All posts tagged Music writing

  • Mess+Noise album review: The Gin Club – ‘Deathwish’, June 2010

    My first ‘On Rotation’ album review for Mess+Noise, where I discuss The Gin Club’s new album in some depth. Excerpt below.

    The Gin Club - Deathwish album coverThe Gin Club – Deathwish

    On their fourth album, Brisbane rock/folk/country/ whatever-goes collective The Gin Club sprint out of the blocks. ‘Pennies’ grabs you firmly by the ears and doesn’t let up throughout two minutes of bluesy guitar licks and hair-raising vocals that aren’t so much sung as yelled. Its brevity speaks of the confident swagger that abounds on Deathwish. Multi-instrumentalist Ola Karlsson knew he was onto a good thing when he wrote this song, and while he could easily have stuck around for a final verse-chorus-coda, he chose to smother it prematurely. That, ladies and gentlemen, is confidence.

    Unlike their previous release – the 26-song, double-disc Junk – this album’s liner notes are sparse: no songwriting credits, no lyrics, and little to suggest that the album’s 13 songs belong to 10 individuals. (In case you were wondering, I’m only able to comment on who wrote what because I have a cheat-sheet in front of me). This is a new look for The Gin Club. Whether conscious or not, they’re obscuring facts and leaving some things to our imagination. On stage, one of the band’s most striking visual elements is the constant swapping of musical instruments and stage positions between songs. On this album, there’s a greater sense of that comfortable barroom feel than ever before.

    Full review at Mess+Noise, where you can also stream a couple of tracks (‘Pennies’ and ‘Milli Vanilli’). I can’t recommend this release highly enough. Check out The Gin Club on MySpace.

  • Interviewed: Plus One Brisbane

    Sarah McVeigh of Brisbane music blog Plus One asked me some questions, mostly about music writing and my work habits. I answered them. Excerpts below.

    Is Brisbane as good a place as any to be a music writer?

    Without doubt. There are loads of great stories within the local scene waiting to be told, and there are always nationals and internationals visiting. Anyone who argues otherwise isn’t trying hard enough.

    You seem to be getting alot of work – what’s your work routine like? How much time is spent chained to the desk? How do you deal with all the distractions of being constantly online?

    I pitch at least ten story ideas to various publications each week. Those that are approved, I write. Those that are rejected, I shop elsewhere if appropriate; if not, I let them go. I use an application called RescueTime to track the time that I spend on the computer each week, and how my time is split between different kinds of software usage. (It’s free and it’s pretty ace, you should check it out.) Looking back through my personal history, I spend 40-45 hours per week in front of a computer. I split my time between working from my bedroom, and from an office with friends just outside of the Brisbane CBD.

    Distractions are tough. Really fucking tough. If I told you that I had the discipline to work all day without checking in on Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, Mess+Noise, The Vine, ABC News and email, I’d be lying. But I am improving. Slowly.

    That’s the beauty and burden of working in and around the internet: it’s both my workplace and playground. It is a pleasure and a curse. But all things considered, I get by. I don’t miss deadlines. Those are the biggest motivator to quit screwing around and get to work: the reality that if you miss a deadline, you’re fucked. So the goal is to consistently create deadlines for myself (published articles, reviews, blog stories, Waycooljnr entries, etc) to ensure that I’m constantly on deadline. That’s the mentality I aim to inhabit.

    On a related note, the website that I use to plan my week is TeuxDeux. It’ll probably change your life, like it did mine.

    What (in your view) is the likelihood of you sustaining a career in music writing? Do you know many young writers who are managing to earn a wage?

    I don’t know many my age who are earning a wage, no. But my skills aren’t based entirely around around writing. I’m doing copywriting and digital strategy on the side. I just tend not to blog about these side gigs, though, because they’re less interesting. In time, though, all will be revealed. It’s all contributing to my path as a writer, in the end, so I’m grateful for every opportunity I receive.

    As to the first question, it’s a case of ‘we’ll see’. Ask me the same question at the end of the year. Right now, it’s fun and it’s profitable, so I see no reason to give it up.

    Full interview at Plus One Brisbane. Thanks Sarah.

  • Meg White asks: How do I approach pitching as a freelancer?

    Meg White is my favourite young Brisbane writer. She’s relocated to Sydney to write for Australian Penthouse in recent months, but that’s a minor formality in a nascent, yet distinguished career. Highlights? She wrote an amazing live review of Brisbane rock band Hits, launched a brilliant war against The Courier-Mail’s shoddy online music journalism [full series of posts here – read from bottom], and tore to shreds a decidedly average Butcher Birds live review I wrote for Mess+Noise last October.

    Meg asked:

    Hey Andrew,

    I have a question for you, seeing as you’re the most successful freelancer I know of. When you contact publications, do you make a general enquiry about their freelancing capacity, do you pitch them stories or do you offer to sell them content you’ve already written?

    I’ve been toying with the idea of getting involved in the freelance world because there’s no clause in my contract about writing for competing publications, and while I’ve been poking around and talking to people, these seem to be the three main approaches used. Just wondering which one works best for you.

    I replied:

    Hey Meg,

    This is how I approach pitching new publications.

