The Hot Seat: Mark Grose, MD, Skinnyfish Music

Published in The Music Network

 

Mark Grose and Michael Hohnen have done as much for Australia’s Indigenous music community as any current players in the record business. The pair established Skinnyfish Music in 1998, driven by an altruistic desire to make a difference for Indigenous people in remote communities. Skinnyfish is no longer the minnow. A string of Skinnyfish signings, including Saltwater Band, Dewayne Everettsmith. Nabarlek and Ego Lemos, have all enjoyed national attention.

And then there’s Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

The Darwin-based label’s best-known artist became a household name in 2008 with the platinum-selling, ARIA-Award winning Gurrumul. Since then, the artist has built an international following, playing for US President Barack Obama and the Queen Elizabeth II along the way. Skinnyfish throws its support behind a raft of initiatives which connect musicians with community programs, including the newly-launched Strong Choices cyber-safety campaign and the upcoming Inbound, which brings together industry reps with remote community festivals in the Top End.

What was your motivation to start Skinnyfish?

My motivation was, how can we engage with indigenous people? I don’t come from a music industry background. But what I discovered through meeting Michael was the amazing impact music has on remote Indigenous people. When Michael came to do a music program, people were knocking down the doors to get in and work with him. We got talking and started the label. It was risky – I hardly knew Michael. It’s a relationship which is almost on a par with a marriage. We work perfectly together because we leave each other alone and just support what the other does. He’ll end up as one of the great producers in Australia.

Are there still barriers holding-back indigenous artists?

There’s a feeling around the place that now is the time for Indigenous performers. People are rushing into that and putting out recordings. But the bottom line is, the opportunities for Indigenous performers is still about quality. There still has to be quality, there needs to be development in that process and long-term relationships. The isolation and the tyranny of distance hasn’t passed. Also, young bands today expect to be paid a lot of money to perform straight away. Warumpi Band would simply jump in a car and tour. It’s almost a whole generation that has been lost. There’s very few non-Indigenous Australians that actually socialise with Indigenous Australians, and very few friendships between those two groups. You see constantly this paternalistic way people relate to Aboriginal people. Within the Australian music community, there’s none of that paternalism. It’s just a love of what everyone does. They get the same respect everyone gets, because they are musicians. And for me that’s one of the great strengths of music and the music industry in Australia. When you’re a musician, you’re in the same club as other musicians, and no one cares about where you come from. They don’t care about anything other than music. I was part of being able to bring young Indigenous guys, mostly, into a world where they were treated as equals. Music is a really powerful model to bring equality to their lives. That’s a great outcome to me, regardless of the success we’ve had with Gurrumul.

Skinnyfish of course is a business. You’re not purely a philanthropic organisation.

When we set this business up we purposely took the private-industry model, rather than what was surrounding everyone up here – the not-for-profit model. I wanted the musicians we work with to see a business model. We might be the most isolated record label in the country, but we’ve been successful because we’ve taken a development view. I’ve said to the bands I work with, “I’ll be coming to your funeral, or you’ll be coming to mine.” Which means, we’re here for the long term.

In time, Darwin should play a big role in an Asian touring circuit.

I totally agree. Part of our focus is now on Asia. Dili is an hour flight away. Singapore is closer to us than Sydney. There are some opportunities in Asia. The tyranny of distance is still an issue. We’re working on a project called D’Tour, which is a collaboration between Darwin and Dili. It’s bringing remote Indigenous musicians together with Timorese musicians. We’re chasing big sponsorship for it. We’d like to have Timorese and indigenous musicians and eventually nationally or internationally recognised musicians be part of it, so that it fosters a gentle entry into Asia for everyone. It makes more sense than going to Sydney and Melbourne where you just do a few gigs and come home.

Has the success of Gurrumul forced Skinnyfish to evolve?

There’s no doubt. When Gurrumul started to take-off in 2008, we all joked that Mushroom had Kylie, and maybe Gurrumul was our Kylie. Gurrumul’s success catapulted us into the main music industry. From that point on, there’s been more opportunities. Instead of being a little isolated business carrying on what we were doing, we were able to work with and seek advice from and play with major players in the industry. That’s had a phenomenal impact for us. When you sit here completely isolated from the music industry, you wonder sometimes where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Gurrumul gave us confidence and a place in the grand scheme of things.

 

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The Hot Seat: Michael Smellie

Published in The Music Network

 

Michael Smellie knows what the view looks like from the global music industry’s summit. The Australian enjoyed an irrepressible rise through the ranks of BMG and at one stage orchestrated the major’s 2004 merger with Sony Music. When Smellie left New York in the mid-noughties to return home, he’d forged a CV like few other Aussies. Smellie started his career with Chappell Music Publishing back in 1980, and by the end of the decade had risen to Group Managing Director of PolyGram. In 1993, Smellie became MD for BMG in Australasia. He later served as head of BMG’s Asia-Pacific region, before moving to New York in 2001 to become its worldwide COO. He later became COO of the amalgamated Sony BMG and from 2006-2008 served as President of Media Development, Asia Pacific for German media giant Bertelsmann.

