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18 March 2011

MAGA comes of age

Robert Gavin, the Honorary Secretary of MAGA Image: Robert Gavin, the Honorary Secretary of MAGA  

One of the best-kept secrets of 2011 shouldn't be that it is the year that one of Australia's most eminent music organisations turns 50. Indeed, this year marks the Golden Jubilee of the Music Arrangers' Guild of Australia (MAGA), founded in Melbourne on 10 February 1961. The Guild's historical significance as the representative body of Australia's leading music arrangers, orchestrators, electronic arrangers, music copyists and typesetters is without precedent in the fabric of our national industry. Its relevance, both passed and present, is indicative of the importance that Australian musicians place upon the merits and expertise of its highly skilled (but often invisible) membership base.

By and large, MAGA grew from both the needs of a fledgling Australian television network and the inherent local content that the burgeoning market was demanding. It is important to "In these early years, professional musicians could only undertake work if they were union members..." realise that, in 1961, Australia was a very different place to the environment we encounter today. And Australia's cultural life was beginning to take its first baby steps in acknowledging its commercial worth and place on more international vistas. Audiences started having a thirst for home-grown exponents and ideas, which were singularly pertinent to the country's life styles. Especially, the new television audiences were very eager for local content and the networks and sponsors were subsequently happy to oblige this rapacity.

Musical directors, supervisors and conductors nationwide were now being asked to deliver new and varied local content, often on a daily basis. Whilst the Professional Musicians' Union branches in each state happily serviced the needs of playing musicians, there was an obvious deficit in a 'fair go' for the music specialists who supplied the performance musicians with what they needed: music arrangements and orchestrations and the regular delivery of individual parts for the players. It was therefore a logical progression that in Melbourne (the then self-appointed home of 'live' produced television), that a group of professional musicians gathered in a meeting room at 166 Little Collins Street, Melbourne and formed an adjunct to the PMU, which would foster and protect the need of this 'fair go' for its new membership. Much of the Guild's early rules, definitions and allowances were readily borrowed and adapted from the PMU's resources as a trade union. And word spread very fast…

In these early years, professional musicians could only undertake work if they were union members. In turn, they would not play unpublished music unless it was produced and copied by endorsed MAGA members. In the 1960s and 1970s this level of protectionism within the music "...the music copyist often had the additional role as a proofreader and music editorialist to the work in hand."industry fostered a standard of excellence in music production that became comparable to none. Music arrangers, orchestrators and music copyists honed their specific crafts to form the bedrock of what exists today.

And even today, without the rigours of compulsory trade unionism present, the Guild remains steadfast in its stringent testing procedures for new membership. It continues to advocate and promote its membership as endorsed industry specialists and, hopefully, guarantees excellence of delivery.

But back to 1961. The Guild's founding father was a Melbourne jazz alto saxophone player, Neil Whitford. His fervour and organisational skills were infectious. By late 1962, Neil had approached a young ex-Victorian trombonist and now Sydney resident, Jack Grimsley, with the idea of forming a State Division of the Guild in NSW. And within barely five years, divisions were being formed in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, with West Australia joining the wave in 1971.

By the late 1960s the Guild's reach had extended from merely light television entertainment to all forms of live and recorded music. Larger organisations, such as the ABC, readily adopted MAGA members as their preferred method of music production of unpublished works. This now ensured that composers, who were working during these times, had to call upon the services of MAGA members in the execution of their extracted instrumental and/or vocal parts. Even visiting overseas composers had to have their parts locally produced by an endorsed Australian professional if they wanted their work recorded in Australia. And it was very cost-effective for the overseas composer/arranger to do so, at a time when the Aussie dollar was so very low!

By the mid-1970s the Whitlam Government formed the Australian Music Centre as the national repository for Australian composition. The library quickly uncovered a hidden problem for the commissioned Australian composer. Whilst commercial music arrangers and orchestrators were generally and adequately recompensed for the copying of their instrumental/vocal parts (their side of the industry had already recognised this vital link in the music production chain), the Australian composer was not. Subsequently, the composer mostly had to outlay the bulk (or more) of their commission fee in engaging a music copyist to produce the essential parts for first performance. As commissioning bodies were loathe (and generally unable) to substantially increase their commission fees, the Federal Government funded a scheme whereby the composer could have the cost of their copied parts offset by an additional grant for first performance. Naturally this eventuated in a halcyon period for Australian composition as well as fostering greater expertise for the adjoining music copyists who often were greatly extended by the innovative demands of the composers they serviced.

