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Enough is enough! Letter to ArtsHub.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 - 1:48pm

Ben Eltham‘s article "...grant to Melba bypasses scrutiny" (18 September) is filled with inaccuracies and displays a gross misunderstanding of the circumstances relating to the Melba Foundation, Melba Recordings and its funding.

It is not the first time Mr Eltham has misrepresented Melba and allowed falsehood rather than facts to inform his opinion. It has been a long-held principle of the Melba Foundation not to respond to this kind of vituperative attack. However, this latest attack is so riddled with inaccuracies that it must be challenged and corrected.

Mr Eltham concludes his article by stating: “ArtsHub repeatedly requested an interview with Melba to discuss this story, but the label has declined to comment or answer any questions.”

That assertion is categorically wrong. Information was provided to him by a Melba representative during a telephone conversation on 17th September which lasted at least 30 minutes. Why does Mr Eltham not admit that?

Eltham repeatedly describes Melba’s recent grant as “a special arrangement” – “always special arrangement”, “without peer review or a competitive process”, “provided without peer review and outside of normal funding application scrutiny” – with the clear intention of inferring that there was something irregular or devious about the awarding of public funding to the label.

Let me be clear from the start and set the record unambiguously straight. None of the money Melba has received from government – not a single cent – has been given at the expense of any other Australian arts organisation or individual. Such monies were not diverted from the Australia Council. Every cent, every dollar was in addition to funding already conferred on the arts sector through the Australia Council. No-one lost out. Instead, many Australian orchestras, ensembles and soloists gained. Every cent, every dollar was spent in recording them to the highest international standards and in promoting those recordings around the world. Moreover, Melba’s accounts are audited independently and signed off by the Australia Council.

Melba’s success has been Australia’s success. And let’s not forget that when Rod Kemp supported The Melba Foundation’s application for $1 million pa over 5 years, he also awarded the Australia Council an extra $10 million which seems to have escaped Mr Eltham’s memory.

In 2002 I approached the Chair of The Australia Council David Gonski to discuss my reasons for creating the Melba Foundation. My principle desire was to promote and develop the careers of Australian musicians on the world stage by giving them recording opportunities on an Australian label of international standing which they would otherwise not have had. 

In the absence of an Australia Council funding program appropriate to Melba’s needs and ambitions at the time, Mr Gonski happily supported our making a direct approach to national government for funding. (Indeed, in 2004 he made a speech at a Melba Foundation fund-raising event, saying “Congratulations to the Melba Foundation on getting the money from the government that was recently announced. A lot has been written on the wisdom of this donation by government and whether it has side-stepped the Australia Council. In my view, it is extremely wise on the part of government because any donation to the arts sector by government, corporations or individuals is both wise and very welcome. The grant does not side-step the Australia Council. It is the government’s right to give monies to whomever they choose. I would also like to congratulate the Melba Foundation on being an excellent example of what private fund raising, matched with some government money, can achieve and seek to achieve.”

So there was nothing devious about our application for direct funding. Mr Eltham’s inference that Melba and successive governments did something underhand or inappropriate is demonstrably preposterous.

Many arts organizations have been and continue to be directly funded by the government. Melba is not a unique case. Australia’s leading orchestras and opera companies, the ABC and ANAM are all directly funded without recourse to the Australia Council and not, as a consequence, subject to peer assessment.

The awarding of $250,000 bridging finance (not $275,000 cited by Mr Eltham, as the GST component is always referred to separately) by the Liberal Senator George Brandis to Melba is wholly within his remit as Arts Minister. Just as, for example, was the additional funding he directly awarded the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for its recent international tour, to name just one other example of direct funding. Melba’s award was not given without due assessment or scrutiny of the argument we made for additional assistance and based on our track record.

Labor prime minister, Paul Keating authorised direct funding of a number of initiatives – extra funding to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the creation of the Australian National Academy of Music, and, not least, The Keating Fellowships. Those initiatives resulted from a belief in Australia’s artists and a vision that government should be doing more to help them.

