All posts tagged eddy-current-suppression-ring

  • A Conversation With Mikey Young, Eddy Current Suppression Ring guitarist

    Melbourne garage rock band Eddy Current Suppression RingEddy Current Suppression Ring are a Melbourne garage rock band. I spoke with their guitarist, Mikey Young [pictured right], for a story in The Big Issue (‘Keeping Current‘) that was published in late April 2010. Our conversation took place on March 17, ahead of a national tour in support of their third album, Rush To Relax. What follows is a transcript of our whole conversation.

    Andrew: Mikey, my first question is more of a statement than a question. It’s something that I’ve noticed. Eddy Current seem to be one of the best bands in Australia at deflecting any and all praise thrown your way.

    Mikey: Well I appreciate praise, but it makes me really uncomfortable. I’m glad people like us, for sure, but I’m very wary of not letting praise go to our heads or thinking about it much.

    So it’s not a matter of when you’re nominated for a new award or critical accolade, you don’t sit down together and go, “Right, what’s the best way to downplay this?”

    No, not at all. I’m usually the one doing the interviews and so it’s probably my reactions that appear [in the media]. I don’t want to come across… I’m sure that quietly in my head I’m stoked and we’re proud of ourselves, but we definitely don’t sit around and say “let’s downplay it”. And the opposite of that, we don’t sit around going “how good are we?!”, slapping ourselves on the back. Awards and stuff are funny anyway, they’re a strange concept. We try not to think about it, and just make some tunes.

    A broad question: why do you think people like your band?

    That’s another thing I’ve briefly thought about in the past and I realised the more I think about it, actually I don’t really want to think about it. I don’t really want to know why people… I don’t want to be conscious of that. I feel it might sort of affect how we make music. If I’m oblivious to it and we just do it, for ourselves, then I figure it will be easier on my head.

    I have thought about it, though. I think we’re a good live band, which helps. I think there is a fair simplicity to the music, and honesty in Brendan’s delivery and lyrics. I guess when things are really simple and honest upfront, then maybe they appeal to a larger range of people. I don’t know. I think to keep things pretty simple, then a lot of people can get into it. That’s not why we make simple music. I guess that’s just the way it turned out, but if I had to think about why people like us, hopefully it’s because we’re an okay band.

    Do you think a band’s talent is reflected in their number of fans or number of records sold?

    Are you asking whether popularity is representative of talent? Not always, I would think not. Seeing as I can barely listen to the radio these days, but that’s just my opinion. I just can’t stand a lot of popular music. That doesn’t really mean they’re talentless. I’m sure there is talent in making songs that I consider horrible to my ears; it just doesn’t work for me. I feel out of the loop when it comes to popular music at the moment. I’m probably not the best person to ask that question. Popularity and talent aren’t always on the same page.

    Reading your past interviews, I did notice that the recurring theme of refusing to self-promote…

    I have to stop doing all these interviews. I have all the same answers. [laughs]

    There’s a quote of yours that I like: “I think if you don’t shove yourself in peoples’ faces, they’ll end up liking you more in the long run.”

    I guess that was – maybe not from the start because we probably didn’t think that far ahead, but when we realised things were starting to have some sort of groundswell of popularity, that was something I was pretty aware of, just from being a music fan, reading magazines over the years, that if a band is shoved in your face publicity-wise; if they’re on the front cover and have ads everywhere and you can’t escape them, they don’t really feel like [they’re] yours. If you let someone go out and find it in their own time, it probably feels more special to them. It’s like they’ve made the groundwork, and it might feel more like their band rather than everybody’s band.

    The self-discovery aspect is always more interesting to indie music fans. Those kinds of artists don’t have a big marketing budget behind them, and it’s generally the fans and critics that propel them forward, instead of the band themselves.

    Hopefully it attracts people to your band that actually like your band for the right reasons; they like the music you do and that’s the reason they’re into your band, not for any other reason. It’s more enjoyable, rather than being told to like something.

    Reading those interviews, there are lots of mentions of ‘finding yourself in certain situations’, as if you’re indicating that your success is entirely accidental.

    It’s not entirely accidental. It’s definitely not the goal. We haven’t done anything to further our career. If we tour overseas, it’s not to ‘crack a market’ or anything like that, or if we put a record out at a certain time, or anything like that. The only thing that is on purpose in this band is the making of the records and playing of shows. I guess everything else is a by-product of that. Maybe accidental is the wrong word. There have been a lot of funny accidents, but we’ve had a ridiculously good run. I guess success has never been our goal. None of us are anti-success; if that happens, that’s awesome, but it’s all a by-product of what we want to do, which is to make the best records that we can.

    You’re heavily involved in the Melbourne indie scene with the label and your time at the vinyl pressing plant [Corduroy]. Surely you must have had some idea that the music you were making would appeal to people.

