The sound of entitlement

Though Melba Recordings declares itself to be a ‘label of fragrant distinction’, it’s smelling pretty iffy at the moment.

At a time of widespread cuts to the arts sector, the continued propping up of the classical music imprint feels like an ugly confluence of privilege, prestige, access and entitlement – just the kind of mix that’s been endemic to the Abbott government.

As Australia’s self-styled prestige classical music imprint, Melba has spent the last decade cultivating the elite overseas market for recordings of Australian orchestras, chamber groups and ensembles, activities largely funded through philanthropic donations and direct government grants unmediated by the Australia Council peer-review process (usually undergone by all art groups and projects seeking funding). In April, the current Arts Minister George Brandis granted the label $250,000 as a budget line item without any scrutiny or analysis, a fact that wasn’t public knowledge until Ben Eltham broke the news on ArtsHub earlier this week.

There’s a detailed history on the Melba saga here, but the key red flags fall like this: in 2004, the fledgling label received $5 million in funding over five years, despite the fact Melba only applied for a tenth of that amount. This funding was continued by the subsequent Labor government, before being halved in 2009 and then cancelled in 2012 after a concerted campaign by other independent labels that were (legitimately) miffed by the level of funding Melba was getting: between 2004 and 2012, Melba received $7.5 million in funding, while the annual funding for independent record labels stood at around $425k.. Nonetheless, the cut provoked a loud outcry from Maria Vandamme, the Melba CEO, who condemned the decision and decried the ‘jealousy’ of the industry. After Eltham reported on the new round of funding, Vandamme delivered a stinging rebuke to him and her other critics.

By the looks of it, Vandamme either isn’t aware of the concerns in the wider community about Melba’s preferential treatment, or just doesn’t take them all that seriously. The furore here isn’t your garden variety grumbling about the share of the funding pie going to classical music, since the timing of the grant is especially stinging for those outside the discipline. The savings shaved from the Australia Council ($28 million over the next four years) are set to come from the ‘uncommitted’ pool: that is, the small to medium year-to-year projects that aren’t locked into three year contracts, like the nation’s orchestras, ballets and dance companies. While that money disappears into the ‘budget crisis’, new cash magics out of nowhere to a controversial overseas-oriented program that’s predominantly arts marketing, without it being seen to satisfy any kind of public test or process. Jealousy definitely isn’t the word.

There are those who will argue that a quarter of a million dollars is small fry, but there’s a range of thorny and unsettling issues at play here, especially considering the label’s track record. Reflecting on Vandamme’s aim for Melba to be an Australian Deutsche Grammophon brings into sharper relief the underlying problems with the timing, purpose and execution of this funding. Paul Keating, whose name Vandamme invokes in establishing the tradition of the AC-bypassing Melba funding model, spoke about how classical music gave him an appreciation of perfection, a sentiment echoed in the Melba Foundation donor-seeking copy that declares ‘For Dame Nellie Melba it had to be perfection… so it is with this Foundation.’

Melba’s purpose is to achieve perfection – the clearest sound, the best packaging, the most technically-stunning performance of the greatest works, and the highest praise from the most learned judges overseas. If they could record WASO summoning a Platonic form in Kings Park, they’d be all over it. For Melba, it is less for Australian music to be heard in general than to be heard in the most perfect form by the most perfectly-attuned set of ears, and be duly recognized as worthy.

After all, Melba’s KPIs are decidedly not CD sales – as Vandamme said in 2012, ‘No-one makes money from CD recordings, everyone knows that … It’s about marketing’ – so much as the intangible notion of spreading ‘awareness’, generating critical acclaim and producing high-quality recordings (albeit defined in the vaguest of terms). On the last count, at least, they’ve ticked the box. Melba measures success in the publicity mission in terms of  the positive reviews of their recordings in (hopefully foreign) magazines: it’s the sole raw data in their publicly available reports to justify the label’s mission and government support. A decade on, Vandamme is still gushing about the review Gramophone gave to the 2004 recording of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle as a badge of the success the label has brought to Australia.

It’s curious that Vandamme doesn’t, in either her rebuttal or Melba’s publicly available reports, point to how Melba has flourished by, perhaps, noting increasing touring opportunities and the like for Australian orchestras and musicians. You might measure the success of Australian films receiving government assistance in not just DVD sales and box office receipts, but also their inclusion at overseas festivals and the extent to which the actors and filmmakers involved went on to greener pastures abroad.  As such, it’s hard not to feel like there’s a question being begging here: recordings aside, is this funding essentially in the service of soliciting positive overseas reviews of Australian classical recordings? Is this grant merely a bucket of coins to be thrown into a cultural awareness pokie, hoping for three issues of Gramophone to line up?