Now, Smellie has swapped the boardroom for a sail boat, but he’s very much in the business of giving back. Smellie is on the executive board of the Global Poverty Project, which organised the John Legend-headlined End of Polio Concert last October in Perth. Smellie and former BMG colleague Stuart Rubin are currently helming a series of music industry masterclasses at the Queensland Institute of Technology, which are free to the public.

Do you miss the cut and thrust of the record biz?

Yes. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t think that’s something you could ever easily get out of your blood. I’ll probably miss it for the rest of my life. But my focus now is giving back to an industry which has frankly been very kind to me. What was your greatest career achievement? In a commercial sense, it’s hard to top the merging of Sony and BMG, particularly coming from the BMG side which was the perennial underdog of the music business. Many people in the music industry were very surprised that we could pull it off as a merger of equals. Whether or not it was a good move, that will be the thing people will write about for many years to come.

What was the secret to your rise through the ranks?

Inevitably luck plays its part in these things. Being the right person in the right place at the right time. It’s about being flexible and open-minded. My first overseas posting was Brazil. I suspect many people given the same offer and the same circumstances would have turned it down. I just saw it as an adventure. I was lucky to attach myself to some good bosses and mentors in the late David Fine (former IFPI chairman), the late Rudi Gassner (former BMG International President/CEO), and Rolf Schmidt-Holtz (former Sony Music Entertainment CEO). They were extraordinary leaders in their own rights, and I was able to form a business relationship with all of them. When you’re starting off your career, you need to get a good mentor.

In 2008, you said the Australian music industry suffers from “an appalling lack of leadership”? Is that still the case?

The reason I said that was because the Australian music industry has under-performed for at least ten, maybe 20 years, but nobody was saying it. Our contribution to the global repertoire supply is falling. That in my view is a strategic issue that needs to be addressed, as it does in sport. We need the contemporary music industry in Australia to be more organised like sport. We need something like the Australian Sports Commission to take a global view and figure out where we fit in the global business and how do we improve. How do we turn our deficit of about $1 billion in creative royalties? If you look at creative industries in Australia, they’re bigger than tourism and agriculture. Australia should have a separate government department that looks at creative industries. Obviously music is a significant component of that.

Are you optimistic for the future of the business?

Yes. I always have been. It’s full of young, optimistic, bright young people. Whilst there’s an argument that the business model of the future clearly isn’t the business model of the past, I grew up in a music industry where there was essentially one business model with a couple of subsidiary ones. The future of the music industry is multiple business models and they will all complement one another.

What’s holding-back the Australian biz from forming stronger ties with Asia?

The biggest failure of all western companies in the region is their inability to view things in the long-term and to build long-term partnerships. They have a tendency to think, “I’m going to Korea for a week. I’ll do six deals and come home.” Whereas what you need to think is, “I’m going to go there once a month for two years and I’ll make long-term relationships.” That’s the way it operates in Asia. It’s relationship driven as much as it is business-driven.

Will you ever come back to the record biz?

Probably, the answer is no. But if someone made me an offer, I’d consider it.

 

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The Hot Seat: Todd Wagstaff, Parker + Mr. French

Published in The Music Network

 

Parker + Mr French has engineered a deal with Universal Music Australia that allows its managed artists to stay independent, whilst working with one of the titans of the music industry. It flips the investment and reward model of the music business back in favour of artists, whilst energising the label and management team who support them.

The Sydney-based artist management firm has created a multi-tiered distribution pipeline, which feeds directly into the UMA machine, each tier offering different services by the label. The new arrangement represents the best of both worlds – P+F’s artists are in control of their destiny and the music major is exposed to minimal risk but still with the upside of creating a successful career.

Helmed by Todd Wagstaff and Jo Walker, P+F currently manages Gypsy and the Cat, Evermore, The Vines, Bluejuice and new projects Jagwar Ma and Danco. Gypsy and the Cat have just established their own label Alsatian Music that will opt in to the new pipeline, alongside Evermore who are also releasing independently.

How does the pipeline work?

The artists create and pay for their own assets: music, photos, videos, cover art. They’re accountable for whatever gets spent in marketing, which makes the process transparent. Importantly, the artist remains owner and decision-maker in their own copyrights. That removes much of the mystery and antagonism from the old-school record contract. And of course, the deal allows the artist to continue working with a large community to support their career. On the UMA side, I think it’s the best way for labels to react to the current circumstances of the business that has falling prices and sales. Labels have a choice now – they can make up for that decline with either reactionary 360 deals they’re not set up to facilitate, or they can take the cost out of the part they do really well and then get out there and do that part with some “risk free gusto”. I favour the latter solution.

