Apr 5, 2012

Millions for a tiny record label with powerful players

The story of Melba Recordings' special deal with the Australian government shows that when it comes to arts funding, friends in high places can still deliver the goods.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

Have you ever heard of Melba Recordings? Unless you work in classical music, you're not likely to. Melba is a niche classical label based in Melbourne. It was started by former ABC producer Maria Vandamme, who left Aunty in 1998 to pursue a career in the recording business. It has been in operation for roughly a decade and has produced some high-quality work featuring Australian soloists and musicians (though not many Australian composers). A glance at Melba's website gives you an idea of the sort of work it releases: classical and baroque music from name-brand composers, generally performed by talented Australians. A recent example is Ensemble Liaison's A Lotus Blossoming, which features emerging Melbourne musicians David Griffiths, Svetlana Bogosavljevic and Timothy Young. As such, it's a great outcome for some passionate and hard-practising musicians. In common with many, if not most Australian independent record labels, Melba's catalogue supports artists who are generally not superstars or even making a full-time living from their music. What separates Melba from nearly every other music publisher in Australia is that the label has received more than $7 million in federal funding since 2004: $1 million a year from 2004-2009 and a further $750,000 annually since 2009. What's more, that funding has bypassed the normal structures such as the Australia Council's Music Board and checks and balances such as peer-review. The amount of funding given to Melba is significant in the context of the small amounts available through the Australia Council. While established institutions such as Opera Australia and the orchestras receive millions in federal funding annually, for most in the sector the available funding is limited to small amounts through grants sourced from the Music Board. Last year, the Music Board dispensed a little over $3.5 million to the sector, according to the Australia Council's 2010-2011 annual report. That means Melba's funding equates to something like 21% of the Music Board's ongoing grant funding. Melba's original grant was for $5 million over five years. It came as a bolt from the blue in the 2004 budget papers, when the Portfolio Budget Statement for the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts included the line: "Core funding has been maintained and the government has increased funding by $10 million over five years to support arts organisations, assist in the expansion of international markets for Australian artists and for the production of high quality music recordings through support to the Melba Foundation." The Melba Foundation is the philanthropic NGO that helps to fund Melba Recordings. At the time of the 2004 budget, the minister for the arts was Helen Coonan. Before Coonan, the senior minister in the communications, IT and arts portfolio for much of the early Howard government was Richard Alston. After leaving politics in 2004, Alston later became the chair of the Melba Foundation. At the time, Crikey understands Melba had considerable access to senior Liberal government figures, including treasurer Peter Costello himself. Accessing powerful people is not unusual for Melba. The foundation boasts a list of A-list celebrities and establishment figures to make any ordinary sponsorship and development executive weep. Melba's founding benefactor is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, it's current "patron in chief" is Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and its "ambassadors" include high-profile public identities such as Terry Cutler, Baz Luhrmann, Sir Gus Nossal, Donald McDonald, Malcolm Long, Maureen Wheeler, Barry Jones, James Wolfensohn, Richard Alston. Even Gough Whitlam is on the list. Connections like that have meant Vandamme has had no trouble getting her case heard in the offices of successive federal arts ministers. When Melba's initial five-year funding was due to end in 2009, then-arts minister Peter Garrett renewed it, albeit at a lower rate. The funding continued to be administered by the Australia Council, but, at least as Crikey understands it, the money came from a separate line item from the arts department, not from the council's ongoing funding. For several years, Melba's sweetheart deal attracted little attention beyond a few grumblings in the sector. That changed in 2011, when the story was picked up by Samantha Randell, then working as an intern at the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR). Randell and AIR chief executive Nick O'Byrne started to do a bit of digging as to why Melba was getting so much funding, when other record labels were struggling for tiny grants through the Music Board, subject to rigorous peer review and reporting requirements. Randell writes up her investigation at the blog Love.Destroy. It's riveting stuff. She made extensive use of Freedom of Information requests and met with the Australia Council many times in an effort to understand Melba's funding arrangements. What she uncovered was a public subsidy that dwarfs the most generous handouts available to almost any other arts organisation in the country:
"In the 2009-2010 financial year Melba recordings produced seven CDs -- They received $1 million dollars 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 say $20 a CD, selling only 25 of each CD. I've worked gigs at the likes of the Workers Club 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 that disc. As far as the maths is concerned it’s worth $5500."
The investigation set off alarm bells in many parts of the contemporary music sector, which has long complained about an imbalance in federal funding priorities (according to a recent Arts Queensland research paper, classical music receives around 98% of the available Commonwealth funding across the music sector). The contemporary sector has also got markedly better organised in recent years, particularly in Victoria, spurred on by the success of the SLAM rallies in 2010 against Victorian liquor licensing crackdowns. As a result, Melba's funding is now being bitterly contested. Representatives of industry bodies ARIA, AIR and SLAM have all written to federal Arts Minister Simon Crean calling for an investigation of the circumstances behind the funding, with a clear objective of redistributing the dollars to the contemporary sector. According to AIR's Nick O'Byrne: "We don't [want to] make this debate about classical music versus contemporary music. That's not the point. In fact, it's undeniable that some of Melba's projects do have serious cultural significance." But, O'Byrne says, "it's important this money stays within the arts funding system and is just redistributed". O'Byrne is concerned the funding could simply vanish into consolidated revenue as a part of  Labor's increasingly desperate efforts to deliver a federal budget surplus on May 8. Melba is not going down without a fight. Crikey understands the label has been mounting strenuous lobbying efforts in recent months. A letter to The Australian yesterday by Melba chair Barry Tuckwell claimed "it would be a national tragedy if Melba Recordings ceased to exist". But it may be tough for Melba to keep its special deal in the light of a newly assertive contemporary music sector. A spokesman for Crean told Crikey Melba's application for funding would be considered "as just one of 450" competing requests for arts funding, and that Melba would have to take its chances alongside all the rest.

