Scenestr Publisher Condemns QMusic CEO Kris Stewart and Board over Awarding of Media Contracts

L-R: CEO Kris Stewart, President & Chair Natalie Strijland, Board Member Aaron Dahl
Founder and Publisher. Based in Brisbane.
Howard started Scene Magazine in 1993. Paul Keating was Prime Minister. Whitney, Janet and Maria all had Aussie #1s and Mark Zuckerberg was 9. He (Howard, not The Zuck) likes Star Trek and a good Oxford Comma – way too much fun at parties.

Howard Duggan, managing director of Eyeball Media, publisher of market-leading, national print and digital titles scenestr and FROOTY is taking his condemnation of QMusic public after having put the organisation on 12 months written notice of his intention to do so – and their failure to respond in any meaningful manner.


Eyeball Media is singling out CEO Kris Stewart, President and Chair Natalie Strijland and is calling for the immediate resignation of board member, Aaron Dahl, for their part in the policy administration of alleged cronyism and their base level failure to address the claims as required of them under the auspices of their duties at board level.


In Brief

Eyeball Media and Howard Duggan claim:
• A wilful bias in awarding “plum” media-related contracts to one organisation to the effective exclusion of all other media
• This conduct falls outside acceptable – and possibly legal – standards demanded of office bearers of organisations such as QMusic
• Concerted efforts over many years by scenestr to address this conduct without the need for publicity have been resisted and ignored by QMusic


 

Important To Know

Given there will be interest from many quarters it will be helpful for some readers to understand two key terms within this article:

1. Media Partnership
QMusic has two prestigious partnerships which stand head and shoulders above their other activities: The Queensland Music Awards and BIGSOUND. These two events are singled out in all important QMusic communications such as its website, job advertisements and annual reports.

It is common for many events, including music industry conferences and awards, music and arts festivals and not-for-profit activities to award Media Partnerships. These Partnerships confer various benefits and obligations on all parties.

Benefits to Media Partners include high-profile logo placements within marketing collateral and on-screen at ceremonies and at red carpet events (often heavily photographed and widely distributed across traditional and new media). In the case of the QMAs the People's Choice Media Partner has opportunity to host the public voting on its website – an immense opportunity to receive an avalanche of traffic and exposure through public voting driven virally on social media by the nominees.

Benefits also include access to important networking events, marketing opportunities to databases and more. The associated kudos and benefits attached to Media Partnerships is very well known in the marketing and media industries.

2. Publicity Contract
Publicity (promotion) is a part of the marketing mix which organisations, such as QMusic, use to generate awareness. Publicists are in a unique position to act as conduit to all other media outlets interacting with the head organisation. 

QMusic operates without an in-house publicist and it contracts out its major publicity requirements. 

Why Is What Follows a Problem?

Organisations such as QMusic are obligated by law (and morally) to follow guidelines which include transparency, fairness, dealing with issues of conflict of interest (COI), arms length decision making and generally operating in good faith in the interests of all stakeholders.

In relation to the awarding of media partnerships and publicity contracts, this company and others have been demonstrably adversely affected by decisions made by QMusic contrary to the guidelines outlined above. 

How Did We Get Here?

2004

QMusic established its two flagship events in the early 2000s; Queensland Music Awards and BIGSOUND. The organisation quickly developed a close relationship – including the awarding of media partnerships – with street press title Time Off to the demonstrable and obvious detriment of competitors Rave and Scene Magazine (this organisation and rebranded as scenestr in 2014) as well as other media operators, including radio.

2006

Time Off was sold to newly-formed 100% Victorian-owned and -operated entity Street Press Australia, later rebranded as The Music. Stephen Green, a publicist and future owner of Time Off/ The Music joined the board of QMusic. He stays for 15 years.

2009

scenestr publisher, Howard Duggan contacted then-QMusic CEO, Denise Foley and raised both:

• The inequity of the unilateral awarding of premium partnership contracts to Time Off/ The Music, and
• The obvious problem of exporting all the financial and intellectual property (IP) benefits of those partnerships from a Queensland-run organisation to a Victoria private company

It's relevant to note a part of QMusic’s remit – and some of its funding – was (and still is) conditional to further the goals of stakeholders nationally and even globally. However there was no justification for the unilateral practice of awarding essentially public funds and the aforementioned exposure to a single private organisation – furthermore, one which was out of state.

