SLAM: the music city and cultural activism.

Author:Homan, Shane
Position::Save Live Australian Music - Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism


Popular music studies scholars have contributed a strong body of work in the last few decades, which examine the relationships between popular music and politics. Much of the earlier work in this new field was preoccupied with the role of music in wider political movements, and, more explicitly, within specific protests (Denisoff, 1972; Denselow, 1989; Garofalo, 1997). Since the 1980s, 'politics and music' research has examined other instances and contexts. This has encompassed the role of politics in forms of censorship and related debates (e.g. Cloonan and Garofalo, 2002), how the state deals with what it deems to be "unpopular" music (Redhead 1995), or the particular discourses at play in decisions about what music activities are funded by the state (e.g. Shuker, 1998; Stanbridge, 2007). Equally, attention is now being paid to city policies and the urban contexts of the music industries, particularly live performance (Chevigny, 1991; Shank, 1994; Homan, 2003; Cohen, 2007).

Such work has, of course, been complicated by understandings of popular music as a key site of identity-formation and politics (Frith, 1996; Grossberg, 1992), and as expressions and formations of communities (e.g. Mattern, 1998; Marcus, 1997). This requires further delineation between music's role as communication (as expressive forms and messages), and its industrial roles as part of cultural policy. In terms of communication, Mattern (1998: 25-32) identifies three modes of political action relating to music communities: deliberative (internal forms of debate around shared interests and actions); pragmatic (promotion of shared interests in goals of increased awareness); and confrontational (uses of music in resistance or opposition). While these modes are useful categories, they remain limited to music's textual functions as message, where it primarily "serves to communicate or convey what the political context requires" (Street, Hague and Sevigny, 2007: 6).


In contrast to the performance of popular music as texts within political and social contexts, this article examines the "performance of participation" (Ibid: 15) by musicians and other interested music industry workers in contesting policies governing local music venues. In this case study, both instances of pragmatic and confrontational action are apparent in the formation of a music community opposed to their state government. While this is much more of a case of "the politics of music" rather than the "music of politics" (Street, 2012: 8), it nonetheless invoked a series of political rights from participants (state and industry) in relation to live music venues. In this sense it is in keeping with Street's assertion that music and politics are "not to be seen as separate entities whose worlds collide only occasionally, but rather are extensions of each other ... music embodies political values and experiences, and organizes our response to society as political thought and action" (2012: 1). Within the contested terrain of state cultural policy, what is at stake is the assertion of cultural power and its consequences.


The state, then, remains an important actor in not only constructing policies that inhibit or enhance activity, but in the setting of discursive frameworks that shape debates and outcomes (Homan, Cloonan and Cattermole, 2015). I am equally interested here in the construction of the cultural citizen (Miller and Yiduce, 2002; Miller, 2006) and the extent to which musicians and related industry sectors become engaged with music/cultural policy. The case study that animates this paper is also useful for the ways in which the initial forms of protest reached out to other constituencies, and engaged broader issues and meanings of music and culture.

Popular music, politics and culture: Australian contexts

Arts and cultural policy has never played a prominent role in daily Australian political life, and this has been reflected in various ways. Firstly, the Arts ministerial portfolio, at both federal and state government levels, is usually attached to other responsibilities, including communications, regional development and the like. (1) Secondly, the cultural policies of the two dominant political parties (the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia) barely feature in election campaigns. (2) In the 2013 federal election, the Liberal-National Party Coalition--the incoming government--did not produce an arts policy at all, instead believing that a few newspaper interviews and a public speech would suffice. Thirdly, the rare instances of fully developed cultural policies, have failed politically. Creative Nation (1994) and Creative Australia (2013) both died with their respective Labour governments.

While cultural policy debates usually remain on the fringes of mainstream political debate the world over, the arrival of the conservative federal government in 2013 (under Tony Abbott) has provoked eruptions from the arts and cultural sector. In 2014, nine artists boycotted the Biennale of Sydney in 2014 to highlight that its major sponsor Transfield was a company that was also involved in the operation of the Australian migrant detention centres on Nauru and Manus Islands (Taylor and Gruber, 2014). In response, new Arts Minister George Brandis requested that the national arts funding body, the Australia Council, draft a policy that denied state funding to arts organisations who refused private sponsorships (Cox, 2014). In 2015, Arts Minister Brandis diverted $104.7m from the Australia Council to establish the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). This decision has unified much of the arts and cultural sector in protests, with criticism based on several factors: the establishment of a program that will duplicate existing Australia Council funding structures; evaluation structures to be determined by the Minister's office; and the rhetorical deployment of 'excellence' to justify additional support to the already considerable funding of the high arts sector, driven by the Minister's funding preferences (Mendelssohn, 2015; Letts, 2015; Eltham and Verhoeven, 2015).

For the popular music industries, growing disquiet at classical and art music gaining the majority of arts funding at state and federal government levels was further fuelled by the restoration of $275,000 to Melba Recordings (ABC Radio 2014), a classical music company who had previously received funding outside the purview of the Australia Council through Ministerial directives (Eltham, 2012).

The funding contexts outlined above are important in noting the 'proper' place for popular music in Australia, viewed as a series of commercial enterprises, and so not deemed worthy of greater state support, or part of the 'market failure' arguments mounted by the classical music and opera sectors. Live music, then, has assumed greater significance to musicians and their peak representative bodies in terms of livelihoods, state structures and meanings of cultural nationalism. Apart from increased support for export music schemes (the Sounds Australia program), the establishment of a national Live Music Office is the most notable evidence of federal government support for popular music in the last decade. This is in keeping with Australian capital cities--particularly Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane--investing greater funding and regulatory resources to live music ecosystems, as part of intrastate competition to brand themselves 'music cities'. Thus, despite calls for Australian rock, pop and hip hop musicians to engage more deeply in "complaint rock" (see Giuffre, 2008), political activism is most often engaged through industrial structures, rather than broader causes and movements.


Indeed, the case study here is one that combined the threat to very localised industry structures--live music circuits--with calls for a state government to properly recognise and fund popular music for a range of cultural, social and economic reasons. The SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) rally in February 2010 has been described as the largest cultural protest in Australian history (Levin, 2011); yet it is useful to assess not simply for the size and depth of feeling, but, to return to Mattern, the "pragmatic" and "confrontational" modes of activism at work. In this case, the live music sector in Victoria is an interesting example in the mix of interactions between a state government, the professional music lobbyists, musicians, fans and the media.

SLAM (Save Live Australian Music)

Australian live performance continues to be a significant sector of its popular...

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