Keating’s justification for side-stepping the Australia Council was simple. It had, he argued, “no premium on artists of accomplishment in mid-career and no program for them. They didn’t need   gee-ing along by the Australia Council asking what their plans were.” (SMH March7, 2005)

Mr Eltham asserts that “Melba secured its funding via intensive lobbying of federal bureaucrats and a succession of Ministers” as if to make an argument for one’s own case is unprincipled or wrong.  Does he think it demeans the arts to engage with the economic issues that other industries and sectors – broadcasting, sport, health, education, fishing and others – contend with and contest in direct discussions with the appropriate Ministers?

Mr Eltham also asserts that “Melba Recordings has documented links to Liberal Party figures.” And his point is? We also have documented links to Labor Party figures: two former Labor Party politicians – Ralph Willis and Barry Jones – served on our Board; Gough Whitlam is one of our Patrons.

Perhaps if Mr Eltham took a closer look at the long lists of philanthropists, supporters, board members and patrons who engage with other Australian arts organisations, he would see that Melba’s cross-party, non-partisan support is the rule and not the exception. Can he name one significant Australian performing arts organisation that does not have a former politician supporting it?

Every company expects its CEO to champion its cause with unwavering dedication and commitment. Why should the arts be any different? We live in an age that demands greater entrepreneurial endeavour of and from performers in every artistic discipline, and Melba makes no apology for recognising and responding to that challenge by being entrepreneurial on behalf of and in support of Australia’s musicians.

From its inception a long list of distinguished Australians shared the Melba Foundation’s conviction that Australian musicians deserved to be represented in the global marketplace, and its vision of creating a record label that matched and exceeded the long-standing international criteria for excellence to which no Australian classical music label had hitherto aspired. They still do.

Mr Eltham asserts that we were “unsuccessful” in a subsequent direct approach for funding to the Australia Council. He is, again, wrong. We did not apply to the Australia Council because it has no program whose criteria would allow us to apply for funding.

Perhaps, however, the most damning comment – all misreporting, factual errors and sly insinuations aside – is Mr Eltham’s assertion that Melba Recordings “has a negligible cultural footprint.” It demonstrates a profound ignorance of how the label is perceived here at home and across the world.

Indeed, Gramophone, the world’s most respected classical review magazine, acclaimed Melba’s recording of Wagner’s The Ring as “the best sounding cycle on the market to date, bar none” and hailed another of our recordings as “a magnificent release [and] a truly revelatory one, not least in highlighting the outstanding work being done by this distinguished Australian label.”

Where, one might legitimately ask, were longer-established Australian labels when it came to capturing and preserving on disc an historic high-watermark in our cultural history: the first ever complete staging of The Ring in Australia? Why did those labels, with years of substantial government funding behind them, not step up to the plate and record The Ring? And would they have done so to the same universally admired standard that Melba did?

There is neither space nor reason to quote here from the countless positive print, online and broadcast reviews that Melba recordings have consistently received. Nor to list the numerous awards those recordings have earned. To have purchased the volume of column inches, website space and airtime devoted to Melba Recordings around the world – unparalleled for an Australian classical label – would have cost in excess of $6 million. 

Has any other Australian recording label achieved that level of coverage in the pages of the most prestigious and influential international publications? The truth of the matter is that Melba has created a fast-growing level of international interest in - and fostered a global audience for - Australian classical musicians in a way that no other home grown label ever has.

When Mr Eltham states Melba’s sales record as “$39,225” he misquotes our 2012 annual report. The $39,225 clearly represents income from Special Events & Raffle not from CD sales.  The fact that this “Other Income” is not sales income is also written on page 18 of the written report preceding the Financial Statements.  CD labels do not publish their sales income. Not even the ABC does as this is always deemed confidential market-place information. Mr Eltham also writes: “Sales from earlier years were equally disappointing. In 2011 the foundation made only $18,000 and in 2010 as little as $3,500, according to a 2012 analysis by Samantha Randell, a researcher at the Association of Independent Records.”  He has no basis for saying this.