    1. Find the name of the editor.
    2. Try to find someone who knows her/him, and ask whether they’re able to give me a quick email intro to the editor.
    3. If this approach succeeds and someone intros me, I jump into the email convo and ask whether the editor is open to freelance pitches.
    4. Failing that acquaintance-intro tactic, I write a quick intro mentioning my bylines, link to my published work, and ask whether they are open to pitches.
    5. From there, it’s usually a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

    I find that just outright pitching stories, without any kind of preamble, looks (and feels, to me) rude. I try to picture the response of the editor on the other end. ‘Who is this person, and why do I care?’ *delete*

    I have found that every editor who responds to my enquiry (whether intro’d through a third party or not) is upfront about their freelance budget. Most are happy to see story ideas – that is their job, or at least a big part of it, to commission stories – but some will state that it’s rare for freelance pitches to be approved. Which is part of the challenge, of course, and it’s nice to see an initial ‘no, we don’t take freelancers’ turn into a ‘well, that’s a good idea’ after a few weeks/months of persistence.

    In response to the third approach you mentioned – I have never written content before it is commissioned. I do not intend to. I don’t like the idea of spending time on something when I’m unsure whether I’ll be paid for it. You know?

    Thanks for the message. I kinda wish you didn’t smoke and drink so much, but then, your writing mightn’t be half as interesting if you didn’t put yourself in those situations.

    More of Meg at Uberwensch.

    More on the topic of pitching stories to newspapers and magazines in these excellent blog posts by freelance writer/editor Rachel Hills.

    And more questions about freelance writing answered – eventually – if you ask me.

  • Mess+Noise story: ‘Covering Brisbane’s Sound’, March 2010

    This story originally appeared on Mess+Noise on 2 March 2010. View it there with a couple of dozen photos by Elleni Toumpas; a selection of her images from the night are embedded throughout this blog post.

    Covering Brisbane’s Sound

    ANDREW MCMILLEN reviews six Brisbane bands playing six Brisbane covers at the launch of local indie music compilation Brisbane Sounds on Saturday (February 27). Photos by ELLENI TOUMPAS.

    For Brisbane indie music fans, few dates on the calendar are more highly regarded than the annual Brisbane Sounds launch. What began as a hobby for 25-year-old founder Blair Hughes in 2007 has since evolved into a full-time passion that’ll take him to international music industry conferences SxSW and The Great Escape in the coming months. Hughes – the recent recipient of a much-needed Brisbane City Council “microgrant” – otherwise self-funds the not-for-profit project, whose dual goals are to highlight the quality of independent music being produced within the “River City”, and to promote it on the world’s stage.

    The former schoolteacher [pictured below] has proudly taken on the role of local music ambassador. “People of all ages should be coming out to gigs, purchasing local music and really supporting the artists that are part of their own backyard,” he told me ahead of the launch. “I just feel that in Australia, people view ‘local music’ as being substandard and unprofessional, when in fact our country has thriving local music scenes with artists creating quality music.”

    Blair Hughes at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    Twenty-four such artists appear on Brisbane Sounds 2010 – a compilation disc sold online – and six of them performed at Saturday’s launch at The Zoo in the Fortitude Valley venue, where Hughes works the door several nights per week. Besides venturing overseas to spruik Brisbane’s diverse range of indie talent, he plans to promote the project throughout the year via a series of spin-off shows, a “pop-up music shop” in conjunction with Brisbane Marketing and a weekly stall at the popular West End markets to foster community awareness.

    Between bands, a selection of choice cuts by notable local artists such as Powderfinger, The Go-Betweens, The Grates, An Horse and I Heart Hiroshima were played over the PA, while the hundreds in attendance inspected a portrait series by Brisbane music photography group Underexposed. In the spirit of the event, Hughes asked the bands – whose musical styles range from folk and grunge, to hip-hop and indie-rock – to each cover a song written by a Brisbane act during their set.

    Lion Island

    ‘Birds & Elephants’ by Bigstrongbrute [listen to the original here]

    Lion Island at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    Australian audiences are more receptive to contemporary folk instrumentation than ever, owing to a recent obsession with the likes of Fleet Foxes, The Middle East and Mumford & Sons. As a result, Lion Island are a surefire crowd-pleaser, and one of the brighter hopes of wider industry recognition to appear on the Brisbane Sounds 2010 compilation. Their robust sound encompasses banjo, trumpet, violin and six-strong sing-a-longs atop acoustic guitars and songwriting smarts. The band tip their hats to indie-pop act Bigstrongbrute – formed by Paul Donoughue as a solo project in 2006 – with a cover of ‘Birds & Elephants’. Instrumentally sparse but vocally strong, the band members’ appreciation for their friend’s creation is evident, as they recreate a song whose original recording gradually devolves into a joyous, off-kilter chorus of voices and clinking bottles.


    ‘Notice’ by Pink Services [listen to the original here]

    Dirtybird at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    With an appetite for distortion, grunge and teenage angst, Dirtybird – heir apparents to lauded locals Violent Soho – fulfil the garage rock quotient on tonight’s bill. Bassist/singer Dylan Briscoe’s wails are studious replicas of Bleach-era you-know-who, while guitarist Jordan Mengel exhibits an understanding of the instrument that ventures far beyond the genre’s stylistic simplicities. Dirtybird continue the trend of covering current-era Brisbane acts. In a reference that flies over the heads of most in attendance – myself included – the trio opt to play ‘Notice’ by fellow young-grunge purveyors Pink Services. In a final act of slightly-overdone rebellion, Briscoe rugby-tackles Mengel and drummer Harley Brown to end the set.

