Classical Gas: How The Melba Millions Could Be Better Spent
In this post, originally published on her blog Love Destroy, Melbourne band manager and writer SAMANTHA RANDELL questions the wisdom of publically funding a niche classical label “of fragrant distinction” to the tune of more than $1-million a year.
For about the past six months I’ve been researching the whole “Melba Scandal”. I’ve gone over the past press and annual reports, I’ve made multiple freedom of information requests and spent a good chunk of time scouring to find anything else I could. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape has stifled the process hugely. But I know enough to pass judgement – and hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll know enough to make up your own mind, too.
Melba Recordings is the operative branding of funding recipients The Melba Foundation. My understanding is that Melba Foundation is a charitable trust, which collects the grant and passes it on.
According to the budget, the Federal Government was in charge of the grant from 2004 to 2009. They issued $1-million a year for five years towards the recording of 35 high quality CDs of Australian artists; 15 of which were done in the first year with the recording of 50 hours work of live material from State Opera South Australia’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. (So, yes, simply 50 hours of an opera fulfilled nearly half of their quota for the five years.) In 2009, the Arts Council took over administration and funding of the Melba Foundation grant. It was reduced to $2.3-million according to the government budget, but $2.25-million according to Melba recordings’ website for the next three years, from 2009 to 2012. (Where the extra $50,000 went is beyond my knowledge.)
However, the Art’s Council’s statement of expectation from 2008-2009 includes administration and funding of the Melba grant – even though it’s not included in the Federal Budget as doing so then. Make of that what you will.
Melba’s original “grant application” was only for $500,000, though somehow they ended up with $5 million without any of the usual rigmarole that goes into normal grant applications. In applying for this grant they originally bypassed not only the Arts Council, but also the minister for the arts - going straight to the treasurer at the time, Peter Costello. The grant was backed by a throng of high-profile supporters including several dames, sirs, lords, doctors and judges, as well as the Murdochs, the Pratts and Baz Luhrmann; a lot of very influential people with deep pockets.
In digging into this whole “mess”, I repeatedly got the run around. Freedom of Information requests were continually denied on the basis that no one seemed to be too sure where the information was, often passing the buck to the Australia Council, who did come through with the requested information in the end, despite the fact they weren’t administrators of the grant until 2009. Apparently, no one seemed to know who exactly was shelling out the money before then ($1-million a year, each year, between 2004 and 2009), and if they did, they certainly weren’t looking to share that information. (The closest we got to an answer was “the Federal Government”.)
Eventually access was gained. However, the majority of what we received was just annual reports which are freely, publicly available after a quick search online. All the important, and interesting stuff such as the original grant applications, re-applications and negotiations was denied, because the current system allows Melba to refuse to have the information released, despite the fact it relates directly to how the government is spending our tax-payer dollars.
“To insert that kind of money into the Australian music scene, in an unbiased and unlimited way, would dramatically change what is possible for independent artists and labels.”
I know a lot of people outside the industry will look down on this in disgust. $8.3-million of government money was spent on recording CDs; money that could’ve been spent on hospitals, schools, helping the disadvantaged, or disaster relief. I can understand the outrage, but in no way do I think the money should leave the music industry. In a completely un-corny, un-lame way: as much heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears is put into our industry and the arts in general.
To insert that kind of money into the Australian music scene, in an unbiased and unlimited way, would dramatically change what is possible for independent artists and labels. Can you imagine 50 $20,000 grants distributed to independent artists, who would easily fulfill the exact same mission statement as Melba Recordings, “To create high quality musical recordings to showcase Australia artists on the world music stage”? Like we can’t achieve that.
In the 2009 to 2010 financial year, Melba Recordings produced seven CDs. They received $1-million in government funding to do so, as well as over $40,000 in patronage. From the sales of the seven CDs they made around $3500. That’s it. That means they were making $500 on each CD, and at approximately $20 per item, selling only 25 of each. I’ve worked gigs at places like The Workers Club in Melbourne and sold more CDs than that. That equates to $142,000 for the creation of each CD, so if you do happen to be the proud owner of one of these CDs, hold onto it. As far as the maths is concerned it’s worth $5500.
Now compare those figures with, for example, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, whose second album Primary Colours was made for $1500. Within three weeks it sold over 2000 copies, charted at number six on the ARIA charts and won the 2009 Australian Music Prize. Another quick bit of maths for you: 2000 copies at $20 each equals $40,000. Seems like a wiser investment to me.