Importance of Melbourne’s labels
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Importance of Melbourne’s labels

Aarght Records’ Rich Stanley doesn’t want to hear about the ‘importance’ of bands – the label head’s misinterpretation of a question surrounding the necessity of independent record labels proved fascinating. There were expletives least to say and large ones at that, nevertheless, cynicism paved way for a candid insight into the role of indies.

Is an independent label important if it prefers to be concealed so as not to interfere their bands’ public reach? Every Facebook like, Instagram follow or friendly comment a Melbourne label receives would be happily diverted for further benefit of their music geniuses.

As Stanley says, “We are literally a label, like a label on a mandarin, ideally irrelevant to the person eating the mandarin.” So maybe labels are just there, like an entourage to a megastar – pedestrian in the eyes of the public but much more crucial to those in the know.

If you entered the tool shed of an independent record label, there’d be screwdrivers, hammers and freshly sharpened angle-grinders. Like tradies in casual attire, Melbourne’s indie label generals give bands respite from the nitty gritty business stuff, whether it be organising the mixing and mastering of a record or sitting on hold while Sound Merch sort out the next batch of tees.

Their clothes don’t stay clean for long, but there’s never time to get changed – many of these genial intellects work on a personal level as well, providing direction and emotional support to their bands when needed.

“We spend a lot of time with our artists, talking, eating food, drinking etc.,” Chapter Music heads Ben O’Connor and Guy Blackman explain. “We aren’t totally hands on, i.e. we give artists the space to do what they want to do, but we give feedback or advice and occasionally put our foot down where we think it’s needed.

“Most of our artists don’t have managers, and artists generally need a lot of emotional support. Many years ago, we were our artists’ peers, but now that we’re older we’re starting to feel like parents.”

One of Australia’s longest-running indies, Chapter Music was established by Blackman in Perth in 1992 but relocated to Melbourne in 1995 and has been fostering everything from rock, pop, country and electronic imaginations ever since.

Whether you’ve filled the room with Primitive Calculators’ 2007 compilation Primitive Calculators and Friends, snoozed in the afternoon sun to Twerps’ warm 2009 self-titled album or ignited the dancefloor with NO ZU’s heat beat origination Afterlife, Chapter has been a part of your life, little you might’ve known.

Despite the mounting financial constrictions of the music industry, the label has continued to grow which O’Connor and Blackman can simply put down to hard work. “Chapter is a full time job for both of us, but we also both work other jobs to keep ourselves afloat, so we’re basically doing 12-hour days 6-7 days a week.

“It’s our life. We have made a fairly explicit commitment to being broke for the rest of our lives so we can work with music we love and care deeply about.”

O’Connor and Blackman won’t work another day in their life such is their appreciation for the craft. Every music achievement, whether it be Beaches selling out their album launch or The Goon Sax making their first song, undermines every constraint that comes with the job.

Similar can be said for Jen Cloher and Milk! Records – when Courtney Barnett started the label in 2012 to release her debut EP I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, the vision was to help others not necessarily herself.

What’s resulted is one of Melbourne’s friendliest, most colourful labels – an aesthetic which Cloher feels has simply been a result of working with cheery, affable people.

“It’s a fun thing that we get to do. Making music with our best friends. The energy of that rubs off, people can feel it when they watch a show. I don’t think you can manufacture that feeling.”

On top of facilitating releases, Milk! is one of the few labels that curate their own events. The Coburg RSL played host to a mystery residency from the label in July whereby none of the lineups for the three shows were announced in advance.

Barnett and Cloher were joined by label mates, Fraser A. Gorman, Loose Tooth, Ouch My Face and more, to sculpt a concept seldom explored.           

Such a wave of ‘why not’ creativity is beginning to permeate more and more into the Melbourne scene. Bedroom Suck Records recently took off on their second Up The Guts tour, literally venturing up the middle of Australia to play gigs in ramshackled pubs from Mount Gambier to Tennant Creek.

Some people have alluded to the presence of a dark cloud over Melbourne’s music scene as threats such as government restriction and money murmur in the shadows.