Interview: Dr Ianto Ware
Last week, Arts Minister Simon Crean announced that Dr Ianto Ware would be the first National Live Music Coordinator of Sounds Australia. The appointment is part of a commitment made in the 2012 Federal Budget to boost funding to the Sounds Australia organisation, obtained (at least in part) off the back of strong lobbying during last year's SLAM Campaign.
Primarily, the role involves connecting the gaps that exist between legislation from state to state, as well as a focus on the ground level, setting up a national regulatory framework that first and foremost benefits the artists themselves. Of course, this is no easy task, especially considering the tangled web of different laws, including the impacts of noise complaints, liquor licensing and environmental concerns.
Over the weekend we sat down inside an email with the good doctor to find out more about the new role, his plans for the immediate future and the multitude of challenges he faces.
First and foremost, I don't envy the daunting task ahead of you, especially in relation to the primary aim of aligning several different state laws. What are the first steps?
The biggest problem at the moment is that analysis of the problems facing live music has tended to occur at a very local level, usually driven by activists and advocates working on a volunteer or low pay basis, who don't have the time or resources to do much more than point out the problem. That tends to limit the scope of the conversation and the capacity to identify solutions.
To put that in perspective, in Adelaide, none of us knew about the changes made to the NSW planning and licensing laws for the pretty simple reason that we didn't have the time or resources to spend reading planning acts state by state, or reviewing the appendices to the Building Code, or flying off to Sydney to talk to other activists. With this job, I think the first part is just talking to a lot of people in a lot of different places, trying to get a bit more cross pollination of ideas, and trying to get a more cohesive national conversation about what we need to see live music thrive in Australia again.
In your initial comments regarding the appointment you mentioned the "creep of legislation" as one of the most damaging factors having faced venues in recent times. Can you be more specific about what these changes have been?
There's a few major fields of policy that have tightened, including the Building Code of Australia, environmental protection standards around noise pollution, liquor licensing law and planning policies. Second to that, regulatory agencies — particularly local governments — have grown increasingly risk averse since the turn of the century.
The details on how they've changed are complicated. The key example is that, in 1996, building standards shifted from something controlled primarily at a state level to a federal standard — the Building Code of Australia. One of the things that happened with that is that a class of building was set up called a Place of Public Assembly, or Class 9B. Traditionally, that class was designed to provide guidelines for the construction of things like stadiums, cinemas and theatres, where you'd have thousands of people sitting in tiered seating, often in total darkness. That standard was then applied, without any recognition of differences in scale, to small venues. Suddenly, a local bar wanting to host a live band could find it needed to meet the same building criteria as the Opera House. By contrast, it could have the same amount of people in the venue drinking, staring at screens or playing pokies and comply with a much less onerous Class 6 Retail building standard. But as soon as a guy with a guitar stepped on stage, it went into the high risk Class 9B category.
The trigger for the shift in compliance wasn't the amount of people, the size of the building or whether they were drinking or not; it was that they were being entertained. There was, and is, a belief that when people engage in active entertainment — playing in bands, going to gallery openings, attending performances, they produce a higher level of risk and the spaces in which they're 'entertained' need to be virtually bomb proof. Personally, I think that needs a radical re-think.
In Sydney, liquor licensing has been relaxed slightly over the past five years and allowed the emergence of Melbourne-like "small bars". This was sold as more of a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses situation than any genuine attempt to widen the cultural scope of the city and unfortunately, this has generally not effected the music industry, as most of these venues don't host live music. Are the planned liquor license reforms an extension of this?
NSW is a bit of a leader in this field. It wasn't just the liquor licenses that changed, it was the planning act and their adoption of the federal building code. The activist and guitarist John Wardle campaigned for those changes over the course of about five years. Basically, NSW took the section of the federal Building Code that said a bar or pub needed to meet the same standards as the Opera House to host bands, and scrapped it. It then filtered those changes back into its liquor licensing and planning acts. It's the only state in the country to have done that — and the changes are absolutely revolutionary.
That said, whilst I think Sydney's music scene is picking up, it's still not what it once was. There's a few reasons for that. To begin with, there's still stuff related to Environmental Protection, in which live music constitutes noise pollution, and there's no protection for existing venues from residents complaining about their noise levels. So, whilst the building regulations and licensing law are far, far better, a venue can still be shut down by someone moving in across the road and complaining about the noise. Even if the noise levels are within reasonable levels, the penchant is usually for the local council to act on behalf of the resident and drag the venue into court. The process can be so time consuming and expensive that, even if the venue is ultimately found to be within its legal rights, it can go broke just defending itself. This is, as I understand it, the problem that faced the Annandale. They hadn't done anything wrong, but one or two noise complaints cost them thousands of dollars in legal fees.
