Why Independent Music Matters

Ruth Hazelton NFF 2017. Image Credit: Sarah Turier courtesy of Timber & Steel.
Ruth Hazleton
| August 15, 2017

independent music tells the stories of Australia and brings people together creatively. It is culturally vital.”

Musician and advocate Ruth Hazleton argues for the importance of the rich diversity of multiple niche music genres, why they matter, and how – if we allow these to be crowded out – our music and our culture is diminished.

 How do you make $1 million dollars from folk music? Start with $2 million.

 What do you call a songwriter without a significant other? Homeless

 Have you heard about the new folk, jazz & blues musicians? No, and nobody else has either.

While humorous, these jokes illustrate fundamental perspectives on our niche music genres. Similar negative preconceptions were evident when ABC Radio National cut 95% of its music content.

In response, the #saveRNmusic campaign issued open letters, attracted over 23,000 signatures to our petition and contributed to a Senate Inquiry in March this year.

The genres represented by our campaign include: folk, traditional, blues, jazz, ‘world’, indigenous, islander, singer/songwriters, Americana, acoustic, experimental, devotional and music from Australia’s multicultural communities.

Why SHOULD we value niche music, and why does it matter?

Firstly, these smaller ‘genres’ are collectively the music of choice for a significant percentage of the population. Don Walker nailed it when he wrote: “We’re not a tiny niche minority, we’re spread across all ages, backgrounds and walks of life”.

Far from experiencing a decline in attendance, the Australian independent music sector is healthy and flourishing.

Folk, jazz, blues, and roots festivals are reporting capacity crowds. Festivals attract younger audiences and artists, and regional and rural Australians regularly attend gigs by touring independent musicians.

Here’s the key: independent music is far more than just an industry.

Sure, there’s industry associated with a performance economy, but ultimately independent music thrives as a lifestyle, a community, a participatory culture outside of mainstream record deals and playlists. Audiences are increasingly seeking to discover music as opposed to being ‘fed’ music from commercial sources.

If there were statistical evidence to support this, I’d share it, but contemporary research simply doesn’t exist.

Secondly, non-mainstream genres inject a considerable amount of money into local and regional economies.

Some of our largest festivals report expenditure impacts of over $30 million. One rural community festival with an attendance of 6,000 recently reported a $1.5 million contribution to the local economy, in an economically disadvantaged area of NSW.

Thirdly, non-mainstream genres are a source of artistic innovation, creativity and excellence. Before and after achieving mainstream success, the careers of many of our celebrated musicians continue to be nurtured on the fringe, sustained by support given by entities such as the ABC and Radio National.

Among them: Paul Kelly, the late Dr G Yunupingu, The Waifs, Archie Roach, Deborah Conway, and Joe Camilleri, who wrote:

” …commercial stations and JJJ refuse to play anything new that I’ve released since the early nineties. I’ve released 48 albums in my 50-year career. I am still performing 150 shows a year… demographics do not matter, just the music”.

Promoter, Gaynor Crawford wrote:

“I would not be able to tour my artists if it weren’t for…RN. [Three] examples from my roster: Glen Hansard, Rufus Wainwright & Martha Wainwright, none of whom have ever been played on commercial radio, yet they sell out the Sydney Opera House twice over”.

Lastly, independent music tells the stories of Australia and brings people together creatively. It is culturally vital.

Goanna’s Shane Howard wrote: “So many people [discovered] music from around Australia and the World from the diversity of musical programs; from classical to folk to contemporary…”

Paul Kelly wrote: “The music programs on Radio National, in all their diversity, [played] a vital role in developing Australian songwriters, composers and musicians”.

Some of the most damaging attitudes experienced in the sector are that festivals run by volunteers are a significantly high funding risk compared to arts organisations with paid administrators, and that genres such as folk, blues and jazz are considered “musical heritage” rather than a source of artistic excellence and innovation. These misconceptions illustrate the kinds of hurdles the sector faces in the world of arts bureaucracies.

In countries like Canada, England, Scotland, Finland, China and Japan, governments, philanthropists, and public broadcasters typically offer substantial support for independent genres, as they recognise and appreciate the cultural and artistic value of non-mainstream music.

What is needed now is a comprehensive analysis of the economic, artistic, social and cultural contribution these genre communities make. This would be a great start in recognising the true value of what we have, and what we could become.

This is an extract from a talk by Ruth Hazleton at the 2017 Music Australia Contemporary Music Roundtable conference.

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