    Not really. I don’t work at the plant anymore. I’m not even involved in the label anymore. That’s only a recent development. I guess I’m involved now. When I started, I didn’t really know that many people within that scene. I knew a small group of people from the record plant, but when we had that first jam I really didn’t think that it would appeal to that many people at all. I knew we could probably press 200 7-inches and get away with it, and then our friends and family would probably buy enough of them to make our money back. Beyond that, I thought I’d have them sitting under my bed for a year, then I’ll get rid of them when we play a show, and that will be fine. That’s all we wanted to do, was usually play one show, just to show our friends, “Look what we’ve got.”

    I think after the first show I did realise people did really like this. I was sort of surprised and I could see that there were bands before that I felt didn’t really have anything special about them, and when I did play with this band I did feel like there was that special thing that I’ve been looking for in other bands. I noticed that other people noticed that too. There’s no way that I thought that many people would like us. I sort of think if I hear us on triple j or something, I think we stick out really weirdly and don’t sound like a real band or something. I’m actually slightly flummoxed that we’re as popular as we are.

    Is it uncomfortable feeling when you hear your songs on the radio?

    I don’t listen to the radio that much anymore so I don’t have to bother about it. It’s sort of nice; because I’m so heavily involved with the making of the music and the recording of the music, when I hear it accidentally on the radio or when I’m out somewhere in a shop, I can be a bit objective about it for a second. I can sort of go, “Actually, this is pretty good.” The only way I can hear it as an outsider for a brief second.

    Then you think, “Wait a second, I actually recorded and mixed that.”

    Yeah, it takes about three seconds before it processes that it’s actually me playing. In those three seconds, I can have this weird brief moment of “Ah, I like this” and sort of feel different about it.

    Melbourne garage rock band Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Photo by Ben LoveridgeI want to clarify your role within the band. You’re the guitarist, keyboardist, and you mix the albums?

    I record and mix them, yeah.

    Is the band still self-managed?

    Yes, for the first time – for our whole career I’ve just booked the shows and I guess managed the band, just out of accident. We got bigger, and someone needed to do it and I had more time on my hands, so I kept doing it. This coming album tour is the first time I’ve ever handed over any of the responsibility to an outsider; we’ve got a tour manager this time. It’s gotten to the stage where the shows, especially for the album launches, are quite big. I wanted to sit back for once and just enjoy myself and just play. Sometimes, on the bigger shows, I get a bit stressed out with the responsibility of it all, and I’m more waiting for the relief of it to be over, rather than enjoying the show. I thought I just want to go out there and relax for a tour, just let someone do all the other stuff, like booking flights and everything.

    Did you find it difficult to hand over the reins?

    Yeah. Well, it’s still happening. The tour’s about to start. I think I found it weird. In a way, it’s no less work. You’re still [included] in the same emails, there’s just a middleman now, but I do feel a distance from responsibility, like I don’t feel like, “God, it’s my fault if this tour goes wrong” or something like that. I feel like just a band member and I feel good about it. I think we have gone so far with it being totally insular and doing it all ourselves. I did feel pretty weird to sort finally let go of something. It’s been good so far.

    You might be aware that there’s a bit of a backlash about the last album, which tends to happen with almost any band who ‘outgrows their roots’.

    I read one or two reviews. I think it was a Tom Hawking review [on The Vine] and then a response to that review that someone alerted me to. To be honest, I think for a band in our position we’ve gotten amazingly far without really having a strong backlash. Even if there is a backlash on the new record, it’s sort of been pretty minute. You put out three records; someone is going to like your first record better than the new one. Plenty of people whose opinion I totally trust think this is our best record. I should just be happy that anyone likes any of our records; I don’t think the backlash is for any other reason despite the music. I don’t care. I don’t like some records. Is that all that the backlash is about? You’re probably more aware of it than I am.

    For example, there’s a topic on the Mess+Noise discussion boards called “Eddy Current Backlash” which was mostly about that Tom Hawking review. It currently has 178 responses.

    Okay. I’m probably just guilty of Googling my own band and reviews as anyone else. I do realise it’s not the healthiest of habits. [laughs]. I’m not taking it to heart anyway, but I don’t know; that’s fine. It wasn’t a bad review. It seemed pretty genuinely thought-out, smartly written and stuff. It’s just weird for me. People think more about our records than we actually do. That’s the only thing that’s weird to me: I don’t think we’re the type of band you need to dissect that much. “We wrote ten songs in the last year, and we recorded them. Here they are.” That’s sort of how much we think about it. It’s funny to see other people analyse it when there is – it’s like other people care about it more than we do.

    I read a quote about your live shows where you said the bigger the band gets, the harder it is to please everyone, and you probably took it to heart a bit at first and you’re trying to make sure everyone is having a good time.

    That could equally apply to the records we put out. There was a stage when the shows got a bit bigger and the people that were there at the start weren’t enjoying it as much as the crowds got a bit rowdier. They got pushed to the back and there were jerks there. It would really affect me to find out after the show that so-and-so had a bad time because some dude was being a wanker. Not that I really want to tolerate jerks at any of our shows, but I’ve also got to realise that I can’t control everything and have to do everything I can and then just play a show and enjoy it, rather than stress about every person in the audience. It is a bit harder to control a thousand people compared to fifty.