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10 thoughts on “Millions for a tiny record label with powerful players

  1. Holden Back

    Liberals? Value for money?

  2. Stiofan

    I’m open to correction, but didn’t The Australian expose this rort quite a few years ago?

  3. Simon

    so er… what impact did The Australian have by exposing this rort? Not much, it seems.

  4. Peter Knight

    The special arrangement really must stop. This would not mean the end of Melba Recordings as Barry Tuckwell suggests, it would just mean Maria Vandamme will just have to get down and dirty and make her case to Ozco just like the rest of us.

  5. Michael de Angelos

    And Tony Abbott was a senior government member when all this taxpayer money was being given away (as he was during the wheat for weapons scandal) yet he is obsessed with a union’s activities when no taxpayer money was involved.

  6. edwin coleman

    Here’s another aspect – all I previously knew about Melba was that they got the right to make a recording of the Adelaide Wagner Ring. At first this seemed Ok, then I learned that it was to be only an audio recording and because of their deal there would be no video recording. I thought then and I think now that this was a scandalously lost opportunity – and it later transpired that the rather original sets which had been created would have to be destroyed after cycle 3 for lack of storage.
    Then it took about two years for the recordings to start to appear. And then they were ridiculously expensive – a full set is nearly the price I paid to actually see a cycle! [with visuals]
    I won’t be mourning their demise.

  7. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    These days with blu-ray HD video, an audio only recording is like someone just taking notes of the words sung and publishing this as a book.

    The ABC showed a program on this ring cycle which proved that the cameras were all in place. Given the huge costs in putting on this ring cycle the extra cost of recording this in HD video would have been small.

    Unfortunately all the corporate and government sponsorship of this event was only concerned with subsidising the seats of those rich enough to pay to see it. The rest of us just pay for it (by buying products from the corporations or by paying taxes) and miss out.

    I think that major artistic events should not get any government funding unless they are recorded and released at a reasonable price so that the rest of us can also enjoy it.

    How much did the state and federal government put into the Adelaide Ring Cycle and Melba records for recording it? And what have the Australian public got out of this? I would love to see this on blu-ray, but CD or SACD only at a price more than I would pay for the blu-ray – no wonder sales would have been few.

  8. Simon

    No need to frame this as the contemporary musicians vs the classical musicians again. There’ll be plenty of classical musicians around who would be questioning this. Eg why Melba and not Tall Poppies or Vox Australis or Move, or some other label that’s doing more to promote Australian composers or new music in general?

  9. Peter Ormonde

    Gee Cr*key’s getting brave … wading into the murky swamp of Australian Arts Funding.

    Everything that moves here is venomous Cr*key… from the chardonnay backstabber to the sycophantic daiquiri giggler, toxic to the core.

    At the base of the food chain is a deep green slime of jealousy which provides the essential diet. As it passes up the heap it is transformed into anger and outrage, to gossip and scandal, only be eventually regurgitated as informed opinion.

    There are real problems for emerging musicians in a place the size of Australia. Like rock and rollers of old the only way of building a career is to leave, usually permanently.

    The idea of having a home based recording operation and making the effort to distribute Australian music internationally is a worthy goal. But from the figures you are quoting that is not happening. Production yes, sales and distribution – apparently not.

    I am also wondering why the many sound engineers and facilities already available are not suitable. Or does it require a “special” sort of person? The right dinner parties? The right pronunciation of Tchaikovsky? Is the perfect schooled intonation required to be able to capture the essence of the shy and cosseted classicisist.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to arts funding at all… heck no, I’m not a popular phillistine by any measure. But I really think the funding should be directed to those who need support – the actual producers of art, the musicians, jugglers and spatterers. That does not include those few really naice clever and talented friends of Mitzi or Charli who would really like a job in the Yarts.

    They should get serious money and that should be repaid when they are successful – or get a job driving a cab. Like HECS. But serious money and real help in getting their stuff on walls, on screens or on radio. This isn’t it.

    As for a recording of the complete bloody Ring Cycle that’s a sufficient basis for a full Royal Commission I reckon.

  10. Holden Back

    Rumor has it that the initial application was for $500,000.00, and in a scene straight out of Yes Minister, no-one was more surprised than Ms. Vandamme when the Feds coughed up $5 million. Maybe Barnaby was working the cash register when they were playing shops that day.

    So rather than jobs for the boys, Alston followed the money to see that nothing too untoward was done with it.

    Sadly, L’Oiseau-Lyre, Melba Records is not.

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