    The Coalition Crew

    ‘Know Your Product’ by The Saints [listen to the original here]

    The Coalition Crew at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    The Coalition Crew’s inclusion on the bill is a ballsy move by Hughes, whose diverse tastes are seemingly not shared by the majority of tonight’s crowd. Nevertheless, a vocal minority appreciate the band’s lively take on Aussie hip-hop with live instrumentation. Their cover choice is the most controversial of the night, and the band know it; the six-piece opt to play it straight down the line, with minimal stylistic embellishments. A trumpeter and saxophonist are drafted in to blow the signature melody, though their unfamiliarity with the source material is evident in their silence during the verses. Chris Bailey’s anti-consumerism screed is tonight delivered by bassist Toxic Al, while MC Yuin Huz hesitantly backs up the chorus. They’re out of their comfort zone – this much is clear – but they rise to a Brisbane classic with aplomb and respect. A shame that they’re met with minimal applause, however.

    Grand Atlantic

    ‘Alone’ by Custard [listen to the original here]

    Grand Atlantic at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    It’s telling that tonight’s crowd numbers peak with a performance by Grand Atlantic, the purest rock ‘n’ roll band on the bill. Telling of their influences, too, that they choose to cover ‘Alone’ by Brisbane pop geniuses Custard. Built around a killer vocal hook and a surging chord progression during the chorus, the quartet recreates the 1994 Wahooti Fandango cut with style and integrity. Situated among a selection of the band’s own creations, their uncomplicated approach to the genre suddenly make a whole lot more sense. In the context of Custard – led by David McCormack, who rates among the city’s finest pop songwriters – Grand Atlantic’s vision to follow in the footsteps of the greats (not to be mistaken with The Grates) is admirable.

    The Cairos

    ‘Black Bugs’ by Regurgitator [listen to the original here]

    The Cairos at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    A few shows shy of their 100th performance, The Cairos fly the flag of youthful exuberance alongside Dirtybird (minus the on-stage tackling). Their maturity as performers and songwriters continues to grow, though their songbook is not yet filled with enough reasons to distinguish them from other indie-rock luminaries on the national and world stage. For their cover, they ask a question that’s remained unanswered since it was first posed in 1997: “What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?.” The band’s suggestion that the Unit-era, Ben Ely-penned song is close to their hearts hints at a video game fascination, to which most in attendance can relate. Like many of the singles from Regurgitator’s triple-platinum classic, ‘Black Bugs’ is a stylish blend of synthesised pop music and alternative rock. The Cairos’ absence of a keyboardist prompts some amusing synchronised vocals to mimic the song’s final ascending melody.

    The Gin Club

    ‘Sich Öffnen’ by Not From There [listen to the original here]

    The Gin Club at Brisbane Sounds 2010 launch, The Zoo, February 27. Photo by Elleni Toumpas

    It’s midnight by the time tonight’s headliners appear, and the crowd has thinned considerably – more likely due to their late slot, than any disrespect. It’s well-known that The Gin Club comprise some of the city’s finest current songwriters, including Ben Salter, whose ‘You, Me And The Sea’ was awarded the best folk song/ballad of 2008 at local industry body QMusic’s annual awards. The Club’s numbers vary from show-to-show. Tonight, they consist of five core members who trade instruments and vocal duties throughout the hour onstage.

    All but Salter file off for their cover choice. “I don’t usually rely on cheat sheets for lyrics,” he warns, “but you’ll see why in a moment.” Then he launches into Not From There’s ‘Sich Öffnen’, a song written almost entirely in German, but for the bridge (“Watched you laugh/Watched you cry/Watched you fade away”). Once we get past the hilarity, it’s an endearing performance of a local classic by Salter, whose only misstep is a temporary inability to hit the required “awoo-woo-ooo-ooo-oohs” in the chorus. It’s a beautiful moment, and an apt cover with which to close a memorable night whose soundtrack stretches from the 1970s to today.

    This story originally appeared on Mess+Noise on 2 March 2010. Photos by Elleni Toumpas.

  • A Conversation Between Robert Forster and John Willsteed, November 2009

    This is a conversation between Robert Forster, co-founder of Australian pop band The Go-Betweens, and John Willsteed, formerly of The Go-Betweens. It took place in Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookstore on November 9, 2009 to promote Forster’s first book, The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, which is a collection of his music writing for The Monthly magazine between 2005 and 2009. John: Hello there, I’m John Willsteed. Robert would like to do a song. [Forster plays ‘Pandanus’ from his 2008 album ‘The Evangelist‘; audio embedded below] I met Robert a little over 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve been on the stage, I think, in 22 years. It’s not a stage. It’s a book shop. It’s very interesting. I think it’s intriguing that there is music; I like music in a book shop like this; it’s fantastic. It’s the meeting of these two things, music and writing, that we’re here for, because we’re talking about the release of Robert’s book. Why don’t you tell us what these 10 rules are? Robert: Alright, the 10 rules of rock and roll, which is the first section of the book and what the book is obviously named after, I’ll tell you them now.