    Mess+Noise writer asked you in 2006 whether violence at a rock and roll show is ever justifiable. I’d like to put that question to you again, now that you’re quite a bit bigger than you were in 2006.

    I don’t think violence at shows is ever justifiable. I don’t think violence anywhere can be justified. I don’t see a place for it, for sure, and I definitely don’t see a place for it at our gigs. I’ve never really understood that kind of reaction to our kind of music. It seems to me sort of fairly good-time music in my head. Maybe I’m wrong.

    You mentioned in another interview that Eddy Current can offer support slots to bands that you really like, to help or to expose them to other people. Was this because other bands extended that same courtesy to you when you were starting out?

    Yeah definitely, and it’s just more from being a fan of records. For instance, those overseas bands that we’ve played with; I’m sure Thee Oh Sees would have done fine without us, but if we can do a couple of shows and 500 or 1,000 people seeing them that maybe hadn’t heard of them, you know, then that’s awesome. It’s good when overseas bands come out and you’re in a position where you can do that. It’s the same with local bands, friends’ bands, and stuff like that. You just want to play with bands you love and you want to expose. I guess people come to our shows, there are a lot of people now that maybe don’t go to smaller gigs and stuff like that. If we can just expose some good bands, then you feel like you’ve done a good deed.

    You’re paying forward what you felt in the past couple of years, when you were growing your fanbase.

    Totally, and also like all the bands I grew up watching when I was first turned 18, 19 – bands like The Exotics and The Breadmakers – to be able to now put them on shows in front of younger dudes who wouldn’t have seen them before. It’s repaying that favor to those bands that have entertained us a heap over the years.

    Melbourne garage rock band Eddy Current Suppression RingI want to ask you about the live music scene in Melbourne at the moment, because I saw that Eddy Current were involved with The Tote’s final show. Did you attend the SLAM rally?

    I didn’t, actually. I’m glad it went really well. I had a mixing session to help a dude finish a record that day. I thought of cancelling, but then I thought “what’s the point?”. I thought it would be more proactive to sit there and help someone finish making music than actually go protest about not being able to make music.

    I’m not trying to guilt trip you for not being there, you know.

    Not at all, I was just explaining. [laughs]

    Following The Tote’s closure, how do you feel about the live music scene in Melbourne? Do you think it’s healthier, or really struggling because of those liquor licensing laws?

    I always say the wrong answer to these kinds of questions. I don’t think I said the things that people wanted to hear when The Tote closed. But The Tote was great, The Tote was awesome to my band and it was a good place for years. In that time, I know a lot of venues have closed down, but a lot of venues are still open. It seems to me – I guess I’ve been in the city for 11 years or so – like Melbourne has more venues [now] than it did 10 years ago. There seems to be more bands.

    Shit’s gotta die off and get fresh again. I think good things will happen, and good things will continue to happen, and even though it seems sad now, it’s probably good in a way. Things might get stale and younger dudes will start new venues and we’ll all think of different ways of doing things. I think Melbourne is strong enough to survive with one less venue.

    To change topics entirely, I want to ask about the masks on the cover of Rush To Relax, even though probably every other music journalist you’ve spoken to has asked the same question.

    No-one has actually asked about the masks.

    What inspired you to use them?

    I don’t know. Nothing, really. I think we just had the idea for the film clip before we had the cover. We wanted the film clip to look a bit creepy. We just wanted a creepy-looking film clip and then we had the idea of shooting the cover on the same day because we didn’t want to hire a plane twice. Maybe we were just scared of our own faces on the covers, but there is no symbolic meaning behind the masks. They were cool, so we put them on.

    It’s the first release of yours where the band actually appear on the cover.

    I know, I think people were getting a bit sick of our other covers. [laughs]

    So the masks weren’t a matter of trying to protect your anonymity?

    Melbourne garage rock band Eddy Current Suppression Ring, from the cover of their 'Rush To Relax' albumNot really. We’re pretty conscious of never wanting to be the ‘four dudes in leather jackets down an alleyway’ type of band. It happened because of the film clip. We had an idea for the film clip and we didn’t really want to – we wanted a different look for the film clip. That shot [the album cover] just happened to be a shot from the day of the film clip. That’s all there is to the masks.

    How much attention to you guys pay to the band’s image?

    Not much. There’s not really much difference between the way we look or act on stage or in the band than how we do in normal life. I guess the only attention we’re paying is just giving accurate representation of ourselves. That’s about it.

    You actually hired a plane for the album shot and the video clip?


    Which company did you go with? Did they dig the concept of what you were doing?

    It was pretty hard to find a company that still does those old plane banners. I think it was a guy called Sky Surfers down in some town in country Victoria. I always used to like those banners as a kid and I always wanted one. Our album cost nothin’, and our friends film our videos, and I guess we won some money last year [the AMP] and I felt like we should show that we spent it on something. So we might as well get a stupid big plane. When it came flying over, while were waiting to film the clip, it was seriously the most exciting event. We were just jumping up and down going “yes!”

    “We’ve made it. We have a banner!”

