David Sefton on Unsound’s cancellation and why the arts should be about more than hotel beds booked

As experimental music festival Unsound calls time on its Adelaide offshoot, co-artistic director David Sefton warns that South Australia risks compromising its international reputation for the arts.

Last week Unsound Adelaide’s Poland-based parent festival confirmed the news that it would not return for a seventh outing in 2019. The festival made its debut in 2013 as part of the Adelaide Festival during David Sefton’s run as Artistic Director, continuing as a standalone event in 2017 with Sefton as executive director and co-artistic director following the conclusion of his Adelaide Festival tenure. Unsound Adelaide returned its original venue the Queens Theatre in December 2018 with artists including Ben Frost. Matmos, Yves Tumour and Lucas Abela.

“It’s a sorry tale,” Sefton tells The Adelaide Review. “Basically, when it went standalone, we got a two year [government] grant fronted by a combination of Tourism and Music [Development Office], which was about encouraging music initiatives in the city. We knew that was only two years, which meant for the last year I’ve been knocking on doors.

“A festival like Unsound is not a standalone commercially viable thing, it requires a small subsidy – when I say ‘small’ I mean $150,000. That’s always been the case, there’s never been any doubt about that: it sells out, we sell every available ticket, 40 per cent of the audience comes from interstate and it’s hugely popular, but it still requires a small subsidy.”

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly in an environment of contracting state government arts funding, Sefton was unsuccessful in finding an alternate source for that shortfall – which he places in the ballpark of 15 per cent of Unsound Adelaide’s total operating budget. “There is just no money out there, and we’ve been faced with a wall of refusals and rejection – which of course is very galling for something that is so well-regarded and is such a feather in the cap for our ‘City of Music’, that we can’t find this tiny bit of money to keep it here. They stuck with us because we did four within the Adelaide Festival and had a really good run.”

Always one of the more avant-garde and risk-taking entries in Adelaide’s festival calendar (the 2018 festival literally saw blood drawn onstage), Sefton argues that while an event like Unsound might be a loss leader economically, the prestige and edge it brought to the city’s cultural reputation should not be discounted.

“When you lose an innovative, internationally acknowledged, ground-breaking new music festival that had this global brand awareness, frankly for the cost of probably a quarter of one TV ad, you lose that profiling of Adelaide being the place that takes that risk, and gets kudos for taking that risk.

“The venues it went into completely packed out, but with this kind of music you’re never going to sell 30,000 tickets, that’s not what it’s set up to do. It’s set up to be experimental and innovative and sell a couple of thousand tickets to people who are devoted followers. Obviously a lot of these names go on to play gigantic stages and festivals – the whole point of this is to introduce people to new names and exciting developments and innovations in the music industry.

“Everyone goes on about Dark Mofo – a lot of the names that appear in Unsound then go on to subsequently appear in Hobart.”

Unsound Adelaide at the Thebarton Theatre in 2016 (Photo: John Dexter)

But, Sefton says, as Arts South Australia’s functions have been absorbed into other departments and portfolios often with a more economically-oriented outlook such as Innovation and Skills or Tourism, the arguments for such nuanced and intangible benefits become harder to prosecute.

“I don’t necessarily follow the idea that by dispersing it into all these other departments you actually help the arts by taking this quote unquote ‘whole government’ approach,” he says. “We wouldn’t do it with the health service or roads and traffic. I don’t understand why you would treat the arts in a different way.

“In tourism terms it’s just not enough bed nights for them to be interested; my contention is always that you have to look at arts in a different way than bed nights – we’re not the Tour Down Under. When you’re looking at innovation and being able to say, ‘We are at the forefront, this is the cutting edge, that should have a value’.”

The news follows the state government’s announcement in May of a NSW-style user-pays system for policing at festivals and events, a development that provoked concern from local music festival promoters about the financial implications for the finely balanced sector. While local fans of Unsound may still be able to scratch their itch for the experimental when Sefton reveals his second program as RCC Fringe artistic director, he remains concerned for the effect that “spreadsheet politics” driven by short-term GST revenue shortfalls rather than policy will have on South Australia’s arts landscape.

“This state is justly and rightly known for its fantastic, healthy arts scene. But what you really fear is that the more you chip away at that by making cuts, disbanding the only body in government that’s directly there to support the arts, is that one thing is being said and a completely different thing be done.”

Lucas Abela performs at Unsound Adelaide 2018 using a sheet of amplified glass pressed to his face (Photo: Rob Sferco)

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