    1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as dark.
    2. The second to last song on every album is the weakest.
    3. Great bands tend to look alike.
    4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour a day job.
    5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.
    6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.
    7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
    8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.
    9. Great bands do not have members making solo albums.
    10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

    That’s the ten rules. I think they’re contentious rules. Robert Forster's 10 Rules Of Rock And RollYou can take umbrage with any you wish to do. Rock and roll needs rules, and I’m glad that you’ve finally laid them down. I like the idea of the two things coming together because rock and roll, theoretically, it’s supposed to have no rules. That’s what it is founded on, to an extent, or the myth is that it has no rules. Obviously, the point of the rules and the point of the book being named that is to bring these two things that normally don’t go together, rules and rock and roll, together. Is it true that in writing about music, which is what you now do, that’s not saying you don’t continue to make music; you obviously do, but in writing about music, do you apply rules? Are they similar? Yeah, one of them is I try not to put myself too much in each piece, or go to ‘I’, which is a great, great temptation. I pull myself out, because sometimes I have connections. In one of the pieces in the book, which is on Delta Goodrem, I review her last album Delta, and it’s her third album. I reviewed the album. I did that about two years. What I don’t put in the article is that when The Go-Betweens were doing their second to last album, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange in 2004 in Melbourne in studio, she was in the studio. I didn’t know who she was because I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years. You didn’t know who she was? No. I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years, and she’d sort of come through Neighbours and things like that. I think she’d had one or two hits at this stage. It was a studio complex and we were in the main studio and she was in a room mixing a single with an engineer. When we were taking breaks from recording, we’d been out playing ping pong and she was sitting over on the piano. There was an old upright, a bit out of tune, and she’d sit and sing; not in any sort of flashy way, but a really nice way. She could play piano. She had a really good voice. It sounded really good. I only found out who she was later, but she would sit there and play, not try and impress, just because she felt like she could do it for hours. I only discovered who she was at that moment and I only heard her records later, but a couple of years later when I came to hear her record and it seemed like an odd choice to review a Delta Goodrem album, I remembered that I’d had that experience. I didn’t put it into the review because I didn’t think it was needed. One rule is when to put myself in and out of the reviews. I suppose an earlier rule, in a sense, then, is what to choose to review. How do you get to a point of choosing what you want to write about? Perversely enough, it seems to be the ones that I think I know something about, or that I have personal experience with. A band like Franz Ferdinand, who I really liked, like right from the first album. They’re a Glasgow band. The Go-Betweens, in the very early ‘80s, were on a label called Postcard in Glasgow. We were around Glaswegian musicians like Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera; we knew these people. And so when Franz Ferdinand, these sort of four Glaswegian arty, hipsters came along in 2005 with the great first album, I loved the album and I would have loved it if I hadn’t have known that they were from Glasgow, but the fact that they were just brought it a little bit closer. When I was thinking of an album to review, I reviewed their second one. I put that in a review and there is a paragraph about Glasgow. It’s just from personal experience. That is part of the thing; that I have a connection, that I think I know something about the record, or the concert, helps. Delta Goodrem, yo It doesn’t explain Delta Goodrem [pictured left] yet, though. I always end up talking a lot about Delta. We can let it go. No, I’ll add to what I was saying. My niece had some of her records in the time between I’d seen her in the studio. She’d become a big star so I was aware of her and I actually quite liked a single of hers called “Born to Fly”, which I think is on her first or second album. If I had to choose ten great Australian songs over the last decade, I’d put Delta Goodrem’s “Born To Fly” in there. It’s a great MOR, big ballad. It’s a fantastic song, which she co-wrote, to her credit. It seems like there would be a danger in reviewing when there was no connection, and that would be the point where there would be a danger of bringing yourself into what you’re writing, or purely being about the technicalities of what you’re listening to if there is no connection. I would imagine the connections go way back with you into your past. That’s the reason why you choose Nana Mouskouri, to not only to see but to write about, and Glen Campbell, to listen to and write about. Is that a fair thing? It is, but at the same time, my ear and my eye goes to new things as well. Even something like Vampire Weekend, who I really like and I reviewed their debut album, and Vampire Weekend are 22 years old. I hear Talking Heads. It’s a New York band and I’ve loved New York bands since the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Velvet Underground, or New York Dolls, or Television. Vampire Weekend, although they’re 22 year olds and doing something really fresh, they go back. There is a myth about a New York band so that sort of plays in as well. I do try and have a sense of adventure in what I choose. I do try and not be predictable, which again plays to Delta, I guess. I came across Robert’s writings by just subscribing to The Monthly when it started, just because it was a great magazine. It not only had good cultural reviews, but it had good political stuff in it. I was really pleased; there are some choices that I was really pleased with the way you wrote. It was very familiar to me, for some reason. Maybe there is a familiarity that comes from you as a lyric writer, and you as a critic. There is