At this stage, one has to grasp an important fact in unpublished music production during this time. All unpublished music (compositions, arrangements, orchestrations and copying of orchestral parts) was executed solely by hand, and the final product was intensely labour-driven. Also the music copyist often had the additional role as a proofreader and music editorialist to the work in hand. Composers, arrangers and orchestrators tacitly relied on their copyists to not only accurately deliver the parts for the players (which often included manual transpositions from 'un-transposed' scores) but to pick up on any errata or discrepancies that a hasty originator had overlooked. "To say that the Guild now has acknowledged the Digital Age is a gross understatement."In essence, the music copyist became the essential connection between composer/arranger/orchestrator and the performance musician.

The federally funded copying of parts scheme remained diminishingly intact for over 30 years. Sadly, subsequent federal governments have viewed the necessities of music production as increasingly unnecessary and today we see the scheme disbanded, albeit the requirements still remain.

By the late 1980s, MAGA was to face one of its greatest challenges: the Digital Age. As early as 1990, the preferred and essential Western home appliance was no longer the television. The mass marketplace now demanded a computer in every home. And with a computer comes software and peripherals. And if the Guild has only one blemish in its illustrious history to date, it was its lack of foresight, during the 1980s, of the seismic shift that all music production was undergoing.

The 1980s were many things to many Australians. But the decade of the individual and the entrepreneur also brought wholesale and global economic rationalisation whereby trade unionism was now viewed as odious cronyism and adherence to communal and social values and associations outré. Whatever your personal views might be, for musicians, we watched helplessly as 'live' music venues shut up shop and major arts organisations lost essential government funding all over the country. Unfortunately, many saw this as a mere glitch, a hiccup in proceedings.

Indeed, the Guild was no different. With an aging but loyal membership base, numbers dropped alarmingly in all state divisions. By 1988, the Tasmanian Division had completely disbanded and the Queensland and South Australian Divisions had been absorbed by NSW, where continuing membership (and employment) remained relatively stable. The Guild had, by then, spent nearly ten years only worrying and railing about the impending changes and doing little to embrace what many contemporary musicians were wholeheartedly and already embracing. Composers, arrangers, orchestrators and copyists weren't dying off. They were merely adopting new tools to use in a new age.

By 1996, MAGA took a bold and (for many) scary organisational step forward. The local bastions of West Australia and Victoria finally crumbled under worn-out administrations and the Guild became incorporated as a national entity. In hindsight, national incorporation may have merely appeared as a final grasp at survival. But it has proved to be remarkably resilient and has generated a rebirth of ideals, relevance and membership in the new workplace.

To say that the Guild now has acknowledged the Digital Age is a gross understatement. It fiercely embraces it! The organisation now boasts a growing membership of Australia's elite professionals, exponents of most forms of computer music literacy. From highly skilled electronic arrangements (where no 'written' music is employed) to music supervisors, editors and music typesetters, MAGA can proudly hold its head up as an enduring force in Australia's music industry.

And the challenges always exist. Nowadays music software is available to all. But in the hands of an elite professional, it is another thing altogether. The skills that our membership continues to offer ensure excellence. Sure, anyone can now compile a good-looking score. But will it sound any good? Will the automatically extracted parts be laid out sensibly or legibly and professionally? Are the transposed instrument parts enharmonically playable? And is there anyone checking that a musician can actually play what is written?

But some things never change. We are still administered by a volunteer Executive of professional (and working) musicians. We rely solely on the income of annual membership subscriptions. We are a not-for-profit organisation. And yes, we still get all new members to sit an entrance test! But most of all, the Guild is still here and still strong and has just turned 50 years old.

Happy Birthday MAGA.

Further links

The Music Arrangers' Guild of Australia (www.magainc.org.au/)

Robert Gavin is the Honorary Secretary of the Music Arrangers’ Guild of Australia (MAGA) Incorporated.


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Fascinating insight

I immigrated to Australia in 1985, just when all these far reaching developments that Robert refers to were beginning to bite into the live music scene.  I recall the initial resistance to developments in IT, but it is truly great to see that MAGA has well and truly embraced the digital age, emerging strong enough to take a leading role in twenty-first century music creation.  This has in no small part, been due to the dedication, hard work and persistence of its voluntary committee of management.  Thank you.