If the success of an arts organisation were to be purely defined by its commercial success, no arts institution would be government funded.  The high arts are funded precisely because orchestras, opera companies and ballet companies are labour intensive operations and not purely commercial.

Elite sports are heavily subsidised and celebrated for the excellence that their subsidies encourage and support. All Australian arts institutions deserve more funding, not less.

Melba has developed new audiences for our musicians via the radio play all over the world which we arrange through our global network of distributors, from Wien to Wangarratta, from Paris to Penrith. There is much still to be done in an industry that has suffered more than most from the recession and from changing paradigms of manufacture and consumption. But sales are neither the only nor the most crucial criteria to judge the success of what Melba has achieved.

Mr Eltham’s assertion that the audience for classical music is “unquestionably small” is hardly a revelation. It always has been. Classical recordings have never sold in pop-music proportions. Nor were they expected to generate sufficient sales in the short term to move them quickly into profit. They were, instead, a long-term investment; a musical calling card that raised the profile of the repertoire, artists and record label issuing them. What has changed, and fundamentally so, is the centre of gravity of the classical recording industry.

The commercial grip of the so-called major labels that defined the industry for so long – all of them located in Europe or North America with hitherto little or no interest in the wealth and diversity of Australian music making – has, in the past quarter-century, been surrendered to smaller independent labels like Melba. It’s these niche labels which have found, retained and begun to grow an audience by developing a business model succinctly described by the respected American commentator Alex Ross as “making good records.”

That’s the territory and business Melba Recordings is engaged with and operating within. Our success in projecting Australian musicians onto the world stage through recordings that have been praised time and again for the quality of their performances and excellence of their recorded sound and packaging has no comparison with any other Australian label. None, it is fair to say, comes close to the international profile Melba has established for itself and our own musicians. Can Mr Eltham really claim that achieving this hasn’t been money well spent?

Australia’s arts companies regularly claim to be world class. The Melba Foundation concurs. But we also recognised that the greatest credence for such claims would be to hear international commentators making them for us. It was chastening to hear one Gramophone editor asking “Why doesn’t someone take classical music recording seriously in Australia?” The Melba Foundation agreed.

Historically, the neglect of Australian classical musicians has begun at home. While successive governments have recognised their responsibility to market and make the case for our cultural industries and image abroad, they have been reluctant to lend any priority to our classical music sector.

In 2009, the then Trade Minister Simon Crean funded a $20 million branding exercise to “increase visibility of Australia’s strengths as a global citizen... [and] enhance the ability of Australians to succeed in the global marketplace, improve global understanding and respect for Australia’s strengths, capabilities and values.”

Can Mr Eltham seriously claim that, uniquely, Melba Recordings has not delivered time and again on that aspiration? Melba’s role is that of a cultural ambassador for Australia seeking to complement the internationally acknowledged stature of our sporting, television and film industries. Melba believes that excellence also exists in our classical music industry and is worth promoting with equal political and financial support.

The issue of “peer assessment” – what former Prime Minister Paul Keating once described as “a form of peer group pass-the-parcel” – is a confused and confusing non sequitur. It is the peculiar priorities and confined criteria of Australia Council programs – lacking the flexibility or will to consider the scale and intent of our operations and poorly designed to accommodate them – that has barred Melba from the convention of peer assessment. Melba has never sought to sidestep such a process.

Instead, Melba’s peer assessments have been carried out by myriad respected international music journals and commentators who consider our recordings in the context of an international marketplace that demands artistic and technical excellence. What we do is predicated on those assumptions and standards and not on an incongruous administrative system that pits neighbour against neighbour for support from a limited public purse.

