August 27th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Online census fiasco a cautionary tale

CANBERRA OBSERVED Tony Abbott: regrets, he's had a few, and those few he mentions

VICTORIA Volunteers put head on CFA, Cash pursues federal remedy

RURAL AFFAIRS Crisis in dairy industry escalates to new level

SOCIETY AND POLITICS Gays and lesbians can have happy marriages

SOCIETY AND RELIGION The science is in: God is good (for our children)

LAW AND SOCIETY Messing with marriage will hit constitutional bump

GENDER POLITICS Croome's blackmail gamble

TAIWANESE POLITICS Tsai remains in control after her first 100 days

MUSIC An industry that serves everyone bar the maker

CINEMA Villains under coercion: Suicide Squad

BOOK REVIEW A lose-lose country

BOOK REVIEW Grown in the 'burbs: a self-sufficiency plot

U.S. POLITICS The Good Ship Lollypop must be on the slipway

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An industry that serves everyone bar the maker

by David James

News Weekly, August 27, 2016

Can there be such a thing as the music industry? We are forever being told, both by governments and commercial players, that the “industry” must be “protected”, “supported”, “funded” or whatever.

Yet when it comes to actually paying the producers of the product, the musicians, a strange ambivalence emerges. The musicians, it seems, are not necessarily worth paying because, well, they “do it for the love” or, if they are good enough and single minded enough, they will eventually have a career: that is, they will finally be able to charge for their work.

Oddly, the only people who do always end up being paid turn out to be the administrators and the commercial players – the very people arguing that there is a music “industry”.

The Guangdong Province Official Party Cover Band

performs the Beatles' Love Me Do for money.

It is far from certain that it makes any sense to describe music as an industry, and at the very least there needs to be some close examination of what is meant when we use the word.

There is a strong argument that art and business are fundamentally at odds. To the extent that musicians are trying to create art – and of course many are not – then they should not be seen as participants in an industry. It is rather those, often disparaged, musicians who play “covers”, other people’s music, who probably most deserve to be seen as part of an industry.

To explain, consider what is being attempted. High-quality art is based on uniqueness. Commerce, by contrast, is based on repetition: finding what works and repeating it.

There is a great deal of creativity involved in establishing a business, but once a position in the market has been developed then the method is to keep repeating what works. That is why management theory is so focused on the management of repetition, because that is what a business, and an industry, is predicated upon. Eventually, of course, the repetition ceases to work because someone else comes up with something better, and then most businesses die.

The tension between music and business/industry is especially pronounced with jazz. The best playing reveals unrepeatable moments and the best improvisers tend to be different each time they play. That is, by definition, a difficult thing to make work in business, which is predicated on cost-efficient repetition.

Pianist Joe Chindamo makes this point when commenting about the marketing of jazz by the media. Few musicians in other genres would object to having critics hype up their performances, but to Chindamo it is a travesty. “I don’t like the idea that before the artist does something the critics can predict it is going to be great. If you can predict something every time that means it has lost its creativity, that means people have stopped thinking.”

Melbourne bassist Ben Robertson believes that the commodification of music, which he believes has occurred in most musical forms, is fatal for jazz. “If you stop improvising and start reproducing everything, it becomes the same commodity as everything else. If it becomes marketable, then things start to drop out a bit.

“One of those elements is the element of spontaneity and surprise. I know what I strive for is to keep that element alive of the process of playing – really improvising. What I am most interested in doing, still up to today, is to improvise. I don’t want to play everything the same every time. That can get a bit stale.”

One cannot imagine anyone involved in an “industry” talking like Chindamo or Robertson: “Oh, I don’t want to produce that product the same way because that would be a bit stale and I want it to be different every time.” Rather, the aim is to produce a product exactly the same way so that it meets the requisite standard of quality.

It is not the same for cover bands, in which one might include classical musicians. They very much aim to do things the same way, with perhaps a few small variations.

And perhaps that is the test. If you are not involved in the pursuit of uniqueness, art, then perhaps you should receive “industry” support.

Or, more sensibly, we could dispense with the whole idea of an industry and use a more traditional approach by simply supporting the arts financially because it is a culturally worthwhile thing to do. Bach was supported by the Lutheran Church; Mozart by the aristocracy. That seemed to work out quite well. And there was no hint that either was involved in an “industry”.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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