VENT: “Money for Nothing” – The Great Melba Debate.

Published on April 4th, 2012

Normally, this blog has exactly one use. As a platform for me to talk about music I like, that’s it. I don’t care if people read it, like it, hate it or just generally don’t give a shit. It’s purely me, talking about music from my perspective. And I am happy with that. But this post is different.

Today I remembered what it was like to really feeling strongly about a cause. And it’s something I know at least a few other people out there care about too, so it seems time to address it.  For about the last 6 months I’ve been researching the whole “Melba Scandal”. I’ve gone over the past press reports and annual reports, I’ve made multiple freedom of information requests and spent a good chunk of time scouring to find anything else I could about this. Unfortunately bureaucratic red tape has stifled the process hugely. But I know enough to pass my judgement, and hopefully you, yours.
Melba Recordings is the operative branding of funding recipients The Melba Foundation.  My understanding stands that Melba Foundation is a charitable trust that collects the grant and it is passed through that way.

According the Federal Budget, the Federal Government was in charge of the grant from 2004 – 2009. Issuing $1 million dollars a year for 5 years to go towards the recording of 35 high quality CD’s of Australian artists, 15 of which were done in the first year with the recording of 50 hours work of live material from State Opera South Australia’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen (so yes simply 50 hours of an opera fulfilled nearly half of their quota for the 5 year). In 2009 the Arts Council took over administration and funding of the Melba Foundation grant. It was reduced to $2.3 million according to the government budget (but $2.25 million according to Melba recordings website, where the extra $50 000 went is beyond my knowledge) for the next three years (from 2009-2012).

However the Art’s Council’s statement of expectation from 2008-2009 includes administration and funding of the Melba grant although they are not included in the Federal Budget as doing so then. Make of that what you will.

Melba’s original “grant application” was  only for $500 000, though somehow they ended up with $5 million without any of the usual rig moral that goes in to normal grant applications. In applying for this grant they originally bypassed not only the Arts Council when but also the Minister for the Arts - going straight to the Treasurer (at the time Peter Costello). With a throng of high profile supporters in tow including several Dames, Sirs, Lords, Doctors and Judges as well as the Murdoch’s and The Pratt’s and Baz Luhrmann. A lot of very influential people with deep pockets.

Remember that the grant was administered as of 2004 – seems slightly off then that the Minister of the Arts from 1996-2003 joined the board of the foundation under a year after the funding was first announced.

In digging into this whole ‘mess’, I got the run around with a lot of what I was looking for. Freedom of Information requested were continually denied on the basis that no one seemed to be too sure where the information was, often passing the buck to the Australia Council (who did come through with requested information), despite the fact that they weren’t administrators of the grant until 2009. Apparently no one seems to know who exactly (the closest we got to an answer was “The Federal Government”) was shelling out the money before then (A Million Dollars a year, each year, between 2004-2009), and if they do they certainly weren’t looking to share that information.

Eventually access was gained however – the majority of what we received was just Annual Reports which are freely, publicly available after a quick search online. All the important, and interesting stuff such as original grant applications, re-applications and negotiations was denied – because in the system allows Melba to refuse to have the information released, despite the fact it relates directly to how the government is spending our tax payer dollars.

I know a lot of people outside the industry will look down on this in disgust. 8.3 Million Dollars of government money was spent on recording CD’s, and I can see how a lot of people would view that as a complete waste. That money could have been spent on hospitals, schools, helping the disadvantaged, disaster relief and what have you. And that’s true; I can see the outrage some people would have with this. I can agree with that point of view, as I definitely believe it could have been spent better. Administering such a huge sum of cash to the benefit of one corporate body seems ridiculous to me. But, don’t get me wrong, in no way do I think that money should leave the Music Industry.  In a completely un-corny, un-lame way, as much heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears, is put into our industry and the Arts in general. Sure we’re not saving lives, but imagine life without it..To insert that kind of money into Australian music scene, in an unbiased and unlimited way would dramatically change what is possible for independent artists and labels. Can you imagine fifty $20,000 grants distributed to Independent Artists, who would fulfil the exact same mission statement as Melba Recordings – “To create high quality musical recordings to showcase Australia Artists on the world music stage”. Hmm, like we can’t achieve that…

In the 2009-2010 financial year Melba recordings produced 7 CDs – They received $1 Million dollars in government funding to do so, as well as over $40 000 in patronage. From the sales of the 7 CDs they made around $3500. That’s it. That means they were making $500 on each CD and at say $20 a CD, selling only 25 of each CD. I’ve worked gigs at the likes of the Workers Club and sold more CD’s then that. That equates to $142,000 for the creation of each CD. So, if you do happen to be the proud owner of one of these CD’s, hold onto that disc. As far as the maths is concerned it’s worth $5500.

