Music Australia News

Music Australia Chair Michael Smellie proposes five point plan to boost Australian music

Michael Smellie addresses CMR 2016
Chris Bowen
| August 30, 2016

Music Australia Chair Michael Smellie called for a transformative strategic agenda for the Australian music industry at this year’s Contemporary Music Roundtable. His Address proposed five steps for improving music’s national situation and recognition.

This address was part of a panel discussion on making Australian music more politically potent.


Michael Smellie urged the industry to face its challenges, and to build a compelling case by assembling credible evidence; to reposition the industry’s policy positioning from arts based subsidy to creative industries delivering growth; and to move from a transactional to a long term strategic focus.

He proposed five steps for improving music’s situation nationally:

  • Admit there is a problem and that there is a need for some change
  • Collect, information and publish a credible, factual annual report
  • Look to learn from and emulate world’s “best practice”
  • Shift the narrative from Arts to Creative Industries
  • Establish ambitious and strategic goals.

If successfully applied, Michael Smellie argued such a strategy could be transformative for Australian music, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, and substantially improved industry employment.


MICHAEL: Good morning.

Who knew that we were part of an industry that contributes between 4 and 6 billion dollars to the Australian economy? You probably wouldn’t know that we employ 65,000 people. You probably wouldn’t know that there are more than 25,000 small businesses. You probably wouldn’t know that more people attend live music gigs then sporting events. And you probably wouldn’t know that music is a key part of the creative industry sector of the economy which is larger than mining and healthcare.

Who also knew that Australia’s recorded music product had dropped from 3rd to 7th place on the IFPI global charts and that our copyright exports had halved in the last decade?

You probably wouldn’t have known that creative industries are driving global growth in major economies but yet in Australia this sector is only one third as significant as it is in other developed economies. You probably wouldn’t know that the average creative income for a working Australian musician is about $10,000 per annum. You probably wouldn’t know that Australia consumes about 3 percent of the world’s music product yet only supplies 1 percent.

But you wouldn’t be alone, because I discussed this with my mother and my next door neighbour last weekend and they didn’t know either. And this probably reflects our political situation. Their attitudes were probably summed up really well by the Australian Matthew Westwood, who wrote recently talking about the political resonance of the arts sector. He said “the message from arts figures sounded like the bleating of small interest groups, another protected industry with its hand out.”

Well many of you here are aware of this but the real issue is how we achieve the change that’s needed, it’s a tricky task and probably one that we will not totally solve today, but I think we need to start to address. So in order to do that, I have five suggested steps.

  1. Admit there is a problem and there is a need for some change.

Anyone with experience with an alcoholic (and I say that because I have come across a lot of them in the contemporary music business) is the first step towards rehabilitation is to admit you have a problem. We can’t spend our time issuing press releases, patting ourselves on the back for our wonderful achievements, yet live in a situation where the average musician is so poorly paid. And that our international market penetration is so poor.

We need to be able to talk openly and constructively in public about our achievements and shortcomings, as well as our goals and objectives. Part of this means taking responsibility for many of our problems, rather than shifting them to others. And to identify and pursue what changes are necessary. And I think it’s interesting in terms of interface with governments that we constantly see the solution to our perceived problems as lying with others. “It’s all because of lack of government support, it’s all because of radio, and it’s all because…” – I rarely hear “we need to do this better”.

  1. Collect information and to publish a credible, factual, annual report.

Any persuasive argument needs a sound fact base and it surely is indicative of the status of our industry that we have no such information. Historically we have commissioned ad hoc studies almost always in response to a threat or when we are trying to lobby for a specific thing. This inevitably leads to the perception of bias and does not allow hard analysis of trends.

Creating an annual state of the industry fact-based report, with strong economic credentials, gives us a formal opportunity to objectively assess our performance. It allows us to engage with media, government and the public, in a manner in which they become interested and committed stakeholders.

  1. Look to learn and emulate the world’s best practice.

It makes no sense to reinvent the wheel. Assuming we want to be competitive in the world market, let’s start by identifying successful working models. Some immediately come to mind include UK Music, Music Canada, and the successful innovation models in Sweden, the home of Spotify. These markets all export more music than they consume domestically and all show various examples of successful industry collaboration. By studying these models, quickly adopting policies and practices, we should be able to fast track our development and avoid mistakes. It would be a wonderful outcome if we could say with credibility that other countries say in particular Asia, are looking to learn from best practice in Australia.

  1. Shift the narrative from arts to creative industries.

For too long, policy making for our industry has been dominated by arts thinking. Focus largely on the not-for-profit sector. Contemporary music is part of a vibrant, innovative, rapidly expanding, creative industry sector of the economy. And that’s not to downplay our sector’s cultural contribution, but we need to shift our focus to be more business orientated, and to be seen and appreciated as such. We want recognition and investment. Not regulation and handouts. We want to regularly engage on a constructive level, with ministries for small business, innovation and communications. To be seen as significant economic and employment contributors and partners.

  1. Establish ambitious and strategic goals.

If we don’t set ourselves ambitious goals, we will be damned to continue with the businesses marginally better than the usual approach. Surely it’s not too ambitious a goal that Australia should contribute as much to world music consumption as we do consume. In other words, we should be net neutral in our contemporary music terms of trade. Achieving this will literally add hundreds of millions of dollars to our sector, much of which will provide new jobs and improved incomes for musicians. This would be transformative. We also need to shift our thinking to be strategic and not transactional in actions and policies. Move from measuring actions to looking at strategic outcomes.

As I have learned, we are not an industry that easily accepts change or criticism. These things need to evolve. However some steady and gentle pressure is needed if we are going to get things moving. I can also imagine the groans and the lament – that this is all very good, but who is going to pay for it? Well I think it’s a very hard to make an argument that we are a significant, multi-billion dollar industry and economic contributor with large export potential, that we are large term investors, but we can’t find couple of $100,000 – relatively small sums of money.

Perhaps this is one of the few places where I can see a role for Government, particularly in its role with small business. To act as a catalyst to establish a forum that provides a framework under which these kind of discussions can take place and to provide that gentle pressure to keep things moving forward. The investment is not significant, the payback economically, culturally and psychologically for Australia is significant.

I look forward to the day, hopefully in the relatively near future, when Australia’s contemporary music industry contribution to our growing creative economy is recognised and celebrated. More importantly, that my mother and neighbour know and care about the significance of Australia’s contemporary music industry.

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