tip off

Do the arts need to dry out? An addictive cultural cocktail

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.

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  • 1
    Andrew Chalmers
    Posted Friday, 6 July 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    What a great article Ben. During my years as a theatre reviewer, I believe I developed a drinking problem with the accumulation of opening nights.

    (I know some people will scoff and say, ‘poor you’, at this stage).

    Theatre reviewing for most is a second job. A night at the theatre after a day at work, followed by writing in the early hours to meet deadlines can cause a lot of strain especially when you have kids and are attending up to four or five openings per week.

    Booze is readily available. And free. It’s easy for it to spiral out of control and I was getting drunk multiple times a week. Luckily I got out of the profession and my fatty liver is under control, but I know many who have aren’t as lucky - and most of them tend to be artists - people who can least afford health problems.

    You are right to bring this issue up. Very sensible.

  • 2
    Eric Sykes
    Posted Friday, 6 July 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Bloody excellent article Ben, so true, well said.

  • 3
    grazyna.zajdow@deakin.edu.au
    Posted Friday, 6 July 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Good article Ben. But be careful because the cries of ‘wowser’ will be coming thick and fast. It is almost impossible to rationally discuss the issue of alcohol consumption in all its glory!

  • 4
    Andrew McMillen
    Posted Friday, 6 July 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Great read Ben, thanks.

  • 5
    Posted Friday, 6 July 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Maybe if arts organisations were funded properly they wouldn’t have to subsidise themselves by becoming de facto bars.

    And maybe if I were paid a living wage for my reviews I would be happy paying for my drinks.

  • 6
    Posted Saturday, 7 July 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    BEN ELTHAM: An excellent article, timely and pertinent. It is to be hoped you’ve got serious health insurance. From the way the gambling industry has reacted at efforts to restrain them is any guide, the alcohol industry will crucify those who would restrain them even one centimetre.

    Once again, thank you for an excellent article.

  • 7
    Fleur
    Posted Sunday, 8 July 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree. And one aspect of this that was not touched on is the Eurocentric culture and values that the alcohol culture represents. It’s not just that many Muslims are excluded from alcohol-serving venues. Plenty of Asian cultures don’t routinely scoff alcohol in the way that ‘Aussies’ do. The boozing culture can thus be quite off-putting and exclusionary.

  • 8
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    FLEUR: Unless they were wearing local gear, how would bar keeps know they were Muslim?

  • 9
    velosophist
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Fleur: I agree that it’s an exclusionary practice, for anyone who’s not inclined to heavy (or any) drinking, for whatever reason.

    On a slight tangent, I’m generally sorry to see workplaces where the primary method of bonding with ones colleagues entails getting horribly drunk together.

    Naively, one hopes that one’s advancement at work would be linked to the ability to do one’s job - as opposed to one’s ability to booze with the higher-ups.

  • 10
    andrew
    Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Yes thank you for your article. As a contemporary musician I find this is standard industry practice. The assumption we are happy to work for drinks, or partly for drinks ultimately devalues our work and can be understood as an insult to our work.

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