Music

As one of the simplest Covid-era music funding models, Flash Forward has produced some of the year’s best work. By Shaad D’Souza.

The new funding model bringing life back to music

Melbourne band Dianas received funding for their third album, Little Glimmer.
Credit: Tom Mannion

Arts funding is always a thorny, heavily debated topic – and never more so than in the pandemic era. Since March last year, a handful of temporary funds and grants has been established to relieve the music industry of the stresses of Covid-19. These range from one-off, lump-sum payments to individuals – such as the Sidney Myer Fund’s National Assistance Program for the Arts – to more complex, ongoing programs, such as the Australia Council for the Arts’ Digital Fellowship Program, which helps artists develop a digital practice through mentoring, workshops and a $10,000 stipend.

The most significant sources of Covid-specific support for the music industry have come in the form of the federal government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE), a $200 million fund to support production and events businesses to put on new festivals, concerts, tours and events, and a $40 million fund delivered through the music industry mental health charity Support Act, designed to assist music industry workers experiencing financial hardship, through the form of lump-sum relief payments.

Such significant new pools of funding to the music industry are more than welcome, especially at a time in which public arts funding is becoming rarer and more competitive. But, as ever, there seem to be significant gaps in most high-profile Covid funding opportunities.

RISE’s funding is specifically for production and events businesses to stage concerts and tours with the supposed aim of boosting jobs for gig economy workers. In practice, it directs most funding towards concert promoters and very little trickles down to actual artists. As is often the case with arts funding, it would seem that privilege is given to projects with “viability”, a concept that often means established and already successful applicants receive the most money.

Although a number of deserving applicants have received funding from RISE, the largest amounts seem to have uniformly gone to big-ticket events and promoters: $1.6 million to TEG Live, the concert promotion arm of Ticketek, to host shows by KISS, Keith Urban and Guns N’ Roses; $1 million to Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world, for an anniversary tour of an Australian band; $1.5 million to Secret Sounds, promoter of Splendour in the Grass, to stage the woeful metaverse festival Splendour XR, a horrifying nadir of the livestream format featuring nearly half international acts. RISE’s purview can be frustratingly limited.

Getting money in the pockets of artists doesn’t have to be so complicated and – contrary to what some of the music industry may believe – it doesn’t need to be filtered through a dozen intermediaries. My favourite approach to pandemic arts funding is also one of the simplest models. Flash Forward, a new large-scale project by the City of Melbourne, has commissioned 40 albums by Australian artists this year. Each record received up to $20,000 for its development and creation and is being pressed onto vinyl as well as receiving a digital release. The whole thing is slightly conceptual in its ideation: each of the 40 albums aligns with one of 40 Melbourne laneways that’s being revitalised with new art by 40 selected visual artists, and – in a world not constantly upended by new variants – each musician would have played a free concert in their assigned laneway at the project’s end.

At its simplest, Flash Forward is a project that pays for new art with no strings attached. The records don’t have to respond to any stimulus and there doesn’t appear to be any imperative for commercial viability, as there sometimes is with government arts grants. In other words: Flash Forward is not just an unprecedented pandemic funding project, but an arts funding model that’s far kinder to the actual creation of art than many publicly funded arts projects often are.

The program is curated by City of Melbourne’s Miles Brown – a celebrated experimental musician in his own right – who over the past few years also commissioned Sarah Mary Chadwick’s The Queen Who Stole the Sky and Naretha Williams’ Blak Mass, two challenging, essential records that used the Melbourne Town Hall’s grand organ. He is a perfect steward for a project such as Flash Forward, which respects art that’s non-commercial and arcane as much as it does the populist and crowd-drawing.

The quality of publicly funded art should be irrelevant; in an ideal world, both good and bad records would be given equal consideration. But Flash Forward has yielded some of the year’s best records from established and emerging artists alike. One of the project’s most highly publicised records, HTRK’s Rhinestones, is also a career highlight for the stalwart Melbourne duo, an expansive and surprising exploration of country and folk music from a band previously known as purveyors of experimental electronic music.

Post-punk four-piece Bitumen, who combine hypnotic industrial noise with the spectral glamour of dreampop and shoegaze, released their excellent sophomore record Cleareye Shining, a sharp, compelling distillation of their sound. Live-drum techno band Big Yawn followed up their excellent 2020 debut No! with this year’s Pressure Acts, a goofy and occasionally raucous postscript that’s looser and sprightlier than its predecessor.

Each record is a unique, full-scale undertaking. Composer and world-class guzheng player Mindy Meng Wang collaborated with several renowned composers on her album Phoenix Rising, including Paul Grabowsky, Ma Haiping, and Claire Edwardes, with the hope that it will mark a shift in perception of the guzheng. “I want this album to make everyone enjoy guzheng music, not just Chinese people who are caught up in serious tradition,” she told The Age earlier this year. “You would think about this instrument in a restaurant, not a laneway. People will look back in 10 years and remember this was the moment this changed.”

Many of the records funded as part of Flash Forward carry this level of ambition, and all are undoubtedly worth your time. Although it would be impossible to cover all 40 records, a few are particularly notable: Papaphilia’s acidic, high-intensity dance record Remembrance of Things to Come; POOKIE’s lush hip-hop record FLick; Dua Naga, the debut record by experimental metal band RINUWAT, which combines extreme metal with Javanese lyrics, percussion, and rhythms; and Little Glimmer, the dusky, intimate third album by art-pop trio Dianas.

Grant and project-based funding for the arts isn’t the ideal model for publicly funded arts. As Lauren Carroll Harris – an essential critic of government arts funding and policy – argued in Kill Your Darlings earlier this year, grant programs too often try to position arts funding as a job prospect, which ultimately leads to mass casualisation of artists and overwhelming financial precarity. A better solution, she argues, lies in universal basic income (UBI) or a salaried artist model.

It’s a utopian idea, and one with little support at this point in time. Until such time as a better solution gains broad acceptance, a program such as Flash Forward offers a bright light in a swamp of less-than-ideal funding models: a program that celebrates the creation of art for art’s sake, unreservedly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 18, 2021 as "Flash funding".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.