    Totally, man! It was like “box ticked – I can retire now”.

    Do you still have the banner?

    Unfortunately, they just recycle the letters and you can’t keep the banner.


    It would have been excellent to put it up at the back of our gigs or something.

    It would. With each album you’ve kind of gone backwards. I read that Rush To Relax was recorded even cheaper and more quickly than the last one. Do you see a logical conclusion to this pattern? Will you end up recording an hour-long album in an hour?

    Mike Young of Melbourne garage rock band Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Photo by Sarah McEvoyI always thought about it but I think probably not. I can’t see how we can do it much more quickly and cheaper than this one. Definitely not any cheaper. Too much attention is paid to how long it takes for us to record albums. It’s not like we’re trying to prove a point. I have the recording gear so it doesn’t cost us anything. We’re comfortable with doing it that way, and that it sounds okay for what we’re trying to do. Unlike some bands maybe, who go into a recording session to write songs or something, we have 12 – 15 songs written and ready to go. It’s basically just setting up.

    The album is only 40 minutes of music, so I always thought if you can’t play the songs you’re trying to record well after three takes, you shouldn’t be recording it. We try a song a couple of times and hopefully it’s done. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Brendan always seems to be quirky and out of time, and there’s plenty of room for bum notes and stuff like that. I like that kind of thing about this kind of music. We’re not trying to achieve any kind of perfection. Six hours [to record an album] is plenty of time.

    On the other end of the spectrum, do you ever see yourselves being victims or locking yourselves in the studio for a week to really nail it out properly, with a big name producer and all that sort of music industry bullshit?

    I’m not against that kind of thing. I don’t think it suits our band. I just don’t think it would work. I’m pretty sure that this way is the correct way for this band. It’s not necessarily how I’d do it for any other band or any other band I’d record. I don’t think it’s definitely the way to do it, I just think that it works for this band.

    Having said that, I don’t walk out at the end of the day with a finished product. I still bring it home and mix it, and spend some time making it sound okay. There is other time beyond those 6 hours, but I just guess we have the luxury of having our own gear and I relatively know what I’m doing. I can just mix the record in my bedroom. It’s nice to be in the position where you don’t have to rely on producers and studios.

    Are you happy to keep doing that for the next few Eddy Current releases?

    Yeah, I think so. For a new song we just wrote, I’ve got a very different idea that I wouldn’t mind trying a different way. I think I’m happy with, if anything, I can see us doing it sort of rougher. Like, I think we can experiment with some 4-track cassette recordings rather than 8-track, and I think I’d really like the drum sound we’re getting on that, so if we do some more stuff I wouldn’t be surprised if we regress even further.

    That sounds like the ultimate way to make money: to be completely DIY indie, to release the album for nothing, and just to tour on the back of it and make money.

    I guess it’s a way of keeping costs down, that’s for sure.

    Eddy Current are credited with having a large impact on the Australian punk and garage revival scene. What are your thoughts on that?

    I think there have actually been a couple of bands that have sprung up since that I feel some sort of kinship with, but I think if it wasn’t us that did that, it would have been someone else. I think it was one of those things that were going to happen anyway. We just happened to get in first.

    I read that you’re fond of playing house parties and small gigs to ‘keep it real’ for the old fans.

    I think it’s mainly for our sanity. If we play the big shows in Perth all the time, we just go nuts. I guess just to do an occasional really small show and house party is just really to keep us sane and to remember that type of show and enjoy the show. I guess it keeps things as diverse as possible.

    The upcoming tour you’re playing mid-sized kind of venues. In Brisbane, you’re playing The Zoo.

    Which is pretty big for us. I think we’ve only played The Step Inn in Brisbane, so I guess The Zoo seems like the logical step up, up there.  Brisbane hasn’t got a lot of options.

    No, it really doesn’t. Between The Zoo, which is 450, I think the next step up is the Hi-Fi, which is 1,000+.

    I don’t think we’re ready to go to that, not in Brisbane anyway. I don’t think our following is that strong up there.

    I read a quote where you said you’ve done a good job with distancing yourself from the music biz. I saw that you turned down SXSW, which a lot of other Australian bands probably wouldn’t do. They’d probably view that as a massive opportunity.

    It was probably bad timing, but I’d just rather go over there and play a lot of shows and not really worry about that kind of stuff. I think SXSW is probably really enjoyable for a local because you get to see a lot of bands, but unless you’re going there for a reason and trying to become something, it’s probably not the best time to play a show. I’d rather wait until things die down and do a normal tour.

    Considering there are 1,500 or 1,800 bands playing in a week or something.

    Totally. It almost sounds like it’s working against its purpose.

    I’ve read that you’ve got quite a broad taste in music, Mikey. I want to know what inspired you to play guitar in that Eddy Current style.

    I don’t know; I’m sure it’s a bunch of things. Definitely my time at Corduroy [Records, a vinyl pressing plant], being surrounded by those type of bands and musicians and stuff, had an influence on the type of music I play and how I play. I spent three years listening to teenage garage records from the ‘60s or something, and I realised that that’s the sound of guitar I like and I’m going to try my best to rip it off.