Matters of partnership equity were immediately rectified. scenestr and other Queensland media organisations played an increasingly significant and publicly recognised role in QMusic's two flagship events.

2015

The advent of new CEO Joel Edmonston was met with enthusiasm in all quarters.

At the same time, Stephen Green secured the vice presidency of the QMusic board. By now his company SGC Media had been the recipient of many QMusic publicity contracts including both the Queensland Music Awards and the plum BIGSOUND contract.

These commercial relationships were not declared for public scrutiny in any documents, that we are aware of. They should have been. This was the start of what we claim is the conflict of interests at QMusic. 

This was the start of what we claim is the conflict of interests at QMusic


Within three months, Edmonston had appointed the life partner of The Music's Brisbane Editor to the post of QMusic Marketing Manager. Her role included the awarding of paid media spends and media partnerships. 

The current President and one subject of this article, lawyer Natalie Strijland, joined the board.

2018

Between 2015 and 2018 an all-but exclusive cache of media bookings, kudos, partnerships, networking opportunities, prolific logo placements (including in high-volume music industry emails) flowed from QMusic's offices in Fortitude Valley to the The Music's HQ in Melbourne. 

By this time, Queensland-owned and operated scenestr had grown to be the largest street press group in the country, publishing print titles in all five major territories as well as publishing a national music website.

13th July, 2018

Howard Duggan wrote to CEO Edmonston outlining not only of what had immediately preceded under his tenure but a number of other grievances were detailed including:

• QMusic’s contractual failures to scenestr at BIGSOUND 2017
• QMusic’s booking of expansive double-page BIGSOUND advertising (confirmed as paid) into The Music's print titles only into markets where The Music is published. Advertising is not booked into South Australia and Western Australia where scenestr publishes – and where scenestr is the only print option. This, despite that BIGSOUND pitches to - and is attended by – delegates and showcases from South Australia and Western Australia.

It's a damning and detailed indictment which demanded nothing but a thorough and thoughtful response.

A damning and detailed indictment which demanded nothing but a thorough and thoughtful response


Also 13th July, 2018

Edmonston’s reply, 90 minutes later is worth printing in full:

From: Joel Edmondson
Subject: Re: scenestr
Date: 13 July 2018 at 11:48:31 AM AEST
To: Howard Duggan

Hi Howard

Thanks for documenting this for me. Look forward to seeing you again in future.

Cheers

Joel Edmonston
CEO, QMusic
Chair, Australian Music Industry Network (AMIN)

A dead bat. No proposed investigation. No proposed resolution. No timeline. A complete dereliction of obligation from the CEO.

Also 13th July, 2018

A public airing and the associated scrutiny was the only way forward. While under consideration, Edmonston announced his resignation from QMusic. We deferred a public airing until his successor had been given an opportunity to review. He finished in November – having four months to address our concerns.

2019

A meeting with new CEO Angela Samut in mid-2019 rectified everything. For the first time in 15 years scenestr was awarded the media partnership for BIGSOUND in 2021 (cancelled because of COVID) and also the media partnership of the 2022 QMAs. Alongside inclusion of The Music, 4ZzZ and others, some semblance of a wide-ranging and balanced media partnership roster emerged. The 2015 highly compromised marketing manager was gone by year's end.

October 2022 - 16th January 2023

Following a successful 2022 QMAs media partnership I introduce myself to Kris Stewart (CEO number four) intending to debrief him on past events.  I'm too late. He brings new marketing Director, Ange Kohler to the meeting and I discover immediately that – at the suggestion of past-VP and current publicist Green – the QMAs partnership is to be "rotated" to ... him. And they've agreed.

I confirmed QMusic intended to award all of:
a) The Queensland Music Awards Media Partnership
b) The BIGSOUND Media Partnership
c) The Queensland Music Awards Publicity Contract

to one organisation, owned by the immediate past vice president of QMusic – without explanation, oversight or blushes.

I do detail the past decade's events. Stewart concludes the meeting with a concession “you’ve clearly given us a lot to think about and we’ll come back to you”. Kohler, asks – for the first time since landing the role eight months earlier – for our credentials. An odd cart and horse order of operations given she'd just stripped us of a media partnership.

