The Hot Seat: Brent Grulke, SXSW Creative Director

Published in The Music Network

 

Brent Grulke isn’t brash, and he doesn’t carry an ego the size of a Texan steakhouse. But make no mistake, he’s one of the most important players in the international live music scene. As creative director for the annual South by Southwest Music & Media Conference, Grulke oversees the selection of the 2,100 bands which showcase at the music program.

A former journalist and indie label manager, Grulke joined SXSW in 1994, and has been on board throughout the Austin, Texas music and film event’s transformation into a beast which this year counted more than 16,000 delegates. Forty Australian bands and eight from New Zealand made the trip this March – a record number from these parts. Organisers will invite some 70 Australiasian bands for SXSW 2012, which will take place March 9-18. Grulke is in Australia this week for a string of speaking engagements during Melbourne Music Week.

Is SXSW still relevant?
SXSW’s relevancy isn’t mine to determine, that’s for the people who attend and utilise the event to decide. More people than ever are attending, so I do hope that SXSW is working for them. We spend a good deal of time listening to what people want and adapt to those needs as best we can – and try not to make the same mistakes twice.

You mentioned SXSW’s numbers are growing. Some delegates talk about it being “too big”. Are there plans to ever bring its scale down a notch?

On the upside, I’d like to think that more people attending means more opportunities for the artists and business people who attend SXSW. We’ve spent the last several months meeting with city officials and other members of the community to try to make sure SXSW is a safe event that people can enjoy and find useful with large numbers of people. It isn’t as if we could simply lock the doors to the city and tell people not to come, anyway. Huge numbers of musicians, fans, and companies come to Austin during SXSW that aren’t part of the official event.

Can you give some insight into how the US live scene has taken damage in recent years?

The best I can tell, the damage to the live scene is largely a reflection of the economic climate. When people have less money to spend, they cut back on entertainment. But legendary concert promoter Louis Messina, who now lives in Austin, says that the right act at the right venue at the right price will always work. I believe that, too.

You were out here in 2009. What are your thoughts on Australia’s live scene?
My experience in Australia is so limited, that I’m reluctant to make broad generalisations. I do know that there’s a deep passion for music in Australia, lots and lots of talented and hard- working artists with knowledgeable and substantial fanbases, and very competent artists representatives and labels. All recognise that Australia is too small a market to base a career for most acts, so they tend to be quite cosmopolitan.

Let’s talk about SXSW from an Australian artist’s perspective. How do you decide which acts to showcase?
Acts apply via a web application to perform at SXSW. We employ about 100 music professionals around the world to listen to and evaluate acts in the first round of evaluation. Each act gets listened to at least twice by this group of people before we bring the decision-making in-house. We’re looking, first and foremost, for outstanding music, a unique and passionate creative vision.

But we also are looking at whether or not we think it makes sense for the act to perform at SXSW and whether or not we think we can successfully showcase the act. This means that an act that’s working steadily, has generated some attention at home, has a clear plan for what they hope to accomplish at SXSW, and has at least some semblance of a team, is in a better position to be offered a showcase than an act that may make music we find equally engaging but lacks those career markers.

OK, so your band is playing SXSW. How do you stand out from the rest?

If it were easy to stand out from the rest of the acts at SXSW, everyone could do it. The fact is, coming up with a unique, creative approach for visibility during SXSW is hard. The acts that do it the best create a natural extension of what their story is and who they are, and work it well in advance of their SXSW performance. Hype starts weeks and months before the event, and those who are best able to generate it and harness it have the best opportunity to stand out.

At what stage of a band’s career should a band push for a SXSW slot?
It depends on the band and its aims, but ordinarily an act is ready for SXSW when they are ready to tour and promote themselves in the United States.

What realistic expectations should they have before heading to Austin?
If you’ve put the work in beforehand, something magical could happen. If you haven’t, you may be in for a big disappointment. But you’ll still probably have fun.


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The Hot Seat: Ted Gardner, Cross Section Management

Published in The Music Network

 

Behind the monsters of rock, is a monster of artist management. Ted Gardner is one special beast. In 1982, the Australian-born manager took Men at Work to the US, and helped the band conquer the world. Over the next 25 years, Gardner played a hand in the careers of the world’s biggest and baddest rock bands, including Jane’s Addiction, Tool, Frank Zappa, Queens of the Stone Age, PiL and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Alongside Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell, Gardner co-founded the Lollapalooza festival. In 2007, he came back to Australia and got back in the game. Through his company Cross Section, Gardner guides the likes of ARIA-nominated prog-rock band Floating Me. TMN caught up with the music industry legend.

