Danny Yee >> Internet Censorship in Australia >> Music Censorship

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

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

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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