All you can art


This story starts with me being really wrong about something.

In 1998, the Howard Government wanted to de-regulate the Australian music market by allowing parallel importation of recorded music so that retailers could buy CDs from a variety of sources (both local and overseas) rather than be dictated to by music producers (and their multinational head offices). I believed at the time that parallel imports would destroy earnings for Australian artists. I supported Labor’s plan to protect the music industry attached as it was to a commitment from the record companies to invest in local music.

As it turned out, the artists were mere hostages in the labels’ pursuit of ever more consumer-funded protectionism which had delivered poor choice and high prices for way too long.

But we were all missing the point. I had gone online and seen a few bare-bones websites about UFOs, but I should have been paying attention to the pornography. The smut peddlers had seen from the beginning that this was the location for a new commerce. A location in which all the barriers and limitations particularly legal barriers of terrestrial distribution were being smashed. The internet created distribution possibilities which are now dwarfing the old economies of scale, and throwing up new issues that are fundamental to cultural policy.

The pornographers were also among the first to capitalise on the rise of DIY. At FBi, an independent Sydney radio station with a commitment to playing more than 50 per cent Australian music, we receive stacks of high quality self-produced material. This is part of a massive international trend towards self-production, made possible by the advent of computers, cheap recording gear, and near-zero-cost distribution via the internet. People can now create, record and distribute their own music without waiting for a record company to ‘discover’ them.

Some of these self-productions, like the Arctic Monkeys and the Streets, have been extremely successful. When Australia’s own Wolfmother brought their self-made album into FBi, we put it to air that same afternoon now they’ve won a Grammy Award for ‘Best Hard Rock Performance.’

Many of these self-produced albums have bombed, of course, but many others have become part of the massive explosion in digital content that is being sucked up by hungry consumers the world over generating new global markets for music which would never have previously made it out of the garage. It’s part of what Wired Editor Chris Anderson has famously labelled ‘the Long Tail.

The Long Tail includes the residual sales of ‘hits’ after their initial flare. It also includes the huge number of ‘misses,’ which on an individual level sell much less than the ‘hits’ but which collectively add up to a larger share of the total market. For instance, Amazon [LINK:] sells more niche, specialist, old, obscure, overlooked, rediscovered, discontinued and remaindered stock every day than it does brand new best-sellers. Similarly, online music services like iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster all mine the Long Tail to meet the broadening and deepening public taste which, in turn, is becoming visible and accessible thanks to search engines and digital storage.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, given the chance, everyone wants to make a record. What is amazing is how many people want to listen. Online sellers are finding a market for everything in their catalogue. Given that terrestrial record stores can never hope to sell out of all but the most highly promoted stock, their range has traditionally been limited in fact, it is not economic for large retailers to warehouse and distribute stock that sells less than 100,000 copies.

Record collections have consequently been limited by availability and this has lead to the false assumption that our taste in music is limited that there is a thing called ‘mass taste.’ The very phrase ‘popular music’ implies this is the music that consumers want to buy, when, in fact, it’s the music that the industry want to sell. But now that digital storage and distribution has made it economic to offer massive catalogues thereby giving everybody access to the Long Tail our collective response shows the previous assumption that people had only limited appetites was as a much a function of limited choice as of mass taste.

In fact, what digital music is showing is that there is no such thing as mass taste. Even if a million people like ‘Fergalicious,’   a scroll down the rest of their personal playlists will reveal a staggering range of interests moulded and influenced through the ‘recommendation’ functions of iTunes or powerful search and referral ‘personal radio’ services like Pandora and Last FM.

Now that consumers have almost limitless choice, they are showing themselves to be more unique and adventurous than we ever imagined. And their appetite is huge. It isn’t just supply that is growing demand is soaring, too. An iPod holds 10,000 tracks, many more than can be filled with top 10 singles or best-selling records. Filling it takes a good, long search down the Long Tail.

This behavioural shift is challenging many of the traditional prejudices of music culture. The perverse snobbery of listening only to obscure imports, unpopular avant-garde, underground or emerging music no longer imparts status or cultural cachet, because millions of kids around the world know about crunk, mash-ups and alt-folk, as well. It turns out that liking cutting-edge music doesn’t really make anyone unique at all, and the music community is already redefining the boundaries between avant-garde and popular, niche and mass, intellectual and lowbrow, commercial and fringe.

As taste-takers become taste-makers, it emerges that consumers actually have quite good taste. The lesson for cultural policy is clear we need to remove the long-held barriers between publicly subsidised ‘art’ for elite audiences and privately consumed ‘entertainment’ for the masses. We also need to stop funding only a limited number of ‘hits’ and ‘superstars’ in favour of a broader cultural project that empowers consumers to explore their interest in art.

Just as the record companies decided what music fans should buy long before the fan arrived in a record shop, so too are policy makers deciding what audiences will consume through funding decisions. The annual list of publicly funded art shows little dynamism and represents the tastes of a small group of people who have always believed that they ‘know’ art and that mass taste is crass taste, or no taste at all.

In contrast, the democratisation of the Sydney Festival has been a huge success, attracting about 1 million people and last year generating a record $5.7 million at the box office. One of the things Sydney Festival does well is let people know how good it is. What audiences for theatre, dance and other art forms need is the kind of information, referral and sampling that has become available for music fans. The lessons of the music industry suggest that just as you can follow iTunes recommendations from Delta Goodrem to Missy Higgins to Ani D
iFranco, other mass markets can be broken down into potential audiences for a far greater variety of cultural products.

Cultural policy needs to empower consumers to discover and respond to producers. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be the same for books, film and visual art, and possibly at some point theatre and dance.

In 1998, the Government got its way in relation to parallel importation of CDs. Ironically, as it turned out, the internet has facilitated more great Aussie music than was ever likely to eventuate from the parallel imports package. Aussie music is leaping into the international marketplace with significant success, especially in the electronica-rock crossover, and artists like Ajax are filling clubs in New York on the back of blogs and digital downloads.

The digital music revolution has shown that a marketplace full of empowered consumers and low cost producers may be the best cultural policy of all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.