something in your language which resonates between those things. There is a lot of me in what I write. I have a romantic view of rock and roll. I also have a sense of cynicism, perhaps. I know those two things don’t normally go together, but that helps me with my writing. I think they’re very common bedfellows, romanticism, and cynicism. I think people are passionate. I think people project fantasies onto bands and fantasies onto songs, and they always have. I think a lot of – and I’m not trying to do a critique of critics – but I think sometimes it can be quite dry. I think my feelings towards music are quite passionate, and I think people have records and songs that are all about a place, a time, and I think people are quite perceptive about music in terms of the structure of songs or choruses, or people just have a great knowledge about music and I think often reviewers don’t acknowledge that. I think also that there is a huge fantasy level. I think people do think about what it would have been like. When they hear a Velvet Underground record, they throw themselves into it in some bizarre way, or they hear a U2 record or whatever. I think people place themselves in those records. When music arrives, there’s something about context. There is something about what you feel when you hear something. There are historical points that I can follow back in time. This music comes from these places. Do you think it’s your role to point some of that stuff out, as a critic? I can’t help myself. Without sort of having a tone in what I’m write as though I’m lecturing, but when I hear a record, it does set off a sense of associations. Normally, even if I don’t put them down on paper, I follow those associations to see where they’re going to take me. The beautiful associations, they kind of put music in a history of songwriting and music-making. I suppose it becomes more like the folk music that it is, rather than the pop music that it seems to be. Robert Forster serenading, poolsideExactly. I am fantastic. That was brilliant, John. I’ve been bullshitting at the university now for a number of years. It’s being taped by the way. You can try it in your lectures. I found a typo on page 249, would you like me to – Tell me later. I wrote here, “There are things with which I concur.” Nash Chambers did a great job on that album [Rattlin’ Bones, by Kasey Chambers and  Shane Nicholson]. I’m really glad that you point things out like that sometimes, that people who were listening to something might not necessarily think in that way, and they might not necessarily look to a producer and think this person is intrinsic to this process. The reason I love listening to this thing is it’s not just about the song or the singer, but it’s about the way things sound, as well. I think with Nash Chambers, who is Kasey Chambers’ brother and he’s a record producer in Australia, where I think there is a lack of great record producers. When I hear one and I think he does good work, it’s like fairly country/alternative country field, but he makes really good records as a producer. When something like that happens, I like to mention it and he’s just done the new Angie Hart album, the former Frente singer, so he’s sort moving more now into pop, in a way. People are starting to see that can produce records, because his records are so well put together in a country context, that they could work in a pop context. [More “things with which I concur”] The Monkees are up there with the Velvets and the Beach Boys. Rick Rubin could be that caretaker at the caravan park. I think he probably is the caretaker at the caravan park. I have an observation. I’m full of observations. I’m really pleased that you wrote specifically about a song and specifically about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” which I really love. It reminds me that you have a song called “Clouds” that I played guitar on. We both played guitars together. That song was in my mind as always being about the same sort of rhythm as what is in “Have You Seen the Rain”. I just really love the fact that you can pick a little thing like that and say this thing here is embedded, this rhythm can move from song to song, and generation to generation. Would you like to play another song? I will. I just want to say something about Creedence Clearwater Revival. There is a bit in the book, one page, where I wrote I was asked by The Sunday Times in London to write about a song. I wrote about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Creedence, to me, have always been a touchstone for what I’ve done, as you pointed out, because to me they’ve always been a little bit like a Brisbane band. There is something about their rhythm and hearing Creedence in Brisbane; Creedence sounds different in Brisbane than it does in Sydney or Melbourne. Driving around in the car in Brisbane and hearing Creedence, to me they sound like a local band. I think it’s just that rhythm, the easiness of the music, the realness, the funkiness of it just… they always sound like they come from, like Toombul, or Nundah, to me. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it’s a compliment! I sort of see them down by the canal there. On the way to the airport, hanging out under the railway line. It’s a good point. Creedence are at home in Brisbane. Are there other bands that are at home in Brisbane, do you think? Not so much as Creedence. A famous band – my other theory is that Brisbane reminds me a lot, now, of LA in the ‘60s; the climate and the layout of the city. Especially when I’m at The Gap, where we live, I half-expect to go down to the shopping center and see The Byrds. Not that Hitchcock sort of thing. No! There’s actually a photo in the latest edition of Mojo that has just come out. There is this big photo, double-page photo of Brian Wilson in 1965 or 1966. I pointed it out to Karin, my wife, last night. He’s got a baseball bat and he’s on a concrete front drive, and behind it is just a really dry hill. There are these funky sort of ‘60s low-set houses and cars on the street, and you would swear it was on the back streets of Brookfield, or The Gap. It’s amazing. I’ve often thought The Gap is like L.A. in 1965, and then I see Topanga Canyon and the whole thing. This is the fantasy we live out there! You’ve gotta have something! I know, and I saw this photo and it was like: evidence, there it is. Anyway, I’ll play a song. [Forster plays ‘He Lives My Life’ from The Go-Betweens’ 2000 album, The Friends Of Rachel Worth. It’s embedded below, but note this is not his performance from the bookstore.] I love Fiona’s shop [Avid Reader] and always have. You talked before about how there are connections between writing songs and writing words. My memory of you is that you were always a letter writer, as well. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I just have an abiding memory of you writing letters home at a time when there was no email, and phone calls were expensive when we were traveling. Is there a progression? Do you feel that writing in this way isn’t something you would have done 20 years ago, but at this point in your life this is the right time for this? If so, is there a place with writing where you’re heading? Is this part of your journey now? Very good question. Thank you. I’m happy to do reviewing at my age. I think I’d have been unbearable if I’d have had this power and this access when I was 28. I think I would have been unbearable and I would have shot myself in the foot and I would have been going all over the place. I’m pretty happy that it’s come. I started reviewing when I was 48. It’s actually a good time for me to be doing this. It was a leap. I keep a diary and I keep books that last about a year and a half, filled with everything, like poems, what I did that day. I don’t write in it every day, but it’s a real mish mash that I keep, that I have these books. There are a lot of starts over the years, like a fantasy, it was a novel – or short story. I’d read it the next day and put it away. There are all those starts, and in a way, when I started to write for The Monthly it was great because it was nonfiction. I found I could write these paragraphs for these reviews. Right from the first review, when I sat down and wrote the very first review on Antony and the Johnsons album, I found that I could write paragraphs and live with them the next day, and keep on writing, and then live with what I wrote the next day, which is something I could never do with anything else I ever wrote in terms of fiction and short stories. So there is a real freedom in that, then? There is, and amazingly enough, I’ve always been – I was blind to it, but I’ve always been a non-fiction reader. Whenever I come to a book shop, it’s biography, history; I’ll read anything. Some of my favorite books are just off-beat; Sammy Davis Jr.’s first autobiography, Gloria Swanson’s autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. This sort of stuff, I’ll read. I lent you a book on Willem de Kooning, which you gave back to me… I've come to believe that Forster wears a black suit everywhere he goes I didn’t read it. You looked at the pictures. I didn’t even look at the pictures. It was a door stop. You sat on it maybe as a cushion? [laughs] I’ll read a really thick book on Willem de Kooning, that’s got really good reviews. I’ll read that, and I have a passing interest in his art, but I love the story and things will come out to me that will be a lot like de Kooning, one of the great 20th Century artists; he didn’t have his first solo show until he was 45. I found that amazing. I found that enriching, and a great fact to know. I’ve always been a biography reader so it’s really no surprise that I enjoy dealing in facts with a little bit of imagination as opposed to, you know, “Cecilia Page lived down at Redcliffe Pier and had 15 children…”. I don’t just leap off into a story. It seems beyond me. The biography thing, one thing I particularly like in the book is the Normie Rowe piece, which is one of two pieces of fiction in the book. The other piece of fiction is quite light, and almost a little folly, or something. I feel like the Normie Rowe thing I really quite substantial in some ways, yet at the same time, it’s almost a mock-autobiography or something. Is that something that you think you would pursue more? I do, I can imagine writing an ‘I’ – first person biography – that you would think would be my life, but would be entirely someone else’s life. I like playing with that idea. I’ve got another one that is similar to “The Coronation of Normie Rowe”, which is in the book, called “Art World”, which places me as an artist in New York. And I know Robert Hughes, and I’m painting people up on the Upper West Side, and I have nothing to do with the downtown art scene. I started [writing] this, and it has nothing to do with my life, but I do all of this and I’m hanging out with people, and they’re real names, so that it feels real and that it’s historically correct, but the whole thing is a pretense. And I like that. I like that too. I’d read that, unlike that Willem de Kooning book! That’s great. There was something else I was thinking. It’s a bit like a song, in a way. It is. With my songwriting, it stays quite close to what I do. I don’t have any songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby‘. There isn’t anything like that in anything other than my back catalogue. There is nothing. I have to be careful with this because I’m scared that I’m just throwing my life at people all the time, so I try and disguise it and play with a little bit so it’s not just one long 30-year confessional. I try to play with it. I don’t really do leaps off into characters. One of the pieces that was in The Monthly, reasonably recently, was a review of the two David McComb books. Would you like to talk about him, and those for a minute? That was a beautiful piece. I really liked that. David McComb from The TriffidsDavid McComb from The Triffids [pictured right]. Amazingly enough, they were one band that Grant and I, in the late ‘70s, we didn’t feel like there was any other band in Australia that was really close. We read about in Ram Magazine or something – this is 1979 or 1980 – about this band over in Perth who were into The Velvet Underground and Dylan, and also Talking Heads and Television, and Grant and I went “okay!” This is years before we met them. We had a feeling about the band before we starting playing shows with them. We played a lot of shows in Australia with The Triffids when they lived in Sydney in the early ‘80s. I wasn’t really all that close to David. I played tennis with his brother Robert, and that’s a strange way. I guess it’s history now, but you play tennis with Robert McComb, the brother, and I was a lot closer to him than I was to David, although David was the other songwriter in a band like myself. Yeah, not particularly easy to know, either. He was a little aloof. Yeah, he was, but I liked David a great deal. There’s a book about David McComb called Vagabond Holes, and I write a remembrance of it. It’s based on three songs. I once ran into David on the streets of Darlinghurst in 1983, ’84. The Triffids had just put out a record, I think it was an EP, and it had a song called “Red Pony” on it, which I loved. When I ran into David, it was very early in Darlinghurst Streets. I’ll play “Darlinghurst Nights” next. I ran into David on the street at about 8:00 in the morning and I said to him how much I liked “Red Pony”, if he’d show it to me on guitar. I was at a house about two days later and he knocked on the door and he had a guitar. He played me the song and it was a beautiful moment that he just remembered, and he came around, and he found out where I was, and he played me this song. There was a drunken party about three years later in London. It was a drunken party and I was drunk, and I went up to David and they’d just put out ‘Born Sandy Devotional‘ and I said, “I really love ‘Wide Open Road’. Would you play it to me sometime? He said, “Now!”