That explains why there's lots of new bars but not as many music venues; it's easier to open a bar, but it's still difficult to host entertainment there.
Secondly, there's an issue more specific to bands, musicians, producers, sound engineers and the sector at a 'Human Resources' level. Normally, if an industry has been exposed to some sort of collapse or catastrophe there'll be investment in research and development, support for innovation and investment in helping that industry to adapt and begin growing again. As a case in point, if you look at the automotive industry, it gets government funding to keep functioning in recognition of its key role as an employer and as a driver of the manufacturing and tech sectors.
That hasn't happened in the live music industry; the sector has suffered and declined massively over the past twenty years, but it hasn't received adequate support to deal either with the decline in venues or the increased competition for the entertainment dollar, brought about by online content, pre-recorded entertainment and shifting audiences. In terms of giving people the chance to experiment with new ways of attracting audiences, and getting paid, it's comparatively poorly supported.
There's just been an interesting review of funding done by ArtsSA which has opened up small grants with relatively flexible application guidelines, so it's possible for bands to apply for money to tour or record, but it's also possible to apply for funding to run a small festival, or undertake training, or for managers to go off to major festivals or conferences overseas. I'm keen to see how that program pans out, and how successfully it can help those actually working within the sector find pathways forward that don't require them to sell their houses or put themselves in debt. If it works in Adelaide, which is a pretty tough environment — albeit with some very skilled people — then I'd love to see similar programs adopted nationally. I think that'd help fill out the other part of the puzzle. Particularly in Sydney, where the audience seems like it's been fragmented and diluted somewhat, small grants might help managers, bookers, promoters and musicians themselves figure out how to re-develop audiences and get them watching more live music.
The other key issues mentioned in the initial statement are noise restrictions and environmental orders, obviously both of those seem manageable and measurable. To an extent. Specifically in regards to noise restrictions, how do you view the resolution of these issues occurring? ie. to avoid the back-and-forth media debate currently happening with "that guy from Bourke Street" in Melbourne.
There are precedents that could be adopted nationally. Most obvious is the recognition of Agent of Change — or if you move into a suburb or city with live music venues, you do so knowing you've got a limited capacity to object to existing tenants. That's pretty common sense, as most people pointed out with the guy who moved on to Bourke Street. You wouldn't move next to an airport, complain about the noise and have it shut down, and the same logic applies if you move into a city.
Secondly, there's zoning for mixed use and entertainment precincts, which is basically a recognition that there's a widespread community demand for an area to host entertainment and if you live there you can't expect it to respond to the same guidelines as a pure residential area. I think Fortitude Valley has adopted that approach with some level of success.
Those sort of zoning regulations do two things: firstly, they can be reflected in laws around residential property so as to force property agents to ensure residents know they're moving near live music venues. Secondly, they can oblige developers to properly insulate new apartments when building in those areas. Some of the problems I've seen in both Melbourne and Adelaide relate to residential developments that weren't properly insulated.
As for how cases are handled, aside from the technicalities of setting noise limits, there was a review done in 2001 in South Australia which led to the adoption of Agent of Change legislation and outlined a conciliation process for dealing with residents and venues. That hasn't always worked that well because, as I understand it, the complaints shifted into licensing issues; the residents couldn't complain about sound levels, so they complained about liquor licensing conditions until the required planning consents required to sell alcohol, which are given by local councils, were cut back so severely the venue could no longer operate. That said, I still think the conciliation process could work, but venues would need someone at the local government level either supporting their case or, failing that, acting as a neutral authority rather than actively representing the resident. Relatively minor things, like councils measuring the noise levels rather than expecting venues to do so every time a complaint occurs, could save venues massive amounts of money and prevent spurious residential complaints from dragging endlessly until the venue simply runs out of money.
I see the biggest challenge of the role as dealing with the murkiness around the various financial challenges facing venues. Is it possible to calculate how much of these financial pressures are related to the unreasonable parameters and how much are either; a) the responsibility of the business (ie. budgeting for required maintenance, assuring a mix of entertainment options to keep general attendance up etc) or; b) caused by external factors beyond the control of both the business and government (ie. the natural increase of commercial property values)? I guess, my general question in relation to this is — how much of this aspect is within the control of governing bodies?