    I have one last question. It’s about the Australian Music Prize. It’s gone from Eddy Current’s indie garage sound to the current winner, which is a major label-distributed album by a former Australian Idol contestant.

    This is a loaded question, isn’t it? [laughs]

    I just want to gauge your take on that.

    That’s fine. I think it’s definitely reactionary. I think it was pretty obvious the day after we won it that they were going to give it to a chick this year. I haven’t heard Lisa Mitchell’s records so I’m not in a position to say if it’s a good record or bad record. I think I heard one of the songs on the radio and quite liked it. I guess if they’re doing it for why I say they’re doing it, it shouldn’t really matter if it’s on a major or indie or if it’s an Australian Idol winner or not. If they honestly think it’s the best record then so be it.

    That’s a very diplomatic response.

    I’m so out of the loop that I probably haven’t heard any of the records on the damn thing anyway. I don’t think I’m really the best person qualified. I have no ill feeling towards that.

    That’s all I’ve got for you, Mikey.

    Hopefully there’s something there. I rambled.


    Check out Eddy Current Suppression Ring on MySpace, and view the video for ‘Rush To Relax’ below.

  • The Big Issue story: ‘Keeping Current: Eddy Current Suppression Ring’, April 2010

    A story for The Big Issue #353 on Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Click the image below for full-size, readable version; story text is included underneath.

    The Big Issue story: 'Staying Current' on Eddy Current Suppression Ring by Andrew McMillen

    Keeping Current

    Six hours is plenty of time to record a full-length rock album from start to finish, claims Mikey Young from Melbourne band Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Did you hear that? That was the sound of professional recording engineers, meticulous sound technicians and veteran major label marketing managers gasping in horror.

    ECSR is beholden to no such middlemen. Instead, the band have cultivated a reputation as indie heroes, of sorts: their completely hands-on, DIY approach to all aspects of their career has resulted in a steady rise in the popularity of not only the band themselves, but of the lo-fi, old-school garage rock sound that they’ve played a large part in resurrecting for a new generation of Australian music fans. Young tells me that he spent three years listening to “teenage garage records from the ’60s” while working at Corduroy Records’ vinyl pressing plant, where he realised his fondness for the distinctive guitar tone that now characterises the band: warm and clean for the most part, though prone to occasional buzzing, abrasive bursts of energy.

    None of the above would hold much weight if the band didn’t have an audience. Who cares about an indie band doing everything themselves, for cheap? But the band do have an audience, and many do care. In a transition reminiscent of fellow Melburnians The Drones in recent years, Eddy Current Suppression Ring can lay claim to a rare confluence of events: they’re lauded by music critics, and they’re popular enough to dent the mainstream (their third album, Rush To Relax, debuted in mid-February at #20 on the ARIA album chart). But most importantly, they’ve managed to keep most of their fan base intact, despite their rising profile and the inevitable backlash that occurs when artists outgrow their roots.

    Though their lo-fi garage rock sound continues to attract more ears, the band’s production costs seem to be inversely proportional. The quartet were the recipients of the $30,000 Australian Music Prize (AMP) in March 2009 ahead of competition like The Presets, Cut Copy, and the aforementioned Drones. The album that won it for them, Primary Colours (2008), reportedly cost just $1,500 to make. Young – whose roles within the band include guitarist, keyboardist, studio recorder, mixer, and manager – claims Rush To Relax cost less and took even less time.

    Where does it end, then? The logical conclusion is that they’ll record the next release in one take. Curious, I put the idea to Young. “I always thought about it, but I think it’s unlikely. I can’t see how we can do it much more quickly or cheaper than [Rush To Relax]. Definitely not any cheaper!” However, he feels that too much attention is paid to the length of time it takes for the band to record albums. “It’s not like we’re trying to prove a point. I have the recording gear, so it doesn’t cost us anything. We’re comfortable with doing it that way, and it sounds okay for what we’re trying to do. Unlike some bands who go into a recording session to write songs, we tend to have 12 to 15 songs written and ready to go.”

    On record, ECSR aim to sound as close to their live performances as possible. Young elaborates: “I always thought if you can’t play the songs you’re trying to record well after three takes, you shouldn’t be recording it. We try a song a couple of times and hopefully it’s done. There’s plenty of room for bum notes and stuff like that. We’re not trying to achieve any kind of perfection.”

    Young believes idiosyncratic singer Brendan Huntley “always seems to be quirky and out of time,” which, alongside his simplistic, honest lyrics, may influence the band’s broad-reaching popularity.

    While keeping their career completely DIY might not quite result in the proverbial license to print money, self-recording their material is “a way of keeping costs down, that’s for sure,” says Young. What of the AMP cash they won 12 months ago, then? Besides securing their own recording space, Young laughs as he discusses the photograph that adorns the Rush To Relax album cover.

