Australian music: storing, selling, hyperlinking

Keith Gallasch talks to John Davis

John Davis, painting, Simon Chambers

John Davis, painting, Simon Chambers

John Davis, painting, Simon Chambers

John Davis has been the General Manager of the Australian Music Centre for 7 years. As a well-travelled, hard-working Vice President of the International Association of Music Centres (the AMC is one of its 43 members) and Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) he has been participating in national and international strategies crucial to the development of contemporary music and the documenting and dissemination of the work of Australian composers. Now at the end of both his Vice Presidential terms, although still the Australian representative, Davis is looking forward to feeling a little less split between national and international pressures, but in this interview points to the ever increasing value of the community of music centres. I asked this congenial and much admired manager of an enterprising organisation that achieves much beyond its immediate role of documentor and disseminator about his personal association with music and how it took him to his current position.

I intended to be a composer from the time I was 13. I was a performer for a long time on piano and prior to that, saxophone and other brass instruments when I was younger. I failed first year music at Sydney University in 1975, ran away to New Zealand, got involved in jazz, came back to Australia and spent about a decade, mainly on the South Coast of New South Wales, just doing piano bar gigs and whatever. And then I reached a point where I needed more creative challenges and went back to university at Wollongong when Creative Arts was set up in the mid 80s. As a result I did a lot of Australian music study there and then managed to score a job as a junior sales assistant at the Australian Music Centre in 1989 on Broadway in a pokey little office. The commercial activities of the centre were only 2 or 3 years old at that stage and a lot of my work was making up catalogues of what was for sale, selling scores from the library basically. There were one or 2 CDs available with Australian works, stacks of cassettes and LPs. By the early 90s that exploded and we set up our shop in 1993 and by 1995 there were 2,500 titles across all genres of Australian music, not just the classical area. The whole scene has changed significantly in the time I’ve been here.

In 1995 the General Manager, Cathy Brown Watt, left for the Major Organisations Board of the Australia Council. I was the Sales Manager and became then, as I still am, General Manager. I’ve been through 3 changes of location, from Broadway to the Argyle Centre [in The Rocks]and then to The Arts Exchange [also in the Rocks] in 2000. This last move has been most significant given the long term security of tenure with the NSW Ministry of the Arts as landlord and the space, which is a huge luxury, allowing us to do all sorts of things and provide a facility for others to do things here.

How do you feel about no longer being a musician?

I don’t play any more, which frightens me more than anything. I will get back to it at some stage. That I’m not actually writing is not so important because there’s so much stuff that passes through here that I take backroom pleasure in observing. And what is more satisfying is to see someone else’s creative development and to play a facilitating role in that.

Is the major role of the AMC the promotion of Australian composers?

It’s how some people perceive the centre and it is one aspect of it. But what we do first and foremost is document the work of Australian composers. In the AMC’s early years that was a very broad and open thing—anyone who called themselves a composer could lodge material here—and then by the mid 80s it became more defined—formally representing composers applying for that status. Over the last decade that’s been broadened into other areas of art music making. There are all sorts of challenges in doing that because it’s fine if you have a composer putting dots on paper because it’s a physical manifestation of a work that a library can handle easily as opposed, say, to the work of a sound artist whose work exists in other media. There are ways to collect and catalogue these, for example, a web page as artwork, but you may not be able to sell that item. However, it’s the broader issue of representation in the centre’s collection that’s more important than sales. There are improvisors, jazz composers, real time composers in a range of formats—we like our systems to be challenged.

Does it mean you need to keep a lot of old technology hardware then?

It does. It’s interesting too in how it reflects how artists think about their work. Dots-on-paper composers tend to understand the concept of their work being housed in an archive or a living collection like ours. Artists who work solely in live performance understand documenting through recording, generally commercially released, but in terms of other ways or forms—whatever’s scribbled down, whatever’s recorded in the preparation for the performance—they’re not necessarily sensitive. It’s a musicological issue: for example, the early sketches of a Peter Sculthorpe work or his correspondence with someone over the development of a commission and the resulting work, they’re all interesting form a musicological point of view.

Is the AMC a major repository of Australian work?

Yes, but not of archival material: we don’t take on that role because there are the state libraries and the National Library, which recently accepted, for instance, all the Sculthorpe correspondence and papers. Ours is a living collection. We don’t have originals, we have good quality master copies of paper-based material which we are licensed to reproduce for sale, to give it a life.

How do your other service and projects fit with the documentation?

