By Derek Strahan, BA Cantab






Traditional attitudes to the arts are entrenched in funding methods in Australia. The only areas in which art is managed and funded as an industry are imported music theatre, pop music and film. Film is funded on a project basis by interacting systems which allow “partnerships” to evolve in which private, corporate and government funding all play a similar supporting role. The funding is managed on an investment basis. All bodies and individuals who contribute funds are, by definition, investors.

The other performance arts, which include theatre, domestic music theatre, ballet, opera and concert music are all funded by a combination of government grant and tax deductible donation, or sponsorship, depending under which section of the Tax Act the donation falls.

Revenue from sale of product is a source of income common to all art industries. This revenue stream cannot be applied to product development (except retrospectively) since without a product there can be no revenue from sales.


In film, product development is, put simply, script development. In film it is acknowledged that script development is, of necessity, the first phase in project development, and it is undertaken, or its cost is reimbursed by the production entity.

In music, product development is entirely haphazard. It is rarely undertaken by the body through which performance of the product is achieved. This is because performance organisations are themselves underfunded, and the first call on funding is to maintain infrastructure, and to subsidise returns from ticket sales. Commissions for new music are usually sought through additional funding from statutory bodies such as the Australia Council.

The Australia Council is underfunded to the point where it is, on its own admission, unable to fund between 70% to 80% of its “clientele” – meaning the totality of bodies and individuals who apply for funding. Since product development (new commissions) is only a small part of the successful applications, the percentage of grant money devoted to product development is much smaller than the 20% or 30% of successes.

There is a six week turnaround in applications for product development and for production in the film industry, and all applicants, whether or not successful, are provided with an assessment report. There is a six-month turnaround in applications to the Australia Council, and it declines to provide artistic assessments as part of any document it provides in response to a request for a Statement of Reasons, which all statutory bodies must give within 28 days. Statements from the Australia Council are habitually 2 months late. In short, funding for product development in the performing arts outside film is not geared to commercial reality (apart from imported music theatre and pop music).

This situation has developed because film and especially television have always operated at the coalface of commerce, and product delivery (of script) has always been subject to contractual deadline. Product delivery has had to function in a context of demand, and therefore writers have benefited from effective advocacy in contractual matters from the Australian Writers' Guild.

In contrast no equivalent body has evolved to provide composers with advocacy in such matters. Although there are, at present count, five different bodies to which composers may belong, none of them provide advocacy in the matter of product development (the Music Arrangers' Guild of Australia, MAGA, acts only for arrangers).

There may have been some excuse in past decades for relegating composers to a nineteenth century time warp in their industrial status, but new technology has rendered this excuse unacceptable. The much-predicted “convergence” of media has now happened, with the result that both music and film are marketed through the same disc product, and sold in the same retail outlets. The distinction between audio-visual and audio only is now a minimal product difference. Yet product development in music is still conducted in a disengaged miasma. Its various stages, from development to live and replicated production, are nowhere funded and planned in their entirety as is the case with film. This is particularly the case with the various forms of music theatre, which is perfectly suited to development for audio-visual product. The Australia Council will argue that it allows for consideration of a number of factors in New Work, but the 6 month turnaround and the absence of guarantee that, in the outcome, all stages of a work will be funded, places its process outside the realm of commercial practicability.


The above comments and what follows relate more to the “classical” section of the music industry, as distinct from the pop section. Pop music currently has its own problems of development and distribution due to loss of income from downloading, the erosion of audience response to mainstream product, and indeed the current difficulty in pop music of even defining a mainstream.

These seismic changes are affecting the viability of the “classical music” market, since major record companies have always subsidised their “classical” repertoire through profits from the pop music segment. It is now even more important than before that product development in “classical” music should take into account audience preferences, since it will increasingly have to justify its own existence by generating its own income stream.

The use of the term “classical” to denote “concert” music is, of course, a misnomer, as is, even more so, the rider “modern classical music”. A “classic” is a work of art which has stood the test of time and the term should really not apply to any art work which is less than 50 years old. But we are stuck with “classical” as a commercial category. It is used to confer on a commodity a value, the value of durability, and is a trick of marketing which is entrenched. So I use it here, but under protest.

There are impediments in the way of persuading composers to take into account audience preferences when creating new music. These stem from the monopoly on conceptual thought exercised by the political-academic complex over the past half century. The history of music is replete with warring factions, but until the period following World War 2, there was agreement that the basic elements of music were allowable: sustained melody, repetitive rhythms emanating from dance, dynamic contrasts to achieve purposes which were essentially dramatic, even if not overtly theatrical. Post-WW2 political considerations began to dominate in the teaching of art forms. “Manipulation” of the audience was frowned upon, as being akin to the kind of “exploitation” common in “capitalist” economies. It is primarily for this reason that composers were taught to eschew any devices that might incite gratuitous “feelings” and “responses” in the audience.

