It doesn’t cover half the bands. But it’s much easier to do a deal with four major labels
Independent bands and independent labels are the lifeblood of music the world over. The strength of the Australian music industry – one of the world’s most diverse, desirable and professional music scenes – is directly linked to the health of its independent sector, and attributable to the time and passion independent bands and labels put into releasing quality music. Without independent labels discovering and nurturing bands, releasing their music and providing a critical doorway into the music industry, we’d be stuck with endless lines of Justin Bieber clones that were dreamt up by the marketing team of a major multi-national corporation.
We’d be bereft of the great bands and shining talents whose artistic work we grow up with, dance to, drink to, party to, fall in love to and enjoy life with. Without the independent sector, the live music element to Australian culture – which we all witnessed in full effect with the SLAM Rally earlier this year – wouldn’t have the knowledge and support base to be sustainable, and the lifestyle we enjoy so much, of being able to see great bands in local venues on a nightly basis, wouldn’t exist. Were it not for the countless independent labels putting out CDs, vinyl or cassettes, and giving people access to MP3s, merch and their favourite bands, the Australian music landscape would obviously not exist.
Of course, though, it’s not all rose petals and beer with skittles in it. With two of the biggest indie labels and distributors in the country in Shock and Stomp recently having been sold under mountains of debt, it’s clear that all labels must work smarter to remain viable. The music industry is not – and never was – major labels getting bands to sign a recording contract and making them stars; that model is a fallacy, an idealised dream. The way the music industry now works means that independent bands and independent labels are using their business nous and making music available to people through various channels – it’s no longer simply a ‘numbers sold’ game. It’s about fans connecting with bands and vice versa, making for an environment that’s sustainable and beneficial for a musical culture that we can be proud of.
In that vein, the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR), this week host their annual awards. They recognise the best Australia has to offer from the field of independent music – nominees are all on Australian-owned independent labels – which, in turn, showcases just how strong our homegrown music scene truly is. The night will boast the cream of Australian musical talent, all done on a scale that doesn’t rival the ARIA awards for funding, but definitely boasts all the elements of what make Australian music great – heart, grit… and the love of throwing a good party.
Nick O’Byrne, the General Manager of AIR, is adamant that heading into the fifth annual award show, it’s shaping up better than ever. “This is our second year at The Forum,” he grins, “and I don’t know if we want it to get much bigger to be honest,” he laughs. “We’re pretty happy putting on an event this size, where we get this calibre of artist; we don’t want it to be a small ARIA awards, that’s not really the point. The point is to have an event that’s unique.”
With that in mind, O’Byrne is adamant that the Awards goal – to put the spotlight on bands that, because they don’t have the marketing machine of a big label behind them, might go underappreciated – is steadily being achieved. “Yeah I think so,” he nods. “The idea is to put certain artists to the front that wouldn’t usually be there; there’s not gonna be another award ceremony where the lead nominees are people like Cloud Control or Dan Sultan, or Dan Kelly.” Indeed, you’re not likely to come across the late Rowland S Howard being nominated for more mainstream awards, eve though his last album, Pop Crimes, was an Australian classic.
The awards themselves are run in true independent spirit – with AIR being a non-government, non-profit advocate for independent music – and the awards, especially with the bands playing, represent that side of Australian music. “Yeah,” laughs O’Byrne, “I suppose the awards themselves run a lot like an independent label; it’s a fairly small group of staff. We don’t do it with any sort of pretense; we want punters to come, there’s no VIP areas, it’s all general admission at The Forum…
“We also have the freedom to book the bands we think represent what’s going on in music; so you know the year where Parkway Drive and The Amity Affliction have done amazing things in terms of Australian hardcore music. To actually be getting out there and charting incredibly high and filling up Festival Hall… all that sorta stuff, and we’ve booked The Amity Affliction to play the awards.
“That freedom to put on a show like that is quite a cool thing. It’s also that’s the way independent labels are; they don’t have a choice they just have to knuckle down and do it.”
To highlight the importance of independent labels, bands such as Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Cloud Control can sell out runs of shows (in the case of ESCR, their sold out show at The Palace earlier this year was nothing short of remarkable, and Cloud Control have sold out two shows at The Corner and have just added a third at The East Brunswick Clib) and have records that move into the collective conscious, all without being on a major label.