When Vandamme asserts that Melba’s success is Australia’s success, it’s hard to agree with her, because the terms are so narrowly and flouncily defined that failure is almost impossible, and if other forms of evidence exist, she’s not pointing them out. At the moment, Melba aims to provide an echo chamber of our reputation, ratified and rubberstamped by Continental experts, without demonstrating what this actually provides to the public, or even to classical music at large.

Ultimately, in a time of government budget crisis – you know, the kind of crisis that rips $100 million out of the arts budget – a prestige art investment like this that plainly eschews positively influencing domestic art in favor of currying overseas acclaim and supporting the work of artists (who, if they are in an orchestra being recorded, are at least somewhat employed in their field) must be viewed as a luxury good. Call it the musical equivalent of maternity leave plans designed to keep the infants of executive-waged new mothers in American Apparel rompers. Is ‘fragrant distinction’ really something that should be at the top of the national shopping list? How many people will think fondly on that four-star review Team Australia got in Fanfare or Listen as they fork over their first GP co-payment?

Maybe that’s pushing the conceit a little, but Vandamme dismissed Eltham’s failure to grasp Melba’s vitality as indicative of ‘a profound ignorance of how the label is perceived here at home and across the world.’ Ah, but perception is key, isn’t it? Vandamme’s assertion that ‘none of the money Melba has received from government … has been given at the expense of any other Australian arts organisation or individual’ is a neat bit of sophistry. In a time of ‘budget crisis’, where entire sectors of the local arts sector are being cut, everything will be perceived to come from somewhere, and money like this certainly doesn’t arrive out of nowhere.

For those who perceive as problematic things like the receipt of a hitherto nonexistent scholarship, or the abuse of travel entitlements, or any number of spurious insider appointments, the tendency here for stakeholders to win big concessions through lobbying from already-rarefied positions feels like more of the same. This pursuit of perfection, the privileging of the privileged, the lack of transparency and the cringe involved in using government funds to seek overseas approval compounds the profound lack of justice being afforded to independent art in Australia. Vandamme’s right when she says the more money for the arts, the better, but that’s always a ceteris paribus claim – and all things definitely do not appear equal at the moment.

The roll call of powerful Melba patrons, allies and board members is intimidating. It’s perhaps one of the few organisations that could possibly raise a significant proportion of its requirements through the philanthropic donations of Friends, yet it consistently goes cap in hand to the state. Melba Recordings may find itself with an extraordinarily passionate and diligent Managing Director but not every art body in Australia also has famous and politically influential friends to call on, let alone a million dollars nestled in the bank (as of the 2011/12 figures).

While Vandamme is right in stating that Melba has had patrons from both sides of politics, how many other arts and cultural groups lack any kind star power in corridors of Parliament? What community radio station has access to that kind of lobbying artillery and influence?  Which emerging filmmakers have Quentin Bryce in their corner?

Vandamme said she lobbied as hard as any head of any arts organisation would, but it’s safe to say she’s got a significant advantage when it comes to influence. In this light, her challenge to Eltham to ‘name one significant Australian performing arts organisation that does not have a former politician supporting it’ takes on a bitter edge. Significant. What does that mean? Does it mean being within the Ourobouros of clout and influence, with access to elites and the results they deliver? When the community television sector bites the dust later this year, will it be cursing their lack of direct benefits to the community and proven successes, or their lack of access to ministers? What about the community radio sector that’s finding itself under siege? The list goes on.

Beyond that, it appears that one side of politics has been much more helpful than the other; Minister Brandis is continuing in the example of Liberal Richard Alston, who stepped out of the Senate and the Arts portfolio to step into the chair at the Melba Foundation, and his Senate contemporary Rod Kemp, who promptly approved Melba’s petitions (and then some).

Ultimately, Vandamme defends Melba’s bypassing of tendering and scrutiny along the lines that the enterprise is a dainty foot that won’t fit the shoes offered by the grants available from the Australia Council: none of the programs suit the scope, ambition and requirements of such an immense and valuable undertaking and, as such, it requires direct government funding to supplement the philanthropy it receives through the Melba Foundation. If marketing and distributing CDs has been an expensive project, the Australia Council has been offering grants for innovative ways of distributing Australian music online for the last two years. I’ll anticipate the reply that it’s possible that Gramophone (and their readers) still prefer their Brahms in a physical form –Deutsche Grammophon has an app, if that helps.

In this context, it’s the rhetoric coming from Vandamme and its supporters that is the most damning. There’s a consistent assertion of knowing better, a claim that Melba deserves every possible opportunity by default of the ‘excellence’ inherent in Melba’s output. In his impassioned defence published on the Melbourne Review’s site in May – an article that reads as an eerily pre-emptive strike now – Peter Craven parades a list of luminaries who adore the label’s output, and implies that simply by dint of their support, the government should hand Melba a blank cheque. ‘Muß es sein? Es muß sein!’