    It isn’t Photoshopped: they really hired the plane that appears in the sky, high above the band, who are wearing masks (“Maybe we were just scared of our own faces on the cover,” he adds, before stressing that there’s no symbolic meaning behind the masks). The cost of this venture seems at odds with their DIY approach, until you consider the importance the band place on their artistic integrity. After speaking with Young, I’m convinced that faking the shot wouldn’t have occurred to the band at all.

    “It was pretty hard to find a company that still does those old plane banners. I always used to like those banners as a kid and I always wanted one,” the guitarist says. “Our album cost nothin’, and our friends film our videos, and I guess we won some money last year,” – he laughs. “And I felt like we should show that we spent it on something. So we might as well get a stupid big plane.”

    It turned out to be one of those we’ve-made-it moments: “When it came flying over, it was seriously the most exciting event. We were just jumping up and down going ‘yes!’ It was like, box ticked, I can retire now!”

    by Andrew McMillen

    Video for the Rush To Relax title track embedded below.

  • A Conversation With Stu Watters, Australian Independent Record Labels Association General Manager

    Stu Watters - in the fleshThis is my first interview on behalf of One Movement Word, which is the official blog of the One Movement For Music  (OMFM) Perth festival and conference. In the lead-up to the October 2009 event, I’ll be speaking with a range of OMFM artists, speakers and music industry figures, and publishing the full transcripts on here.

    Stu Watters is General Manager of the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR). After representing AIR for five years, he recently announced his depature from the organisation. I caught up with Stu before he heads to Brisbane to launch a new video production and licensing venture in July 2009. I came across former FasterLouder editor Cec Busby’s 2007 interview while researching, and used one of Stu’s responses during that conversation for my first question.

    Music fan to music fan: how have your listening habits changed since you first saw Dire Straits as a young tacker?

    It’d have been hard for me to avoid Dire Straits at that age, given that there were only a few outlets and media opportunities available to artists. And those guys just had access to all of it, and there was no escaping it.

    These days, it’s a very different ballgame: obviously at that age, I was very open to listening, and becoming a fan of whatever was put in front of me, whereas these days I’ve certainly developed a different palate. But I also explore and discover music in all the ways that are available to me. I have to say that there’s a lot of music that I fall in and out of love with very quickly, because something else comes along, which didn’t happen as much when I was younger.

    I would say that it’s harder to hold on to some of the music in the same way that I’d used to, in that I’d just flog stuff to death. My wife would argue that I still do, but I don’t reckon I do it anywhere near the same extent that I used to, because I’ve just got so many options that I’m exposed to on a regular basis. (The Twitter tool) Blip.FM has ruined my life this week, because all of a sudden I’ve got a whole bunch of new music that I have to listen to!

    It’s so much easier these days to get exposed to a lot more music. It’s very important to define filters that you can trust – people who you can look to, and like what they’re listening to – and that’s why I like software that can ‘plug and stream’. It’s a shame that (online radio streaming app) Pandora isn’t accessible here (in Australia) any more, because that was a really fantastic service. I could punch in something that I really liked, and it would give me stuff that I’d never heard of, but I knew that I’d like it.

    You know better than anyone in the industry that acts can come and go. I find that due to the sheer volume of music available online, it’s difficult for artists to get noticed – to be heard above the crowd, so to speak. If you were starting a band today, how would you go about getting heard?

    Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Dude in the back with the beer is loving it.As a band who wants to get exposure, you’re going to have to focus on the core outlets, which I think are still very much around community and commercial radio. I don’t think that that’s going to change for a long time. There’s certainly a greater opportunity for artists to create videos without focusing on the goal of television exposure, although that may happen naturally. Having a strategy built around covering online bases such as MySpace and YouTube is important, but I think it’s still absolutely critical that you have a very, very strong live performance that creates an amazing audience.

    Bands like Eddy Current Suppression Ring are testament to that idea: it’s a show that you go to, and you take it away with you when you leave. They sell phenomenal amounts of records (at each show), and they’ve done fuck-all in terms of production. I was lucky enough to go to the Melbourne Zoo show that they did recently, where 3,500 people turned up, purely because they wanted to see this band put on a great live show. And I still think that’s absolutely critical, irrespective of any of the changes that’ve occurred to the environment in which we distribute music.

    That live experience, that tangible, tactile thing, is still critical to the whole experience.

    AIR works with a variety of digital music services and distributors. There’s quite a few on the market – iTunes, Tunecore, and CDBaby, for example. Which of these offer among the best return on investment?

    You’ve got to identify what each one is trying to achieve. iTunes and Bigpond are retailers: Tunecore, IODA, The Orchard and so forth are all aggregators and distributors, and then you’ve got the relationship directly with the physical distributors. I think the dynamics have changed dramatically, and it would certainly appear that for a number of services – digital aggregator models which have been running off of percentages – the dynamic has changed in a huge way, in that they played a ‘gatekeeper’ role for a number of years, and I think that’s been broken down a lot.

    The Tunecore model, where they’re working off of the upfront, ‘flat fee’, is changing the dynamic considerably. And when you’ve got owners of content in the market who’ve licensed the content through a third party to a licensee, they’ve gone into those agreements at a time when there wasn’t a solution. It’s now very simple for the owners of the content – the licensors – to go directly to the licensees and offer the product. In the past, a digital delivery platform didn’t exist to enable that relationship; now, it’s very easy.

