Please Sir, Can We Have Some More?

Once upon a time I nurtured a furtive dream of playing in a rock and roll band. It was way back in a time when rock music was still the dominant youth art form. I immersed myself in a world of records, rock barns (all the popular pubs were rock barns at that time), guitars, Beat literature, tatty photocopies of Jerry Rubin’s anti-establishment rant, A Yippie Manifesto

I spent all my money – and I was earning better than average bucks at that time, having fast-tracked to a Clerk Class 4 position in the public service office in which I resentfully spent the working week – on records, hifi components, beer to accompany weekend and mid-week attendances at pub gigs, a constant supply of marijuana I do confess, and virtually every big-name rock concert that made it to Perth.

My first – at Beatty Park in 1971 – was incredible value: Chain, Free, Manfred Mann and Deep Purple on the same bill. I was so excited by the finale of the show I passed out in the exit queue and ran head first into a stone pillar, splitting my forehead open to the bone – the scar a souvenir that remains to this day (note: no drugs involved; I was only 15 at the time).

I subsequently saw, in rough chronological order, The 1910 Fruit Gum Company (!), Led Zeppelin, Creedence, The Stones, Gary Glitter, Supernaut (laugh, but they headlined at a packed house at the Perth Concert Hall), the earliest incarnation of Split Enz supporting – and blowing away – Frank Zappa, early AC/DC (at the Sandgroper in Leederville, with Bon Scott sitting around at a table pre-gig downing beers), Elton John, Queen, Rick Wakeman, Donovan, Santana, Suzie Quattro, Lou Reed, Focus fer chrissake…and they are just the ones that spring readily to mind. There weren’t barely NO one who came I didn’t fork out for. I didn’t even like some of them – Elton John, Queen and Santana, for example – but I went anyway. My appetite for my beloved rock and roll was insatiable.

By and by my acoustic guitar, on which I wrote tortured love songs in the sanctity of my room, gave way to a rusty second-hand Gibson Les Paul copy, a feeble Coronet amp and a fuzzbox that looked like a toy. I was plugged in! The next step was a ‘real’ amp – a terrific Fender Twin Reverb – and a Gibson SG, and from there the first band. What a moment when the drums came in the first time!

What followed was a truly thrilling ride on the first wave of punk rock to smash through Perth (well, that was our skewed perspective…the mainstream audiences were still watching cover bands in the rock barns, pretty well oblivious to our revolution). Interested folk can pursue the story of Perth’s early punk rock period from various insider perspectives at

But I have gotten carried away. The point I was getting to, now very long-windedly, was that in those times the fervour for our music was a fever, and financial reward was not even on the radar screen. We thought nothing of paying to play. My 1978 punk band, The Orphans, gigged regularly at the now fabled Hernando’s Hideaway, and we were never paid a cent. Rather, we paid for the PA and mixer! Our monetary performance reward was a portion of door takings, which never exceeded the PA and mixer costs – we were always out of pocket. Granted, we didn’t draw the packed houses of the now legendary punk band The Victims (who put Hernando’s on the cultural map), but I doubt even they made much, despite their popularity, press coverage and studio recordings.

No band in Perth focusing on original material made significant money in those days. Most made nothing or, like us, paid to perform publicly. And none of us gave a rat’s. We were in it for love. And the hope – mostly vain – of sex! And some sort of glory, I guess.

Times have changed in ways too numerous to document here, but some things remain the same – like original bands making no bucks. I have friends still struggling along on the local gig circuit all these years later; they make peanuts or nothing from playing.

The rock barns have long gone, and original music venues have shrunk like elderly testes. There are many more bands around now doing originals, and the competition for gigs is fierce. And as in my band days, young bands just want to exhibit their wares; they are not going to take a stand in the interests of getting fair pay for effort. There is always the tantalising but elusive and scarcely realised Dream of breaking big luring them on. But mostly, I am certain, it is still love of music and its creation that is the motivating force. And so the exploitation continues as it always has, and as it probably always will.

Not that this is confined to musicians. Few in the Arts do well financially. It’s one of those high risk-high reward games, and all artists know that, though few think in those terms. Most end up forsaking their creative endeavours for the security and normality of secure employment. The sacrifice is just too much. And it gets scary out on the fringe at a certain age.

