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Published in OSSIA Number 2 Spring 1990, A Journal of Contemporary Music
Editorial Panel: Ian Shanahan, Paul Brown, Michael Smetanin
I have revised the article for 1998, so that it reads as a mini history of the evolution of arts funding
- a simple matter of changing the tense of verbs where appropriate, deleting material specific to 1990, and adding a few Update paragraphs.


Derek Strahan

All rights reserved Derek Strahan Copyright (C) 1998

Human society has produced three categories of second-class citizen: Blacks, Women and Composers. Of these categories, the first two have made some advance this century in attaining human rights.

With monotonous regularity, composers are insulted by being told that it is a privilege to be able to compose. The ability to compose music is a priceless gift, we are told, and therefore no price can be put upon it. In practice, this is understood to mean that little or preferably no payment should be made for the work of composing. Since composing is a "gift", it is therefore implied that the results of composing should be "given away". In a modern industrial society, it is totally unacceptable to expect workers to work for little or no reward, and yet this expectation of composers persists worldwide, and has its own peculiar manifestations in Australia, in public neglect and bureaucratic sadism.

Why should this be so? Let us be armed with a sharp machete and slice through to the heart of the matter! Unregulated greed creates structures of privilege. The last people to be recompensed in the maintenance of greed structures are the unfortunate individuals who toil to produce the source of the wealth. Where there is entrenched privilege there will ultimately be revolution.

Composers presently, worldwide, find themselves in the position where, if they are to right historical injustice and achieve industrial parity with other workers, they must think in terms of revolution. Please do not interpret these comments as being neo-communism! Communism has, mercifully, been discredited as, in practise, bureaucratic fascism. When I speak of the need for a composers' revolt, I

refer to much earlier history, and to a different kind of workers' revolution - the revolt of serfs!

The music industry is an extremely wealthy industry, whose products are marketed planet-wide. The structure of the music industry is that of an inverted pyramid. The industry could not exist without supply. The primary suppliers are composers; performers are secondary suppliers. Composers are numerically few, totally lacking in industrial clout, hopelessly disorganised, and are at the bottom of the heap. Above them are many who depend upon the music industry for their living and who are better rewarded and more privileged than composers. (The exceptions to this rule now, as in the past, are composers who write and market instantly accessible forms of music theatre.)

Here are just some of the kinds of people who depend upon the music industry for their survival, and who therefore depend also upon composers:
1) Performers: musicians, dancers, singers, etc.
2) Conductors; Musical Directors.
3) Arts Administrators.
4) Concert management; secretarial and publicity staff, etc.
5) Musicologists and academics.
6) Music critics and journalists; authors of surveys, biographies and coffee-table kitsch; photographers and photo-
7) Record companies and allied supply firms: vinyl, paper, plastics, etc.
8) Music publishers and allied supply firms.
9) Retail outlets for audio and music video.
10) Performance Rights organisations.
11) Radio stations: management and employees.
12) Film production companies and their employees (film being a form of music theatre).
13) Recording studios and employees.
14) Theater staff and concert hall staff: box office, catering, ushering, etc.
15) Musical instrument and audio appliance manufacturers.
16) Music tourism: sale of theater tickets linked to travel: employees in travel and hospitality industries.

All of the above people depend for their living upon a constant supply of music to market. Most of them are paid more than composers, and the further away you get, administratively, from the creative source (composing), the more accumulation you find of power, privilege and financial control. This situation is intolerable, and there is as much justification for composers (and other artists) to overthrow the prevailing socio-economic order in the Arts as there was for French peasants to storm the Bastille.

Why have artists in general, and composers in particular, been so industrially inert? The short and accurate answer is that composers, after the act of creation, devote much of their remaining time and energy to attacking each other: to internecine strife between warring factions representing this or that school of composition, this or that ideology. They have little or no energy left to address their real economic problems! Musicologists and critics actively encourage this exercise in self-definition and aesthetic posturing, knowing that they will continue to rule if composers remain divided.

To take composing seriously, is to endeavour to practise the Art on a full-time basis, achieving a continuous and properly paid flow of work. Most of the problems which composers everywhere face in trying to do this are variations of the same primary one: that art bureaucracies treat the composer as a none-person. At the time this article was written, for example, the Australia Council (the federal Government's Arts Advisory Body) had a curious and long-standing policy in respect of composer commission applications to the Performing Arts Board [PAB]: "composers may not apply for themselves" (underlining courtesy of the PAB). The performer or performance organisation had to apply on behalf of the composer, and had to guarantee performance or produce a studio recording with a certain number of guaranteed broadcasts.