In his recent memoir ‘Rules of Engagement’, Kim Williams refers to peer assessment:

“I believe one of the strongest enforcers of mediocre outcomes in our cultural landscape is the peer-review system central to most decision making in funding bodies in Australia. It is a sacred cow, almost completely protected, but I ask ‘Why?’ No company is run creatively on the basis of committee decision making – those decisions ultimately repose with a single individual….”

If the failure of the Australia Council’s funding programmes to accommodate the Melba proposition compelled us to directly approach government for support, is that a cause for complaint? Really? Can those who found fault with this really not understand that in securing such funding, government in fact added to the total amount spent on the arts? 

Just as concert and opera organisations require extensive forward planning, so does a classical recording label. To fund any of our orchestras or opera companies on a concert-by-concert or opera-by-opera basis subject to peer review and with no guarantee of funding for the next concert would be ludicrous. But no more so than suggesting a label of the scale and status of Melba should apply for recording grants on a case-by-case basis. It would be simply unworkable.

Melba has achieved an unprecedented international platform for Australia’s musicians and its classical recording industry without costing its peers and competitors a cent. All of the money we have raised has come from additional government support and from the generosity of individual benefactors. Surely that kind of initiative is to be applauded and supported rather than sniped and sneered at?

Melba was created with the intention of doing the best and being the best we could do and be for Australian musicians. And yet, while we find ourselves consistently praised abroad, we are constantly pilloried at home. And for what? For creating a platform on which Australian artists can compete and succeed at the highest and most demanding international standards? For raising the global profile and standing of Australian recording to a level never before enjoyed?

If Melba were a cricket, football, rugby or any other sporting team, recognised around the world for competing at the highest levels on the world stage with unparalleled levels of achievement and success, it would be hailed as a national treasure. Why should it be any different because we are a classical recording label?

Despite Melba’s success we are treated as a football by misinformed political opportunists pursuing a parochial agenda that is as debilitating as it is demeaning to the whole of Australia’s vibrant classical music scene. There is much to be proud of in our classical music industry. In the many partnerships we have fostered with Australian artists, ensembles, orchestras, opera companies and technicians – and in the relationships we have developed with international distributors, publications and audiences – Melba has sought to bang the drum as loudly and effectively as we can for Australia. 

That we are pilloried and made a pariah for wanting the excellence of Australian artists to be internationally recognised without condescension says more about the distance we all still have to travel before we stop hiding behind tribal self-interest and territorial privilege. 

Excellence in music is vital, and has been, and remains, our raison d’être. Musicians are important. But even the most established struggle in Australia. They deserve the sort of support that Melba has offered, endorsed by luminaries such as Sir Zelman Cowan, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Barry Humphries, Geoffrey Rush, Sir James Wolfensohn, Barry Tuckwell, Lady Marigold Southey, Jeanne Pratt, Victorian of the Year, and Dame Quentin Bryce, recently re-elected as our Patron-in-Chief – a roll call of people passionate about music and passionate about Melba’s cause and condition.

There has been no conspiracy to dissemble or deceive. To accuse Melba of such is to also accuse successive Arts Ministers and governments of the same, in relation to the amount of public funding we have asked for and received or how we have spent it. To infer, as Mr Eltham has, that anything else has or is the case is to be ill-informed, ill-judged and ill-intentioned. Our finances have never been a matter of secrecy. They are as publicly available (in our published annual accounts) as our objectives have been. And to suggest there was something devious about our lobbying is to also accuse our Founding Benefactor who loudly spoke up for us, put her money where her mouth was and vigorously supported our vision. She was Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. She proudly lobbied for Melba.

In his autobiography, Barry Jones referred to the five essential qualities for leadership: Vision, Judgement, Knowledge, Courage and Urgency. These qualities are equally important and every arts organisation lives by - or should live by - them.

Melba’s success is Australia’s success. If Melba fails, it won’t just be the classical music sector that suffers: the whole of our arts sector and its international reputation will be damaged too. There is a magnificent old Russian maxim quoted in Kim Williams’ book: “look after the talented because the untalented inevitably look after themselves”  

Maria Vandamme