Hard-nosed economics-minded types assert that the value of any product, including art, is determined by the market, and that if there is no market for your stuff there is no point or justification in complaining. Right to a point, but simplistic. I mean, how do you put a value on our culture? Only a philistine would dismiss music, film, literature and art in all its other manifestations as irrelevant and unimportant.

At even its most basic level, as entertainment, isn’t art vital? Take it out of the equation and there would be no popular culture: no tv except news and talking head docos, no movies, no music, no radio except talkback (kill me now), no novels, no comics, no cool design T-shirts, no fashion industry, no prints to post on your walls or paintings to hang in your McMansions, only the drabbest of websites, no celebrity gossip…ok, my tongue is flitting in and out of my cheek, but the point is obvious. Without the arts, our world would be unrecognisable and suicidally tedious. And I haven’t even touched on art’s role in shaping our thinking and identities, nationally, internationally and individually.

If we accept that the arts have significant value, albeit largely unquantifiable in accountants’ figures, do we not by extension place value on those who feed the arts? I refer to the professionals who live by their art, to the hordes of strugglers who push on in adversity and anonymity out of a need to express and a hope of eventual reward, and to the young hopefuls who still have the Dream, who prize their art over working two jobs to pay off investment properties, or joining the gold rush to the North where the great mines fuel the monstrous growth of China and the rampant affluence of Dullsville. We must value each of these sectors of the Arts industry, for each is vital to its present and/or its future. And if we concede that each sector needs financial support for our current and future cultural benefit, surely the hard-nosed market-is-all economist view is shown up as simplistic and shortsighted!

What has brought on this rave? It’s been brewing for a while.

An article appeared late last year on the Sydney Morning Herald site (link no longer active) lauding the new Labor government’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards as a “cultural revolution”. Two such awards are planned, “worth a staggering $100,000 each” gushed the journo.

Where else today but in the context of the Arts, would 100K be considered a “staggering” sum? CEOs of major corporations are paid scores of millions in annual salaries, often regardless of company performance, and we accept that with a bit of a grumble and mumble. Yet the two writers assessed as the country’s most deserving of the PM’s Literary Award receive 100K as a one-off prize for years of work and that’s “staggering”? Isn’t something a bit out of whack here?

A few weeks ago, I noticed an ad for the Maj Monologue Competition for 2008. This is an annual event at His Majesty’s Theatre for local pro and amateur stage writers that began in 2006 with a first prize of $4000 and a second of $2500. This year’s prizes are $3000 and $1000 respectively.

So, while direct and indirect beneficiaries of the mining boom lounge back in their McMansions watching their plasmas and sipping on fine wines, imported beers and the odd bot of Dom when the fancy strikes, and worry about whether future rate rises will force them to sell one of their investment properties, pro and aspiring playwrights sweat it out in competition for an already tiny prize that has diminished from that offered three years earlier. OK, theatre is now very much a fringe form, but really…!

Obviously, many companies and individuals have done well from this bloody Boom. Not well enough though, it seems, to fling a few paltry bucks towards some Arts sponsorship.

For centuries, the Arts and artists have depended on wealthy patrons. Now, though, this tradition appears to be under threat. If the priorities of the powerful and well-heeled do not change – and I include the Carpenter State Government – we will ALL be much the poorer.

One thought on “Please Sir, Can We Have Some More?”

  1. Government funding of the arts and public culture is temporarily suspended in accordance with currently fashionable economic theory. According the prevailing free market logic, producers magically provide what the market demands.

    That creativity is about producing products nobody was expecting, and therefore couldn’t really want, is a problem for the creative to figure out. Mind, this only applies to creative arts with the potential to critique aspects of capitalist society. It’s OK for toothpaste and breakfast cereal manufacturers to be as creative as they want, and for governments to pay for whatever structures need to be put in place to facilitate that.

    Toothpaste does not go around suggesting there’s something questionable about trying to purchase a stairway to heaven.

    Besides, look what happens when creative types are let loose on our community of decent working families. They burn the flag, force the public to look at Jesus in a jar of urine, make sad movies like Rabbit Proof Fence and write songs suggesting John Howard had an unhealthy relationship with George Bush. This kind of thing represents a real risk to the health of shock jocks everywhere.


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