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Arts Grants – The New A&R?

Courtney Barnett
Paul Mason
| July 30, 2015

As the music industry continues to evolve governments can become an increasingly important source of funding for artists and music businesses. The Australia Council’s Paul Mason explores what this support might look like beyond traditional grant giving.

In March this year the Australia Council announced the results of its latest PPCA Recording initiative grants. This is a unique partnership between government and industry, where funds provided by the PPCA are distributed through the Australia Council’s peer assessed process, to support 5 artists making new recordings. At the same time that these results were being announced, one of the albums previously funded through the program was released. Courtney Barnett’s debut “Sometimes I Sit and Think…” has obviously met with significant success. And this was not the first grant Barnett has received – since 2013 the Australia Council have supported her to showcase at the CMJ market event in New York, and to undertake two international tours.

For artists with an eye on commercial market success, tour support and funding for recordings was once normally provided by labels or publishers and was considered an investment – a recoupable advance on future earnings. However as the available investment capital has diminished, government has become an increasingly important source of development and investment funds for contemporary popular musicians and enterprises.

The support provided by the Australia Council for Courtney Barnett is not an unusual example. This is a national and international trend that’s been developing for some time. There are currently significant programs in Victoria and South Australia, and there have been similar funds and policy initiatives in other states and territories. Internationally, Canada and France have a long track record of innovative programs while in recent years the Arts Council of England have introduced targeted schemes in partnership with industry

Last year I was invited to Colombia to consult with the Colombian Ministry of Culture on the development of new programs for contemporary popular music. The Colombian Ministry was aware that its previous focus on heritage music practices – in their case traditional folk music – wasn’t responding to the artistic and commercial vibrancy of their contemporary popular music scene, and they were keen to develop new programs that would be of relevance.

Which highlights the other driver of the new relationship: that contemporary popular music is increasingly of interest to government.

Of course there have long been various forms of indirect government support for contemporary popular music – copyright legislation, establishment and funding of the ABC, and local content regulations – are just a few examples.

But direct cash subsidy is a comparatively recent development and has for the most part been channelled through the arts instruments of government. For those who complain that contemporary popular music is considered ‘low brow’ by policy makers, this is worth reflecting on. The provision of arts funding says one thing – that the artist’s work is culturally significant and deserves the support of the public. In my experience, for those artists receiving grants, that moment of artistic validation can be as powerful as any commercial success.

There are probably no better examples of this than the Australia Council fellowships – each worth $100k over two years and which are reserved for “outstanding established artists” – that have recently gone to Gareth Liddiard and Paul Mac amongst others, as well as the major awards bestowed on songwriters such as Kev Carmody.

Occasionally its apparent that this form of direct support for artists, based on artistic merit, sits uncomfortably for some administrators and managers whose daily life is concerned with the commercial business considerations of music. Certainly the fact that these decisions are generally made by panels of artists, rather than through the traditional music business model where administrators decide how the resources should be allocated, is unusual in the contemporary popular music world. But of course support for the artistic and commercial are not mutually exclusive.

Arts agencies are in fact very interested in the ‘broader arts ecology’ that includes both artists and the allied arts workers, organisations and enterprises that support them. Funds provided by the Australia Council for example have gone to record labels, individual managers, and management businesses. Government support has also been critical for industry development initiatives such as Sounds Australia, which has played a pivotal role in Australia’s burgeoning international success, and the National Live Music Office.

Apart from the fact that these decisions are made by artists, the direct subsidy model differs from traditional commercial investment in that these funds don’t have to be paid back to anyone. Government money is completely ‘non recoupable’.

Is that a good thing? Opinion varies, and occasionally I’m told that a system of loans would be much more valuable than direct grants. Admittedly, those arguments rarely come from artists, and certainly not from anyone who’s actually received a grant. However it’s an interesting idea. Would a system of loans be a valuable addition – rather than replacement – to existing government support?

Certainly in an environment where the level of government support fluctuates, a constantly replenishing pool of funds has some appeal.

Comparisons are often drawn between the circumstances of the contemporary music and film industries. Film funding has been excised from traditional arts funding models and has developed its own hybrid form of government support offering both direct cash grants, investment funding and tax incentives.

Interestingly, having taken equity in film projects it has supported for many years – and so positioning itself as an investor – Screen Australia recently returned the rights it holds in over 1200 Australian films, to the producers.  In making the announcement a Screen Australia spokesperson commented that “we felt that there was little reason for the agency to be holding on to rights on projects that were not maximising their potential for exploitation” reflecting that there are limits on how much government can and possibly should be involved in projects.

But what would a series of tax concessions similar to those offered for film look like for the music sector? As Shane Homan has pointed out this was one of the recommendations of the recording report he authored for the Australia Council. Would such a system have broader application beyond recording to other aspects of the music industry such as live music ?

The Australia Council has partnered with industry to commission research into this sort of modelling. It’s expected that this will be released later in the year and will provide a basis for further discussion about the role of government support for the contemporary music sector.

Whatever form it takes though, it’s clear that government is now a significant player in the contemporary popular music world.

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