On Having An Audience, Or, I Wrote A Thing And People Who Aren’t My Thesis Supervisor Read It.

Here’s something they don’t tell you when you sign up to do a PhD: You will write hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of words, and no-one will read them. As a general rule, most of what we write as postgrads will never see the light of day, destined to malinger in the murky depths of the hard-drive. Occasionally, some of those words will make it into chapter drafts, to be seen by another person – the thesis supervisor. Very, very occasionally, a tiny fraction of those words will make it into a journal article or conference paper, where their exposure perhaps expands to a dozen or so people. Anything over fifty people is, for a postgrad at least, a boom audience.

So writing something that’s seen by hundreds and hundreds of people? That takes a little getting used to.

A few weeks ago, I attended the History & Media conference, as part of the Presenting The Past History Week program. Designed to bring academic historians and media types together in collaboration (or, at least, into the same room without it disintegrating into cross-career chaos), the conference included a Writing Workshop; bring along a draft op-ed or other piece of public history writing, the email said, and we’ll go through it with mentors. My first attempt was a decidedly scrappy book introduction, with almost no redeeming features save for me referencing four of my favourite music festivals in a single sentence. It was shoddy, but it was words on a page.

And then came Election Day.

I voted mid-morning, and then escaped the Sydney heat (and the election coverage) for a few hours in my office. In an effort to do ‘work’ without actually, you know, working, I decided to catch up on George Brandis’ interview with Radio National recorded a week earlier, about arts policies under the (inevitable) Coalition government. The interview, from memory, was a little under half an hour long.

I lasted eleven minutes before I ripped my headphones out of my ears and stormed away from my computer in disgust.

That night, I went to my friend Lisa’s house, to watch the election coverage. I was still on the train when Antony Green called the election for the Coalition, fifty-seven minutes after polls had closed. It wasn’t until much later that night, as Kerry O’Brien was signing off, that I remembered the interview I’d been listening to (raging at) earlier in the day. Brandis, I realised, with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, was Arts Minister once more. And that’s when I got very, very angry.

I was still angry two days later when, back at my desk, I saw the shoddy book introduction I’d written for the conference writing workshop. The workshop was the next day, and I had eight hundred and twelve other things to do. So, naturally, I ignored all of that, opened up a blank Word Document, and wrote a thousand rage-filled words about why Brandis as Arts Minister was decidedly not-good for the popular music community. After deleting the swear words, it looked a little like an op-ed. Certainly, it was less awful than my other possible workshop offering. So off I, and my angry little op-ed, went.

The feedback I got on the piece was far kinder than it, or I, deserved. My angry little op-ed, they said, should be published. For five days, I sat on the details they gave me of who to send the piece to, and where it should (could, would) be published. Finally, by the Sunday, I was deeply fed up with myself and (after adding in a paragraph and getting rid of what the journalist mentor called “that wanky academic lingo”) I emailed it off to the editor of Australian Policy and History. Two days later, it was published.

A day after it went online, one of the people at APH let me know that she’d forwarded my op-ed on to a couple of music journalists. A day after that, media group Sound Alliance asked to use my piece on one of their music press websites. A few hours later, my article – now with a snappy new title and pictures – was at the top of the Opinion page of FasterLouder.com.au.

My byline. On the music website that I’ve been reading obsessively since I was fifteen years old. I tried to play it cool, but (as ever) don’t quite think I managed it. I tweeted a link to the op-ed at its new (music press!) home, and then watched as, for the next twenty-four hours, my Twitter and email inbox exploded. People were engaging with my work. People were reading my work. People who weren’t me, or my thesis supervisor, or the dozen or so people who constitute the readership of an academic article. People who run websites and music advocacy groups and radio shows that I love. People who not only liked my work, but actively defended it – and me – when the inevitable detractors emerged.

Comparatively, the amount of people who have read and shared my op-ed is less than a drop in the Internet ocean. A week on, and I’m firmly back in the world of the thesis, with its even-smaller readership (of two). But if nothing else, I got two publications in less than a week, and one of those was a byline on FasterLouder.

Yeah. That still hasn’t sunk in.

Art For (High) Art’s Sake

[Originally published at the Australian Policy and History Network: http://aph.org.au/art-for-high-art%E2%80%99s-sake ; re-published at FasterLouder, under the title ‘Why the Coalition’s victory is a pain in the arts’: http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/opinions/36999/Why-the-Coalitions-victory-is-a-pain-in-the-arts ]

The Coalition Government’s presumptive Arts Minister, George Brandis, is as passionate about the arts sector as any previous Minister to hold the portfolio. But his ascension back into the role is not good news for Australian popular music practitioners.

