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Update from the MCA

8 May 2012

An update from Dr. Richard Letts, Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia, covering Music: Count Us In, government reviews, Gotye and Kimbra, Music and Media, the "Excellence Pool", ArtsPeak advocacy, National Cultural Policy, implementing a UNESCO Convention, and more.

At 11.30am on September 7 last year, over 570,000 children from 1974 schools across Australia sang a song. The song was commissioned, arranged, recorded and distributed under the MCA’s Music: Count Us In project. It is the biggest musical event in the country by far and it has had enormous benefits for music education in schools. The majority of the participating schools become so enthused that they divert more resources into their music programs.

It has been a cliff-hanger this year while we waited to discover whether the Federal government would fund Music: Count Us In again. Given the budget squeeze going on all around us, we were becoming gloomy.

But last week we were told we had funding.

A few days later, we were told we have it for four years! MCA is over the moon about this because for the first time, we know we will be able to evolve the program to take advantage of things already achieved and changes in the surrounding society. And we won’t have to hang around cliffs for a while.

MCA thanks Minister for Education Peter Garrett, whose commitment to arts education is clear.


A number of important government reviews have just been published. Let’s stay with education for a moment.

The Productivity Commission released its report into the School Workforce. We are extremely unhappy that in this 200 page document, the words ‘arts’ and ‘music’ appear only once – and the words ‘dance’, ‘drama’, ‘media arts’ and ‘visual arts’, the other arts subjects included in the national curriculum, do not appear at all. Is this because the report skirts discussion of subject disciplines? No, not at all. For instance, there are 150 mentions of ‘mathematics’ /‘numeracy’.

Why is this important? MCA members know that the biggest obstacle to music education in primary schools is that the classroom teachers have been given almost no music education. When the Australian Curriculum in music is ready to be taught, the teachers will not be ready to teach it. For music, unless teachers are trained, nothing will change and most public primary schools in the country will have no real music education program – unless the parents are paying for it. We might have expected a study of workforce competency to have noted this – especially since the MCA submission spelled it out in short words.

The Productivity Commission also published a Report on the Early Childhood Education Workforce. Negligible mention of music there, too, despite a first submission from MCA pointing out the problems and a second one pointing out the Commission’s omissions in its first draft.

MCA is writing a letter to the responsible Federal ministers, pointing out that it is official policy of every government in the country that all children should have an arts education and asking whether the Commonwealth will accept and endorse the Productivity Commission report or require it to report again after reviewing the situation of the schools workforce vis-à-vis arts education.

Every university music school in the country loses money. The minimum program they can offer with any self-respect requires more funds than they receive from the Commonwealth. The recent Higher Education Base Funding Review recognised the problem, observed the need for more funds, and then in a most peculiar way, failed to recommend them. All of these schools survive only because their universities find some way to cross-subsidise them.

This all came home to roost late last week at the ANU, which itself is deeply in debt. The Vice-Chancellor announced effectively that the School of Music would no longer be subsidised by the university and would have to live within its budget. The effect is to impose very serious cuts on the Faculty, the program and the standards. There is absolutely no point in a music school of low standards attempting to train music professionals. The students, teachers and indeed, the City, are devastated.


We heard Kimbra perform at the APRA Awards last year. The arrangement was special to the event and probably not what we will ever hear on a recording by a pop goddess. It was really interesting and inventive.

Now she and Dutch-Australian artist Gotye are high in the charts in the US. Well, he is at the very top, and has just made a world record number of digital sales in the first three weeks of a release – 400,000. (How much income will he receive for that? $7.53?)

The money Australia makes from export royalties on its overseas sales has varied between approximately $40m to $70m over the last decade. (Australia usually pays royalties of around $230 on the music it imports. That’s a bit of a sad story.) The export income can be influenced enormously by a single international hit. It will be interesting to see the effects of Gotye and Kimbra and a couple of others who are doing well at the moment. Might be a record year no pun intended.


MCA held its Music and Media Symposium on April 19. One of the things agreed by everyone present (a few with reservations) was that it is essential to retain the Australian music content regulations that oblige commercial radio to broadcast some minimum amount of Australian music. The fear is that without the regulation, Australian music would virtually disappear from commercial radio, and it certainly is not without basis.

The Federal government’s Convergence Review had flown a kite: that since these regulations could not be imposed on online music, they should not be imposed either on terrestrial radio. This caused anxiety in the music industry.

