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Tone-deaf: Concern over ABC's SA music move

Arts & Culture

A decision to downgrade a permanent ABC Classic recording role in Adelaide has been branded “unacceptable and discriminatory”, with local classical music figures concerned about the impact on the state’s vibrant music scene and UNESCO City of Music status.

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A strongly worded ABC staff union letter seen by InDaily said SA is the only state losing the permanent ABC Classic Live Music Recording Producer role, which it claims is vital to ensuring local music communities are represented on national broadcasts.

“It is unacceptable and discriminatory to Adelaide musicians,” the union’s letter said.

Last year, the former local producer resigned and was replaced with casual staff, with the union letter opposing a decision to now scrap the permanent role and maintain the status quo.

It raised concerns about the number of recordings and live concerts broadcast nationally on ABC Classic radio from SA since the permanent role disappeared, citing figures showing the number of concerts broadcast nationally has fallen from 49 in 2019 to 26 in 2022.

“The only partners that have been recorded since the position was casualised in 2023 have been the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (11 concerts) and the Adelaide Festival (three concerts),” the letter said.

It said no recordings had been made from major concert venue Ukaria this year, and in previous years there were recordings of the Adelaide Chamber Singers, Australian Youth Orchestra – National Music Camp and The Australian String Quartet.

Former ABC Classic presenter Simon Healy warned of the local music scene being silenced on the national broadcaster, in contrast to Hobart, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney where the permanent producer role continues.

“Adelaide musicians need a full-time local producer actually based here and representing them at a national network level or they will cease to be heard interstate,” Healy said.

Musicians, classic music groups and state Opposition spokesman for the arts and festivals John Gardner described the decision as “most disappointing” given Adelaide’s status as a UNESCO City of Music.

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) chief executive officer Colin Cornish said the permanent role ensured new talent was identified along with a wide range of artists and groups recorded for public broadcast.

He said while the ASO was not impacted to date, the situation was leading to less exposure for other promising artists.

The annual Australian Youth Orchestra national music camp held at the University of Adelaide annually for example draws nearly 250 young artists to the city for two weeks.

“I know the ABC has not been able to record and broadcast all of those concerts because of resourcing,” Cornish said.

While the ABC has assured that casual staff will continue recording for ABC Classic Radio, Cornish said it was important “that in two years this is not downgraded again”.

“My concern is more about missed opportunity… there is so much opportunity here and we don’t want to miss it, that’s what I want to ensure, is that we seize those opportunities.”

Newly appointed Adelaide Symphony Orchestra CEO Colin Cornish. Photo: James Elsby

The blow to the SA music industry comes after ABC funding cuts have eroded its local offering over the past 10 years, the national broadcaster recently overturning a decision to scrap its Sunday night television news bulletin.

Earlier this year the ABC announced it had a five-year plan to become an integrated digital operation by 2028, meaning it needs to find “savings and efficiencies to deal with rising costs and to reinvest in its strategic priorities”.

Gardner told State Parliament a few weeks ago about writing to the ABC’s national managing director and state director raising the concerns of numerous artists and arts administrators.

Some were “reluctant to speak out publicly”, he said, fearing this could dampen future opportunities with the ABC.

Gardner said it was “most disappointing” to hear about reduced opportunities for local music talent to be broadcast nationally as direct producer engagement with the Adelaide music scene was lost and fewer performances were created specifically for an ABC Classic audience.

“I strongly encouraged you (ABC management) in the first instance to reconsider the decision to remove this position,” he said.

Gardner said this “may only be one position in a national broadcaster, but it is a position that has a significant flow-on impact to the classical music scene, the ecosystem for artists who are seeking to making a living” in the industry.

It was a threat to their ability to receive widespread exposure, and Gardner believed this was particularly important for young performers that were “looking for their first exposure and the first opportunity to feel the inspiration of being broadcast to a national audience”.

An ABC spokesperson said that in June 2023, the ABC announced a range of savings measures and reinvestment initiatives “designed to address rising costs and support our transition to a digital-first media organisation”.

It was at that time that the full-time Adelaide producer role for ABC Classic, vacant since December 2022, was converted to a casual position.

“The removal of the full-time role in no way diminishes our commitment or capacity to record in Adelaide,” the spokesperson said.

“Since the role of Adelaide producer became vacant, we have been engaging someone on a casual basis to produce our commissioned recordings in Adelaide and they have committed to the full schedule of recordings in Adelaide for this calendar year.”

The spokesperson said celebrating and championing Australian artists “is at the heart of what we do” and the ABC would continue commissioning recordings that reflect the diversity of the Australian music-making community.

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