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.