In Music and Media Magazine - Guest Editorial "Can someone please explain to me why is it that everytime someone talks about enforcing "the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.", I, a moral, decent and propietous person, know some fucker is going to try and cramp my style? Probably because it's been happening all my life..." -- Gavan Duffy, writing in the newsgroup aus.music. October 31st saw the introduction of a new system of censorship for music in Australia as part of a new Australian Record Industry Association code of practice. Instituted as a result of political pressure from the government, the code has introduced a obligation for ARIA members not to sell or release albums that exceed new guidelines (including Brian's aforementioned standards of morality, decency and propriety.) It also introduces a system of pejorative labelling for albums with "explicit lyrics". As a free speech advocate, I have become concerned with the code's potential for censorship; under it, albums that deal with everything from drug use and violence to bestiality and incest can be banned. In an increasingly conservative and censorious climate, music has become a ready target. Earlier this year conservative talk-back radio host Alan Jones started a crusade against "offensive" music, such the Regurgitator single "I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am." Many politicians have made a sport out of attacking the youth broadcaster Triple-J for its content, most notably communications minister Senator Richard Alston (who's other notable achievements this year have included a clumsy attempt to lean on the ABC over the televising of the Sydney gay and lesbian mardi-gras, citing community complaints, and an ongoing campaign to have sexually explicit rated videos banned in the last two territories where they still remain legal). And recently the release of the Pantera album "The Great Southern Trendkill" was delayed because of doubt over its legality to import. The government's contribution to this pressure against free musical expression was a proposal to introduce tough new regulation with the avowed goal of "cleaning up" the music industry. As a compromise measure, ARIA proposed a privatised censorship system implemented as a code of practice. Although private and ostensibly "voluntary", ARIA's code of practice is intimately related with government censorship - it was introduced under a very real government threat to introduce even tougher legislation, and the ARIA scheme has received the endorsement of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG). In fact SCAG has lobbied hard to expand the range of expression to which restrictive censorship can be applied - from new powers to regulate computer games (which saw the popular computer game "Phantasmagoria" banned) to new restrictions on films and magazine covers. ARIA's new code of practice is the latest step in this process. The new code, "ARIA Code of Practice for Labelling Product With Explicit and Potentially Offensive Lyrics" operates in three tiers. The first is albums that attract a warning label: "WARNING: this album contains explicit language." Touted as consumer information, this warning label seems to be intended to be applied quite widely; ARIA president Emmanuel Candi was quoted in the media as suggesting the D'Angelo CD "Brown Sugar" and the New Power Generation's "Had You" as examples of recordings that would attract a label, as they included occasional "schoolyard language." The second tier is albums which, in the wording of the code of practice, contain "more impactful explicit and/or assaultive language or dealing with issues which may offend some sections of the adult community"; they must bear a warning label that reads: "WARNING 18+: This album contains explicit language and is not recommended for persons under the age of eighteen." The third tier are albums that will be effectively banned; ARIA member record companies are not permitted to release them and vendors are not permitted to sell them. Albums which come under this category deal with a broad category of "abhorrent phenomena", including albums that "explicitly and gratuitously" deal with and "promote, incite or instruct" in topics such as child abuse, criminal violence, sexual violence, incest, bestiality and hard drug abuse. Emmanuel Candi has mentioned albums by scatological metal band Cannibal Corpse comes under this category as they deal with "necrophilia and dismemberment." As part of the code, a new ARIA music labelling sub-committee has been set up with the responsibility of dealing out the new classifications. Enforcement of the guideline has been made the responsibility of the music piracy investigations unit. The classification process is centred around "community complaints." A notice will be distributed at all ARIA vendors with a telephone hotline that member of the public can use to report any unlabelled product they believe should be classified. The ARIA music labelling sub-committee has a set of guidelines to follow in dealing out the classifications, but in practice the guidelines will be just that - guidelines. The code does not require any accountability on the part of the labelling committee and victims of ARIA classification decisions have no chance to appeal. Indeed, I am convinced the whole scheme is custom designed to create a chilling effect on music in Australia. But others might not be able to perceive the chill so readily. After all, films and videos in Australia have been subject to a similar classification scheme for decades. The point is, though, for better or worse film has always been considered by Australian governments to be far less protected than other forms of expression such as art, literature and music. The implication is that the independence and free expression of artists in the field of music is now much less important than in comparable fields. Consider, in particular, the literature analogy - is music any less important than literature? We can imagine the outrage if this scheme was applied to books, perhaps administered by the Australian Library and Information Society - I can see ALIA slapping "warning: explicit language" and "not recommended for persons