Holding Space for a New Creative Process

Exploring the value chain of cultural production and the opportunity to create change.

min read
Lydia Fairhall & Leanne de Souza
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Lydia Fairhall:

If everything has to change – and deep down, we know that it does – it will take nothing less than a complete reimagining. A gentle, powerful, swirling dreaming of how things could be otherwise. The ability to embrace the void and the nothingness. The capacity to look deep within and truly examine how we are the jail-keepers of our own oppression and unhappiness. The awareness that the Euro-Australian conservative right and liberal left know each other far better than they know First Peoples and People of Colour. The desire to deeply listen and hold back from speaking. The inspiration to line up with what the universe is asking of us. And the wisdom to know that as the first horses out of the stable, we will only get to know the start of the track, and yet, we still need to trust that there is more track, and indeed a finish line around the corner, even though we can’t see it.

I moved out of the city before the pandemic, already disillusioned by the work I was doing in the arts and social change space. The emptiness I felt in my work drove me towards ideas and thinking that enabled me to be on the front-foot of the reimagining. Completely exhausted from my career, I had no choice but to throw it all up in the air. My first priority was very personal, but something I believe is a widespread epidemic that correlates strongly to the plague of burnout and internalised capitalism, particularly within the music and performing arts industries. This initial task was to begin recovery from adrenaline addiction, which in terms of its addictive properties is as strong as a schedule 1, class A drug. This part of the journey isn’t over, but the energy of the bush, couple with lots of meditation, prayer and sleeping, and moonlight streaming through my uncovered windows, helps.

As I emerged from the longest winter sleep, I called Leanne de Souza, someone who I knew had a “thriving” career as a music manager, and who had also publicly walked away from it all. Leanne was someone who sat in a different circle to me. I knew that in attempting to answer what really was a simple question – how do I release my new album True North without killing myself, my team and the planet? – it was important to work with people who wouldn’t just echo my own experiences and understandings. I needed people who might have oppositional, possibly even what I would consider problematic, views, but who were willing to respectfully sit in unexpected circles to work through them.

To date, my work in the First Nations arts communities has largely been to advocate for representation, visibility and to occupy positions of power in order to embed First Nations perspectives throughout creative companies and institutions. But what if 150 years down the track, when the majority of our people hold the dominant narrative and live relatively comfortable material lives, our life expectancy starts to decrease again, like it is for the middle class American white man for the fourth year in a row? What if all that power and comfort and capitalist equality makes our minds and spirits sick? What if, by advocating for equality within a system that depends on exploitation, we are actually advocating for our long-term demise, because as spirit beings, housing our creative and cultural manna in places that are divorced from spirituality actually does far more harm than we can ever realise? And what does any of this have to do with releasing an album?!

The conversations, ideas and experiments that flowed were our humble attempts to answer that question.

Leanne de Souza:

As a non-Indigenous Australian, I believe it is important that I never stop listening. I choose to invest time to seek Indigenous perspectives and knowledges, and as a middle-aged white woman, I am acutely aware that I bring privilege with me into any project. In this knowing, the work becomes twofold: to service the project and undertake the usual tasks and strategies that a project demands, and to equally challenge myself to get out of the way, to make space and relinquish power every day.  

In working on the release of the album, True North, I became a willing “accomplice,” and gave up the power and control mechanisms that artist managers generally use, often referred to and consulted as the “expert” in the room. Listening to the wisdom of others and the music itself, and centring healing in this particular release, resulted in a deep sense of oneness – an alignment of both the creative and business processes that I believe empowers Lydia’s vision.

Lydia and Leanne

In the early days of deciding how we would approach this merger of spirit and economy, we adopted Frederic Laloux’s TEAL framework as a guide for what the business of music could be. Rejecting fear, we listened deeply and developed a work ethic of mutual trust and assumed abundance. Concepts of self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose were touchstones that hold common ground with First Nations’ leadership and cultural practice. Working together, very much as a “living system,” provided the foundation to build mutual capacity to change and evolve.

One of the biggest shifts in this process is engagement in proactive inner leadership. Repeatedly in the music industry we see an emphasis on professional development, where the focus is on obtaining skills – from the ever-changing “how to utilise social media in a marketing campaign” to “how to provide adequate HR practices for communities that have traditionally been excluded.” But none of these really get to the heart of the matter – that more than any skill, we need to focus on personal development. As we formed our business team, borrowing a term from Small Giants, “Guardians of Purpose”, the focus on personal development meant that we each took responsibility for being fully present in all conversations, decision-making and circular feedback.  

Mindfulness practices, such as starting team video meetings with meditation to anchor us into “place,” allowed for a practical way of working more soulfully than the toil-and-spin-until-you-fall way of working that the music business does so well.  

The consumption of music is also of critical importance as we imagine new ways of being in the music industry. The commitment to doing what it takes to value not only music but all forms of cultural expression means adopting a mindset to be a “conscious consumer” of music, arts and culture in whatever form they take. It takes time and curiosity – who made this work, where was it created? How was it distributed?

Empower is a verb – a doing word. When people take the time to actively engage with, and understand, the value chain of cultural production, they have the power in their hands to do something and create change.

Passive consumption of culture driven by algorithms will not empower audiences. Instead, the focus needs to be on creating and sharing playlists, subscribing to artist email lists, purchasing tickets in advance and bringing friends and family, and buying the shirt, tea towel or vinyl. All of these actions have a knock-on effect – the connection and healing that comes from the experience of music and art fuels audience demand and seeds funding for future work to be created.

Historically, commercial cultural production has been driven by profit and the mainstream, ubiquitous success of scale. For the future of artists, and their fans and audiences, it is now vital to recognise the triple bottom line of sustainability – yes, profit to fund the next release cycle, but also to find non-extractive ways of creation and distribution that do no harm to people or the planet. To regenerate requires healthy souls, minds, hearts and bodies that are not exhausted from the grind of touring back-to-back nights, for example.

This particular “issue” led us to saying no to a lot of opportunities that we would have otherwise felt compelled to say yes to in the old economy. Our national touring was thwarted by the pandemic, and almost accidentally we were touring within a local economy framework – all the while asking how we can find ways that musicians can tour, and festivals can thrive, that do not extract and harm the country they are held on, or depend on non-renewable resources.

Through unpacking our internalised capitalism and entering into adrenaline-addiction recovery, focusing on personal development, collaborating in ways that bring whole beings into the process, centring First Nations voices, exploring new ways on consuming and touring, and not so much fixing systemic racism in existing companies and institutions but exploring how we might “begin again,” we have scratched the surface on one little album release of how we might better serve art, artists and audiences so that human flourishing, caring for country, spiritual wellbeing and financial abundance are accounted for.

This oneness is the future of business, and it is in the richness of holding space between the tension of creation and commerce that we start to give birth to post-capitalist ways of working.

This essay features in Issue 67 of Dumbo Feather magazine, on Music. Grab your copy over at dumbofeather.com/shop

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