    In terms of value for money, there’s been a number of middle-men that’ve been cut out of the picture. At the bigger end of town – and by that, I mean even the big indie labels who’re still small players on a larger scale – they’re now able to be in a position where they can supply the content to the consumer directly.

    I don’t believe there’s a particular service that’s the ‘best’ value for money; the best value is the direct relationship between those two business entities. In terms of small, independent artists, services like Tunecore which offer ‘flat fee’-based pricing are probably turning out to be a better deal for a lot of companies that don’t have the leverage that others do.

    You mentioned that middle-men have been cut out of the industry. Do you think that’s for the better?

    Certainly. If you’re an artist and you’re dealing with a record label, there’s a percentage of your overall revenue that you’re losing there. If that record label is dealing with a distributor, then there’s another percentage. If that distributor doesn’t have a relationship with an online retailer, such as iTunes, Bigpond or Amazon MP3, they’ll have to use an aggregator, so there’s another percentage that the artist isn’t seeing. It’s just like continually slicing an ever-diminishing pie. The less steps there are in that equation to reach the consumer, the better off the artist will be financially. The end goal of most artists is to reach as many people as you can with your music; it’s not necessarily about making money, but reaching an audience has always been important.

    The Middle East's debut EP

    Do you believe radio airplay is still important for emerging acts in Australia?

    Absolutely. Let me give you an example – The Middle East. A colleague of mine heard them on Triple R, a community radio station, before they were played anywhere else.

    Through that, we found the band, and Triple J discovered them soon after. Their music’s awesome, and the radio airplay has created a following for them.

    I’m a massive supporter of community radio in this country, and it’s not until you visit other countries that you realise that they don’t have public radio in the same way that we have with Triple J – although, the UK has six BBC stations. We have a really strong radio culture in Australia, and I think it plays an extremely important role. And you can’t deny the impact that commercial radio airplay has on breaking artists. I don’t think it’s the ‘be all and end all’, but certainly, if an artist gets to the level where they can create enough momentum on commercial radio, there are usually excellent dividends to be paid as a result.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned The Middle East, because their release (‘The Recordings Of The Middle East’ EP) is my favourite of 2009. It’s amazing.

    Yeah, it’s killing me. I have a lot of faith in their artistic ability, to become an international act. It’s one of those records that my wife has hidden from me. I’m not allowed to play it any more! That’s a classic example of listeners having the opportunity to discover a band from Townsville, because of the shortened distance between audiences. A band like that 20 years ago, out of Townsville; it’d have taken a hell of a long time before they got to that level of exposure.

    And there’s a danger in that, too: artists who are making really good music, but who are perhaps not quite ready for the impact of their work. And I know that those guys (The Middle East) are getting smashed on every front. Who’s managing them? Who’s doing all the booking? They released the EP through Spunk, but who knows what’ll happen next?

    They’re getting belted as an act, and you wonder whether they’re professionally equipped to deal with it. There’s a real upside to the diminishing barriers to access with this stuff, but there can also be an impact that’s not always positive. I don’t think it’ll be negative in this case, but it’s not always positive in terms of – is the band ready for that level of attention? And if they aren’t what are the consequences of them not capitalising?

    For bands looking for radio airplay, do you think it’s best to start at a community radio level and move up to Triple J, or just shoot for the top?

    94.5FM - srs bsnssIt depends on the content. There’s no ‘one shoe fits all’. Community radio is the most diverse, and offers the most opportunities in terms of exposure. Triple J is more responsive to community radio than ever before – and this is just my view, which Triple J might counter – but I think that the rise of FBI, and online blogging and podcasting communities, have really impacted on what Triple J discovers and starts playing. FBI has made a huge impact in Sydney, given that most of the Triple J team is based in the same city. I’ve seen more of the ‘better’ music generate a profile out of community radio before it’s generating a profile anywhere else.

    So I support the notion that you should service community radio at all costs, and that you should also service, where appropriate, the public radio stations as well, whether it’s Triple J, ABC National, ABC Regional or commercial stations. It just depends on the content, but I think that community radio has the broadest appeal for the majority of Australian content.

    I’ve spoken to artists who feel that being signed to a label is less necessary than ever before, as determined artists can handle their own management, promotion and distribution through the web. What are your thoughts on artists who don’t particularly want to sign to labels?

    That’s fine, if they’re prepared to do all of that. I think that there’s still a place for business relationships to occur between artists and other entities, whether they’re labels, or distributors, or publicists. There certainly needs to be a central point where the act’s affairs are managed, whether that’s done by a manager or in-house. It’s entirely possibly; it’s more possible than it has been before, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an argument for redundancy, to be honest. There are more options available, but there are cases where it just makes sense for people to enter into those relationships.

    I think if it’s all handled in-house, it’s a matter of balancing self-management and writing music. I mean, if The Middle East are getting tied up in all their own affairs and they’re not writing any new music, then it’s to the detriment to the quality of their act.