Now compare those figures with say the likes of Eddie Current Suppression Ring. Their Second Album “Primary Colours” was created for $1500. Within three weeks it sold over 2000 copies and charted at number 6 on the ARIA charts, and was critically acclaim. Another quick bit of maths for you – 2000 copies at $20 each – that’s $40, 000. Seems like a wiser investment to me. But maybe I’m wrong.

Everyone in the industry who is outraged at this – please lets work out how we can get ourselves together to make sure that next time some of this money goes to the next Eddy Current Suppression Ring, the next Big Scary, Magic Dirt, Hilltop Hoods, Oh Mercy, The Jezabels, My Disco, The Drones, Cloud Control or Gotye, Let’s get music out there that deserves to be heard and let’s try and make it a little bit easier for all of us.


Added – 5/04/2012

From the reaction we received to this post it’s important I say the following :

I wrote this because I want people to know as much about it as possible so we can take action towards ensuring that the industry continues to receive much needed government funding for the creation of high quality works.

I’m just afraid that a few people may be looking at my piece and the whole issue wrong. I have no problem with funding going towards classical music. My problem stands with the way in which this funding was received, and spent through one organisation.

I’m not too concerned for what I wrote, it was aimed at being informative about the current situation and for use as a stepping point for whatever happens next.

Just looking at what else is out there and reactions to the situation in general it seems a few people have jumped to the conclusion that this is classical verse contemporary debate or the conclusion that the money should be spent on only on productions that will create return on investment.

That’s not the case, clearly we all just want to money to be spent effectively and efficiently on projects that will help further the Australian Music Scene as a whole, regardless of its genre or money making potential.

So now we need to make sure this money doesn’t fall into oblivion and work ourselves out to do something about it.


  1. Posted by max thrower on April 5th, 2012, 13:40 [Reply]

    Who can I write to about this scam?

  2. Posted by James Nightingale on April 5th, 2012, 15:41 [Reply]

    Good on you for getting stuck into this issue. The lack of accountability for the Melba grants appalls everyone in the music sector who does the right thing putting their ideas forward for assistance (and I suppose you’d characterise my practice as classical music). The fact is that with the powerful friends that this organisation has and the charitable trust that is set up to fund it they should have no need of government assistance at all. And for the CDs they’ve printed they’ve done nothing to leave a cultural imprint on the sector, let alone upon the public consciousness. If they gave my organisation a $1,000,000.00 everyone would soon know about the good work we do and it would be spread around amongst arts workers across the whole nation. They’ve done virtually nothing but connect with their board. And even if classical music deserved special attention, which it doesn’t, why not make Melba compete against Move and Tall Poppies for the grant?
    Very glad you’ve done some consciousness raising on this front and I agree with your final comments whole-heartedly.
    My final comment would be that the music that Melba has recorded often deserves to be heard – but they have not done enough to bring it to a public and that is the reason why it is such a big waste of money. They’ve done very few of the things that a record label is expected to do for their artists – the commercial sector and most other niche labels (Jazzgroove, for example) make them look like the dilletentes that they are. Sales of 20 discs per recording! Utter failure.

  3. Posted by max thrower on April 5th, 2012, 15:54 [Reply]

    i agree with your addition. although classical music does get a lot of funding compared to other areas of music. I’m involved in a jazz show named Django 101 – a live performance of the works of Django Reinhardt, 9 piece band, a narration, a lot of time and effort in development, all performances deeply appreciated by the audience. $5000 would go a long way toward making the whole thing take the step along!

  4. Posted by Joanne on April 5th, 2012, 17:24 [Reply]

    Thanks for going to the time and trouble to research this. Hopefully, this time around something good will come of opening up this information to more people.


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