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Classical Gas: How The Melba Millions Could Be Better Spent

In this post, originally published on her blog Love Destroy, Melbourne band manager and writer SAMANTHA RANDELL questions the wisdom of publically funding a niche classical label “of fragrant distinction” to the tune of more than $1-million a year.

For about the past six months I’ve been researching the whole “Melba Scandal”. I’ve gone over the past press and annual reports, I’ve made multiple freedom of information requests and spent a good chunk of time scouring to find anything else I could. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape has stifled the process hugely. But I know enough to pass judgement – and hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll know enough to make up your own mind, too.

Melba Recordings is the operative branding of funding recipients The Melba Foundation. My understanding is that Melba Foundation is a charitable trust, which collects the grant and passes it on.

According to the budget, the Federal Government was in charge of the grant from 2004 to 2009. They issued $1-million a year for five years towards the recording of 35 high quality CDs of Australian artists; 15 of which were done in the first year with the recording of 50 hours work of live material from State Opera South Australia’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. (So, yes, simply 50 hours of an opera fulfilled nearly half of their quota for the five years.) In 2009, the Arts Council took over administration and funding of the Melba Foundation grant. It was reduced to $2.3-million according to the government budget, but $2.25-million according to Melba recordings’ website for the next three years, from 2009 to 2012. (Where the extra $50,000 went is beyond my knowledge.)

However, the Art’s Council’s statement of expectation from 2008-2009 includes administration and funding of the Melba grant – even though it’s not included in the Federal Budget as doing so then. Make of that what you will.

Melba’s original “grant application” was only for $500,000, though somehow they ended up with $5 million without any of the usual rigmarole that goes into normal grant applications. In applying for this grant they originally bypassed not only the Arts Council, but also the minister for the arts - going straight to the treasurer at the time, Peter Costello. The grant was backed by a throng of high-profile supporters including several dames, sirs, lords, doctors and judges, as well as the Murdochs, the Pratts and Baz Luhrmann; a lot of very influential people with deep pockets.

In digging into this whole “mess”, I repeatedly got the run around. Freedom of Information requests were continually denied on the basis that no one seemed to be too sure where the information was, often passing the buck to the Australia Council, who did come through with the requested information in the end, despite the fact they weren’t administrators of the grant until 2009. Apparently, no one seemed to know who exactly was shelling out the money before then ($1-million a year, each year, between 2004 and 2009), and if they did, they certainly weren’t looking to share that information. (The closest we got to an answer was “the Federal Government”.)

Eventually access was gained. However, the majority of what we received was just annual reports which are freely, publicly available after a quick search online. All the important, and interesting stuff such as the original grant applications, re-applications and negotiations was denied, because the current system allows Melba to refuse to have the information released, despite the fact it relates directly to how the government is spending our tax-payer dollars.

“To insert that kind of money into the Australian music scene, in an unbiased and unlimited way, would dramatically change what is possible for independent artists and labels.”

I know a lot of people outside the industry will look down on this in disgust. $8.3-million of government money was spent on recording CDs; money that could’ve been spent on hospitals, schools, helping the disadvantaged, or disaster relief. I can understand the outrage, but in no way do I think the money should leave the music industry. In a completely un-corny, un-lame way: as much heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears is put into our industry and the arts in general.

To insert that kind of money into the Australian music scene, in an unbiased and unlimited way, would dramatically change what is possible for independent artists and labels. Can you imagine 50 $20,000 grants distributed to independent artists, who would easily fulfill the exact same mission statement as Melba Recordings, “To create high quality musical recordings to showcase Australia artists on the world music stage”? Like we can’t achieve that.

In the 2009 to 2010 financial year, Melba Recordings produced seven CDs. They received $1-million 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 approximately $20 per item, selling only 25 of each. I’ve worked gigs at places like The Workers Club in Melbourne 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 it. As far as the maths is concerned it’s worth $5500.

Now compare those figures with, for example, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, whose second album Primary Colours was made for $1500. Within three weeks it sold over 2000 copies, charted at number six on the ARIA charts and won the 2009 Australian Music Prize. Another quick bit of maths for you: 2000 copies at $20 each equals $40,000. Seems like a wiser investment to me.

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This is an edited extract of a post that originally appeared on Love Destroy.

  -   Published on Thursday, April 5 2012 by Samantha Randell.
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Your Comments

untold/animals  said about 2 years ago:

Benefits a lot from the edits, let me tell you.


untold/animals  said about 2 years ago:

LET ME


Dan_Crad  said about 2 years ago:

Mouth-foamingly appalling state of affairs.