The Convergence Review has reported and recommended that the quotas be retained and indeed, extended to digital-only radio. Commercial radio will be very unhappy. The music industry is delighted.

These are only the recommendations of a review. They don’t have any reality until they are adopted by the government.


The Symposium provided an opportunity for participants to voice their desire once again for a national body for the commercial music industry. MCA already does a lot of work for industry interests (alongside its work in music education, community music development and the non-profit music sector). There is advantage in an organisation where all of these interests can be supported but also can speak to each other.

As it happened, days later, the Contemporary Music Working Group, an informal group that for 10 years had attempted without success to get government support for the music industry, met to consider its future. (The problems did not lie with CMWG but with governments.) The MCA offered to take CMWG in and serve as convenor and secretariat. CMWG would be semi-autonomous within MCA, along similar lines to the Australian Youth Music Council. The offer was warmly welcomed and creates a situation where there is some assurance of continuity and the opportunity for effectiveness and evolution. MCA is delighted.


The nation’s Arts Ministers met and agreed to create a special fund for the big performing arts companies supported by the Australia Council Major Performing Arts Board. The companies would apply for funds for activities that could be seen as demonstrating ‘excellence’ – a word so far undefined in this context, as is the amount and timing of the fund.

ArtsPeak is an ad hoc alliance of 31 national arts organisations representing all art forms. MCA has signed a letter from ArtsPeak to the Federal Arts Minister saying that while ArtsPeak commends the proposed extra funding for the majors, the small to medium arts organisations and individual artists have long languished, and have as great a claim to additional funding. It proposes an increase of 25% in funds over four years with a first instalment of 10% immediately. Well, it’s worth a go…

(Yours truly invented the ArtsPeak name at its inception around 1999. It could also have been written ArtSpeak.)


ArtsPeak has also written to decry the delay in the release of the very long-awaited National Cultural Policy. It seems slightly uncertain, actually, whether it will be delayed. There are varying reports and the Office of the Arts will not give a date.

It has been a major effort to pull this thing together. There were 400 submissions to the Minister. MCA put in a 110-page submission, covering everything that blows, bows, bangs, chirrups or burps – in retrospect, perhaps more than was needed though it seemed a good idea at the time. (You can read it on the MCA website under ADVOCACY. See if it includes your special interest.)

Arts people seem to be taking the National Cultural Policy very seriously. Maybe it’s because there is that rare feeling that government, for this moment in history, is taking us seriously. Maybe there is hope of a vision for the arts, endorsed by the most powerful body in the land.

There is, however, a big problem of timing. Not just whether the NCP is released in May or September, but whether Mr Crean is Minister for long enough to implement it. And if as seems likely, he is not, what attitude will the Coalition take? Will it throw the thing out just because it was a Labor idea? One would hope not.


Remember the UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions? Of course you don’t. Who could remember such a title without special remuneration?

Anyway, MCA had a big role in causing Australia to ratify it. So when we discovered that Kate Lundy had been appointed as the newly created category, Minister for Multiculturalism, we wrote to ask what the government is doing to implement its requirements and recommendations.

She has written back saying that [as is required by the Convention] the government is preparing a report of relevant activities, which it will publish. That could be quite useful in showing where multicultural groups might ally with governments.

MCA has written back saying that is very good, but having accounted for the status quo, does the government intend to further implement Convention proposals for support to diverse cultural activities. We’ll keep you posted.


We finish with an interesting story from the USA. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker are adopting some of the nation's worst-performing schools and have just pledged to help the Obama administration turn them around by integrating arts education.

The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announced a new Turnaround Arts initiative as a pilot project for eight schools with officials from the White House and U.S. Department of Education. Organizers said they aim to demonstrate research that shows the arts can help reduce behavioural problems and increase student attendance, engagement and academic success.

The two-year initiative will target eight high-poverty elementary and middle schools. The schools were among the lowest-performing schools in each of their states and had qualified for about $14 million in federal School Improvement Grants from the Obama administration. The public-private arts initiative will bring new training for educators at the Aspen Institute, art supplies, musical instruments and programs totalling about $1 million per year, funded by the Ford Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation and other sponsors.

Of course, it’s not that the hypothesis needs further demonstration, nor that a mere eight schools is more than a grain of sand in the US school ‘system’. But it’s not the gift, it’s the thought behind it.