Embracing Disruption: Zooming into the Future

Along with just about everyone else on the planet, I have been immersed in Zoom and WhatsApp meetings during this enforced COVID-19 hibernation. Notice my choice of semantics here; I say “hibernation” and not “lock-down” or “lock-in”. Hibernation is a way for many creatures, from butterflies to bears, to survive cold, dark winters without having to forage for food or migrate to somewhere warmer. Instead, they turn down their metabolisms to save energy. But hibernation carries risks as the dormant animal is vulnerable to predators and the unpredictable climate. My version of business in hibernation, and in particular the creative industries, bears many similarities to the wildlife version. This winter will end and come spring, it will be time to ramp up business, increase our metabolism, procreate and get back to normal.

All of the online meetings that I have been part of over the last two weeks have all focussed on ‘returning to normal’ when we emerge from this hibernation. I have a very big problem with this. One overarching lesson that I have taken away from the last two weeks is that returning to normal might not be the best course of action for Australia’s creative industries. Maybe I’m the only one, but I have found this enforced hibernation, and disruption, to be really invigorating. The disruption suggests, and points to, a new future where we do not return to what we know as ‘normal’. 

Yesterday, I spent a few hours in a Zoom panel meeting discussing the popular music landscape in Australia and how it has negatively impacted artists. The conversation was centred on how to survive this hibernation and how we get back to normal. I raised the point that the last thing we should be trying to do is return to normal; the old normal was pretty crappy and not a healthy ecosystem for artists and workers in Australia’s popular music space. This was met with tumble weeds, total silence broken only with a few crickets chirping in the background before the moderator got everything back on topic. Clearly, I struck a sensitive chord.   

Without question the music industry is one of Australia’s most profitable creative industries. Despite this, artists report they are frequently underpaid or not paid at all, let alone accumulating a healthy superannuation for retirement. While Australian classical orchestral musicians enjoy secure and regulated pay rates, contemporary musicians are not faring so well. Award rates for contemporary music are commonly ignored, leaving artists to make the impossible choice of accepting low pay, requesting better pay with the potential outcome being replaced by a cheaper artist, or saying no and losing the opportunity completely. A seemingly endless supply of artists willing to play for little-to-nothing means the supply/demand economics of performing live is heavily skewed in favour of the venues. 

The live music industry itself operates under a set of unique challenges. Onerous regulation, a lack of best-practice standards, significant operating costs for venues, reliance on alcohol sales to underwrite gigs, and shifting audience behaviours have created a fraught and fragile ecosystem. In short, this pre-COVID-19 ‘normal’ was a space of very low wages, no job security, no superannuation, exploitation, huge HECS debts and a completely ineffective monetarisation of creative music talent. In the Australian Music Industry Network’ (AMIN) 2019 Live Renumeration Survey, the real horror of artists’ meagre financial remuneration was highlighted. According to this survey the average per annum salary for a musician was just $12k, compare this to Australia’s average yearly salary of $82K (Living Australia). That’s a good $70k short. I am quite happy to be the proud pariah here, but this is not the ‘normal’ environment that I wish to return to.

One my most hated phrases is “we’ve always done it this way before” probably the worst seven words ever to be used in business, the creative, arts, music, basically everything including life. In the words of English clergyman Williams Pollard, “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” The COVID-19 disruption might just be the opportunity that we have all been waiting for, arriving in stealth mode. I hear a lot of people repeat the rhetoric that Melbourne is the live music capital of the world because we have more live music venues per capita than any other city. This is classic quantity over quality. That’s more live music venues per capita underpaying, exploiting, abusing and not really caring about live music, artist or music workers. Perhaps I am alone, but I am not rushing to get back to the dismal “normal”. Barack Obama hit the nail on the head, when he spruiked, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

So, what are the solutions; after all my Linked In profile lists me as a solution architect. Speaking as an ex-audio engineer, signal flow is all about input and output. Most of the so-called solutions I’ve heard address the output e.g. tax relief, grants, one-off payments etc. How about we make a radical, and by radical, I mean seriously radical change to this model? One solution would be to give everyone in Australia a none means tested Universal Basic Income. Finland’s Social Insurance Institution (FSII) has published the results of an income experiment it carried out for two years to learn more about ways to reduce unemployment. They report that their experiment showed that giving unemployed people a no-strings-attached guaranteed income instead of an unemployment allowance made them happier and less stressed. The universal basic income (UBI) guarantees participants a certain basic standard of living via direct cash transfer. The standard of living guaranteed includes reasonably nice housing, sufficient food, proper health care, and a means for engaging with the surrounding community.

Why don’t we, and the peak bodies in the music and creative arts space, campaign for a UBI of say $3,000.00 per month for everyone? It’s a bold and challenging idea. This UBI would allow musicians, artists and creatives to top up or add on their current $12k per year and take them to an almost average salary. On top of the UBI why not add superannuation and basic health care? This approach might even help employers, and their wages bill, as all employees would have the safety net of the UBI. But what about the feckless, terminally lazy and work shy? The Finish experiment says UBI is much cheaper and more effective than our current social benefits system. If you want to stay at home on a basic income and not work; well good on you, have a great life doing and achieving nothing. Other solutions might be to have a basic standard that live music venues must meet around wages, working conditions, superannuation, etc. If a venue doesn’t meet them then they can’t have live music; lets flip the supply and demand model 180 degrees. Yes, we’ll lose a load of venues, but quite frankly do we really want many of these crap venues anyway.

Johann Sebastian Bach statue in Leipzig – not the in-side-out pockets

We now have the perfect opportunity to embrace change from this enforced disruption. This could be the golden gift of an opportunity to make the popular music space much better for everyone; musicians, artists, workers and audience. A chance to radically change the system, as this system has been broken for over 350 years. If you have ever been to Leipzig in Germany, you have probably seen the statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in the city square. Did you ever wonder why this statue has Johann’s pockets turned inside-out? It’s because he had no money and would walk the streets to Leipzig with his pocket’s turned inside-out to prove to everyone he was broke and was looking for work/commissions. So, let’s not rush back to this broken model of the 1750s, I think there is substantial proof that it hasn’t worked and will not work in the future. Disruption and the change that it brings is probably the best thing to happen to popular music in the last 400 years. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

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