. We walked into a bedroom, this crazy ‘Australians in London’ party, and he just sat on the bed and I sort of crouched down and he played me ‘Wide Open Road’ on a guitar. Then it was like, “Okay, we can go back to the party.” I was just watching his hands. I can’t play it now, but it was these big strummy chords. And the third song is in 1995 or 1996 I was playing down in the Continental Café, which is a venue down in Melbourne. He was DJing that night and I was playing acoustically by myself. I knew David was DJing on that night, and just before I went on he played this song called “Mississippi” which is off an album and he and I both loved. It’s by John Phillips from the Mamas & The Papas, who put out a great solo album called “Wolf King of L.A.”, which he wrote a biography many years later which he devoted half a page to this record. It’s a fantastic solo record. I love the record and so does David. We used to talk about it. He played a song from it just before I went on stage, which was a really lovely “hello”. That night, after the end of that show, ’95-’96, I was staying at a hotel in town and he and his girlfriend drove me into town because I was going to get a taxi and he and his girlfriend said, “No, we’ll drive you into town.” We went into the city and I got out of the car to say goodbye and said I’d take my bags, thanks for driving me into town. I walked around the back of the car, and I got my guitar – this guitar, actually – and my bag out, and David was standing there. I said, “Thank you for dropping me off, thanks for DJing, thanks for playing ‘Mississippi’” and he got in the car, and that was the last time I ever saw him. He died about three years later, but he was great. I’ll play ‘Darlinghurst Nights‘, dedicated to David McComb. John: Maybe I should open it up a bit and invite questions. I’ve talked enough. Would anybody like to ask Robert a question? The Go-Betweens' Send Me A Lullaby cover art, by Jenny WatsonAudience: My name is Jenny Watson, and I did the album art for [The Go-Betweens album] ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ [pictured left]. Robert, I want to ask a question about when you walked into my flat and saw those small canvas paintings, and I’d only had five exhibitions and you said, “You’re doing our next album cover”. Are you usually that decisive in your business dealings? Because you were more decisive than any top-notch art dealer, I can tell you! Thank you, Jenny. I try and follow my instincts. That has got me into trouble at times. John: Are you impetuous? Not impetuous, but it’s like the idea of Brisbane is LA 1965, 1966; how far do you take that? John: All the way, baby! Oh well, it can get you into trouble and you can find that you’re trying to do something that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, which could be difficult. No, I try and – also the other thing is when I see great work before me, I always hope that I recognise it. I did on that circumstance, and I try and do that whenever I can. John: It’s a big thing, isn’t it, Jenny, having some of your work put on somebody’s album cover and spread around the world. Jenny: It was fantastic. It was in a book called ‘The Best 500 Record Covers in Rock and Roll’. Thanks for the publicity! John: Anybody else have a comment, statement, or a question? Audience: I’m really interested in the fact that the writing in this book is so beautiful. Just if you pick it up and read the first essay, you’ll realise that you’re in the hands of a master writer here. Stuart Glover, who is head of creating writing at the University of Queensland, said exactly the same thing. I wonder when you said that you will read any non-fiction; do you have non-fiction work that you won’t read? Do you have a filter where you say the writing has to be of great quality, or is it just the subject for you? No, there has to be quality with it. A great biography writer is someone like Richard Elman, who wrote a very good book on Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce. He’s one of the masters. John Richardson, at the moment, is writing a great biography. It’s his third volume on the life of Picasso. They’re fantastic books. There has to be a certain standard to keep me there, but I think it can also go – and something that I’ve always been interested in, is going-high brow and low-brow. It’s not indiscriminate taste, but I see value broadly, but there is a limit. I do have an autobiography of Shaun Cassidy, which I bought at an art shop, which I refuse to read. This was published in the mid ‘70s. I don’t touch it. Knowing you have it is enough. It is. No Alain de Botton, any of that sort of stuff? No, no. What about the Dylan book? That’s an interesting autobiography, isn’t it?Chronicles‘? Yeah, I leapt on that, and that is a great book. In a rough way, I template if and when I write something that’s biographical about myself; that would be a book that I would always have in mind. I think Dylan’s done an astounding job on that book. There is something surprising about it, in that style. It is. Would you like to be that unpredictable, I suppose, or it’s not impetuous. No, I think if I did write – I wouldn’t write my autobiography, I don’t think, but if I wrote something biographical I think I would have to, in a way, break the mold or play with the form the same way I have done with The Monthly, the same way I have with that song I just played, “Darlinghurst Nights”, which doesn’t really conform to many rules as a song. It’s melodic and has a sense of poetry and information giving about it, which are all important to me, but if I did write something like that, then I would like to certainly play with