On Friday 27 August, Around The Sound published the results of our survey of WA musicians, charting their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extrapolating the data from a total of 128 respondents, one key takeaway from the survey was that losses to the WA music industry were around $200 million. Added to this, approximately 70 per cent of respondents reported that they had experienced mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, lockdowns and the resulting loss of work.
This crumbs off the table approach is selling our industry short and is part of the reason why music has been savaged during the pandemic due to lack of government support.
Taken alone, these findings deserve the attention of industry leaders and governments. Music in WA is hurting badly, and something needs to be done.
In this follow-up article, I provide my views on how we have arrived at this place. In part three of this series of articles on the WA Music Industry in Crisis, due to be published soon, I look at what can be done to create circumstances where local musicians have the opportunity to earn a living from their art.
I recognise that these issues are contentious. Even the mention of musicians making a living from their art elicits a range of strongly held and hotly contested views. But recovery has to start somewhere, so why not here, today?
First, I’d like to return to the survey. On publishing the results on the Around The Sound website, I reposted the article to my personal Facebook page where a WA Music Industry Association (WAM) Board member stopped by to make a number of comments. This person’s first comment was that the article was poorly researched, as a sample of 128 respondents was not sufficient to be able to draw valid conclusions. Wrong.
A 2019 Senate inquiry into the Australian music industry reported that live music generates 65,000 full and part-time jobs, 10% of which are estimated to be based in WA. Using 6,500 as the estimated population of musicians in WA, a sample of 128 respondents at a confidence level of 95 per cent results in a standard error rate of plus or minus 8.79 per cent. While this would not be an acceptable error rate if you were developing the latest COVID vaccine, it’s perfectly acceptable for an opinion survey.
Another criticism was in relation to the survey finding that approximately 50 per cent of respondents had not received any government support during the COVID-19 pandemic. This person’s comments were along the lines that people who had taken their business ‘seriously’ would have received government assistance. I did ask them to clarify what they meant by taking business ‘seriously’ but they brushed past that question.
Information recently shared on the Musicians Australia Facebook page indicated that less than one in two musicians have received support during the pandemic, a statistic that is consistent with our survey’s 50 per cent figure. I wonder how the 50 per cent of WA musicians would feel if they knew that a Board member of one of the organisations that is meant to represent their interests thinks it’s their own fault they didn’t receive support because they didn’t take their business ‘seriously’? Talk about adding insult to injury! Again, wrong.
This person also was critical of a prominent Perth musician for sharing their views in the comments on my post, castigating them for ‘spreading negativity online’. This was an extraordinary attack on one of the few musicians who was courageous enough to share their views publicly.
Since publishing the survey results, I have had a good number of direct messages from people in the WA music industry expressing their support for Around The Sound’s advocacy, with people saying that they are afraid to speak up for fear of being excluded from opportunity by WAM.
These are most articulately encapsulated in the following message I received from a Perth musician who gave permission for me to include their comments, on condition of anonymity:
I personally don’t comment on much online, but since they (WAM) are the only organisation really offering anything, people are not inclined to say anything, although all of these conversations happen privately. There are so few career and income opportunities for musos that, for individuals, it’s too risky to say anything.
The WAM Board member, who I have chosen not to identify, left a number of other comments on my post and then subsequently deleted them. All other comments from myself and others remain. I can’t speculate on this person’s motives for making comments and then removing them. I am of the view, however, that this person should consider the viability of their ongoing tenure on the WAM Board.
Publication of the survey also drew the attention of the new WAM Chief Executive Officer, Natasha Collier, before the results were even in. Collier called me to quiz me on what my issues are with WAM, suggesting that the questions included in the survey were biased, that there was a disproportionate number of questions about WAM, and that I should have ‘reached out’ to WAM before developing and publishing the survey.
After a call lasting around 40 minutes, I followed up with an email to Collier, providing more details about the survey design. In part, this email said:
The survey comprises 15 questions, only four of which ask about respondents’ experiences with WAM. There are a further two questions that ask respondents if they are a WAM member (responding ‘No’ moves on to the end of the survey, respondent does not see any further questions about WAM); and, if ‘Yes’, respondents are asked if they have they sought advice or support during the pandemic (responding ‘No’ moves on to the end of the survey, respondent does not see any further questions about WAM).
Given that WAM is WA’s peak industry organisation, I don’t think the amount of questions asked is disproportionate.
The questions about WAM are as follows:
- Please describe the support/advice you received from WAM. Open text responses.
- The quality of the support/advice I received from WAM was… Response categories: Excellent, Good, OK, Poor, Other (please specify), so out of the four tick box responses, three are positive.
- WAM have provided excellent leadership for the WA music industry during the COVID-19 pandemic… (note this is stated in the positive). Response categories: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree. This is a standard Likert scale used regularly in collecting opinion data.
- Please describe your experiences of dealing with WAM. Open text responses.
In publishing the survey and the results, my motive was not to somehow play out a personal grudge against WAM. My opinion of WAM is well known. I believe that their leadership is ineffective and that that they are an organisation that practices inclusion in name only. I said as much in my response to WAM’s most recent member survey, to which I appended my name. It’s not like I’m hiding my views.
