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Features October 29, 2020

Politics and pop in Australia: Get the mix wrong, it can detonate

Senior Journalist, B2B
Politics and pop in Australia: Get the mix wrong, it can detonate
Image: via The Music

When prime minister Scott Morrison presented his long-overdue $250 million relief package for the arts back in June, the music industry was represented by a familiar face. Guy Sebastian, the one-time Australian Idol champ turned multi-million-selling chart giant, sat alongside Morrison for a press conference.

The smiles were flashing as Guy Sebastian shared his insights into the artists and the music industry businesses crushed by the COVID-19 crisis, a sector on its knees.

And why not. The music community, led by Live Performance Australia, APRA, ARIA and other advocates, had scored a win to savour.

Three months after being presenting with a survival package for the creative arts, Canberra finally came through with the goods.

It fell well short of the $750 million package originally requested, but it looked like a bruising win. A 13th round knock-down. The kind where everyone can enjoy a moment, from the artists and their managers, all the way up to ScoMo.

Everyone except Guy Sebastian.

Social media immediately trained its angry eye at the Sony Music star. Guy’s name trended on Twitter in Australia, as armchair critics piled on him for showing support to a government initiative.

It got ugly.

He was called a “scab”. And “he sure doesn’t represent most arts workers,” wrote another, “his riches and mainsteam career are an anomaly.”

Sebastian defended his position.

“My attendance today at the press conference was to provide perspective of the deep-seated economic hardship that has crippled the entertainment industry due to the COVID pandemic,” he said in a statement at the time.

Last week, as Sebastian’s new album T.R.U.T.H. was on the road to the top of the ARIA Albums Chart, the 39-year-old entered the fray once again when he asked the question everyone in music wanted an answer to: Where’s the cash?

guy sebastian 2017 press shot white shirt

Guy Sebastian

According to The Guardian, during a Senate hearing on 22nd October, the government admitted that only $49.5 million of the rescue package had been allocated. That money was used to fund the film industry amid its insurance crisis.

So far, the music industry has seen very little of the stuff that folds.

Guy Sebastian tweeted to South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young that he had contacted the PM’s office for more details and will pass it on if or when he receives “the most recent information”.

He also distanced himself from the halls of power. “My only objective in getting involved was to be a mouthpiece for my peers, to provide perspective, and to help get funds into the hands of those who need it,” he wrote. “My heart breaks for this industry and what everyone has had to endure. I will continue to do what I can to help get people back on their feet.”

On this occasion, Guy Sebastian’s name didn’t trend on Twitter.

Politics and pop are a potentially combustible mix

Even the appearance of both at the same table can blow up in the worst possible way, as Guy Sebastian discovered.

John Watson has guided some of Australia’s biggest bands and brightest stars, from Silverchair to Cold Chisel, Missy Higgins, Midnight Oil and more.   

“Most artists are uncomfortable with being seen to support any political party because — fairly or not — it carries a media and public expectation that they’re then automatically endorsing all of that party’s policies,” he said.

Taking a stand can often create “some blowback, particularly on socials,” notes Watson, “but most of the time speaking up on issues is actually one of the most rewarding parts of being a public figure. It simply feels good to stand up for what you believe.”

In the case of the Oils, standing up has been at the red heart of their career.

“In fact,” notes Watson, “it’s probably one of the main reasons they’re still driven to write new songs. Music gives them a way of taking stands on issues that matter deeply to them. But all our other clients have done it too from time to time on all sorts of issues ranging from domestic violence to climate change to refugee action to marriage equality.”

Backing a cause is one thing, being seen to back a political party can be a buzz kill. Particularly with those on the right end of the spectrum.

With Queenslanders going to the polls on Saturday (March 31), Clive Palmer has been drawn into a copyright dispute over his United Australia Party’s use of a cover of the Twisted Sister song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.

Former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider appeared in court via Zoom to explain that Palmer’s use of the song in his campaign was “not good for my heavy metal image”.

Would a campaign ad for the Labor Party’s Annastacia Palaszczuk been better for Twisted Sister’s image? Who knows.

Another example of politics getting on the wrong side of music played out on the other side of the ditch, where New Zealand’s Supreme Court heard the now infamous ‘Eminem Esque’ case, which kicked off back in 2017 when Marshall Mathers’ legal team filed a suit against the country’s conservative National Party over a soundalike campaign.

It’s a different planet in the United States

A seemingly endless line of artists have thrown their support behind Joe Biden and the Democratic Party as the Nov. 3 election reaches its final stage.

On the flip side, an equally long A-list has issued Donald Trump’s team with cease-and-desist orders. Count Adele, Guns N Roses, Pharrell, Rihanna and Phil Collins among those objecting to Trump using their songs at his rallies.

So why put it out there? Why make a noise, take a hit, when keeping shtum would’ve been the safe move.

Artists “make stands because that’s who they are and that’s what they believe – they’re not career moves. Typically they recognise that they have a ‘soapbox’ and when they feel strongly about some issue they feel compelled to use that soapbox to try and make a positive difference.”

Guy Sebastian’s T.R.U.T.H. went on to dominate the ARIA Albums Chart, giving him a third No. 1, despite all the digital brickbats.

In time, other artists might be reluctant to speak up when their voices are needed more than ever. 

“If COVID has taught musicians – and the whole arts industry – anything, it’s that public policy decisions get made by those who turn up,” Watson concludes.

“It’s easy to focus on the undeniable downsides of taking public stands on issues but it’s also worth considering the significant downsides of not taking stands. If people expect government to pay attention to their needs then they have to be willing to step into the ring.”

This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.

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