The 2013 Federal election campaign, now in the final gasps of post-play analysis, was primarily concerned with leadership instability and three-word slogans. But it was also the site of a ferocious, if short-lived, fight about the future of the arts in Australia. On a Monday night in Blacktown, a month out from election day, Labor’s Arts Minister Tony Burke and the Coalition’s Shadow Attorney-General and Arts Spokesperson George Brandis traded insults about their party’s competing visions for the arts in this country.

Two grown men verbally brawling like overly-articulate schoolboys was, commentators noted, the closest we were likely to get to a genuine debate on the arts in this election cycle.

The Labor Party and the Coalition differed significantly on their arts policies, most notably in the areas of funding and the role of the Federal Government in the running of the Australia Council. But what was most concerning in the lead-up to the election was the Coalition’s – specifically, George Brandis’ – treatment of popular music.

It didn’t exist.

In July 2013, under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and then-Arts Minister Tony Burke, the Labor Government established the National Live Music Office. Given $560,000 in initial funding, the NLMO was tasked with consulting popular music practitioners and developing a comprehensive, sensible national live music policy. In the same month, the Government allocated six million dollars to assist community radio stations make the transition to digital radio over the next three years.

A year earlier – this time, under Julia Gillard and Simon Crean – the Creative Australia cultural policy document had included three million dollars for live music programs, as well as significant funding boosts for contemporary popular music bodies like Sounds Australia. The document also singled out Triple J’s ‘Unearthed’ program and Channel Nine music television show The Voice as indicative of the disparate and unique needs of the popular music industry in Australia.

The Labor Party, it should be noted, had not always recognised the needs of popular (or live) music in their conceptualisation of the arts. Gough Whitlam’s establishment of the Australia Council arts funding body in 1973 included a Music Board, but once which wholly consisted of practitioners and experts from the worlds of opera, classical music, symphonies, and chamber music. In 1994, Paul Keating’s landmark cultural policy document Creative Nation was notable for its lack of discussion about popular music, with references to contemporary rock music perfunctory at best. But by the twenty-first century, the Labor Party had recognised popular music as an integral part of the Australian arts landscape, and had legislated accordingly.

The same cannot be said for the Coalition. In 1993, in an attempt to pre-empt the Labor Government’s release of a new cultural policy, the Coalition released A Vision for the Arts in Australia. For popular music practitioners, the signs were promising – Vision contained an entire sub-section devoted to popular music, and seemingly recognised the economic (if not the cultural) importance of live music in urban centres. Certainly, Vision provided a little more by way of recognition of popular music than Keating’s Creative Nation a year later. But the Coalition’s approach to popular music policy has not just stagnated since 1993; it has regressed significantly. The Liberal Party’s arts funding under the Howard Government was a cornucopia of privilege and elitism, with money redirected from local youth music schemes to increased funding for major established arts institutions. One of the few Coalition engagements with popular music in the last two decades was during the inaugural Save Live Australian Music Rally in 2010. Incensed by the closing of local iconic music venue The Tote, more than 20,000 Melbournians took to the streets to demand changes to liquor licencing laws affecting live music venues throughout the city. On the steps of Parliament House, Liberal Party staffers held placards declaring “Liberals Love Live Music.” Tellingly, the organisers and protestors alike regarded the placard-bearing Liberals with hardened cynicism. The Coalition, one speaker later noted, cared about votes, not The Tote. Little has changed.

In an interview with Radio National one week before election day 2013, Brandis described the goal of the Coalition’s arts policies as one of “want[ing] to celebrate” the achievements of the “big major performing arts companies,” and to reject calls of elitism in doing so. When pushed, Brandis named which of these arts companies he particularly wanted to celebrate (and to fund) as Arts Minister: the Australian Ballet, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Opera Australia. Three stellar companies, who are already heavily funded and subsidised. Three companies who would easily fall under that ungainly definition of ‘high art.’

Brandis’ branding of the Labor Party as “philistines” in the lead-up to the Gillard-led National Cultural Policy Document in March was telling. With that judgement-laden term, Brandis single-handedly brought back to the fore a dangerous divide between ‘high’ (classical) artforms and ‘low’ (popular) arts practices. Worryingly, this divide appears to not just be a personal one for Brandis: it looks to characterise his attitude to funding as Arts Minister-elect.

George Brandis’ venture of “art for art’s sake” is a worthy endeavour. But the problem lies not in the platitude, but in the definition of ‘arts’ itself. For Brandis, and for the Coalition, there is a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and only the former is worthy of significant funding.

Our domestic music industry will be all the poorer for it.