Ted, you’ve pretty-well done it all in this industry. Is there anything else left to do?

Oh, god yes. When I came home, I was pretty cynical about the whole industry. Bored, fed up, looking at the lack of loyalty that was going around. I was introduced to Scott Mesiti, who was the booker at Festival of the Sun in Port Macquarie. Scott and I started talking about the industry. We started Cross Section. It was a whole new lease of life in this new paradigm. It wasn’t ringing your mate at a record company and having lunch and discussing your new signing. All that’s gone. Now it’s more of a challenge. The money isn’t there, the record labels aren’t the banks anymore. You’ve got to be very involved. Scott brought a lot of new marketing ideas to me and it was “wow, there’s a whole new world out there now.” The phoenix rose (laughs).

What were your immediate thoughts on Australia’s music landscape?
Australia has always been incredibly unique in having this great pool of talent. As a manager, you’re a lot more hands- on than you used to be. You used to sign your band, you’d sit down with the record company and you’d lead the charge in marketing and promotion. And then they’d turn the spigots on and the money would flow and everything would get done. There’s no-one to rely on anymore, which is fantastic. I’m loving it now because it’s really up to you and your band. And that is empowering. Mind you, there’s no-one to blame either. With the bands that we have, we still have a vision for Australia, and an extended vision into the UK, Europe and America. I still manage The Brian Jonestown Massacre. We’ll be touring next year. Anton (Newcombe) owns everything, we run the label, we do all the marketing that’s required around the release. It’s a lot more invigorating by the mere fact that you have to be a lot more involved to be successful. If you don’t want to work hard, and if you don’t want to work long hours and work with what you have and find ways to improve the situation, then you’re not going to be successful and nor is your band. To me, there’s a whole new world to conquer. So let’s conquer.

Who was the most difficult band you’ve ever worked with?
No-one. I was the one who always got the phone call from record companies or a lawyer saying, “we’ve got this band, they’ve got a drug problem. Their girlfriend’s a maniac, they’re difficult to deal with. Do you want to manage them?” Jane’s were crazy. We all were. Tool were difficult in many aspects. But they knew what they wanted. And you’d deal with it, they’re the artist. The manager is there to facilitate their desires, no matter how crazy it is. There were some crazy things I’d be asked to do and I’d just laugh, No- one was really hard. I worked with John Lydon. That was not difficult. Although he was impossible to work with (laughs).

What’s your management style?

Over the years, there’s certain things I’ve have to be. You’re a mother, a father, a marriage guidance counsellor, a priest, you’re a shoulder to cry on when the girlfriend leaves. You’re a drug counsellor. You’re someone that can bring someone back to life when they’ve OD’d in another room. You have to consult them, and console them. If you’re going to be involved with an artist, you have to take every facet of their life. You’re constantly rebuilding fractured egos. And artists have big egos. I become involved by the mere fact that you’re the complement most artists are looking for. You can lose your temper occasionally, for dramatic effect. Ted Gardner losing his temper is an amazing thing to see. I’ve got to like the music as well. And I have a pretty broad taste in music. Except for pop. I don’t understand it.

What’s your advice to bands trying to crack it?

You’ve got to be who you are. You can’t be another band. You can’t follow the trends. And learn your craft. Practice so you can be the best guitarist, drummer, bass player, singer. If you’re the singer and you can’t hold a note for longer than a breath, go get some lessons. Learn how to breathe. If you’re a drummer and paradiddles are a problem, go get some lessons. And rehearse and rehearse. Practise your craft and play live. Find yourself good people. You need a good crew guy; a great soundman that will also move shit around. And then find yourself a good accountant, before you find a lawyer and before you find a manager.

You’re mentioned throughout Michael Chugg’s book. When is the book of Ted Gardner’s war stories coming out?