under eighteen" stickers on everything from Shakespeare to horror writers like Clive Barker or Poppy Z. Brite. All that violence, incest and other issues offensive to some sections of the adult community! And surely there is plenty of literature now widely available that could come under the rubric of "abhorrent phenomena" and be banned altogether - prime targets would include writers like William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. In fact, the ARIA scheme leads to bizarre inconsistencies, as you realise that words printed on a lyric sheet will be far less protected than words in a poetry book, or that a book in spoken word format on cassette will be tightly regulated in a way that the book itself is not. The aspects of ARIA's code include both classification and censorship and these imply different considerations. Of course the more objectionable is the censorship aspect. Apart from the usual problems that it suppresses artistic freedom and the freedom to listen, one can question why such a scheme was thought necessary at all. This particularly salient when you consider that there was already a censorship scheme in place for music. Regulation 4a of the Customs act prohibits import of "abhorrent" publications and has been used to prevent import of Emannuel Candi's aforementioned Cannibal Corpse records. The compulsory labelling/classification element has its objections too. Although music labelling has already become widespread in America, this does not imply its acceptability. The case against compulsory labelling is in part to do with music's place as one of the more protected forms of expression, together with things like literature and the visual arts. Artists in those fields have never been expected to label *their own work* as explicit and therefore potentially offensive. Although touted as "consumer information", deciding what albums that are particularly "explicit" and thus potentially offensive is often hopelessly subjective and wrapped up in a particular moral viewpoint - as slippery, really, as labelling albums for *artistic* merit. If ARIA started labelling albums that it considered particularly artistically worthless, we would consider it a usurpation of consumer and parental choice. The same must go for labelling for "explicitness". While the code is having an effect now, the full impact of the code is yet to come. We can draw on the American experience (where a similar scheme has been in operation for some time) and the history of this kind of legislation to perceive some probable outcomes. The first is that, although now at least technically voluntary, the history of such industry self-regulation indicates that once well entrenched the government will move towards making the code criminally enforceable. Indeed certain elements of the code already hearken towards this outcome, such as the provision in the "complaints" section of the document that non-compliers of the code can be reported to "appropriate authorities, such as the Police." Informing the police would be pointless if the code is to remain a self-enforced code of practice, but makes perfect sense if the code is intended to be entrenched in legislation at some time in the future. The second near-certain outcome is that the system of labelling will translate into very real limits on the distribution of labelled records. One restriction already introduced is that the ARIA code prohibits any labelled CD from being played in store, but eventually it may degrade to the United States situation where many US states are introducing legislation to make it illegal to sell labelled CDs to minors. In other US states major retail chains that want to prove their "family" credentials have instituted a strict "18 to buy" policy on stickered records or have stopped stocking them altogether. This naturally translates into pressure on artists to avoid producing music that attracts labels - which is precisely the intention. There are other likely possibilities. One may be that the labelling scheme will eventually translate into a financial cost for artists. While classification is now free, a probable outcome is that a fee-based system will eventually be introduced in line with other Australian classification systems. The cost of film and video classification is now around $750, not a very cheap price for small artists to bear. Another thing relates to the community complaints scheme. In the US, these have often been subordinated to moral majority-style pressure groups. This has even involved tacit racism - for example, the family research council operates a telephone information service in which the artists targeted for complaints have almost universally been black. What all this implies is that ARIA is busy building the infrastructure for a stronger system of controls on musical expression. With the creation of a labelling database and the potential for the scheme to be given force in legislation, the stage is set for even further expansion of music censorship. It's a situation that undoubtably pleases the government no end. It may be asked how serious these developments actually are. Certainly the "mainstream" of recording artists are unlikely to be significantly affected, what will be targeted is more marginal and shocking content. And of course on a broader level Australians will remain the most affluent people in the world, with access to all the mass consumer items and mass consumer entertainment we have become accustomed to. But I think there can be a situation where people can be well fed and well cared for, but all avenues for social and intellectual fulfilment or expression have been cut off. I think that happens the minute a society starts censoring artists. In instituting this code ARIA has come out against the permissibility of artists to express themselves freely to extent that they shock, provoke, offend or run afoul of ARIA's conception of propriety. It's a vast usurping of the right of citizens to determine their own destiny, to exercise the right to freely express themselves and freely listen. For those reasons regulation of music in Australia should be resisted and the right to free speech championed.
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