Buzzing Down Under

Published in Impact Magazine

 

Australia may be geographically removed from the rest of the world, but much of its music business follows global trends. Lars Brandle reports on a thriving scene and buoyant music publishing in the Land Down Under.

When AC/DC told its legion of fans in the 70s, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll”, the Aussie rock titans were speaking from experience.

They beat a trail right to the summit of the international game and, in doing so, established the DNA of the country’s rock fraternity. And they certainly travelled a long way to get there. Indeed, traveling anywhere within Australia is typically a long way, while getting there from abroad requires a whole different set of motivations. Perhaps more than any other factor, the tyranny of distance has shaped the face and fortunes of the Australian music scene. And it’s an inescapable fact that Australia’s clock is out of synch with the world’s business centres.

“When you work internationally, there’s a big leap to get Australia to the rest of the world markets. That’s the biggest challenge the music industry here has,” notes

Albert Music CEO Tim Prescott, a former high-flying Sony BMG executive, who now overlooks the business empire set up by AC/DC.

Technology is playing its role in bridging that gap. With cellphone and broadband connecting the majority of the country’s 21million residents, the landscape is transforming at a rapid rate, explains Inertia Music managing director Colin Daniels.

“The world is getting smaller and geographic barriers are certainly breaking down,” notes Sydney-based Daniels, who has extensive experience in the European business having served as senior director of A&R with EMI Europe and having helped establish Mushroom Records UK (now part of Warner Music).

“With [national public youth station] Triple J’s nationwide reach and streamed worldwide, the growing popularity of regional festivals and the ease of getting music onto the internet, new bands are being discovered throughout the country. A band no longer has to come to Sydney or Melbourne to play to be ‘discovered’. And when they do come to Sydney they are now coming with a developing fan base thanks to the online activity.”

 

Strong creativity

A fiercely competitive sporting nation, Australia also relies heavily on the strength of its creative industries. And it is a sign of the influence of the music scene Down Under that Peter Garrett, former frontman for eco-rockers Midnight Oil – whose seminal 1987 album ‘Diesel and Dust’ was a worldwide success – is now the country’s Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts.

Last April, at the APRA/AMCOS-organised Song Summit in Sydney, Garrett pointed out that the creative sector employs almost half a million people in Australia, and that the arts and culture sector contributes over Aus$530million (€290m) worth of export goods, a large part coming from music. “Arts make an enormous contribution to our identity, community and economy,” said Garrett. He added: “Songs fuel the economy as much as they feed the soul; and now and in the future, music, particularly new music, will make up and drive content on new technological platforms.

These new distribution models – including online, mobile, user-generated and self-distribution – are challenging traditional business models and creating new opportunities for music-makers.”

The country is ranked in the top 10 among recorded music markets (7th for physical sales, 8th for digital sales and 15th for performance rights), as measured by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. But while (like the other giant territories) Australia’s physical market is on a downward slope, it’s a market that is far from a high state of alarm.

According to half-year figures issued by trade association ARIA, the Australian market dipped by 4% overall (see page 31). “The death of the CD is overrated,” explains Stephen Peach, CEO of major labels trade body ARIA and collecting society PPCA. “Yes, we’re selling less than we used to, but I don’t think the figure is going to come to zero anytime soon. Roughly 95% of albums sold are CDs. The reverse is for the single market, which is predominantly downloads.”

Influential media

The presence of a strong touring scene, a rich base of talent, the rise of community radio stations, and the Triple J radio network’s ongoing influence as a tastemaker are all seen as vital cogs in the Aussie industry machine. “We haven’t suffered,” explains

Richard Kingsmill, music director at Triple J. The station is a division of the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Its interaction with the 18-24 demographic puts it on a similar par to the BBC’s Radio 1 in the UK, and thanks to an adventurous music policy, it is credited by the industry as playing a key role in exposing new Australian and international artists.