Al Wright of Cloud Control is adamant that events like the Independent Music Awards display just how important independent labels are to the process of bands succeeding. “It’s still pretty tough for an independent label,” he points out. “It’s tough for any label. It’s ridiculous; no one buys records anymore, so the labels are suffering as everyone is talking about, but on the other side of things it’s easier for a band to find an indie label that suits them perfectly. Now anyone can pretty much record themselves – it means that indie labels can focus more on the music and getting it out there.”
It’s the freedom of that creative relationship, Wright explains, that remains the crucial element of the independent label. “Everyone wants to make money,” he laughs, “but it’s something about indie labels… they just listen to more music and are less likely to sign a band because they’re ‘trendy’ or some reason like that. It’s good being with Ivy League. They look after us; you know everyone who works there and you know that they’re trying their best to get your music out there. Which is what you want.
“They did,” Wright grins, “let us record in a lounge room and bedrooms and stuff, so there’s no pressure to record in a big professional studio or something. They let us do it ourselves, which is good!”
Rob Solid (aka Brad Barry) from Eddy Current Suppression Ring agrees that it’s the freedom to stay true to your morals and keeping the do-it-yourself approach to your music that are crucial. “I guess,” he points out, “the best part of being independent is probably being able to just stick to your guns and play with bands you want, play the places you want and if it becomes a chore, then think about doing something else! If it’s still fun, keep doing it.”
“You always hear stories of people going ‘aww, we took our songs in and they wanted us to do this, and then they weren’t happy with that, that direction’ and all that kinda stuff. And you just think, ‘well that’s what we’re here for in the first place; this is how we do it, why should we be told to go any other way?’”
As for the Independent Music Awards and the reams of Aussie independent labels, Rob is adamant just how vital they are to the way music is discovered in this country. “It’s very important,” he acknowledges, “because it shows you that Australia itself, is about supporting Australia. It’s all the bands in Australia, showing you what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.”
With O’Byrne shaping up for the Awards – “it’s great that’s it’s open to the general public, and hopefully it’ll be a good party; just a magnificent time – it’s also interesting to examine the challenges facing indie labels as the ever-changing music industry continues to evolve.
“The really obvious one is obviously, piracy. But indies and piracy, the small indies have the flexibility and usually the sense – the business sense, the resourcefulness to be quite responsive to the curve of the industry, and find out ways to take advantages of the new streams that don’t previously exist. And it’s really quite inspiring that small businesses are releasing new music, and making money from it, in Australia.
“On the flip side, we’re just seeing Shock and Stomp go belly up and their issues weren’t solely to do with downloads, but I mean there’s no way they would have been in anywhere as near financial trouble if that wasn’t an existing issue.
“But,” he adds, “one of the things that smaller indies can do is cultivate a very loyal audience, and indie bands can do that as well. Once you do that, it’s one of the ways you can continue to make money, despite piracy. But that generally is a challenge for indies.”
AIR itself, remains a voice fighting for the viability of Australian music, and O’Byrne sees this as their crucial role – one that the Independent Music Awards help by getting those successful bands into the public’s eye even more.
AIR, O’Byrne states, are about “fair business conditions for indie labels and indie musicians. The major labels share 70% of the music industry sales in Australia, and 300 other labels and 2,000 released artists, have the other 30%. So yeah if you’re a group where, if they want to start a new service, they just sign a deal with the four majors and leave it at that. ‘Cause they think ‘that’ll cover it’,” he explains.
“It doesn’t,” O’Bryne points out. “It doesn’t cover half the world’s great bands. But it’s much easier to do a deal with four major labels than to 300 others. It’s up to people like AIR to first of all speak up for them, and help the smaller people negotiate. It’s just about standing up and being counted and making sure you’ve got fair market access and a fair chance to be heard.”
The 5 th annual Jagermeister Independent Music Awards – take place at The Forum this Friday October 1, and feature performances from some of the nominated artists, including British India, Sally Seltmann, The Amity Affliction, Cloud Control, Joe Chindamo and M-Phazes’s hip hop extravaganza featuring Candice Monique, Muph, Solo, Mantra and Illy. Tickets are available to the public through ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100. Doors open at 8pm. For more info on the AIR Awards, charts and independent music check out ausindies.com.