Taxpayer money should be used to improve access to justice in the Australian music industry [op ed]

photo by Nick Fewings to Unsplash

With the continued silence of Sony’s New York headquarters and a local music industry not knowing how to fix decades of wrongdoing, the former agent and music director has become a political advisor. Chris Jervis took the unusual step of suggesting that taxpayer funds could be used to clean up the industry and hold it accountable. But is government intervention and involvement really the answer? Here he explains his thinking.

The response to allegations of unreasonable behavior by Sony Music management – particularly its former CEO Denis Handlin – has been swift since it was first published in the media.

Leading industry groups, including APRA AMCOS and ARIA, have published responses promising various reviews and changes. All are well-intentioned, but sadly none will do anything to solve a structural problem at the heart of the Australian music industry: that there is a fundamental lack of any meaningful method by which an employee can assert their industrial rights. or seek redress when he suffers prejudice.

Much of Australia’s music industry is unlike Sony Music, a company with top executives who attract media interest; independent shareholders who hold management accountable for its fiduciary duties; or foreign parent companies who can intervene in the event of a problem.

PwC Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook Report shows that while the size of Australia’s music industry is worth over $ 1.8 billion, Music Australia estimates that up to 99% of that figure is made up of Australian music and performing arts companies that make a turnover of less than $ 2 million (and some 88% are micro-enterprises). companies, turning less than $ 200,000 per year).

In general, it is common for SMEs to suffer from relatively poor management and governance practices; it is a diabolical situation, in which professional and personal misconduct can flourish.

It often takes a major setback or talk involving a large multinational corporation, a preeminent Australian business figure, and association with market-leading artists to shine a light on the industry as a whole, especially such a diverse and challenging industry. to unify the Australian music industry.

This discussion started because the media was ready to listen, ultimately because the case involved such a prestigious and recognizable public brand, as well as a larger than life music player who is a leader in the field. for five decades.

To be clear, it is important and appropriate to take meaningful action in response to these serious issues at Sony. In the lead, Sony Music clearly has a moral, ethical and legal duty to put its house in order and make amends with the people to whom they owed a duty of care but who have failed so badly.

But it would be remiss to say that this is an isolated incident within a company; This is just a number of a series of unreported and underreported issues playing out in the industry, which I believe would greatly benefit from government-led initiatives that will foster better business practices in the industry. Australian musical.

Over the past 18 months, we have seen COVID-19 further ravage the industry, with much of the Australian music industry now having received some type of state or federal support related to the pandemic. To be fair, this support is paltry compared to other industries, and the industry continues to call on all governments to expand their financial support.

That said, given that much of the industry now relies on taxpayer-funded grants, there is a strong public interest case to be made that taxpayer funding could – whether through a government audit of the industry and / or the creation of a body that oversees all industry complaints – to be used to clean up the industry once and for all.

The social contract that underlies most public spending clearly confers duties on those who benefit from it; the least that the public can expect in return for its money is that it be used for lawful and productive purposes.

It is also generally recognized that institutional investment in Australian companies has a positive influence on corporate governance. Why should taxpayer funds not seek to influence in the same way?

The question then becomes what levers are available to achieve the desired effect. With the outlook for the pandemic still unclear, any future large-scale industry support could be conditioned on companies adhering to best practice guidelines for their governance structures.

Larger financial subsidies might require more stringent guidelines, in order to create “model players” in the industry in the same way that governments encourage good conduct in courts by requiring its agencies to adhere to laws. model litigation provisions.

The industry union, the Media, Entertainment and the Arts Alliance, is expected to resolve an embarrassing dispute that is affecting much of the industry, where parts of the industry (employee agents, promoters and managers) do not. not know which union is best for them, as their job requires that many industry players employ people (performers and crew members) who could also be members of the MEAA.

Those who balk at the idea of ​​this type of oversight might wonder if the industry could more broadly establish an independent ombudsman-type body capable of receiving confidential complaints about misconduct in the industry and bringing legal action. justice if there is a viable cause of action. Where this would be different from the Fair Labor Ombudsman is that he might be able to strategically pursue certain issues that relate specifically to the music industry.

Thanks to Sony Music, we are faced with a unique opportunity to truly assess how to improve an industry where most musicians are forced to simultaneously play the often conflicting roles of freelancers, independent contractors, employees, employers and others. of everything else. just to make ends meet.

What is at issue is a structural problem that undermines the law by leaving its protections beyond the reach of the people it is there to serve. Whether it is theft of wages and rights, harassment and discrimination or serious assaults – these things have been illegal for a very long time – having no clear direction only serves to discourage reporting and hamper the necessary reforms.

Whether the response is government or industry led, we need to address this issue of dealing with malpractice in companies that do not have access to a dedicated body with explicit and fair processes.

Australia’s music industry has suffered enough: it’s time to turn the tide.

Chris Jervis is a professional policy adviser, and former music officer and manager

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