20th February 2023

Despite his promise to "come back to me" we hear nothing from either of them. Five weeks have passed and it’s the day before the QMAs are to be announced. I write to both for an update and Kohler confirms the untenable position. I tell them of my plan to go public. Five years after I should have done so.

Comedy Hour

In the ensuing hour, there follows from Stewart: a word salad of double-speak, disingenuous reframing of discussions and history. Things move very quickly in the ensuing 60 minutes.

• Kris Stewart immediately starts divesting himself of responsibility of policy or resolution. He directs us to the President and Chair Natalie Strijland (apparently "out of respect" to me) who herself writes within seconds and “wants to meet and help". Despite replying to her I never hear from Strijland again.
• Stewart also “encourages us to stay in direct contact with Kohler … "she has direct authority to manage the marketing strategies for QMusic programming and can speak directly about what is planned”. No thanks.
• Kohler – again out of the blue – offers an opportunity to present a category award at the QMAs. It's not a media partnership. She has no idea which category and we must let her know of our response straight away as the media release is being prepared.
• A long-departed employee of SGC Media (who's worked uptown for five years) lands in our inbox, claiming to “have just landed the QMAs gig” [a complete fabrication] with news of the QMAs embargoed media release. We don’t hear from him again.

Later, despite her immediate enthusiasm, I'm advised by others President Strijland is unable to meet for an entire month as she’s "busy with her practice". 

May 2023

The strip show continues. The BIGSOUND Publicity Contract for 2023 is being awarded. The incumbent [female-owned and -operated] company is hoping to retain the contract after winning a competitive pitch in 2022. In 2023 there is no competitive pitch. The phone doesn't ring. The publicity contract for BIGSOUND 2023 is awarded Stephen Green’s SGC Media. It's believed to be worth $30,000 of government and stakeholder dollarydoos.

16th November 2023

I'm ready to meet with the board. I write to President Strijland [who doesn't reply].  Aaron Dahl, another board member and also lawyer advises that Strijland is again unable to meet at any time in the week's window I have proposed. I present, in person, to Dahl and also to a trusted, high-profile and respected witness for 45 minutes and relay the story from the beginning. 

It’s a damning indictment of cronyism, protectionism, lack of process, lack of diligence, lack of good governance and more. I point out that Edmonston, Stewart and Strijland have demonstrated a pattern of feigned attention followed by active dereliction as a modus operandi. 

Dahl absorbs it all, nods a lot but is drawn on nothing. He has brought his city lawyer game. Dahl promises to “relay everything I have said to the board tomorrow" and will “come back to me the day after that”. I never hear from him again. He's read the playbook.

30th April, 2024

Five months and I have heard nothing from Dahl, Strijland or Stewart. The 2024 QMA's have come and gone. Green's SGC Media was both publicist and media partner for the second year running since scenestr was stripped of its partnership.

What's Next?

scenestr condemns these individuals for their inequitable decisions, their culture of bias, protectionism and obfuscation; demonstrably rife since January 2015.

We note President Strijland has entirely vacated her obligations in this regard, being unavailable and non-responsive.

We call on Aaron Dahl to immediately stand down from his role on the QMusic Board. After his being made fully aware of our serious concerns, which legitimately required a comprehensive and timely response, he put himself forward as the highest conduit to resolution. To iterate, Stewart sent this matter to board. The board allowed Dahl to be point person. Dahl, a lawyer by profession was fully aware of his obligations and the process in play. He elected to bury the allegations. He is neither welcome – nor fit – to sit on QMusic's board. 

We call for an immediate adoption of a COI disclosure statement to be regularly updated and made permanently, publicly available. It will detail commercial dealings above an agreed value between QMusic office bearers and contractors.

Given the demonstrated inability of QMusic staff and board to self-regulate both at arm's length and with transparency we call for the implementation of clear and equitable guidelines for the awarding of future Media Partnerships and Media Contracts.

I will be writing to the Minister(s) and select public servants responsible for the administration of funding of QMusic and request they immediately require the board to explain both the organisation's conduct and their defence of it.

Final Word: "Doesn't Pass The Pub Test"

I have had opportunity to consider for some time whether it's in all parties' interests to publicise this matter. I have also consulted widely, finding not a single person to defend the decisions referred to herein. One senior QMusic ex-staffer styled all that precedes simply as "shit". One independent publicist told us winning the BIGSOUND publicity contract would be a "Game Changer". A past board member styled proceedings as a "damning indictment of process" while an existing QMusic board member confirms the events of 2023 "don't pass the pub test".

