composer should write? The reality is that many composers past and present have had to and still have to divide their time between what one might term public agenda and private agenda work. The choice perhaps comes down to whether or not you want to be a full-time or a part-time composer. What you profess to be might determine what your profession ends up being. – an ironic variation on the dictum: Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.

For those of you who enjoy paradoxes, I make the following prediction. Given the prevailing aesthetic ethos in Australia, the likely outcome of equitable funding changes for composers in this country will be that private agenda (audience alienating) work will be funded from the public purse, and public agenda (audience attracting) work will be funded from the private purse.

Such a distinction, of course, refers only to a composer's intention, not necessarily to the outcome of his/her work.

It is this very outcome which opinionated music ideologues fight so hard to prevent. Such ideologues are lead by musicologists who are determined to prevent the general public from having a say in what music gets written since the basis of their livelihood is dependent on them having the power to dictate the aesthetic agenda not only to the academic fiefdom over which they rule, but also over the entire public domain. That they seek to enlarge their influence beyond academia is evident from their eagerness to obtain employment as music critics in mainstream newspapers.

Viewed objectively, rather than from the perspective of this or that aesthetic bias, it is surely clear that the present parlous working conditions of composers (and other individual creative artists) is almost entirely of their own creation. If they cannot clamber over their own prejudices to combine forces in some kind of collective action, their situation will never improve. How can any Government be expected to take any notice of artists when any experience they have of meeting artists to discuss possible changes becomes a bear pit of artists arguing with each other?

Should there exist any artists, from any discipline, who would like to evolve beyond kindergarten squabbling to present an intelligible agenda for change to representatives of government, would they please get in touch with me?

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