The content, tone and intent of the call Collier initiated with me does seem to support the belief generally held among members of the WA music industry that to criticise WAM publicly is a career limiting move. It wasn’t the first such contact I had received from a WAM CEO. Some years ago, I received a call from the previous CEO while they were overseas, in Spain no less, telling me, among other things, that I should not discuss any of my ideas about the music industry with the State government, because that’s WAM’s job.
Yes, fair enough, I could go along with that, if only WAM were providing the government with sound advice.
In fact, as the WA contemporary music industry’s only conduit to the State government, it would be useful to have sight of whether WAM is providing any advice at all. How often do they meet with the Minister for the Arts? What issues are discussed? How does WAM decide what advice to put to the Minister? How is that advice received and with what results?
If the industry is to be confident in WAM’s leadership with respect to providing advice to the State government these are, at a minimum, questions that need to be answered.
There is a pattern emerging here. WAM doesn’t seem to like answering questions. More than that, they don’t seem to like being asked questions in the first place. I feel like I have been warned off on a number of occasions now. I currently don’t make any of my living from the music industry, so I have nothing to lose, but, based on my own experiences, I can understand why many musicians are afraid to speak out.
It does make me wonder why WAM are so defensive?
WAM’s lack of communication about its work with the State government to get support for the WA music industry during the COVID pandemic is an indication of the organisation’s lack of leadership. Absence of communication is a sure path to irrelevance and failure.
During my conversation with their current CEO, Collier indicated that WAM was participating in weekly meetings with the live music and events industry to try to engage governments and work to find a way through the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. These meetings only started after the current lockdown in Sydney, however. Why such national coordination did not start when the first lockdown happened around 18 months ago is beyond comprehension.
In addition to this, the only discernible outcome from this national effort so far is a social media campaign under the banner Our Soundtrack Our Stories, which asks “How great would it be if we heard Aussie music in our supermarkets, banks, in our offices, on ads and on hold…” As a social media campaign, it seemed to gain a lot of traction, with many positive comments from people in the music industry. Has it resulted in any discernible action? Who knows? First, this sort of work seems to get cooked up in secret and, second, people in the music industry only get to hear about it when it’s pushed out online as a nifty little meme.
For me, the kicker is the last few words of the request made in the name of Our Soundtrack Our Stories. Apparently, as an industry, we’re only asking for Aussie music to be heard in supermarkets, banks, etc. “…for the next few months?”. This crumbs off the table approach is selling our industry short and is part of the reason why music has been savaged during the pandemic due to lack of government support.
The music industry is always there to help raise funds when there’s a natural disaster or some such, but the absence of support for our industry during the pandemic has been devastating. There is one key reason for this lack of support — failure of leadership.
If an organisation like WAM is to be truly representative of the WA music industry, it should be engaging and communicating regularly with the industry. If you click on the ‘what we do’ tab on WAM’s website you will find the following:
WAM recognises that West Australian music is a truly valuable part of our state’s social fabric and we are shouting this from the rooftops to anyone that will listen.
Having close relationships with government and the industry, including via the establishment the Music Council, WAM actively advocates on behalf of the WA music industry to create an environment where music is a more sustainable career, no matter what part you play.
The mention of WAM’s Music Council is important, because this is the only way that the organisation can transparently and accountably engage with the WA music industry to have, in WAM’s own words, a ‘close relationship’ with the people it purports to represent. Click on the link to the Music Council and you will find a ‘404 Page Not Found’ error message. This link has been broken for years and, as far as I’m aware, WAM’s Music Council has been defunct for years as well.
How can WAM “actively advocate on behalf of the WA music industry” if it has no means of consulting with people who work in the industry? Also, the talk about making music a “more sustainable career” is nothing more than empty words. If WAM really did believe in the sustainability of music as a career they would put their money where their mouth is and pay the bands and artists who perform at their marquee events like the WAM Awards.
If Around The Sound can do it, why can’t WAM? We don’t receive a single cent of government support and yet I decided that we would return all of the ticketing money to the bands and artists that played our recent Winterfest gig, because actually paying musicians is what is required to make the industry and careers sustainable. Again, on this WAM’s principled leadership is lacking.
In State Parliament, on 4 August this year, the government was still spruiking the success of the Highway To Hell event held on 1 March 2020, just before the first nationwide lockdown. And why wouldn’t they? With 150,000 people coming out to see mostly local musicians being trucked up and down Canning Highway to play AC/DC songs, what was there not to like about this event? It was a massive success. But, for the local industry, it also was a massive failure.
Where were the plans to market the local bands and who played on those trucks, along with the broader WA music industry, to the massive audience that turned out to see them? How could we have extended that opportunity so that some of those 150,000 people would regularly turn up to venues across Perth and Fremantle to check out WA bands they’d probably never heard of before that day? I guess because the pandemic intervened, we’ll never know. But it would be good to have sight of what advocacy WAM provided to help turn that event into a bonanza for local music.
Governments rarely have their own ideas, so it would be naïve to lay responsibility for this missed opportunity at the collective doorstep of the Ministers who, some 18 months later are still basking in the glory of what was achieved. Someone needed to advise the State government about the other opportunities this event provided. As self-described advocates for the WA music industry, that was WAM’s job.
Pity they didn’t do it.
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Next: A strategy for making the WA music industry sustainable.