I went to a “networking event” for an arts company this week. It was a pleasant evening where I mingled with industry figures and exchanged pleasantries and gossip over a few drinks. A few business cards were handed out; a phone number and email address was exchanged.
It’s not important which company it was, because this is not an article about the value or tedium of “networking”. It’s about what I was doing while networking. I was drinking. So was everyone else. We were all drinking.
Australian society is awash in alcohol, and it’s not good for us. Whatever your personal views on the role of the state in regulating and licensing dangerous drugs of addiction, there can be no doubt about the disease burden that alcohol imposes.
According to Australian Institute for Health and Welfare data, in 2003 alcohol was estimated to be responsible for 3.3% of the total disease burden in Australia. Alcohol also affects others. In 2010, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education estimated in 2010 that “heavy drinkers have cost those around them more than $14 billion in out-of-pocket expenses, forgone wages and productivity, and more than $6 billion in intangible costs”. The foundation’s groundbreaking Range and Magnitude of Alcohol’s Harm to Others report estimates that “each year, more than 70,000 Australians are the victims of alcohol-related assaults and, of those, 24,000 experience the assault as domestic violence. In addition, almost 20,000 children across Australia are victims of substantiated alcohol-related child abuse.”
These figures should be sobering, except that Australian society hardly seems to be sobering up. There has been an ever-so-slight drop off in Australia’s levels of alcohol consumption in recent years, but the figures for alcohol-related harms are increasing. This trend is seen in rising numbers of alcohol-related assaults and hospitalisations over the past decade, as a recent Auditor-General’s report in Victoria has demonstrated. Some of the figures are shocking: ambulance attendances for alcohol intoxication have tripled in Melbourne since 2001, while emergency department presentations for alcohol intoxication have risen by 93%.
If Australian society in general has a problem with drinking, the arts have a bigger problem still. There are few parts of our society where alcohol consumption is as normalised as in the arts and cultural industries. The issue goes beyond the personal demons of highly strung artists or hard-pressed arts workers, and extends into the business models of many parts of the cultural industries. In many cultural sectors, selling alcohol is the business model, with music or art used as a sophisticated form of marketing to attract patrons to the bar.
Perhaps the most obvious example is in contemporary music, where it is still routine for artists to be paid in alcohol, known simply as the “rider”. Tall tales of extravagant rider requests are a stock item of street-press music journalism, but the institutionalised nature of the practice is acknowledged by all. In an interview earlier this year, Big Day Out promoter Ken West discusses the situation, pointing out that riders are normally subtracted from artist fees, which is another way of saying they are part of an artist fee. The point is not that promoters are exploiting artists, but rather that the culture of contemporary music is completely dissolved in the consumption of alcohol and other drugs.
Music might be the worst case, but it’s hardly the only one. Alcohol sponsorship of our cultural events, big and small, is normal. Nearly all performing arts venues feature a bar; some have several. Most festivals, art gallery exhibitions and performance seasons kick off with an opening-night party, which always features copious amounts of free or subsidised alcohol. Some also close with one. Indeed, in the visual arts, it is common practice to offer free alcohol at exhibition openings, simply to get anyone to turn up. This seems to be especially prevalent at the smaller end of the sector, in artist-run initiatives. In an amazing display of priorities, some of the poorest cultural workers in the entire industry are subsidising the drinking habits of their peers.
Most of this drinking is perfectly sensible and responsible. I haven’t seen a bar brawl at an arts opening, and it’s rare to see cultural centre patrons so inebriated they are refused service. But there is certainly plenty of consumption.
And there is certainly plenty of damage. The arts are full of lives damaged by drugs and alcohol. For every high-profile death of an artist in their prime — a Bon Scott or an Amy Winehouse — there are thousands of lesser-known lives that have been harmed by the effects of a drug that is often freely available and heavily subsidised to the artists and workers in these industries.
What should be done? In the short term, little can be done, so intertwined have the fortunes of culture become with the sale and consumption of alcohol. In the long term, though, less alcohol in the arts would be a good thing for the arts and culture. Some artforms have little use or need for alcohol — dance, for instance, which requires a level of athleticism incompatible with alcohol abuse. Does anyone seriously suggest dance is less healthy as an artform? In fact, dancers are generally the healthiest and fittest cultural workers.
But some awareness of the problem would be a good start. Many in the arts are simply in denial about just how normal alcohol abuse is. You’re drunk at the opening, I’m drunk at the opening … it’s just what we do. Changing this would benefit everyone except the alcohol companies — and the companies that are really bars masquerading as arts organisations.
Ultimately, moving away from alcohol-based revenue models would also help those artforms that currently rely on it. Supporting local contemporary music by drinking at your favourite small bar is the model on which much live music currently depends. A more rational and healthier model would be ticketed, with patrons paying musicians directly for the pleasure of seeing them play, but it would be better for musicians’ bank balances, and for their livers as well.
By all means enjoy a drink with your show. But let’s stop paying the artists with drink vouchers. And let’s stop condoning a situation where the revenue model of entire artforms relies on the consumption of a dangerous drug.