Has this hit the mainstream press yet?


rosevich  said about 2 years ago:

that's a pretty attractive new enemy y'all have now


TheBastard  said about 2 years ago:


mrmagoo  said about 2 years ago:

Has this hit the mainstream press yet?

SLAM had a letter printed in the Australian yesterday about it


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

crikey covered it today, with a bit more info.


pfinger18  said about 2 years ago:

Has this hit the mainstream press yet?

I hope it does.


geneclark70  said about 2 years ago:

It'll keep building momentum and then go mega in the tabloids because it's a controversy that'll appeal to the baying crowd that hate ALL funding for the arts, as well as those who just think the $$$ could have been better spent funding more worthwhile music projects.


Dan_Crad  said about 2 years ago:

Sadly, I think that'll be the upshot. Like Newman scrapping the QLD Literary Prize, it'll be seen as a necessary move to ensure ''frontline service delivery''.


lolsmith  said about 2 years ago:

Sheisse.


henderson  said about 2 years ago:

Nicht so gut.

Apparently it would be a National Tragedy if Melba was to lose its funding.


dnzr  said about 2 years ago:

*''THE claim that Melba Recordings is ''more of a hobby than a serious producer of good musical product'' (''Niche music label's federal funding creates discord'', 3/4) cannot be left unchallenged.

Melba is an internationally recognised and acclaimed quality recording brand and has put Australian musicians on the map in Europe, America and increasingly in Asia. It is irreplaceable. It used to be that the only Australian musicians who were recognised abroad were those who lived in Europe. Those who stayed in Australia remained anonymous overseas.

It would be a national tragedy if Melba Recordings ceased to exist.

Barry Tuckwell, Chairman, Melba Foundation, Taradale, Vic''*

Here's an idea, maybe work at it like everyone else and not coast by on the gravy train afforded to you and no-one else.

Many, many niche labels exist without a few million in funding - including ones that release the same genre of music.


untold/animals  said about 2 years ago:

It is irreplaceable.

lolololololol


untold/animals  said about 2 years ago:

!


henderson  said about 2 years ago:

Mind you, Barry Tuckwell has been nominated for more Grammys than Wolfmother and Cut Copy combined. Undeniably Australia's greatest ever French Horn player.


MalikVerlag  said about 2 years ago:

Needs a good pie chart


garumph  said about 2 years ago:

How much would it conceivably cost to get a bunch of bowties into a room, copy scores for individual instruments, rehearse, set up mics and hit record?


MalikVerlag  said about 2 years ago:

See above.


whale  said about 2 years ago:

basically just a poorly run PR arm for state operas. pointless.


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sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

I didn't know it was a line item in the federal budget i thought it was funded through the australia council (which i don't know shit about), but it's not my point, like anything if you don't ask you don't receive. I guess the next step for slam air and aria is attacking indigenous artists or dance groups for getting funding more than they should when they don't make much money.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

From the 09-10 budget: The Government will provide $2.3 million over three years to continue support for the Melba Foundation to undertake classical recordings, while the Foundation secures funding from non‑government sources.

The key words there being ''continue'', because the label had already reaped many millions of taxpayers' money, and the clear warning from the government to find other sources of funding.

Contrast Melba's funding with the $1.6 million allocated to contemporary music touring in the 10-11 budget, to be handed out in $15 k chunks to grant applicants, rather than handed out in one large lump to one lucky (or perhaps well-connected) recipient.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

Bump in eager anticipation of s-b's continued defence of Melba's peculiar funding arrangements.


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

If I was in government i'd give this dog a million dollar grant http://www.youtube.com/v/5we2rAggjas


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

I declare victory.


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

You can't claim victory until the smoke clears, in the meantime here's some food for thought http://www.osborne-conant.org/arts_funding.htm


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

I'm not claiming victory, I am declaring victory.

Your role now is to give a gracious speech conceding defeat.


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

from crikey today:

Melba hits back for classic music funds. Classical music specialists Melba Recordings has copped quite a bit of flak in arts circle — as Ben Eltham explained recently in Crikey — for the very big cheques it receives from taxpayers and the very small audiences that enjoy its albums. Barry Tuckwell, chairman of the Melba Foundation, is not taking this lying down. He dispatched this email to supporters recently:

“As a Melba supporter you will be aware that the future of government funding of the Foundation is uncertain. Many of you have written letters to the minister, Mr Simon Crean, supporting our case for continued government support. Thank you.

“There has been a lot written about Melba and our funding in the specialist art and music publications and newspapers. Much of it has been ill informed, with prominence given to those critics who feel that our funding has somehow reduced theirs or that we have bypassed the proper Australia Council for the Arts channels. These criticisms are unfounded and untrue.