The 3 things that drive our strategic plan are: documenting work by Australian composers; providing access to those materials, giving them a life, a function, a level of utility and offering a range of services that complement these. These may be professional development opportunities for composers, like ACOF, the Australian Composers Orchestral Forum, which we partner with Symphony Australia. It might be our awards [APRA-Australian Music Centre Classical Music Awards; administration of the Paul Lowin Prizes], our publications [including Sounds Australia] or recordings (we have our own record label, Vox Australis). The positioning statement of the AMC, Connecting the World with Australian Music, is about the Centre being a reference point: a majority of our enquiries are referred on to other people, they’re after the roadmap as it were. We get 5,000 to 6,000 library enquiries a year. For sales enquiries—CDs, educational materials—there was a calculation done in 1998-99 where it was estimated we deal with 25,000 interactions per year. It’s a lot for an organisation whose core activity is really that of a library.

Is the AMC looked on as a peak organisation or a service organisation? Are you expected to be politically active on behalf of artists?

There are as many expectations as there are people. Older composers—the centre was established in 1973—sometimes see us as falling short because we’re not a manager-agent-publisher. It’s a difficult expectation to deal with because the centre is a signpost to materials. If someone’s looking for repertoire to perform, for example we don’t say, “Here’s Peter Sculthorpe, or here’s our Top Ten Composers.” We have 400 composers represented in this collection and the number continues to grow; and there are 20,000 items. A handful of composers are represented by commercial publishers who take on that role and get the gigs. Our task is to identify areas of repertoire or musical activity that would suit a particular need. If performers are coming to us, we take the trouble to find out what their musical tastes are, what kind of context they perform in, what their subscription base is, what kind of audience they perform to. Then we point them in a general direction, empower them to make their own decisions—“Here’s a body of repertoire. Here are 25 composers whose work may be of interest to you.” They can borrow material, try it out, come in here and listen. And we encourage them to provide us with feedback to help refine their needs. It’s not a one-off relationship. We encourage them to be more articulate about what they want because often they don’t know. They know what they don’t want. Five staff look after library and sales, including the 20% of enquiries from international sources.

We’re provided with budget for some international promotions from APRA, the Australasian Performing Rights Association, and more recently some term-specific funding from the Australia Council for an international project. With these we’re able to send out materials to people who’ve approached us or we seek out those who’ve expressed an interest in showcasing Australian talent, but in the same way, finding out their taste, what they want. It’s a process of mapping the landscape.

Who comprises your membership?

Ten to 15% are composers, 10-15% performers, 55% from the education sector and, beyond that, interested individuals, other people involved in the arts, organisations, institutions, libraries who plug into our resources. There are 9 elected board members and another co-opted 6 with specific skills (legal, accounting etc). Of the 9, there are 4 composers—the largest number we’ve had—and there are performers, people from the education sector, administrators from the new music scene. It’s quite well balanced and they offer the organisation great support.

Would the AMC act on behalf of its members over, say, funding issues? I’m thinking about the role of the NAVA [National Association for the Visual Arts] in urging and shaping the Myer Report.

If there was that imperative from the membership, of course. However, music making is such a diverse world, even within particular genres—choirs, jazz, sound artists—it’s difficult to see issues that are big enough to have a common incentive. The arts community as a whole has found it difficult to lobby broadly because of specific interest groups that exist. One part of me yearns for that cohesive sense of purpose, but I don’t begrudge its absence because it provides other kinds of challenges and roles that I find fulfilling. I’d like the AMC to stay open to communicating in any direction at all.

You’ve had a close association with the International Association of Music Information Centres [IAMIC] and the International Society of Contemporary Music [ISCM].

I still attend IAMIC meetings as the representative of Australia, but I was on the Board for the last 3 years as Vice President. We expanded the Board from 4 to 6 members to make it more representative of the 43 centres. It’s a place where knowledge and expertise are shared. There are lots of exchanges and collaborations emerging out of those relationships. But it’s not a forum for promoting your own stuff: it’s a place to share experiences and compare different political, economic and artistic contexts that you can measure yourself against. But it’s also a community that as whole has a lot of potential: the resources, the data held by these centres around the world is vital for new music in a very real way.

ISCM is more about the presentation of music. Its annual World Music Day festivals are truly international showcases of what’s happening in music of all styles.

Does IAMIC’s work result in cultural exchange then, as opposed to marketing?