In teaching film this ”radical” agenda was made explicit. Peter Greenaway's distinctive style of direction was the product of these prohibitions, as learned by him during film studies at a UK “red brick” university. His first film “The Draughtsman's Contract” was noted for its use of a static camera. He confirmed using this to avoid “manipulative” devices such as close-ups, “montage” editing and tracking of movement. In his subsequent films ingenuity of story and a baroque approach to set design compensated for the loss of other filmic “excitements”; but his basic style resulted from a politically enforced minimalism in the use of camera. The application of this same agenda in music has been less honestly applied, but the effect has been the same – to deny composers the option to include “manipulative” devices in their writing. It was left to film and pop music to commit the sins of arousal.

Compounding this attitude of proscription has been the defining of composing, in academia, as “research”. Clearly, in research, no ground must be explored which is not entirely new. While such “research” has produced novelties in music, none of it has been conducted with an audience in mind. Leading this trend has been an international collective of tenured musicologists who have taught several generations of composers not so much how or what to write but how no t to write it. They have been equally emphatic in prescribing “correct” attitudes for their students to cultivate in their approach to the craft of composition.

One of Australia's foremost media authorities on modern music, composer Andrew Ford, recently affirmed the attitude described above in his response to research being conducted by music psychologist Emory Schubert into quantifying audience reaction to music (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 22/05/04). Among his findings Mr. Schubert noted that “people reacted much more quickly to sudden increases in loudness.” He added that “the approach to predicting emotions might prove useful for some composers”. Mr. Ford commented that he “would be unlikely to use a particular series of chords if (he) knew they predictably evoked a certain emotion in audiences” and continued by adding: “That would turn me into an extremely manipulative composer. And it's a bit condescending to say:' I'm going to make you feel like this'.”

Translated this amounts to a repudiation of the approach to music of all composers working in the enlightenment and romantic traditions, through to the late romantic and impressionist schools of the twentieth century. Baroque composers might possibly escape censure, not because of their intentions, but because of the musicals forms in which they worked.

The problem for product development in music is this: as long as composers are taught that it is “condescending” to write emotive music, then it is predictable that little “emotive” music will be written. There will be little financial incentive to do so since those who dare to write “emotionally” will probably not be among those chosen to receive funding from committees of judgement appointed by statutory bodies to hand out government largesse. The consensus in such committees tends to reinforce prevailing academic opinion; but if academia is not producing composers who are inclined to take into account audience preferences when creating new music, how is product going to be developed which will succeed in the market place?


The solution is surprisingly simple. The basis of funding of composers must be widened so that members of the general public have a say in deciding what kinds of new music are written. The only way members of the public will achieve this end is to sponsor new music themselves, and the only way they will be persuaded to do so is if they receive the same tax benefit for supporting this artistic cause that they are presently able to claim for supporting other causes in the performing arts.

It might be presumed that there would be a difficulty in conferring a tax benefit for providing this kind of “directed” funding for composers (“directed” from one individual to another). However, there is precedent for it, in the system of establishing “chairs” in an orchestra, introduced in 1988 with great fanfare at Government House for the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the banner “The Medici Program”. This program allows a member of the public to “direct” a donation to support an individual performer who occupies a “chair” in the orchestra.

It is possible to envisage a non-profit-making arts body being created specifically to provide funding to a selected group of composers who occupy “chairs” in the body, and whose “programs of work” have been accepted as worthy of support by the management Committee. By this means, private individuals could exercise the option of supporting a kind of music suited to their taste, on the basis of the composer's previous output and stated “philosophy”. The body would also provide a forum where composers and potential sponsors could communicate with each other directly.

Musicologists will strongly object to this innovation because it will involve a loss of power and influence for them, and will “allow” the creation of kinds of music that they would prefer to prohibit. But it would certainly result in the appearance in the market place of a much greater variety of product than is presently generated by the current funding methods.

Moreover, it would be unjust to continue providing performers with a form of “direct” support when the equivalent is not available to composers. It is composers who are responsible for product development in music, and without product performers would have no basis for employment.

In the absence of, at minimum, an Australian Music Commission to do for music what the Australian Film Commission does for film, the option of a “composers' foundation” at least provides a partial solution to the problem of how to promote product development in the area of “modern classical music”, and how to involve the general public in the process. It can only benefit Australia to promote a healthy variety of new product in this area, to reinvigorate concert music, ballet, opera and other forms of music theatre.

Finally, it should be noted that “directed” support for film composers is, in practise, available, as it is for writers, since film is funded on an invest-in-project basis. If “directed” support is encouraged in principle and allowed in practise for film composers, surely, as a matter of principle, it should also be “allowed” in practise for composers of “modern classical music.” This would require introducing an element of investment in the funding of this type of music. It is true that it would be novel to apply an element of practical reality to this area of creativity, but it could also be beneficial.

All Rights Reserved Copyright © 2004 Derek Strahan

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