When Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery City Lines bus and staged the protest that would immortalise her, she did so with the courage and defiance of one whose convictions are authentic. The prejudicial segregation of a racial group from another, or the act of apartheid, should be an abhorrent concept to any civilised person, particularly the educated Australian. How distressing, then—how regressive, how divisive, and how racist—that, for an untold period, various Australian arts organisations and institutions have been racially segregating their patrons at the box office.
On September 12, it emerged in The Australian that the Sydney Opera House, the Australian Ballet, the National Gallery of Australia, the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the Sydney Fringe Festival were all administering race-based ticketing schemes that afford sizeable discounts to Aboriginal Australian patrons. I could not believe this news when I first encountered it; in all my seasons of concert going, never had I heard of such a thing, and never had any friend or peer reported such to me. The Australian article, titled “Cultural elites offer discounts to woo First Nations crowds” and co-authored by Geoff Chambers and Rhiannon Down, claims that this ticketing scheme, branded in some cases as Mob Tix and in others as Mob Tickets, commenced in association with the Voice to Parliament referendum. However, a colleague of mine who plays in one of the state symphony orchestras is, after his own investigations, under the impression that Mob Tix began some time ago, long before the Uluru Statement from the Heart had hijacked the national debate. Certainly, there is no information online that speaks to the scheme’s provenance.
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Mob Tix are not available for every performance by every one of the aforementioned arts groups and, in the case of companies like the Australian Ballet, the discount opportunity itself is not easily found online. At the time of writing (it is early October; the Voice to Parliament referendum is in its final week, and I remain perpetually nervous that the horse will roll through Troy’s gates), there are a handful of performances that flaunt Mob Tix. Eight are hosted by the Sydney Opera House; of these, only one is of particular concern to me. Founded in 1959, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) is one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras. If readers can recall my previous piece for Quadrant, “Opera’s Ever-Troublous Times”, then they may be pleasantly surprised to learn, if they do not already know, that ASMF recorded the soundtrack to the film Amadeus, under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. The orchestra’s present music director is the American violinist Joshua Bell, whose fame skyrocketed after he, in a social experiment conducted alongside the Washington Post, took to Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro to busk anonymously. With many Australians still on a high following the London Symphony Orchestra’s antipodean excursion in late April—an excursion which, for a combination of circumstances, regrettably dashed my expectations—there was an eruption of great excitement among art music lovers when Bell and ASMF announced their Australian tour in May. Should a non-Aboriginal Australian have wished to see the orchestra at the Sydney Opera House on October 8, premium seating would have cost $199. For an Aboriginal Australian taking advantage of Mob Tix, ticket prices reduced to just $25. The non-Aboriginal Australian pays 696 per cent more for his ticket.
In November, the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is scheduled to perform a concert of film music alongside Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Mutter is one of Western music’s greatest ambassadors, and has been for decades. In her youth, she was the beneficiary of support from Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, and by the 1980s had broadened her repertoire to include contemporary works. She enjoyed a friendship with Krzysztof Penderecki, premiering his Violin Concerto No. 2 Metamorphosen in 1995, and in recent years has dedicated much of her time to performing and recording the music of John Williams, particularly the Hollywood star’s lesser-known concert music. Her program with the SSO includes Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Of the maestro in question, a friend in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra reported to me that, following a comment she made on the podium earlier this year, Simone Young is not at all a monarchist. But, in my opinion, she is Australia’s greatest living conductor, and her tenure with the SSO—arguably, Australia’s greatest orchestra at present—is fitting. To witness these three giants of art music in November, a non-Aboriginal Australian must pay $145. Under Mob Tix, an Aboriginal Australian is only charged $15 for the same reserve seating. The non-Aboriginal Australian pays 867 per cent more for his ticket.
Incredibly, subject to availability and buried within its terms and conditions, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) offers its Mob Tix not just to Aboriginal Australians but to “Māori, Pasifika and First Nations people from other countries” as well. In 2021, I was fortunate to work with the MSO for the premiere of my Capital Hill, and I recall acutely a pervasive tension in its ranks. The orchestra’s administration, so financially embattled during the pandemic, stood down its musicians in 2020 to avoid bankruptcy. Theoretically, the same orchestra now offers discount tickets for holidaying patrons of Iroquois, Itza or Inuit descent.
When Chambers and Down published their article in the Australian, the MSO moved quickly to issue a reactionary statement by September 15. “The MSO stands by its decision to make the music we create inclusive of all members of the communities we serve,” it began. It then included a testimonial from Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, the orchestra’s “First Nations Creative Chair”. One day, Quadrant Music may very well scrutinise Professor Cheetham Fraillon’s oeuvre; for now, the recent recipient of the Don Banks Music Award wrote that the MSO is “constantly working towards addressing the undisputed historic and ongoing injustice First Nations Australians have suffered”. She described Chambers and Down’s argument in the Australian as “confusing … accusing the MSO and other organisations of being inclusive and exclusive at the same time”. Ultimately, Cheetham Fraillon ruled the story a “fear campaign … ahead of the October 14 referendum”. Perhaps predictably, the MSO declared its support for the Voice to Parliament on September 1.
