The well-endowed Melbourne label was the envy of the Australian record industry… until the cash dried up.

In the country’s latest tale of arts funding woes, the Melbourne-based not-for-profit Melba Recordings has been informed that all the label’s financial support from the Australia Council will be cut as of June 30. 

Since 2004, when it recorded the complete Adelaide Ring Cycle in SACD quality, Melba has received $7.2 million in federal funding and produced 67 albums for international distribution, featuring Australian artists including Cheryl Barker, Richard Bonynge, Leslie Howard and Orchestra Victoria (the latter now facing its own funding strife).

Self-styled as “a label of fragrant distinction”, the Melba Foundation’s recording arm releases lavishly packaged albums that are expensive to produce. Australian music retailers have told Limelight anecdotally that most Melba titles do not sell in large quantities. Managing Director Maria Vandamme declined to reveal how many CDs are pressed and sold, insisting the figures are “commercial-in-confidence”.

The Australia Council has given no reason for pulling the plug, but Melba founding patron Barry Tuckwell, the renowned Australian French horn player who has recorded on the label as a conductor, says sales should have no impact on government support given that Melba is established worldwide as a serious Australian brand for classical music.

Named after iconic diva Dame Nellie Melba, the company was granted $1 million a year for five years under the Howard government – an unusually large subsidy in the nation’s record industry and significantly more than the funds awarded to Tall Poppies, an independent label of similar size and resources.

Tuckwell claims this unprecedented generosity made Melba the subject of professional jealousy in the arts sector, with naysayers crying special treatment. “It was open to anybody to make a case,” he said.

“Others did not have the ambition, vision or determination. We had an important vision which had significant support; we were needed and we still are.”

But Andrew McKeich, managing director of Select Audio-Visual Distribution (the Australian distribution subsidary of the Naxos Group), points out that “a long list of Australian artists enjoy worldwide success thanks to their recording contracts with fine overseas labels such as Hyperion, Chandos and BIS. Our own Opera Australia is enjoying success on the world stage with their own DVD label distributed internationally by the Naxos Group.”

Emma Matthews’s debut recital disc was a co-production between ABC Classics and Deutsche Grammophon; Sydney’s Aleksandr Tsiboulski and Zane Banks (the latter voted Best Newcomer in the 2011 Limelight Awards) both brought Australian guitar music to international attention on albums released on Naxos.

However Melba responds to its funding crisis, Tuckwell is adamant the company will “leave no stone unturned as we continue our mission to offer Australian musicians representation on high-quality CDs in the international marketplace, on a label that sits side-by-side with the world’s finest.”