“A lot of people have the perception that because the internet is so vibrant and there is so much competition for hearing your music, that radio listenership is declining. Our audience has actually grown in the last year,” says Kingsmill, who adds that the station is increasingly positioned “as a brand, being a content provider through the web, radio and TV.”

And content – at least in music– Australia has in volume, while the abundance of sun and surf has proven no hindrance to its creative community. The country has a long history of dropping in on sales charts abroad, with artists such as Kylie Minogue, Savage Garden and Delta Goodrem, while in earlier decades, Men At Work, Olivia Newton-John and Air Supply were waving the flag for the pop community. The same territory also gave the world Nick Cave and the various incarnations of his supporting cast, plus the likes of new-wave stadium rockers INXS, country star Keith Urban, punk pioneers The Saints, master songsmiths the Go Betweens, and even the Bee Gees, whose formative years were spent in the great southern land.

But rock has always been the staple of Australians’ music diet, and is the genre best associated with the country thanks to such marquee names as AC/DC, Silverchair, Jet, the aforementioned Midnight Oil, The Angels (also know outside Australia as Angel City), Powderfinger and Australia’s stay-at-home superstars Cold Chisel.

Electro feel

Nowadays, there’s something of a change in the air, and a new crop of electro-tinged Aussies are making their mark at home and abroad, in the footsteps of influential Melbourne-based band The Avalanches and their breakthrough album ‘Since I Left You’ in 2000. This year alone has seen a string of international breakouts from the likes of Pendulum, Sam Sparro, The Presets, Midnight Juggernauts, Cut Copy and pop newcomer Gabriella Cilmi.

“The inner city scene is still very much governed by what the UK is doing,” explains Michael Parisi, president of A&R at Warner Music Australasia and MD

of Mushroom Records. “Electronica seems to be the order of the day, though it’s already dead in my mind. Anyone who tries to sign the next Presets is in for a huge shock to both their ego and wallet.” But by and large, Parisi notes, the national music scene is in good nick. “We are starting to see a reaction to the whole ‘Idol’ phenomenon,” he says. “For every kid who watches ‘Idol’, there are now two more kids saying ’I’m not buying into that crap. I want something real’ and they’re picking up an instrument as a result.”

Take a glance at the winners of for the 19 October ARIA Awards, and the trend is heavily tipped in favour of newcomers, with both Cilmi and the Presets grabbing six, while Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu took two. Likewise, fresh faces will take center stage when its counterpart, the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR), hosts its third annual awards ceremony this November.

“We’re just scratching at the tip of the iceberg,” notes AIR’s CEO Stu Watters. “There is so much talent here at the moment we can barely keep up with it locally, let alone selling to export markets.”

Support networks

The country’s music publishing sector is enjoying good times. “It’s healthier than the other sectors except touring, which has a lot of festivals and international acts [driving it],”explains Ian James, managing director of Mushroom Publishing.

Notes Inertia’s Daniels: “Publishers are more active than ever before and are becoming one of the most important support networks for new artists. Publishers are even starting inhouse labels to help bands self release. Where there is a decline in traditional income streams, such as mechanical royalties, publishers are working hard on new revenue streams.”

The Australian music publishing sector is roughly worth Aus$200m (€109m), according to estimates provided by the Australasian Music Publishers Association (AMPAL), with particular growth coming from the areas of synch and licensing.

The publishing affiliates of the major labels are, naturally, the big players in the sector, while the likes of Mushroom and Albert are considered among the market’s most powerful indies. “It is an exciting time for music and publishing in particular,” explains Mark Callaghan, general manager of AMPAL, “and whilst there are a lot of challenges in terms of consumer behaviour, I have a real sense that the market, the content providers and the music publishers are heading to a place that will see maybe lower returns ‘per unit’, so to speak, but a greatly increased market for music and higher overall revenues.”

This view is shared by Peter Hebbes, founder of publisher Hebbes Music Group, which represents such catalogues as Blue Mountain Music (Bob Marley and Free), Fantasy Jazz, Mike Chapman, Deep Purple, Plangent Vision and Trevor Horn’s Perfect Music and Unforgettable Songs (Seal, The Pogues). “I have now been eight years on my own and I can honestly say that the publishing field is the place to be as the exploitation of copyright nowadays far outweighs the sale of recorded product, especially in a market of our size [2% of the world],” says Hebbes.

Meanwhile, synch, suggests James, is the “new black” for some companies. “It’s an area we have focused on for 30 years and refined the one-stop model with the co-operation of record labels,” notes James, whose company has exclusive deals with popular soap operas ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’, and ‘Out of the Blue’, the new BBC/Southern Star co-production.

“We issue one licence to the show for both publishing and master recordings and from then on pay the master royalty to either the labels or artists who own their recordings.”

Naturally, the deal opens up many slots for Mushroom’s writers, he explains, with the obvious benefit of the performance income, particularly in the UK and Europe. The three series each provide 46 weeks of screen time per year, averaging 25 minutes per week per show.

Healthy business

“I regard synch income as the cream on the cake, not the cake,” adds Bob Aird, MD of Universal Music Publishing Group, Australia. “We have a very professional licensing team and our synch revenue is certainly on the increase as traditional and new digital opportunities rise, but the poor state of the economy during the last 12 months has curtailed it somewhat.

“Our main sources of income, and the heart and soul of the company, remain mechanicals and performing. We nurture this with an aggressive A&R unit, signing developing and established writers/bands, and the steady stream of A-grade bands from our international affiliates.”

The indie publishing sector has seen its share of corporate activity in recent years, with Albert Music last year picking up publisher Origin’s copyright administration firm Origin Network and its Orient Pacific catalogue, and Mushroom Music Publishing picking up the Festival Music catalogue before that.

Publishing feeding frenzies, however, just aren’t the order of the day, explains Albert’s Prescott, who describes the publishing community as “pretty quiet at the moment.” “We just signed five new writers who I’m really excited about, but frankly only one of them has been talked to by other publishers, indie or major,” he continues. “Maybe there are those acts who have had [success with] their first album and they’re looking for a really big cheque. I’m not looking for those deals.”

Every music publisher interviewed for this story was humming a similar tune – that the music publishing market was operating in a healthy state.

“Music publishers work as a cohesive industry and in close co-operation with the mechanical and performing rights societies to continually resolve new problems as they arise,” notes Aird. “And it’s working.”

Hebbes concurs: “As publishers, we have invested heavily in time and manpower in the third party usages of songs in film, television and advertising with great results. I firmly believe that, along with the small independent labels, the publishers are often the source of new talent as they build up the relationships with writer/ performers as opposed to the big record companies where the internal competition often diminishes the artistic abilities of the artists.”

The figures back it up. “On the APRA side we posted an 8% increase in revenue last year,” notes APRA/AMCOS CEO Brett Cottle. “The domestic revenue picture is strong, pay TV is strong. Digital is strong, publishing performance revenue is strong. Traditional broadcast revenue is quite strong. The downside for us has been on the international revenue side because the Aussie dollar was very strong last year, particularly against the US dollar. It’s weakened since the close of the financial year, so next year’s results might be a bit stronger on foreign revenue.”

Exporting to the world

Australia’s music fraternity has traditionally looked to the UK and US, and more recently Japan, as cornerstones to its export business. A regular visitor to these shores, Seymour Stein, who has a long association with Aussie acts having signed The Saints and Radio Birdman, reckons the export potential for local music remains largely untapped.

“I think Australian music is certainly exportable, if my recent trip is anything to go by,” Stein told Impact during the 10-12 September Big Sound music summit in Brisbane. “I’ve seen three or four really good bands. There’s much more going on than the size of the market would indicate.” Stein, who currently serves as VP of Warner Bros. Records and president of Sire Records, suggests emerging Asian territories such as India and Malaysia, together with Canada, as good potential export partners. “With Canada, there are a lot of similarities. While Australia suffers a bit from being too far away from America, Canada sometimes suffers from being too close,” he quips.

Watters admits Australia is “doing okay” on imports. “We have our Jets and Savage Gardens, but they don’t come along every year and generally not more than one in any given year,” he says. “That said, many of our artists are carving out very respectable international careers and in doing so are both building on those that have been there before them and paving new territory for Australian artists and businesses.” And helping new acts push into uncharted waters is a solid support system on a local, state and national level. The industry finds backing from AusTrade, the government-funded agency in charge of promoting the country’s export efforts. “AusTrade are doing their bit through stand development at trade fairs and masterclasses on particular territories,” notes Watters. “The Australia Council is also developing a suite of support mechanisms for the breaking of international markets both artistically and on a business sense.”

At a local level, in the northeast state of Queensland for example, the local government-funded body Trade Queensland in Brisbane has developed a three-year global project named Contemporary Music Export Strategy (QMEx) aimed to push local music, bands and songwriters into world markets.

 

Looking abroad

It’s no fluke that some of Australia’s best performing artists in Britain this year (including Pendulum, Sparro, Cilmi and veterans Cave and Minogue) have found success after making wholesale moves to the other side of the globe. “There’s no shortage of bands,” notes Kingsmill.

“Which ones stick overseas is as much to do with what the local markets lack. Pendulum may have found a niche which is feeding off that scene post-Prodigy. The reason why Powderfinger never broke through in America is because there’s a lot of bands in America quite a lot like them. They could have spent 10 months overseas, and turn their back on the audience here, then they don’t sell 500,000 copies of the next album.”

It’s a Catch-22 which has played on the minds of many acts. “A lot of Aussie bands in the 80s did a lot of touring overseas. You can wear a band out,” adds Kingsmill.

Pendulum’s band-leader Rob Swire relocated from Perth to London in 2003, and hasn’t regretted the move. A switch from the indie world to major label Warner Music yielded a UK No. 2 debut earlier this year for the band’s sophomore album, ‘In Silico’. “For us, definitely, London is a good creative hub. Even if it’s just about getting studio equipment and the gear we needed to put the band together,” he tells Impact. “If we were back in Australia, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s hard for some of the studios down there to get equipment.”

Likewise, Sparro’s debut made a big splash in the UK thanks, in no small part, to the artist’s decision to de-camp to the northern hemisphere. “If you stay in Australia it’s hard to branch out to the world,” notes Jesse Rogg, Sparro’s German-born, LA-based songwriting collaborator and producer. “There are labels like Modular and some other hip labels which allow artists to branch out to the world from Australia. I’m a big fan of Australian music, but the UK just has more to offer in terms of getting out to the world. Australia was good for him as a base to go from, but it was important for him to move.”

Let there be AC/DC

Prescott, who returned to Australia from New York 18 months ago, is confident that the production line of Aussie talent is well serviced. “It’s an exciting time for new talent – that’s the most impressive thing to me,” he says. “Coming home, I’m really thrilled with the quality of the artists I’ve seen in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.”

And the excitement is far from limited to the greenhorns: The AC/DC machine is revving up for a new album and global tour. Aussie rock has again been blaring out of car stereos and iPods around the world since mid-October, following the release of ‘Black Ice’. And nowhere is the band bigger than in their home country, where a national touring leg could shift 600,000 tickets, according to veteran promoter Michael Chugg, director of Chugg Entertainment.

“Absolutely we will see AC/DC in Australia next year,” notes Prescott. “And the new music is up there with the best of AC/DC, no question about it. The reaction so far has been tremendous.”

A poignant reminder of Australia’s rock heritage came during the unlikely setting of the Australian Football League Grand Final, held 27 September. Powderfinger, arguably Australia’s biggest rock band of the past decade, performed a set which featured a rendition of the classic AC/DC anthem, ‘It’s a long way to the top’. The crowd at the 100,000- seat Melbourne Cricket Ground lapped it up, as did millions more watching at home. Rock and sport, living side by side? That’s true Australian style.

 

Click here for Lars Brandle’s Impact feature on the Australian biz.