Cheetham Fraillon’s rebuttal seems not to grasp the issue at hand, and in some regards one can actually respect the SSO for not scrambling to defend Mob Tix in the media. Fundamentally, non-Aboriginal Australians, particularly white Australians, might as well think of themselves as second-class patrons of the arts. They are either being taxed unduly, for the actual price of, for example, a Sydney Symphony Orchestra ticket is only $15, or they are paying extra on their own ticket to fund a race-based discount for their Aboriginal countrymen. The taxpayer, who currently faces steep cost-of-living pressures as a result of an inept Commonwealth policy agenda, offers up tens of billions of dollars in welfare annually for Aboriginal Australians. Non-Aboriginal Australians have every right if they so wish to attend the opera, ballet or orchestra via a fair ticket pricing scheme, not as the benefactor subsidising the luxuries of others. Brazenly, the Australian Ballet admits as much: “By not selecting Mob Tix if you are not eligible you are supporting the Australian Ballet to continue offering accessible options to our community.”
Then, there is the outrageous fact that, across all the organisations and institutions that offer Mob Tix, none require patrons who select the discount to provide proof at checkout that they are, in fact, Aboriginal. The whole premise of this race-based ticketing scheme can, it seems, be effortlessly defrauded.
Not least of all, Mob Tix reinforces the stereotype that, collectively, Aboriginal Australians are forever destined to suffer from economic disadvantage. It is a tokenistic and infantilising gesture on the part of arts executives and bureaucrats who draw mettle from their own sense of moral superiority. It is not exactly clear to me that those Aboriginal Australians who live within an accessible distance of Bennelong Point or Hamer Hall are, in fact, economically disadvantaged. How might the SSO or MSO react to well-off Australians of Aboriginal ancestry, themselves comfortably able to afford full-price tickets, taking advantage of Mob Tix, thus denying a less-well-off Australian Aboriginal the opportunity to claim the discount? If identification at checkout is not screened, there is little that can be done, and little to suggest that institutions like those in question, basking in their self-appointed virtuousness, actually give a damn. The reality is that a scheme as contemptible as Mob Tix is just as corruptible.
What we might pause upon for an incidental reflection is the fact—the ridiculously obvious truth, one now feels like screaming—that Western art is not historically the cultural property of Aborigines but rather those Australians of Western descent. Before 1788, Aborigines did not write symphonies, play violins or build concert halls. Since colonisation, the West has shared its cultural traditions with those proudly native to this continent, which they have embraced and benefited from. After all, art music, in the Western sense of the term and in that term’s many forms, is so glorious a feat of humanity that it should be shared to all the peoples of this earth. In this regard, I agree with the MSO’s mission of inclusivity, and applaud it. But that mission as the MSO understands it seems to be one caked in ideology; it is a mission that cannot be achieved by taxing some patrons to favour others. The rank hypocrisy lies in the reality that no arts organisation would ever tolerate or even conceive of a situation that saw Aboriginal Australians paying expensive ticket prices just so that non-Aboriginal Australians could, at an 80 per cent discount, inclusively access the didgeridoo.
And if there is a demographic that should be most affronted by all this, it is arts students. If you’re a young, studying artist, a concession ticket to the SSO’s just-passed Birds of Tokyo concert still set you back at least $47—for a seat so poorly placed it afforded only a “restricted view”. Those utilising Mob Tix paid only $13. Striving towards mainstream success in the arts, as well as remaining visible in both industry and social circles, is by no means a budget exercise. By the time a serious student violinist has invested in an instrument ($10,000 would be considered cheap for a conservatorium graduate), a bow (a friend studying in America has just purchased a bow for $30,000), quality strings, any associated equipment, a library of sheet music, a program of lessons with a respectable teacher ($80 to $100 is a lower hourly rate), and other supplementary costs like, of all things, physiotherapy (many musicians sustain playing-related injuries), there is little money left in the pot to spend frequenting the Sydney Opera House. One would have thought that if a scheme to the extent of Mob Tix were to be implemented, it would predominantly strive to assist those who are to be this country’s future creators.
As a lifelong lover of music and the arts—as well as, I think I should acknowledge, a composer who has worked in professional environments—I am not at all ashamed to say that I find Mob Tix a reprehensible notion. On this, readers, we should not go gentle into the good night. Should you identify a performance or show that offers Mob Tix, I encourage you to write to the respective arts organisation or institution and express your concerns.
In this issue of Quadrant Music, Catherine Broadstock explores AusMusic Month and curates a program of Australian works for your listening pleasure, whilst R.J. Stove launches into a fascinating history of Paul Hindemith’s sojourn in Turkey. Many readers may identify with Hindemith’s authenticity; although rejected by the Third Reich, the composer never once abandoned his desire to create. When in 1937 his music was officially banned, Hindemith wrote to his publisher, Willy Strecker: “There are only two things worth aiming for: good music and a clean conscience.”
Alexander Voltz is a composer and the founding editor of Quadrant Music, firstname.lastname@example.org.