Any challenge is dismissed as ‘jealousy’, as Vandamme puts it, with Craven asserting notion that Melba shouldn’t be subjected to the grubby ‘envy’ of peer assessment. Moreover, the Cringe seems to raise its ugly head here, if only subconsciously: quoth Vandamme, ‘What we have done is great value for Australia, because there’s always the perception that Australia is a dumb blonde, a hole in the ground, but now we are telling the world of the quality of our musicianship.’

If she had Powderfinger in mind, fine, but Vanstone sounds less like a cultural ambassador for a country as a whole than someone zealously guarding her particular patch of turf, impling that it’s still necessary to get approval from overseas in writing fresh from the printing press in Dusseldorf. Likewise, Craven praises the achievement in terms of the ‘impossible thing in little old Australia … making great recordings’. The internationally renowned musician Barry Tuckwell (and Chairman of the Melba Foundation) argued that Melba was ‘irreplaceable’ on the grounds that it has put Australian musicians ‘on the map’, as previously those ‘who stayed in Australia remained anonymous overseas.’ Incidentally, the last federal budget slashed $1.8 million in funding to the Adelaide Festival Centre to help forge artist links with Asia.

Is it churlish to think that during a time of widespread budget pain, arts funding might find its way towards more potentially inclusive and locally-based programs, those that fall outside philanthropic channels of access? Imagine a New Deal that only funded symphonies. Why is putting Australian classical musicians on the European map a greater priority at the moment than keeping Australian artists of every other stripe active?

If it’s a question of excellence, then good riddance to it for the moment, because as things stand, we are seeing elite desires winning out over community necessities. The sense of entitlement surrounding the Melba discussion is enervating.
To hone in again on Vandamme’s response on ArtsHub, she is rightly proud of the success of that recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – but that was a decade ago. What can she tell us about the label’s recent achievements? What is Melba planning for the future? What are we to get excited about, what can we look forward to with this grant? Why doesn’t she urge us to think about what Melba does for Australia and our musicians, rather than merely their reputations?

One gets the sense that not only is Melba not designed for Australian audiences, but that we’re barely incidental to it. ‘Muss es ein?’

What we are left with is a government-funded overseas-oriented NGO-cum-record label-cum-marketing board that has a loss-making business wing. It doesn’t provide information about its performance to the public that funds it and measures success in unpaid publicity for CDs (that don’t sell regardless). Even if this particular marketing board never has a Trevor Flugge moment, it’s a queasy arrangement.

If the funds had been distributed in a transparent (even a process-oriented, peer-reviewed) way and announced at once, there’d be no story. If this didn’t come at a time where every conceivable service and government avenue for independent is being cut, there’d be no story.

The problem rests in the perception that Melba carries a special, different status as a classical music imprint with famous and wealthy patrons producing a product that is immanently valuable, and accordingly deserves special privileges, despite a profound lack of accountability or tangible success. The fact that there seems to be a vague level of contempt for any rumbling of curiosity about where the money is going doesn’t help.

No one who has raised concerns about Melba’s business practices or access to funding seriously wishes a grisly, screaming death on Australian classical music and its international prospects, but if the organisation can’t take a little cold water in the context of cuts across the industry, Melba is going to keep seeming like the Wicked Witch.

The new entitlement rolls on.

Alex Griffin

Alex Griffin is a writer and researcher from Kenwick, focusing on labour, technology and Australian marginalia. His work has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Voiceworks, JUNKEE and Overland. He tweets @griffreviews.

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  1. Check if Melba has donated to the Liberal party. The close association with ministers and former ministers suggests this might be the case. I can imagine a grateful grant recipient, spending the grant on salary and travel, then donating the excess dollars back to the party that gifted it. Win win!

  2. the question is self-expression, newly-emerging ideas versus the perfect and highly refined…. one the current, one the preserved. At the end of the day, classical music evokes one of the highest forms of beauty. In this respect, this art form is deserving in of itself, regardless of the “tangible success”. This is not to say responsive and collaborative “domestic art” is not important to the flourishing of Melbourne’s creativity and the community….also, how can you really measure “tangible success”? Isn’t it in itself to create something beautiful, or stimulate discussion?
    With promoting classical music abroad… differentiating the artistic scene of Melbourne, even if not holistically, plays into the identity of Melbourne and Melbournians… as an acknowledgement to the culturally affluent characteristic of the city. This doesn’t mean that art for the community is not an integral part of this identity.
    It therefore seems like there should be greater emphasis put upon the arts community at large, both in “domestic” forms, and to support art forms like classical music. How much funding is necessary for both?

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