It’s almost impossible, really, to sum up a year in something as complex and multiple as arts and culture, but if one trend stood out it was the maturity of the online environment. This was the year in which online culture moved from being an important and growing aspect of the space generally to the site of the world’s most important cultural and political issues.

In particular, people woke up to the significance of online media for the social and political worlds. The year’s most important movie, The Social Network, was about Facebook. The film itself married a taut script to cleverly understated direction. Written by Aaron Sorkin as a court-room drama, it told a satisfyingly moral tale about the perils of fame and the costs of entrepreneurial belief. The drama stimulated a considerable discussion about the implicit class and gender structures built into the Facebook algorithms. Perhaps appropriately, it also bestowed the ultimate 20th century imprimatur on the Facebook story: a Hollywood feature.

The year’s biggest media event — WikiLeaks — was also a profoundly online phenomenon. Media outlets have long published juicy leak stories, of course, and organisations to promote whistleblowing have been tried before. But none have had the same impact or published quite as much classified and secret material as WikiLeaks. Journalists and editors were forced to take note of the changing technical aspects of their craft, in which sophisticated information and encryption technologies are becoming as important as shorthand and shoe leather.

As Bernard Keane noted this week, the internet has changed the balance of power between the world’s elites and an increasingly connected and informed citizenry. Many — including Julian Assange — think of this trend in informational terms, but in truth it is a far more cultural phenomenon than we realise. The changes being wrought to our economy by new technologies such as social networking and collaborative editing appear to be bearing out the predictions of academics such as Scott Lash and John Urry, who foresaw a “culturalisation” of the global economy in the 1990s.

In the cultural industries themselves, information technology has already profoundly transformed the way consumers and producers interact. The newspaper and book publishing industries collectively spent much of the year navel-gazing. Would people still read printed books or newspapers? Could journalism or novel-writing survive as living crafts? As circulations spiraled downwards and e-readers transformed the economics of the publishing industry, all bets were suddenly off.

The fate of the music industry, however, shows cause for optimism. Music is 10 years ahead of newspapers in adapting to the consequences of digitalisation. Believe it or not, people are still buying and listening to music. While the big record labels continue to struggle, the live performance sector is experiencing astonishing growth. If there has been one surprise of the US economic downturn it’s been the robust sales of music festivals there, which mirrors the roaring trade for the live music experience enjoyed by Australian promoters. With the summer festival season about to begin, the success of music festivals such as Meredith, Falls, Woodford and the Big Day Out reminds us that the gatekeeper model is still a very valid model … as long your fences actually work.

Speaking of gatekeepers, 2010 also saw the first steps by big media to try and re-erect the online paywalls that most newspapers had removed at the start of the decade, starting with Rupert Murdoch’s London Times. The Times‘ readership fell off a cliff immediately, leading many to doubt the viability of the experiment. New media guru Clay Shirky argued it signalled the beginning of a shift back to an older style of publishing, in which media outlets such as The Times ceased to be broadly read journals of record, and returned to their roots as specialist newsletters.

The struggle of Big Content to try and hold back the tide of online change has seen several big lawsuits continue through the year. In February, we saw the Federal Court hand down its decision in the Men at Work case, in which a music publisher successfully sued record label EMI and songwriter Colin Hay for back royalties over a flute riff in Hay’s famous 1981 hit Down Under. February also saw AFACT, a consortium of big content firms, fail in their attempt to sue internet service provider iiNet for the illegal downloading they claimed it was facilitating.

But perhaps the most significant event in Australian cultural policy in 2010 was actually a protest. In February, more than 15,000 people gathered on Bourke Street in front of Victoria’s parliament building to protest against a decision by Liquor Licensing Victoria to enforce onerous security requirements on live music venues in Melbourne. The new regulations had led to the closure of one of Melbourne’s best-loved rock venues, a Collingwood pub named The Tote.

The protests were the biggest against a government decision about culture in a generation, and marked a new milestone in the cultural policy debate in Australia. For perhaps the first time, ordinary citizens marched to support their right to attend contemporary music venues, and made cultural policy an election issue. The Brumby government quickly agreed to a sweeping series of reforms, and by years’ end Liquor Licensing director Sue McLellan had departed. Whether the Ballieu government will live up its election slogan of “Liberals Love Live Music” remains to be seen.

The Victorian venue protests were — or at least should have been — a wake-up call to Australia’s arts establishment, which continues to equate “artistic excellence” with a narrow palette of 19th century, European artforms. In response to such criticisms, the capital-A arts lobby, led by opera director Richard Mills, mounted an amusingly trenchant defence of “heritage arts”. It largely fell on deaf ears. As 2010 draws to a close, it is apparent that the status quo in arts funding policies — in which opera and classical music receive vastly more funding than nearly any other type of cultural expression — is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey