Dance Surges Down Under

Published in Billboard Magazine

 

By Lars Brandle and Christie Eliezer

As it grows up and travels the world, Australian dance music is challenging traditional stereotypes of its homeland as a purely rock’n’roll nation, while indicating that a distant location on the atlas may actually help the development of new, distinctive strains of music.

“Australia has a rich history and success in rock and pop,” says Barney Glover, GM of the New York subsidiary of dance-business kingpin Ministry of Sound. “Now what’s going on is not only rock and pop but also those DJs and producers shuffled away in dark corners not necessarily embracing the cultural history of Australian music.”

Welcome to the light-and to the act which, for many at home and abroad, now typifies this fresh wave of dance-rooted Australian talent: the Avalanches, whose Since I Left You was issued in early November in the U.S. through Sire/London. That release was delayed by six months to clear the album’s 900 samples, the result of which is a compelling montage of techno, summer pop, Latin kitsch, and disco, intricately woven through hundreds of hours of painstaking studio sessions.

“The Avalanches have begun that movement to cross over lots of different genres and pull it all together,” says Glover, who helped establish Ministry of Sound in his native Australia two years ago. “I think picking up the guitar and putting it with a [Roland] 303 [synthesizer] is probably the best way to go.”

That journey began modestly. “I’ve seen the [Australian dance] scene start from very small and build up to the massive size it is today,” says Englishman Carl Cox, one of the world’s best-known DJs of the underground techno genre. When it came to the millennium celebrations nearly two years ago, “my only thought was to play Australia,” he says. Besides the Avalanches, those helping export Australian dance music include Pappa, DJ Stephen Alkins, DJ HMC, producer Josh Abrahams, and bands Madison Avenue and Cut Copy.

“The club scene is getting stronger and stronger and has been for ages,” affirms Colin Daniels, one of three founders of Australia’s oldest independent dance label, Vicious Vinyl. “It’s not just four-to-the-floor house music but, in particular, electronic music right now that is hitting Australia, basically because of the country’s climate and its chilled-out atmosphere. There are some really interesting people making some really interesting records.”

Daniels is currently the London-based senior director of A&R for EMI Europe, but still has a stake in Vicious Vinyl. He and partners Andy Van and John Course, both DJs, formed the label some 10 years ago. Its most recent international success was with Madison Avenue, which scored a substantial hit last year with “Don’t Call Me Baby,” including a No. 1 triumph in the U.K.

“People ask if Madison Avenue was set up to be commercial,” says Van, who is also one half of the Melbourne-based duo. “It’s hard to say what is commercial at a point of time. If ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’ came three years before, it would’ve been an underground hit only. But the mainstream caught up with us.” The record’s U.S. impact helped Van and singer Cheyne Coates nudge Madonna aside for best dance act at the Winter Music Conference in Miami.

Dave Jurman, senior director of dance music for Columbia Records-the U.S. outlet for Madison Avenue-comments, “The fact that they had not one but two No. 1 charting dance records and arguably one of the most-played records at rhythmic top 40 radio in the United States in the year 2000 [is a testament] to the strength of the group. The strongest seller for us was the ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’ single. It lasted about one full year on the Billboard Hot Dance Music Maxi-Singles Sales chart.”

Five years ago, dance constituted some 5% of Australia’s $1 billion ($815 million) annual music revenue; label and retail sources put the current figure at upwards of 20%. Some even suggest it will rise to 40% in two years as a result of activity by major labels, including Universal-which has launched its own dance imprint, Hyperion-and EMI.

In fact, deals with Vicious Vinyl and Ministry of Sound have earned EMI and its British managing director Tony Harlow sales and cachet-as have its ties with Modular Recordings, label home of the Avalanches. Modular was formed in 1998 by concert promoter Steven “Pav” Pavlovic to reflect “my eclectic tastes,” he tells Billboard. “I signed the Avalanches, Ben Lee, and the Living End, while negotiating a manufacturing and distribution deal for Australia and New Zealand with EMI.”

Pavlovic, who has toured with such acts as Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Beck, Fatboy Slim, and Pearl Jam in Australia and New Zealand, has signed Modular to Sire/London for the U.S. and is currently developing new acts Cut Copy, Sekiden, New Buffalo, and Eskimo Joe. “Cut Copy is working on new tracks at his home studio,” Pav says, noting the resulting album will be the next Modular/Sire release in 2002.

The development of Australian dance music owes much to independents. One important player is specialist Central Station Records, which began in 1975 as a record store in Melbourne that predominately catered to the gay market. It has since expanded into a six-outlet chain nationwide that grossed $9 million Australian ($4.6 million) in fiscal year 2000/2001. Its label was formed in 1987, and it recently reached the top of the Australian Record Industry Assn. (ARIA) compilation chart with DJ Nick Skitz’s 10-mix album.

“There is definitely a market for Australian dance music,” Central Station managing director Morgan Williams says. “The majors didn’t understand the impact the music had in the clubs. We’d import 12-inch versions of releases by their acts, and they took us to court-which set us back $400,000 Australian ($205,800). I approached a major about a distribution deal, and its managing director told me, ‘No one would make money out of dance music.’ ” Central Station opened a U.S. office two years ago and is on the verge of announcing a new distribution deal there.

Another significant force was Mushroom Distribution Service (MDS), which at one time handled more than 200 dance imprints. Before MDS was folded into Festival Mushroom Records after Mushroom founder Michael Gudinski sold his remaining stake to News Corp. in 1998, MDS also operated a successful label, DanceNet, developing local artists and licensing international dance product.

Today, Shock is a strong distribution player, and such companies as Stomp and Inertia have also developed. Among the labels fomenting the scene are Pro DJ, Volition, Vapour, Thunk, Colossal, Marski, Creative Vibes, and Zero Tolerance.

Williams also cites the two major Australian retail chains, market leader Sanity Music and HMV. “Sanity’s Dance Arena stores helped tremendously in awareness at retail. They are well-set up, have live gigs and a good publicity machine behind them, and they’ve assisted the growth of that market.” Dance makes up 20% of business in some HMV stores, according to commercial director Martin Carr.

Sydney-based DJ SugarRay offers a unique perspective on the dance scene Down Under, having emigrated from Britain at the age of 16. He has now spent the same amount of time in his adopted country, where he additionally runs specialist dance retailer Reach’n Records and a label by the same name. “Sydney has gone through a post-Olympic depression, and the [goods and services tax] doesn’t help, which makes it fairly flat at the moment,” SugarRay says. “I feel [that] you learn your apprenticeship in Oz, then you have to make your break.” SugarRay cites the experiences of his ex-Sabotage club co-partner DJ Phil Smart, who has exited Australian shores for San Francisco.

“We’ve got such a sophisticated dance scene here in Australia, and it’s so similar to the English scene,” explains Myles Cooper, executive producer and director of U.K.- and Australia-based video/TV production company Phat Planet Films, which filmed a documentary on Madison Avenue during its chart rise. While he suggests that Australians are “idolizing too many of these English DJs,” he concedes that “if you want to do well in the U.K., you can’t do that from Sydney-you have to go and spend some time there.”

The highest-profile Australian DJ residing in the U.K. is Anthony Pappa, who emigrated from Melbourne six years ago. “The only reason I came here was to further my career as a DJ,” he states. “There’s no other reason why I’d want to leave such a great country [as Australia].” He holds a regular slot with U.K. club giant Renaissance and often tours abroad.

Dance culture Down Under was “a revolution that came from the streets,” according to Sydney producer Paulmac, whose “Just the Thing” (Eleven/EMI) has been a local crossover hit. “It was made in bedrooms, put out through nonprofit indies and driven by [college] radio. In the days when rock and dance were delineated, festivals like Big Day Out would put DJs on its bill. Kids wearing Soundgarden T-shirts would check out what this weird music was and become hooked.” Carl Cox says, “I was given the opportunity to truly represent myself at this year’s Big Day Out festival within a rock-concert-oriented gig and venue to boot. A lot of the rock guys had never seen [this style of music]. A lot of the promoters said, ‘My god’ and ‘Thank you very much’ at the end of it.”

