Staying woke, being safe & echo chambers: Five things we learned during BIGSOUND Wednesday panels

It’s not just all showcases at BIGSOUND, some of the most important and crucial days of the year for Australia’s music industry. Issues facing the industry are discussed and picked apart through various panels, keynotes and informal mixers, and it’s the results of these talks each year that have a big impact on how the scene evolves and grows together. The variety of discussion topics is always there, but for Wednesday we chose to stick with the panels mostly concerned with how we are to go about helping the music scene become more inclusive. Across three different panels, all featuring key behind-the-scenes figures, here are five take away messages we hope will move the wider discussion forward.

You can stay “woke” and “punk” while not being a dick about it.

The fairly recent controversy surrounding punk legends The Dickies was a focal point for one of the first Bigsound panels of Wednesday: “Stay Woke, Stay Punk, Stay Relevant”, which was at its core a discussion on how those behind the scenes deal with the common clash between freedom of speech and the need not to offend anyone. Leonard Graves Phillips‘ rather extreme misogynistic tirade in front of an all-ages audience during the second week of Warped Tour in Denver was used as an example of the reckless and insensitive stuff that can still come from artists in an industry that’s increasingly attempting to contribute to an inclusive and safer environment for everyone.

The consensus was that labels, managers and publicists need to realise that these types of actions reflect on them as well, but a case-by-case approach needs to be taken. Being punitive towards anything and everything that falls out of a certain line won’t work.

Extreme cases like a band who had a pro-Hitler song buried deep in their discography were brought up, with all panelists agreeing that the decision to drop them straight away was the right one. And the solution for bands who may have cringe-worthy, ill-advised or extremely insensitive songs buried in their past? Realise, acknowledge and erase. Bill Stevenson from seminal punk outfit Descendants was once quoted as saying that the band identifies “those songs” and simply drops them from live playlists. As panelist Hayley Connelly quipped, “it’s very easy not to be a dick”.

When it comes to getting your music out: adapt or die

“Sell out” is a pejorative used in the traditionally do-it-yourself world of punk and heavy rock and it has been for a very long time. Even something small like hiring a publicist to promote your band could diminish your credibility in the eyes of more zealous fans who take a hard-line, ‘black and white’ stance to the ongoing ‘indie vs major’ debate. As “Stay Woke, Stay Punk, Stay Relevant” concluded in the panel’s second half: fuck that.

The media landscape is changing dramatically and its time to adapt or die when it comes to getting your work out there, getting your message out there, your name out there, and most of all making a living doing what you love. Concerns of “selling out” seem minuscule when sometimes bands do need help getting out there in an overcrowded scene.

Media opportunities are diminishing; more and more artists, bands and those behind-the-scenes are forced to get creative and seek alternative avenues for promotion. Working with bigger brands has become a salient issue in the past few years, and the general thinking is that “if it fits, do it”. Credibility is important, and artists/bands should be conscious of who they choose to work with, which is why in these cases the most important thing is being crystal clear about brand partnerships and what is expected and what kind of support will be given in return. Sometimes brands are too demanding, but on the other hand, sometimes they are open to input and having their brand shaped by the artist/brand. Money is scarce, its harder to get recognised, and we all need to work together.

Every space should be a safe space

How can we all contribute to safer spaces, especially when it comes to a live music environment? It’s clear that for many behind big events, especially ones which have been marred by a recent spat of on-site sexual assaults, this is a frustrating and urgent issue. You wouldn’t walk into a bank and try and sexually intimidate another person, but for some reason a lot of that behaviour is tolerated at festivals and concerts. The main conclusion here, from the “Every Space Should Be a Safe Space” panel, was that we need more peer-to-peer discussions; services like hotlines are great and so needed, but they are also reactionary, we also need preventative measures to help change the conversation and the culture to come up with real solutions and real strategies.

And it seems to best way we can all contribute to a more inclusive environment, and the least we can do, is listen and speak up. “You can’t be what you can’t see” and it’s completely okay to admit you don’t understand something; it’s about believing people’s experiences and accepting them. On the other hand, strictly punitive measures taken against offenders can be counterproductive; boycotts can be counterproductive, and they can often isolate and enhance issues. Hence, peer-to-peer is the way to go, and education is the key.

There’s no numerical value to equality

Further to the above, quotas (particularly gender quotes as festival line ups) have become a constant discussion in the Australian music scene with media “calling out” those with a substantial skew towards male acts. There’s fiery debate coming from both sides, and there has been for awhile, but quotas are not and should not be treated as the end-game in the strive for a more equal, representative and diverse society. “Put the quotas in and the culture will change along with it” seemed to be a big conclusion of “Gender in Music: Quotas & Bridging The Confidence Gap”; change has to begin with internal systems and behind the scenes, which is why it’s important to see quotas as part of a bigger project. It’s all a part of changing the cultural change, and getting to the point where perhaps the people speaking up aren’t necessarily the ones who are directly effected by discrimination.

Just because something doesn’t oppress you, doesn’t mean you can’t speak out about it.

Preaching to the converted is pointless

Echo chambers can be counter-intuitive. If the music community are going to move forward with making society more inclusive then the real challenge is having hard, tricky conversation with people and making them understand. People rebel against being preached to, which brings us back to the aforementioned importance of peer-to-peer talk, the kind that acknowledges both sides of a debate and takes rational and real leaps towards education.

Photo by Bobby Rein.