----------

Footnotes:

1. Given the nature of the charges herein, we expect an attempt at a robust repudiation and defence. We welcome it. In preparing this article it was necessary to omit much detail – including in emails – which we assessed would deflect from the central thrust of our claims. We expect a gaslit reconstruction of events which would open the door to a necessary publication of these emails and other matters of record.

2. For the record we have a good faith belief SGC Media would have executed their deliverables professionally. We bear that organisation no ill-will. Stephen Green interned with us hundreds of years ago. We published a congratulatory news article when he acquired The Music. His performance, independence and media oversight as VP is not the subject of this article.

3. Our credentials, given to QMusic at their request, unacknowledged, included:
• scenestr has been Queensland-owned and -operated for the entire 30 years of its existence
• At the time of request (and at other times) scenestr ranked #1 music site in Australia for domestic traffic (Source: Nielsen)
• We printed more music press than any other organisation (all others combined) in the country. Coupled with our audited digital reach our combined audience was a runaway market leader
• We enjoyed the benefit of incumbency

4. I have an extensive background in media partnerships – won (and lost) and delivered over three decades around Australia. They include peak music bodies in three states, multiple local area governments, arts and music festivals, music industry conferences and world-renown Australian festivals. By contrast the people mentioned above had next to zero experience in such matters at the time their respective decisions were made.

Conversely. their experienced counterparts in parallel organisations have proven meticulous in the awarding of such things. They are aware of their obligations to operate at arm's length and that politics are necessarily always a commercial consideration of same.

5. scenestr acknowledges it has received periodic advertising bookings from QMusic. It has also appreciated being a regular media partner for Valley Fiesta, a three-day, free event produced by QMusic for Brisbane City Council. These are distinct from the benefits of the significant media partnerships and other contracts being discussed here. This point is understood by all parties involved in these discussions.

There appears just one private entity – and to the surprise of absolutely no one who has made it this far ...


There have been other media partners involved in QMusic events. Those partnerships are isolated, lesser in value and periodic. This is well illustrated by the image below, a full page in the QMusic 2022 Annual Report.

During the relevant time covered by the annual report (prepared under Stewart's oversight), scenestr:

  • Was media partner to the QMAs (thanks to predecessor Angela Samut)
  • Published a BIGSOUND special edition
  • Volunteer judging panel in the Queensland Music Awards
  • Offered free advertisng to promote the QMAs (offer ignored)

Yet doesn't rate a mention in the celebrated and thanked media section. There is, however, just one private entity on the honour board – and to the surprise of absolutely no one ...

6. QMusic is not a large organisation. For context, Eyeball Media (this organisation) had a greater turnover 20 years ago than has existed at QMusic at any time. This company generates all of its own income while operating in a competitive envirnonment. QMusic enjoys grants, a monopoly, exalted status, a varied board of professionals and a relative cast of thousands to deliver its outcomes. The current CEO and Marketing Director are paid $250,000 p.a. between them. There is no excuse for such systemic failure except paucity of principle in its office bearers.

"There is no excuse for such systemic failure except paucity of principle in its office bearers."


7. While this organisation is indeed adversely affected by the effects of these allegations, we are not unique. Since early conversatons with the publisher of Rave Magazine through to last year's stripping of the BIGSOUND Publicity Contract, there are myriad operators shut out from the level playing field that QMusic should lay. This article is not about the toys we’d each like to have – although we work hard in competing for them. This is about ending the cronyism and protectionism at QMusic – and marking the permanent records of those who have been willing participants to it.

8. In 20 years scenestr delegates have never been invited as panelists at BIGSOUND. This Queensland company's achievements in the independent media space are significant; including national market leadership in both the print and digital spaces (Nielsen), providing a forum for myriad writers, photographers and interns over three decades, providing a platform to launch many media careers (some award-wining) and businesses around Australia. By contrast, The Music in its various incarnations and owners has received an all-but standing annual invitation to appear at BIGSOUND.

 

Extract From 2022 QMusic Annual Report – The Year In Which scenestr was Media Partner to the Queensland Music Awards


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