That progress is now evident in the growing clubbing population, which this year has forced dance parties out of warehouses and clubs and into 10,000-capacity arenas. Simon Page, CEO of Sydney’s Home superclub, estimates that some 100,000 people attend raves around the country each weekend. Tours by overseas DJs and acts, the proliferation of small dance radio stations, and the lowering by half of the street price of ecstasy-the so-called “love drug” at the heart of the contemporary global dance culture-have all had major impacts.

“We’d noted that the scene has exploded within the last two or three years,” offers Stuart Dashwood, London-based head of A&R for Perfecto. The London-based label has released a compilation, The Underground Sounds of Australia, to pay homage to the scene Down Under. The set features productions by DJs who supported label head Paul Oakenfold during his summer tour of Australia last year. In addition, Carl Cox tailored one of his Future Alliance of Communication and Technology beat-mixed compilation albums for Australia, too. Released by the local branch of Zomba Records, “it was just a one-off for Australia,” he says. “End of story. If people in England want to buy it, they can get it as an import.”

The arrival of global brand names has helped boost the dance genre’s profile. The U.K.’s Creamfields event has toured this year, and Sheffield-based club empire Gatecrasher has presented a seven-date club tour of Australia and New Zealand through a partnership with Australian events coordinator Agent Mad (Billboard, June 26). “There are a lot more people [in the U.K.] going to dance festivals than rock festivals,” says Simon Oates, co-founder of Gatecrasher. “In three to four years, it will be exactly the same in Australia.”

Last year, angered by what it saw as a slight when the dance accolade was not included on the ARIA music awards’ telecast to 1.8 million people, the dance community set up its own awards, produced by Erin Gascoine and screened by pay-TV Channel [V] Australia. “It’s certainly increased a lot of mainstream media recognition,” Gascoine says. “People recognize that dance is growing faster than rock. The important thing is that each state has a strong scene but there is little national interaction, and these awards provide a nationwide focus for the scene.” Under new programming head Mary Datoc, the regular output of Channel [V] is also recognized as reaching dance-music fans, and labels are directing advertising campaigns accordingly.

Sydney-based dance Web site In the Mix (inthemix.com.au) provides national coverage and claims 600,000 page impressions a week. Founder and managing director AndrZ Lackmann says, “What is really holding back the scene is the lack of high-powered dance radio stations, because the major media is still not covering dance music as much as it should.” Some stations-including Sydney’s Nova 100-are tapping into the genre, though, while Austereo-owned outlets are to carry a weekly national dance show fronted by Andy Van.

“Playing dance parties is still far more effective in breaking a dance act than radio and TV,” contends Anthony Colombi, A&R manager of Global Recordings. “The majors have yet to realize that you only release a track as a single in Europe and the U.K. if you’re trying for a pop hit. Otherwise, you go for club play or getting on a compilation.”
Whatever the most effective path, the Avalanches are treading it. Apart from its domestic success, Since I Left You has sold more than 180,000 units in the U.K. through European licensee XL Recordings, whose A&R chief Leo Silverman says that total far exceeds the label’s initial target. The band collected an accolade Nov. 8 at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Frankfurt, just as earlier they were dubbed the best live act at the U.K.’s Muzik magazine dance awards.

“None of us joined this band because we’re brilliant musicians,” group member Darren Seltmann says. “We all hung out and talked about records we collected as kids, and there’s nothing greater than going onstage with your mates.”

Speaking to Billboard before a sold-out performance at London’s Electric Ballroom, co-frontman Robbie Chater adds, “The scene at home is healthy and organic and has a momentum of its own. It feels like it’s on the verge of something really big.”

 

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