marcus westbury

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The curse of the covers bands

April 11th, 2008 by marcus

Radio National have asked me to join a discussion on Australia Talks Thursday next week (the 17th) about the cultural priorities for the 2020 summit. It’s part of a series of discussions they are having leading up to the summit. In part they asked me to join in as a result of an op-ed piece i wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald last year about culture and covers bands.

I’ve re-posted the original article below as most people outside Sydney would have missed it.

No, i didn’t write the headline.

Mozart. Dead. No longer creating.

Mozart cover bands rake in the Moolah
Marcus Westbury

In the music scene there has always been a pretty strong division between those who play original music and those who are derisively, and sometimes unfairly, dismissed as covers bands. What’s the point of being in a band if you’re not playing your own songs? When was the last time that duo with a keyboard and a drum machine from your local RSL club had a breakthrough hit?

It’s not that covers bands aren’t talented, don’t make good music, don’t entertain or even have a good time. Hell, put enough drinks in me and I’ll hit the dance floor to an ’80s pop classic or wave a lighter with half a tear in my eye to, say, Flame Trees.

But no one seriously goes out of their way to suggest that covers bands are the most vital or important part of the music scene. Why then are covers bands – of the high-culture variety – receiving the bulk of arts funding?

An overwhelming amount of arts funding in Australia goes to organisations that either exclusively or primarily play covers. Think symphony orchestras, opera companies and state theatre companies that produce comparatively little in the way of original, innovative or even Australian work. Like classic hits radio, they are busting out the chart-toppers of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Confused? If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, grab yourself a copy of the Australia Council’s annual report. The nation’s cover bands, mostly the state-based symphony orchestras, collectively receive just under $50 million each year from the council.

Whether that figure seems average or outrageous would depend on the context that you choose to put it in. The context that I put it in is the $4.8 million pool that every single musician in Australia who isn’t in a symphony orchestra competes for every year. That’s more than a 10-fold disparity between the orchestras and everyone else combined.

The Sydney Symphony receives nearly $9 million each year. That is more funding than goes to all of Australia’s visual artists, or all of the nation’s writers and publishers, or all the dancers, or all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, or all the community art practitioners.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no heathen or unreconstructed postmodernist. Okay, I’m a bit of a heathen but I’ve never entirely got the postmodern thing. My problem is not that we still fund classical European culture, it’s just that we fund so bloody much of it and so very little of everything else.

My argument isn’t about form and it isn’t an extreme one. It’s about scale, equity and magnitude. I do think it would be a loss if Australians were to lose all connection with our vast and glorious European cultural heritage.

But Opera Australia receives more than $10 million a year from the Australia Council. Sure, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious but I simply cannot think of a single sensible, logical or sane reason why one opera company is valued roughly on par with more than 400 separate organisations supported by the music, dance, literature and inter-arts boards of the same organisation.

Great art to me creates a resonance and opens up possibilities; it isn’t the echoes of the past. It’s not something you reproduce proficiently. Art is made out of anger or curiosity or awe or beauty or because you’re in love or want someone to fall in love with you.

Artists don’t just preserve the past. They make new things from the sum total of human experience. They tell new stories and find new ways of telling stories from the tools and influences that they have around them.

Culture isn’t something that happened in Europe centuries ago that needs preservation. It’s actually all that messy, beautiful, inspiring and wonderful stuff that is happening around us right now. Arts funding should reward innovation not preservation and vibrancy over bureaucracy.

Most importantly, no one art form or institution – however regarded – should have its funding quarantined and its position privileged so that it is never tested against all the other possibilities to which its resources may better be put.

Comments welcome.

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