Ha ha. I don’t know. It has to be soon, because I’m forgetting. The problem is, many of the people I could say disparaging things about are still alive. (Ted Gardner is a keynote speaker at Face The Music, held November 18-19 at the Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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John Legend: Still fighting

Published in The Music Network

 

John Legend has the right name. In his homeland, the American soul man and philanthropist is a superstar. His treasure chest includes nine Grammy Awards and stacks of platinum album certifications. Legend hangs out with the heavyweights of the US R&B scene, he counts US President Barack Obama among his pals. For his numerous humanitarian endeavours, Time magazine in 2009 anointed the New Yorker as one of the 100 most influential people; his honour was penned by the legendary producer Quincy Jones. And then there’s his voice, “steeped in gospel” as Jones described.

Strange, though, in these parts his name is better known than his legend. “Yeah,” he admits. “I want to do more (in Australia). We’d like to come back more often, and build-up an audience like we have in other territories.”

Legend spoke with TMN from New York City, days out from his headline performance last Friday in Perth at The End of Polio concert, his first show in these parts since April when he played Bluesfest and dates in Sydney and Melbourne. Like his music would suggest, Legend (born John Roger Stephens) is a smooth operator. He’s engaging, and clearly much more than just a musician. Legend is sharp as a tack on the economy and politics (he campaigned for President Obama). Legend is committed to education – he launched the Show Me education campaign in 2007 – and is a regular lecturer on the topic. The artist’s 2.6 million-plus followers on Twitter can trace his trek from concert stage to the academic stage.

“My personal focus has been on trying to make sure more young people are able to get a good education. When you think about poverty and people trapped in that cycle of poverty, a lot of people simply need a better education and the ability to help themselves,” he explains. “You definitely sense a heightened level of frustration in the States right now. We have the financial crisis here but of course there’s a crisis going on in Europe. So many people are suffering from that, but then they see the rich continue to get richer. Hopefully we’ll turn that frustration into positive action. I don’t think it’s enough to be upset, frustrated. We’ve got to go a little forward and say, ‘here’s a plan for making things better’.”

At that moment, the faintest thump of a drumbeat drops down the phone line. “No, I’m not partying today,” he responds. “I’m in the studio, making music.” Legend is cutting his new as-yet unnamed album, which should be finished by year’s end and will arrive in April or May of 2012. After teaming with The Roots for the politically-sparked 2010 compilation Wake Up!, Legend is returning to some familiar ground. The new effort is “definitely very soulful,” says Legend. “It’s a modern soul album.” Long-time collaborator Kanye West is producing and co-writing much of the recording. “Because the last album was so political, I actually didn’t want to make this one too political,” says Legend. “The last one was so heavy and topical. I think this one will be more escapism.”

Legend is still more than happy to get involved in the “heavy” stuff. When the Global Poverty Project approached the artist to lend his voice to a campaign to eradicate polio, they made a “compelling case,” he explains. “Honestly, I didn’t even know polio was still around until I was invited to the show. It’s eradicated in most countries around the world, but in some developing countries it’s still not gone.” The disease has been reduced by 99% over the past 30 years, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the public- private partnership in charge of the campaign to eliminate the disease. But wiping-out polio is apparently constrained by a US$535 million funding gap.

“It’s still causing a lot of pain to a lot of people,” notes Legend. “We have the opportunity and the ability to completely eradicate it.” On a musical note, Legend has been writing with British singers Pixie Lott and Estelle. And he’s got a close eye on smoking hot New Zealand singer Kimbra. “I just heard about her recently. I fell in love with her voice and saw a couple of her videos. She’s really an incredible artist. We found each other on Twitter and hopefully we’ll going to work together soon.”

Chances are, the pair will enjoy that opportunity in the next few months. He’s vowed to visit these shores again in support of his forthcoming fifth album, and Legend sees his latest visit Down Under as an opportunity to raise his profile. He’s keen to build the legend.

“I do love writing for other people. I enjoy that process of getting into their character and trying to write for them. But I love being on stage and performing. I love singing. I don’t know if I’d ever want to entirely step away from the stage.”

 

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The Hot Seat: Ian James, MD, Mushroom Publishing

Published in The Music Network

 

Ian James, Managing Director of Mushroom Music Publishing, chats to TMN about the evolution of the company, the challenges facing publishers and more.

Ian, you have a psychology degree. How did that prepare you for the music industry?