Governing bodies could do a lot. A venue should expect to pay costs associated with getting a liquor licensing, checking and managing their noise levels and so forth. They shouldn't expect to lose thousands of dollars because someone in the liquor licensing agency loses their license application, a council staffer fails to turn up at a court hearing and forces a rescheduling, or because two agencies don't exchange information properly, issue the wrong consents and require the venue to go through the entire regulatory approvals process twice. Those are all real world examples and they cost the venues involved thousands, in some case tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and more in lost income. At the moment there is no transparent system in place for a live music venue and the amount allocated for regulatory costs can double and triple very, very easily. That's ultimately money that would otherwise go into booking, promoting and running the venue and ensuring bands have stages, audiences and income.
I'd like to see a regulation impact statement done on policies affecting venues, and I'd like to see costings done across numerous case studies. From what I've seen so far, I'd say it's reasonable to suggest a small venue might expect regulatory expenses to range from anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. All it takes for that to happen is a couple of missed connections within the regulatory system.
In addition to that last point, do you feel government assistance — either in the form of grants or general handouts — is something that would be explored under the program?
It was talked about in Western Australia under the former government, who looked at potential matching grants for sound proofing, whereby if the venue was willing to spend, say, $50,000 the government might match their venue to a certain amount per dollar. That's comparable to funding programs run to attract small bars back into the City of Sydney. I'd like to see such funding programs reconsidered, but it comes down very much to the attitude of local and state governments.
Dr Ianto Ware discusses "Grassroots Creativity" at a TEDx Talk.
Grassroot DIY venues (warehouse spaces etc) have flourished in Sydney over the past few years, partly as a reaction to more traditional venues either closing down or re-aligning their business strategies towards more profitable avenues. How do these kind of places fit into the plan?
Given I used to run a DIY venue in Adelaide, I'm inclined to think it's pretty essential. The warehouse sector is all too easily written off as silly kids getting drunk in dodgy speakeasies. That's a nonsensically simplistic approach. Justin O'Connor, who is a professor at Monash Uni, wrote a report for the Australia Council a while back saying that the creative scene is akin to Australia's R&D and I think that's true for both our sense of community and our creative and knowledge industries. If I look at my experience running Format, it was where a whole group of us got our first real experience managing major projects, handling budgets, dealing with government agencies, directing staff and working as a unit. Previously we might have got that through student unions or something, but those opportunities are gone. Warehouse and DIY spaces are going to be increasingly vital to the cultural life of the country as a whole and need to be taken seriously.
The comparison I'd make is that those spaces are playing the same role the RSL, Workers Clubs and Country Women's Associations used to play back in the Thirties and Forties. The CWA in particular used to meet in dodgy little sheds in rural towns — places that would never get local government planning approval today. But those spaces were, and are, central to retaining a sense of community. If we look at their legacy, the country would be worse off without them. I think DIY spaces have the same capacity to produce that legacy, and it'll be to our detriment nationally if they're forced out of existence due to regulation. That's not just about live music. It's about how much we value active cultural participation and community agency, and how much we're willing to support the spaces in which that happens.
Your appointment has been mentioned as part of a "$3 million investment" from the government. Do you have any insight into where the rest of that money will be spent?
Not yet, no. My wage is for three days a week, and then there's a bit more for expert policy advice beyond my capacity. In general, I think we'll have to wait for the Cultural Policy before we see how things are panning out at a larger level.
One of the key areas that's been discussed in relation to this is assisting bands get overseas to larger audiences. Obviously, Sounds Australia have done a lot to help with this. Will this remain as an application process? My only concern with that is that music appreciation is generally fairly subjective, thus there's a chance only particular genres will benefit from the backing.
Sounds Australia was set up to help Australian bands as they headed overseas and promote Australian music internationally. My role within that organisation is very specific to local and live music, and changes to the international activity are a bit outside of my scope. As far as my job is concerned, I'm not too worried about the quality of the individual band, I'm concerned that they get a place to play and a chance to find out whether anyone likes them or not. Most of the bands I've been in have had a pretty dubious quality standard, but it was the accumulated mass of experience was invaluable. My sense of community, and my sense of agency, were very positively shaped by playing in absolutely terrible bands when I was in my late teens. It taught me it was okay to experiment and make a fool of yourself, and connected me with a community that valued doing things more than only doing things when you knew you could do them well.
It bothers me that kids in their teens might miss out on a similar experience today because there's not enough venues, not enough support and not enough willingness to accept that a participatory, active culture means giving people a chance to express themselves even when their expression sounds like a bunch of teenagers with limited control over their instruments.