In actuality we do of course promote Australian work, but there are cultural differences. It’s not how the Swedes might do it. They work with huge budgets, they’re part of the performing rights society in Sweden and they’ll put on a huge gig in New York for Swedish Music, hire the venue, engage the performers and spend millions of US dollars. We just don’t have the resources or infrastructure to do that sort of thing. Each centre varies from the others. It’s more about exchange, about seeing how things are done elsewhere and what might be adapted for your own context. IAMIC is emerging as an international community in the best sense. For example, there’s a big internet project called Music Navigator emerging out of IAMIC with European Union funding. A core group of European MIC members are developing a search engine to search across all the centres’ databases. It’s a long way from happening but once realised it will be an amazing tool. Our ISCM activities are more proactive about promoting the presentation of Australian work.

The online service MusicAustralia has been launched in prototype format [www.musicaustralia.org].

It’s a new service jointly developed by the National Library and ScreenSound Australia and content partners including the Australia Music Centre. You’ll be able to locate contemporary and heritage music—recordings, digitised sheet music and resources from a range of organisations via a single web interface. For example, you can view the digital score [from composers using computer notation software] and listen to the integrated MIDI file of Ann Carr-Boyd’s Moonbeams Kiss the Sea or Raffaello Marcellino’s The Lottery in Babylon. And you can interact with scores.

How digital-ready is the AMC?

We’re digitising our entire collection over the next 10 years, incorporating it into our usual work processes. When we make a sale we scan the material and store it as an electronic file. The copyright has been worked out for storing it here, not for rendering it online yet—that’s further down the track. Our imperative will be to render online so people can peruse the work but not download. For works already in digital formats it’ll just be a matter of the licensing arrangements being resolved.

How does the AMC function economically?

We’re funded by the Music Board of the Australia Council as a Key Organisation on Triennial Funding and that makes up a bit more than 40% of our total income. We receive another 3-4% from APRA and about one and a half percent from the NSW Ministry for the Arts. That’s about 45% subsidy with the rest from sales and membership income. There are huge challenges in trying to survive with that kind of balance and it’s been that way since the early to mid 90s when there was a significant cut in funding from the Australia Council that precipitated the development of a different kind of business model and more reliance on other income. We’ve had the advantage of developing this model while other organisations have been facing it only in recent years. On the other hand it’s a model that requires constant review and revision and makes an organisation particularly vulnerable, as vulnerable as some of the larger presenting organisations with their reliance on box office. You have no idea of how the hell you’re going to go from year to year, to climb that mountain, but somehow it all comes together. Membership is constant but sales are another matter, the mix can vary—for example music retailing is declining and we don’t have the capital to invest in stock.

How important then are the various partnerships the AMC is involved in?

We get fantastic support from APRA [Australian Performing Rights Association]. The APRA-Australian Music Centre Classical Music Awards look like they’ll be on-going. It’s an important relationship giving the centre a brand name, a public face which is otherwise so difficult to achieve as a service organisation working behind the scenes. The international activities we’re involved in, the materials we send out around the world to performers and broadcasters, these encourage the performances which yield the royalties that flow back through APRA to Australian composers, our constituents.

Another partner is the ABC through Classic FM, through The Listening Room and some major projects including the Australian Adlib Project. This is now continuing in collaboration with the National Library and additional funds from the Australia Council for Jon Rose to collect more “vernacular music.” It’s a documentary process really complementary to what we do here and addresses the issues of collecting material, something we can’t do but we can partner. In the same way, Ros Bandt’s sound artist website is also complementary. We also welcome opportunities for input into Australia Council projects of the Music Board and the Audience & Market Development Division. There are many more relationships, all of which are vital for the Centre. It’s our job.

You mentioned IAMIC projects—how do they work in terms of exchange and resources?

One is a repertoire exchange, starting with Ireland who have expressed interest in some meaningful interaction. This is using what’s there, not seeking new funding or building new infrastructure. We’re looking at an Australian ensemble and an Irish ensemble sharing repertoire, ensembles with similar aesthetics, and looking towards co-commissions and exchange commissions and later towards touring opportunities. It’s about starting at a core point of what’s there and what crosses over.

Another interesting project evolving at the moment is a trans-Tasman composer residency exchange. There aren’t a lot of musical bridges across the Tasman or other creative bridges either for that matter. New Zealand’s Music Centre, Sounz, has some funds from Creative New Zealand for a composer to come to Australia to be hosted by a performing organisation here. The composer will come here for a couple of months and a commission and a performance will evolve with a similar arrangement for an Australian composer to go to New Zealand. We’re taking a lot of care over commonality and compatibility. This is another project that plugs into what’s already there. ‘We’ve got 2 sheep, you’ve got 2 sheep, how can we make a flock?’

For more information about the Australian Music Centre, visit www.amcoz.com.au and for a guided tour of the pilot site of MusicAustralia go to www.musicaustralia.org.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 12

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003