It’s an economics and psychology degree which in theory covers all the bases. Psychology assumes that you can predict how people will behave in a given situation and about half the people I deal with defy any attempt to work out what they are going to do next, which I find refreshing. The other half are wankers and are a waste of time analysing. So its practical use is virtually nil but it can come in handy if you want to spook someone out. Yes Brandle, I know what you’re thinking.

You’ve learned from the best in Michael Gudinski. What are some of the lessons taught?

Michael has a flamboyant public persona but I see him in more reflective times. He is wise and instinctively understands how people react. How that insight is gained is a lesson that can’t be taught. I wish. How to use that information is another matter. The first principle is that you are there for the artists. Michael told me to treat the artists like the people you work with at Mushroom, as colleagues, as friends. Treat them special because they are but keep it real. One of Michael’s pieces of advice – “It’s better to go to a gig on a Tuesday that no one else bothers going to than a sell out at Rod Laver. They remember you if you were there at the start when it matters, not when you are slapping them on the back when they’ve made it.”  He has a restless energy which is quite infectious and defines the style of the company. So I try to be lively.

Mushroom Music Publishing hired a sync rights exec last year. How is your company evolving?

I realised there are opportunities with the new areas of media, but it needs someone from that generation to take advantage of them. Someone who is comfortable with the digital world and will embrace its new social culture. Rather than give myself a crash course in tech-speak and try to take social media seriously, why not get someone who not only understands it but is enthusiastic in that environment. Enter Jo Sandow with a marketing degree, two years as a manager at a book publishing company and a part-time hobby of composing music for films. We have an excellent sync department so I told Jo to go to places they weren’t. So the basis of Mushroom Music’s evolution is to bring-in smart young people, trust their expertise in the areas they already know and let them have their space. If it starts to go wrong then step in but the idea is to step back. This also applies to my A&R Manager Michael Kucyk who has benefitted enormously from the tutoring of Linda Bosidis. Our current roster is very hot.  Eskimo Joe, Josh Pyke, The Panics and The Jezabels have all had albums which debuted in the top ten over the last two months.

What are the biggest challenges facing publishers today?

If we got some decent legislation to control piracy and had the telcos as our allies rather than them pursuing their vested interests with inspiration from Sol Trujillo, then we could forget about the wolves at the door and just get on with making and selling music. How idyllic, like a pastoral symphony. Can someone wake me up when that happens. In the meantime I will rely on the expertise of Brett Cottle at APRA to keep running the debate and fighting the good fight.

Music publishers have cast-off the image of being the industry’s bankers. They’re more proactive in pursing new talent. How so?

The financial plight of the record labels has had a knock-on effect on publishing. Firstly, the big cheque books have been somewhat stunted as the parent companies of the majors grapple with self-inflicted debt. So the major publishers have to be more selective in their signings. The major labels are also signing less acts. This opens-up a lot of space for the independent publishing companies and for the role of managers in artist development and with the release of debut albums. MGM has done very well recently. In a way, it’s going full circle, to where the publishers had the most vital role of all in providing the hit songs for the artists to cover. We are not yet back to “tin pan alley” where the writers and artists were quite separate but the development of songwriting talent is vital in a world where a lot more mediocre music is available to hear. You need a great song to cut-through the white noise but when it does, stand back. I think Gotye would agree with that right now.

What changes would you like to see happen in the Australian biz?

I see the Canadians getting substantial but targeted government assistance. They have career artists that chart all over the world. The New Zealanders show us up at Midem with their well-appointed stand. Here the funding still goes in the most part to where it always has – opera, ballet, orchestras. I met with Violent Soho at SXSW last year. They’d been touring America for 6 months in a van. Despite having a record deal with Thurston Moore’s label through Universal, they did it on a rock-bottom budget and had to share two beds between the four of them. How much difference would just $5,000 make to have your own bed and a decent sleep every night?  On a local level, the two reports on the value of music to the Australian and Victorian economy released recently show what a valuable industry we have. So I’d like to see some more money for the likes of Music Victoria to provide some infrastructure for the contemporary music industry, particularly in regional areas.

Who are you tipping for a big breakthrough?

The Jezabels, Lanie Lane. Stand back boys, the ladies are coming through and they have a steely glint in their eyes.

 

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