An Open Letter to Council-Funded Music Festivals, Particularly Regarding Their Relevance

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Part of the crowd outside the Victorian State Library at the 2010 Save Live Australian Music rally. Photograph by Nick Carson, via Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence.

 

Here in Victoria, Australia, as the City of Yarra’s Leaps & Bounds Festival wraps up its second year, and the City Of Melbourne’s fifth Melbourne Music Week approaches, it’s an interesting time to consider—and scratch your head and ponder—just how beneficial council-funded festivals are, specifically to the already hugely supportive and dedicated music community in Melbourne. The cynic inside me considers that maybe councils are misspending arts funds – that they aren’t at all in touch with what local musicians actually need.

This issue comes up regularly in discussion when I talk with other equally passionate music fans. Our concern stems from a genuine desire to see these festivals thrive, as they have the potential to be valuable attractions in the music-lover’s calendar. I write this not from a musician’s point of view (I’m not one) but as someone who is heavily involved in the Melbourne music scene: as a punter, as a promoter, as a record store owner, and as someone who cares a lot for the health of the local music community.

If you’re going to jump on a bandwagon, you should at least know what song is playing.

In 2010, faced with the closure of The Tote Hotel due to increasing noise restrictions and a local and state government misconception that live music was related to violence, SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) organised a protest in which 20,000 people took to the streets of Melbourne’s CBD to show their support for the industry. Surprisingly enough, the governments took notice: this event was at least a spur that encouraged them funding the then-budding Music Victoria organisation and the soon-to-be-launched Melbourne Music Week. Councils and the Victorian Government suddenly saw the cultural value of a music community, and more probably the financial value to the local economy that this does stimulate. (And only a couple of days ago we saw the City of Adelaide show their understanding that live music has a big financial impact, and not just a cultural one, with the creation of the Live Music Action Plan.) However, if you’re going to jump on a bandwagon, you should at least know what song is playing.

The difficult task that now sits before both the City of Melbourne and City Of Yarra councils is this: they need to sell—annually and also long-term—the Leaps & Bounds Festival and Melbourne Music Week, both inner city week-long music festivals, to a city that pretty much already had a music festival occurring every week of the year. Still, maybe it could work, if done intelligently and with decency.

The first step towards success you think would be to win the core music-loving crowd, but instead the method of the organisers of these two new festivals is to approach (or open up submissions to) bands, record labels, promoters and venues to stage events, almost always with very minor, if any, financial assistance. Leaps & Bounds has a budget of around $147,500 (correction: since the publication of this piece, Leaps & Bounds has let us know that this figure reported by the Herald Sun is incorrect, and that their working budget “is closer to $87,500" —ed.), and Melbourne Music Week’s is $944,510 (and this doesn’t include the amount of dollars flowing in via commercial sponsorship or other similar support). In lieu of money, promises are made to these music scene workers: that being under the banner of the festival will help with the exposure of any event they are involved in, and therefore theoretically boost ticket sales, and therefore theoretically lead to profit for them, or at least no loss. Again, this concept isn’t inherently bogus. The problem is that neither of these two new festivals yet have a solid or reliable brand. It is the bands, the record labels, the promoters and the venues whose identities are being exploited. It is the bands, the record labels, the promoters and the venues that are taking large financial risks – much as they do every other time they put on a gig. And it is the bands, the record labels, the promoters and the venues who at the end of the festival go home, as always, with little more than taxi fare in their pockets. Meanwhile, what about the people of the councils and the governments? They stand up proud and proclaim loud and wide that they support the arts – and, in a sense, they do. But in a real economic sense, it is they who see the financial benefits flow into their municipalities, and thus it is they who get to keep collecting their regular and ample salaries.

The bands, the record labels, the promoters and the venues go home, as always, with little more than a taxi fare in their pockets.

In some cases, these aforementioned organisers do a decent job of booking acts and venues at the two festivals. Yet Melbourne Music Week often just invests heavily on custom-built hubs, always at the cost of the grass roots and less ‘popular’ sub-cultures of the local music scene. These ‘hubs’ that they have built over the past three years? Kubik Melbourne (2011), Where?House (2012) and The Residence at Birrarung Marr (2013) have all been aesthetically spectacular, but have been questionable as performance spaces; they have not operated as legitimate drawcards for new crowds.

The festivals have many free event programs, such as the ‘Morning Ritual’ (which runs at Melbourne Music Week and also to a lesser extent at Leaps & Bounds) and ‘Live Music Safari’ (Melbourne Music Week), which offer the everyday casual music listener the chance to stumble across a band they haven’t heard before. But these two programs are the exception, when they represent what should be the heart and soul of these festivals.

Leaps & Bounds, although still only in its infancy and suffering from a relatively small budget, still suffers from a fundamental aimlessness. It’s great that the Council is proud of the live music scene that exists in its district, as well as the iconic music venues that are central to this scene, but simply involving every single venue in the City of Yarra does not lead to a successful and distinct music festival. In fact, it’s difficult to figure out where the focus of Leaps & Bounds lies and what it hopes to achieve. The ‘Living Legends Series’ and ‘Smith Street Dreaming’ showcases were both fantastic this year, but suffered from average promotion. The festival would benefit from honing their program, from having a clear vision of what kind of festival they are hoping to stage.

One element on which councils and governments should be looking to capitalise is the interest of interstate and international music fans, if for nothing else than to make touring outside of Victoria a little easier for local bands. At the moment neither festival offers a unique showcase that someone interstate or overseas would consider worth travelling for. While each is still building up their brands up they should be making full use of the internet: perhaps online streaming of some festival events would work at getting the word out about the genuinely exciting things that are happening in Melbourne’s music world.

It’s hugely important that these two festivals—and others that will inevitably pop up, and others around the country too—continue to grow to a point whereby they are recognised not as just additional middling music festivals, but as stimulating jamborees in which every band, record label, promoter and venue wants to be associated with and take part in. And while they work at achieving this, at this early point in their existences, they need to make sure they support and not exploit the local music community.

Sincerely,

Nate Nott

Co-Owner, Polyester Records