The Hot Seat: Ben Marshall, Sydney Opera House

Published in The Music Network


When Ben Marshall clocks in for work, he’s doing it under the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Going on two years, Marshall has played a big hand in selecting the iconic venue’s music program and he’s responsible for the annual Graphic Festival. It’s been anything but a traditional path to get there; born in Zambia, Marshall spent his early years in Burma and Britain, before his family emigrated to Perth when he was six. Later, Marshall trained as a lawyer and fed his music habits as a nightclub promoter. A sales role beckoned at Inertia, where Marshall would ultimately set-up the independent music company’s touring division, Civil Society. Under the “Sydney Opera House Presents” banner, a fleet of hot “indie” acts will play the Opera House from January to March, a program designed by Marshall and his colleague Fergus Linehan. The lineup starts with Fleet Foxes, followed by Beirut, Laura Marling, Erykah Badu, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bon Iver and Dirty Three.

The Opera House has a strong early lineup of alternative acts. What’s the musical vision for the site?

A lot of it is about getting the good work into the building. Obviously the Opera House has a long history of programmed contemporary music. I started with a brief to look at the world of contemporary music that had worked so well with Sydney Festival. The challenge for us was raising the Opera House into the normal flow- on conversation of the contemporary music industry. A lot of those acts (we’re interested in) are on the more ambitious and complex side of the indie rock scene: Mavis Staples, Blind Boys of Alabama, Aaron Neville, Erykah Badu. It’s really a case of, “What have we got to help out the show and the level of the art that we want in the building.” There’s any number of contemporary music shows I think would be best-off in other venues in the city and we’ll happily let them go there.

Is the idea to position the Opera House in the space for medium- sized venues?
It’s less about seeing it as another standard venue and a place to play. It’s somewhere where (Head of Contemporary Music) Fergus Linehan and I will have a conversation. If the fit seems right and the art is what we want in the building, that’s when we’d love the act to play here. We’re not trying to have 300 shows a year. Or even a hundred. It’s generally around the 30-40 mark. And it’s really a case of getting it right and keeping the excitement and sense of occasion with having a show here, rather than aggressively trying to take a big chunk of the market and becoming renowned as a reliable mid-sized venue. Really, if the art is right then we are interested. If it isn’t, then we’ll happily sit it out.

The concept “art” seems fundamental to how you create your wishlist?
Yes. It’s also, to be prosaic, our wishlist, plus who’s coming into the country. And we rely strongly on good relationships with the local promoters being easy to deal with and having quick response times to queries. The art is the important element for us. The art for which arts centres were originally designed – opera and classical and theatre and dance – are all perfectly valid; though the aspirations of the societies they find themselves in are probably changed to encompass the more ambitious and complex and interesting ends of contemporary music as well. Programming acts like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Beirut, Unkle is responding to the aspirations of the public in the same way that the more classical forms of arts programming has always done. We just see contemporary music as being in the tradition of that.

And the contemporary music program is subsidised, right?
Obviously the entire Opera House is subsidised, so it’s not like anyone is making any money off anything that happens here. Contemporary music generally holds its own.

Is it an easy pitch, offering the venue to overseas acts?
It’s quite binary. It means a lot, or nothing. Most of the time, it’s important. We’ve discovered to reasonable surprise it has a validating role with some artists. Belle and Sebastian, a hugely successful act who has toured the world for years, sold hundreds of thousands of records, renowned worldwide; apparently their mothers have never really expressed much interest in their shows or careers. But as soon as they said they were performing at the Sydney Opera House, it was boasting rights to aunts, uncles and grandparents.

Is Vivid 2012 on the cards?
Yes. Vivid is planned for the middle of the year. That’s Fergus’ baby. A lot of the programming is done. And it’s very exciting. We’re been really pleased on how that has gone. But we felt in 2011 it really hit its straps and got critical mass. Pav did a great job.


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