    Exactly. But having seen them just the other week, and after hearing a whole bunch of new material, it warmed my cockles to know that they were doing something other than just the five tracks on the EP.

    How does AIR help indie artists who aren’t signed to indie labels, and who don’t intend to?

    About 25-30% of our indies are unsigned artists. We have a whole range of opportunities for those guys, particularly if they want to remain unsigned artists. Through the D-Star MPE program, generally you can’t open an account with those guys unless you’re turning over [a significant] amount of money. So there’s opportunities for acts to deliver their product to a whole range of media, including commercial radio, blogs, public and community radio. We also help out by giving AIR members access to our professional network. They can call us up and ask questions directly. I’ve fielded three calls today from artists who have business questions that they need answered.

    We have a bunch of members-only stuff in the back end of the website, which is probably more relevant to self-releasing independent artists, or small-to-medium independent labels. It’s a very open environment in the independent sector, and for an independent artist to be able to get onto the phone to an owner of a record label and get advice from them, that’s certainly an open part of AIR’s network.

    A change of topic. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, as I’m in the middle of writing a series of columns for The Music Network on this topic. Why do you think that the industry continues to push artists toward releasing albums?

    Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent ReznorI’m not sure if it’s the industry that’s pushing artists to releasing albums, or whether it’s more the artists holding on to the idea. Certainly, if you take Radiohead as a case in point, the album was very much a part of their philosophy. The ‘In Rainbows‘ release had very little to do with the consumer. I don’t think it’s the labels continuing the album trend, per se; holistically, it’s the industry that’s focussed on albums, including the artists. They generally want to do a body of work. It’s kind of like a visual artist: they don’t just exhibit one piece at a time, they’ll showcase a collection of pieces that they’ve been working on over a period of time. The idea of the album appeals to the artist, and it appeals to the consumer.

    I think for our sector, at an industry level, there’s now very much a single-track culture. It’s been reinvigorated with digital distribution. I don’t necessarily buy the argument that it’s the labels who’re keeping the album alive, I’d say that the artists are equally, if not more, influential in the idea of the album. But I like the idea that artists like Nine Inch Nails [pictured right] and Iron & Wine are repositioning their thinking around their music releases. This idea of “release an album every three years” has largely gone, and I think that acts are paying more attention directly to their fanbase. There’s a real necessity these days to ‘plug in’ to your audience on a regular basis, to keep the fans happy. Offer them something free, and unique.

    I read about AIR’s partnership with JB Seed for the ‘Independent Times‘ panel discussion at the One Movement For Music conference. The plan to sponsor ten previous JB Seed management workshop attendees is interesting. How do you think the role of the artist manager has changed during your time in the industry?

    I think there’s a distinct lack of manager development in Australia. That requires addressing, and I think that The JB Seed program has gone a long way to doing so, particularly for self-managed artists, as John Butler was in the past. He managed himself for a number of years, and worked it out himself; he now has a management partner relationship with (Jarrah Records owner) Phil Stevens, who is his manager, for all intents and purposes. I think there’s now a much greater incidence of artists working with their managers, than artists being led by the managers. I think that’s an important distinction to make, and that’s changed relatively recently.

    Managers also need to be across a lot more aspects of the industry. There are many managers these days who’re also – by virtue of their role – required to manage the recording, and virtually embody the manager of the artists’ record label, in many ways.

    Australian Independent Record Label Association logo

    I just want to clarify that AIR’s partnership with One Movement and The JB Seed. We’re supporting what The JB Seed are doing, but they’re the guys who’re sponsoring those ten managers to come in for the discussion. AIR are actually developing the ‘Independent Times’ program, which is where the managers will plug into. I just wanted to be clear that One Movement and JB Seed are the entities who’re sponsoring that initiative, not AIR! We work very closely with The JB Seed. We’ve worked with every management workshop that they’ve done, in terms of content and delivery. AIR’s relationship with One Movement is purely with delivering the ‘Independent Times’ program for that conference.

    You’ve been involved with a lot of music conferences over your time, with both (Brisbane-based music industry development association) QMusic and AIR. How do you feel that One Movement is shaping up?

    It’s really interesting. They’ve stated a strong focus for the conference and festival; their approach is probably the only music industry conference in Australia that revolves around a festival, in that the One Movement Festival is a two-day event. And I think that carries with it an immense degree of weight, particularly when you look at the partners of (Sunset Events founder, David) Chitty and (concert promoter, Michael) Chugg. Their influence adds a whole different dimension to the conference dynamic. People like the idea of going to Perth for a big conference – because it’s a fucking long way to go, you better have a really good reason to go there!

    For sure. I’m excited about the conference, but I’m more excited about making One Movement Word into a damn good festival blog. Interviews like this will greatly assist toward that end. Thanks for your time, Stu!

    Stu Watters is leaving AIR in July 2009 to pursue a new video production and licensing venture in Brisbane called Morph TV Productions. Catch him on Twitter or via email.