The stated intention of this procedure was to ensure performance of the commissioned works. Or was it? In practice, this procedure gave the performer power to employ the composer, and denied the composer power to employ the performer. The composer was thus placed in a mendicant and supplicant position in relation to the performer and, moreover, had to adjust the creative concept of the proposed composition to suit the concert requirements of the performer(s). It is significant that, for many years, the bureaucratic mind did not perceive, or chose to ignore this anomaly. Even there were changes.

Since this article was written the Performing Arts Board has ceased to exist as such, its functions having been absorbed by an all-embracing Music Committee which considers applications under a wide range of programs. Composer are now allowed to apply on their own behalf. Moreover, the Code of Conduct Guidelines has been "reformed" so that Committee Members may not benefit from the decisions of Committees on which they sit. A long and strident public battle had to be fought to achieve this "reform"!

In some respects therefore, the situation for composers regarding government arts funding has improved. However, inevitably, for most composers, Australia Council funding is still intermittent or non-existent and the rates of payment are not such that a serious career as a composer can be based upon them -- unless one is prepared to live permanently below the poverty line. Overall, the Australia Council cannot be accused of deliberate parsimony. It has, after its administration has lined its own pocket, the dismal duty of dividing amongst all art workers the remainder of the federal cake into slices of ever-decreasing size in real terms. Part of the answer is to encourage the private sector to start sponsoring composers.

Private sponsorship of the arts in Australia has a curious history. To achieve an overview one must first consider the role played by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust [AETT] in sponsorship of the Arts generally, and (for the purpose of this article) in advocacy of Australian composers particularly. The AETT is no longer empowered to accept donations on behalf of other arts organisations, but, at the time of writing the first version of this article, it was. However, it was not, by virtue of its Charter, in a position to advance the cause of the Australian composer. The composer, as an individual, could receive approval of his or her purposes from the AETT, and therefore was not legally entitled to advertise for support from the private sector offering a tax incentive, in the way that performance organisations were always able to do throughout the 30-odd years of the Trust's existence. Theoretically, the composer, as an individual, could receive support on a project-by-project basis, but the administrative process leading to approval was self-defeatingly long.

The only way I could approach the Trust was through my company. After trail-blazing negotiations lasting 9 months, my company was accepted as an approved organisation, and, even so, I had to put up a special case to have commission fee and first performance fee ("first use fee") accepted as, administratively, one event (a linkage accepted by the Australia Council). Through my company, I was then entitled to offer a tax incentive for a composer commission funded privately. However, composers, who did not have a company, might have considered it deeply unjust that, as an individual artist, the composer could not offer a tax incentive, whereas performers, through an organisation, were able to.

The AETT was then the only organisation in Australia empowered by Act of Parliament to offer private individuals and corporations a tax benefit for supporting the Arts. Even so, sponsorship of specific organisations was achieved by bureaucratic obscurantism. All "donations" to the AETT had to be "unconditional", but the donor might express a preference as to how the money was spent. The only guarantee, by law, given to the donor was an assurance that "it is not the policy of the AETT to disregard the wishes of the donor". Things became a touch fraught when the AETT saw fit to start charging a processing fee for not disregarding the wishes of the donor.

In fact, this was the beginning of the end for in April 1990 the AETT went financially down the gurgler taking with it $100,000 of arts "donations". The problem was that the AETT has begun to play the role of showbiz entrepreneur and quickly became financially "destabilised". Prolonged court battles took place over the fate of the "donations", but since, legally, they had all been given "unconditionally", the immediate beneficiary turned out to be the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which being the principle creditor, had the use of the funds for the time being. Being one of the deprived beneficiaries myself, I had an interest in the outcome.

(For want of the commission fee my second string quartet did not get written. On principle. I now refer to it as "which" String Quartet. This is appropriate since the Commonwealth Bank for many years ran a series of self-congratulatory ads in which it referred to itself as "which bank" - the inference being that it was so well known that identification by name was unnecessary).) I vividly remember being surprised one day four years and many court hearings later reading a newspaper article reporting that all beneficiaries had now been paid their lost donations. My company hadn't, and I had not been notified that a settlement on the matter had been reached. A simple phone call brought about rapid payment. But by then the sum covered only the interest on credit card debt over the past four years - debt incurred for want of the money!

In summary, once again, as regards the procedures of the AETT, we see that the individual composer at that time was treated as a non-person: that is to say, as a person with whom that arts organisation did not deal unless the composer went to the considerable expense of creating a corporate alter-ego!