What’s the motivation behind doing this?

Our artists, who largely write and produce their own music, wanted to step aside from that old-style agreement and come up with a new matrix where the artist, label and management efforts are all tied equally to their investment, efforts and success. Our artists that have previously sold records know all too well that a traditional deal might pay the artist on average about 15% of the wholesale price. Millions of dollars can come into the label from sales before even a modest asset creation budget is recouped. Under the new deal, the artist and their manager share more reasonably in the upside but they also need to work much harder. The artist needs to be across the business and has absolute approval on what’s done on their behalf in terms of marketing. This should bring a new transparency to their label relationship. That transparency then gives way to accountability by the artist, who gets a greater sense of how their efforts and actions translate to their ultimate success.

Is this an opt-in for artists?

Absolutely. It’s non-exclusive to the artists we manage, and it’s for Australia and New Zealand only. They maintain their rights for the rest for the world; they can do whatever international deal they want to do. International is a huge priority for us. I expect we’ll do international deals over the next 6-12 months. We will be releasing a combination of new artists and established artists through the system.

Universal of course is in the process of acquiring EMI.

Yeah, naturally we’ve had to consider the workload on the staff at Universal and EMI merger, and how it’s going to translate. There’s a lot of conversation going on that EMI’s offices are going to be largely maintained as stand alone marketing, promotion and A&R centres and they’re the resources I’m most concerned about. For the industry I hope that happens and EMI team stays intact and the corresponding teams at Universal are not too burdened. Past mergers have absorbed the market share back to where the main label started at and I assume they want to avoid that this time around.

What’s your mantra for getting involved with an act?

Encourage artists to make great music really. Great music carves its own path. Something we talk about often is that all artists start out somewhat imitating others, and that imitation gives way to influence and that gives way to originality, and then ultimately to their legacy. Our philosophy is to encourage people to move along that plain as boldly and as successfully as possible. And come up with a piece of art that is an expressive, original, interesting and brilliant. If they do that, then success will be kinetic around it.

What tips do you have for entry-level bands?

When I’m overseas trying to solicit the record label or heads of A&R to be involved in my artist, I have to present my artist as though they have a career and it’s growing and moving forward with its own momentum. That’s what a new artist here needs to do at a small level, when they’re trying to get the attention of a manager or agent. They can’t present themselves as someone who needs to have everything done for them. You have to get those basics done. That shows you have ambition and instinct. The songs show you have talent. When you have ambition and talent, I’m interested. It’s difficult without both.

 

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Gotye, Medics Big Winners Down Under

Gotye and rising four-piece the Medics were among the homegrown acts celebrated in a pair of Australian awards ceremonies over the weekend.

Alternative rock outfit the Medics cleaned-up at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin Saturday night, taking out the new talent of the year, song of the year for “Griffin” and album of the year trophy for their debut “Foundations” (Footstomp/Warner Music). The Queenslanders are represented by music publisher Alberts and plans for 2013 include a visit to the U.S. and U.K. for live dates, the band’s manager Leanne de Souza tells Billboard.biz.

Also on the night, pioneering Aboriginal country music star Jimmy Little was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Northern Territory musicians the Lajamanu Teenage Band. Little passed away in April at the age of 75 after a long battle with illness.

Also inducted into the NIMA Hall of Fame were legendary Arnhem Land garage rockers Sunrize Band and NT act Lajamanu Teenage Band, who played on the night.

Confirming his status as the country’s highest-profile Indigenous musicians, Gurrumul Yunupingu was named artist of the year for the second successive time.

In one of the highlights of the night, Medics drummer and vocalist Jindhu Lawrie joined his father Bunna — founding member of Coloured Stone — for a performance of the iconic indigenous rock group’s “Black Boy.”

The NIMAs capped a week of celebrations in the Northern Territory capital. The cream of Australia’s independent music community was the Top End for the iNTune music conference, which wrapped-up Saturday after a two-day program of masterclasses, panel discussions and showcases. The NIMAs and iNTune were organized by MusicNT, the association which supports the growth and development of original contemporary music in the Northern Territory.

On Friday, Gotye was officially declared the best-selling Australian artist for the calendar year 2011, during the ninth ARIA No. 1 Chart Awards at Sydney’s Ivy Sunroom.

Gotye’s smash “Somebody That I Used To Know” featuring Kimbra (Samples’N’Seconds Records/Eleven/Universal) is 10-times platinum certified in Australia (700,000 units plus) and its album “Making Mirrors” is triple platinum (210,000-plus), both representing high-points for an Australian artist last year.

All told, 17 awards were handed out to acts who had topped the singles, album and music DVD sales charts over the two years from August 2010 to August 2012.

According to trade body ARIA, Australian acts spent 64 weeks in the No. slot position during that time, while 85 Australian singles were awarded gold, platinum or multi-platinum status, and 73 Australian albums were accredited.