“As former arts minister, Rod Kemp, has said over and again Melba’s funding was not a slice from a finite pie. There has always been as much money available for the arts as the government can be convinced to spend.

“Melba put up a convincing case and was persuasive. It was open to any other record company to do the same. The use of the government money has been assiduously supervised and audited by the Australia Council for the Arts. Melba is subjected to numerous and regular audits. We have performance targets that must be met. We work with the Council to improve our management and performance at every level …”

Meanwhile, look out for more criticism in The Sunday Age this weekend. We hear artists have been talking to the paper about their dealings with the recording studio.


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

(email part again due to formatting fubar)

“As a Melba supporter you will be aware that the future of government funding of the Foundation is uncertain. Many of you have written letters to the minister, Mr Simon Crean, supporting our case for continued government support. Thank you.

“There has been a lot written about Melba and our funding in the specialist art and music publications and newspapers. Much of it has been ill informed, with prominence given to those critics who feel that our funding has somehow reduced theirs or that we have bypassed the proper Australia Council for the Arts channels. These criticisms are unfounded and untrue.

“As former arts minister, Rod Kemp, has said over and again Melba’s funding was not a slice from a finite pie. There has always been as much money available for the arts as the government can be convinced to spend.

“Melba put up a convincing case and was persuasive. It was open to any other record company to do the same. The use of the government money has been assiduously supervised and audited by the Australia Council for the Arts. Melba is subjected to numerous and regular audits. We have performance targets that must be met. We work with the Council to improve our management and performance at every level …”


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

Your role now is to give a gracious speech conceding defeat.


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

Nah, I think it's part of a bigger picture in this country, class warfare that's come back strong in recent times. It was horrible to see the Australian music industry flip shit about Melba Recordings instead of trying to better it - piss or get off the pot! so many haters. Now I have no sympathy for their shit. What the Australia Council has in terms of govt funding is nothing compared to sports: olympians, afl, nrl, etc etc and they get money for advertising, tv rights and sponsorships. A billionaire spends $25m on a soccer team here and nobody blinks, some people back a classical record label and it's a shit fight. Apparently no classical record labels make money and Melba Recordings is internationally renowned, maybe it does deserve to be a line item in the federal budget. The Australia Council deserves a bigger budget, but the debacle will not achieve that. Unfortunately, we get what we deserve culturally.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

A billionaire spends $25m on a soccer team here and nobody blinks, some people back a classical record label and it's a shit fight.

''Some people'' being ''every taxpayer in Australia''.

Apparently no classical record labels make money and Melba Recordings is internationally renowned, maybe it does deserve to be a line item in the federal budget.

Yeah, none of them make money, but some of the ones not named Melba actually put out a fair number of recordings.

As to class warfare: give it a rest. Both rock'n'roll and classical are thoroughly middle- to upper-class pursuits these days.


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

Ok then, everyone in Australia is spending more than $2billion per year on sport in Australia, they were spending approximately $1million on a classical recording company (by all accounts the best in the country - quality not quantity? Give me a classical record company and i'll put out 30 albums a year - all shit). I don't think it was perfect but they didn't deserve their own causing a fingerpointing shit storm that killed them by populist decree. Agree to disagree.

''As to class warfare: give it a rest. Both rock'n'roll and classical are thoroughly middle- to upper-class pursuits these days.''

Then the money should go to aussie hip hop!


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

the class warfare is sport vs culture, duh! Australian identity is about swilling beer and liking footy, pub rock, tits, utes and the outback. the rest is for poofs.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

Sport is not lower class. Many of the chaps from the club rather enjoy a game of rugger and a good towel down afterwards.


sting-bono  said about 2 years ago:

That's my point! Billionaires throw cash at it and it's already getting ridiculous funding from the government. No one says anything about that.


whatwhat  said about 2 years ago:

Billionaires, not every taxpayer.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

S-b, the government foreshadowed an end to Melba's line-item funding before the latest shitstorm erupted.


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

in depth article here on Melba foundation from today

breaks it down a bit more, shows up problems with regulation and transparency, making the issue to wind it up somewhat more cut and dried.

(thanks redlips for the pointer)


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

Interesting yarn. I wonder if it changes s-b's view of the situation.


Temet  said 12 days ago:

http://www.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/grants-and-funding/exclusive-brandis-275000-grant-to-melba-bypasses-scrutiny-245881

Arts Minister George Brandis approved $275,000 in special funding to classical music label Melba Recordings without peer review or a competitive process, ArtsHub reveals.


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