It would be pleasing to able to report that matters have now changed, as regards the bureaucratic treatment of composers. Alas, this is not so. Following the demise of the AETT, Federal Government created a Registrar of Arts Organisations, this being a registrar of organisations whose non-profit structure and whose aims qualify them to be able to advertise for donations and offer donors a tax benefit in return for contributions. The individual artists is still unable to compete with organisations for the "arts tax dollar" on a basis of parity, and is thus denied the kind of autonomy which Beethoven and Mozart enjoyed in seeking private support in their era. (See my proposal for REGISTRAR OF PRIMARY CREATORS ). The Federal Government on the advice of the Taxation department does not allow "directed donations" in the arts. To attract a tax benefit an "arts donation" must be made to a registered arts body. Such bodies may, of course, commission composers, however, as ever, the composer cannot act autonomously but must approach a committee of one sort or another if he or she is to be paid for composing. The situation is different in the Australian film industry (see CREAKY MACHINERY)

The effect of this situation, over the past 30 years has been to create, in Australians the habit of supporting performers (of established repertoire) and negIecting composers. In this, Australian cities have failed dismally to emulate the examples of the great cultural centres of Europe, Vienna in particular. Most of the great art music of the past would not have been composed without private sponsorship. It requires only that this form of sponsorship become fashionable and that it offers a tax incentive. It is a mark of immaturity in Australian society that arts sponsors go first for the flashier aspect of performance and neglect the substance of creation.

Many Australians experience vertigo when they meet a well-publicised performer. However, when they meet a composer of art music, they become confused. Most of the art music they hear is by dead composers, and most of these have achieved the status of demi-gods. I get the impression that most Australians would be much more comfortable meeting me if I had the decency to be dead.

The demi-god status enjoyed by dead composers is the direct result of image creation by the PR departments of publishing and recording companies to enhance the sales of, scores of, and books on the works of dead composers, these works being in the Public Domain, being copyright fee and therefore, being more profitable to market.

Short of being dead, living composers are treated at the next rung up from corpses: they are treated as serfs. (See THE ARTIST AS SERF) By definition, a serf is a person who works as a slave, that is, a person who is overworked and underpaid, and who is denied property rights. This well describes the current situation and status of the composer of art music. There is indeed a logic underlying such discrimination against composers. For a disquisition on this topic please see the text of my radio talk, (GOLD, BEAUTY AND MUSIC). Composing requires the same degree of precise skill as surgery in that neither the composer nor the surgeon can afford to make a mistake otherwise the patient may die on the operating table. Surgeons are paid considerably more than their secretarial assistants. Composers, however, are paid approximately the same hourly wage as record shop assistants (Try some time-and-motion homework on Australia Council rates to confirm this).

Compared to the rest of the community, composers are permitted only limited property rights. These cease 50 years after death. At this point in time, the composer's descendants and/or legal beneficiaries are robbed of their legacy, this legacy being the composer's creations, that is to say, his or her intellectual property. Other human beings are allowed to retain ownership of their property and it may remain with their heirs in perpetuity. Not so the creative artist, whose works become Public Domain 50 years after his or her death. There is a case here for international copyright reform.

The situation is especially ironic for composers. We are frequently scolded for expecting recognition during our lifetime. We are instructed not to expect recognition until after death. Thus, human society freely admits that, at the very moment when the capital value of the composer's intellectual property begins to mature, this property is stolen by society. Society stands condemned of theft by its own admission of prejudice. It is at this point, when art works move into the Public Domain, that the vultures descend to feed off the carcasses of dead composers.

It is at this point, when art works
move into the Public Domain, that
the vultures descend
to feed off the carcasses
of dead composers.

Living composers should not view this obscene greedfest with equanimity. Living composers are in competition with long dead composers for publication and performance opportunities. The competition is unfair because the works of these dead composers, being essentially copyright-free, are cheaper and therefore more profitable to market.

The only immediate solution to this problem, the only way to stop the (albeit indirect) exploitation of the living by the dead, is to make the works of dead composers equally expensive to market. This could be done by the immediate imposition, at government level, of a levy on the works of long dead composers, equal in value to copyright paid on the works of the living. Such a levy, however, should not come from funds entitled to descendants or beneficiaries.

The proceeds of this levy should be devoted to the sponsorship of living composers, pending the result of a movement for international copyright reform. Needless to say, the proceeds of the levy should be of primary benefit to living composers and not to employees of more vast bureaucratic engines designed to determine how to administer the levy.

One way to avoid this is to use the levy to offset tax benefits which composers may offer sponsors directly. The only transaction necessary is between the commissioner and the composer. This was how it often happened in the past, and with very efficacious results. All that is required to reinstate this method of sponsorship is to enable composers to offer a tax benefit. If today's composers are not permitted to do this, then they are immeasurably worse off than Mozart and Beethoven in trying to earn a living from composing.

I hope that I have indicated how severely disadvantaged composers really are. In seeking to better their socioeconomic position, composers should take inspiration from political dissidents. Like composers, they confront agencies of entrenched power and privilege; like composers, they suffered from abuse of human rights. Like them, composers frequently die young.


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