the form. It’s not going to start, “It was a blue day in Brisbane in the 29th of June, 1957 when Robert Forster came into the world.” I can’t do that. I’d buy that. Do you ever feel like you have nothing to say? Sometimes, do you ever feel, “I have nothing to say”? No, unfortunately I don’t find myself in that position. John: That was very quick. [laughs] Anybody else out there have a question? Audience: On ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, I want to thank you, because that’s such an evocative song. Thank you for playing it. As a long-term resident of Darlinghurst in those years, I saw the Go-Betweens play their first show there in 1980, at the Paris Theatre, where Grant played with his back to the audience most of the night. Jeffrey Wegener and Ed Kuepper of Laughing ClownsReally? See, this was the first show that the Go-Betweens ever played in Sydney at the Paris Theatre in 1980. The Paris Theatre has now been demolished. The bill for this night was The Go-Betweens on first, the Laughing Clowns on second, and The Birthday Party on third. It was a great bill. We’d actually headed down by train – Lindy [Morrison], Grant [McLennan], myself – and we went to the back of the Paris Theatre. We didn’t know anyone and we sat in the stalls in the darkness and watched the Birthday Party and the Laughing Clowns [half of the band pictured right] sound check. We were completely spooked. We just wanted to crawl out of that theatre and get back on the train and come back to Brisbane. We stayed and played, but I did a signing yesterday in Newtown and I met someone else – the first time, in almost 30 years, I met someone that was at that show. That’s the first time in 30 years, and now you’re the second. That’s amazing. John: I’m surprised you remembered. Was there a question? I’m sorry, I’ve just taken off. Audience: I’m glad to hear that. I’ve just wondered if you’d been to Darlinghurst in recent years, and what it evokes today when you go there? I have been. It’s quite different because in the early ‘80s, the roads coming up on the hill, like Taylor Square, a street going down to Williams Street. Crown Street had one-way traffic that was like a blitz going through all hours of the day. There is a lot more traffic, life, and noise in Darlinghurst. I’ve been there 5 years ago and it was very quiet. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, but it was the early ‘80s when we were there. It was very active, and there were a lot of people that I knew living around that area. Audience:Two weeks ago I walked from Central up through to Taylor Square, through all these old streets and lanes that I used to walk through. It’s very quiet now. It’s quite dull, really. It is. There used to be “No-Names”, the restaurant, but it used to be the place outside The Cross in Sydney where you could get a coffee. Reggio…? Audience:Reggio is still there, I think. They used to sell very, very strong coffee there that would keep you up for about three days. A lot of people create a lot of work on this; it was high-octane coffee. It was like one or two cups of this stuff and you’d honestly be chain smoking ten cigarettes and you’d be up for about three days. John: Babbling in Italian. Ed Kuepper used to drink a lot of those! A lot of Laughing Clowns material was written on this coffee that Ed was drinking down there. John:I gave up alcohol and drugs at one point, and the thing that I survived on for the next few years was ‘duplos’, like double, short, blacks from Darlinghurst. I didn’t mean to say that thing about the, you know, with the ‘D’… Has anybody else got any questions they might like to ask? We’ll make this the last question. Audience:It’s kind of two questions. Is there something you won’t review, and also how did you make the selection for what when into this book? There are things I won’t review. I was very wary of Australian artists for the first two or three years when I was reviewing for The Monthly. I was almost scared. If you look at the reviews that I did in The Monthly for the first couple of years, a lot of it is overseas. It’s almost like I was careful and as I said before, I didn’t want to come in with this ‘boots ‘n’ all’ attitude. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now, like this year I wrote a big review on Paul Kelly’s double CD about his career, which I would have never done the first two years. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. It was quite natural. I saw the record in Rockinghorse, on the wall, and I went, “I can do that,” which I wouldn’t have been able to do before. There are certain areas I don’t go within Australian music because I know the people and I don’t really want to go there. What’s the second part of the question? Audience:How did you make the decision for what when into the book? Some of the things I left out were the reviews I wrote in the first year. I re-read them and I think I started settling into a rhythm about eight months in, where I thought I was writing well. I started to keep them. There is not much from the first eight months. I dropped quite a few things. I think also, at that stage, when I started writing for The Monthly in April 2005, The Go-Betweens were just putting out ‘Oceans Apart‘ which would be the last album. The Franz Ferdinand piece, I remember I wrote a lot of it in a hotel in Madrid, a day off. I had to send it back to Melbourne. I dropped the Bill Callahan one, which is all over the place. It’s about a Smog album. Right now, it takes me two weeks to write them. I don’t know how I did this, but I wrote the complete Smog review in a hotel in Canberra, and we were playing that night. I wrote the whole thing; woke up, knew I had to do it, spent the whole day in a motor inn, in Canberra in my pajamas, and just had people delivering coffee. I knew I had to be at the sound check at 4:30pm. I got out of bed around 9am. I listened to the record quite a few times and I just wrote the whole day. I think William Holden could play you in a movie! Robert Forster one of his 230 ties. I just made that up, btw. There’d have to be a couple of whiskey bottles then, I think. But no, I left that out [of the book]. To me, when I read it again, it read like it was written in pajamas on a lot of coffee, in a Canberra motor inn, in one day. I just thought “no, that can’t go in”. I think after the first 8 months, I think I’m a lot more consistent. There are a couple of pieces that I left out after, where I just failed. The other thing that I have to admit is I started this at 48. I wrote a piece on Lucinda Williams’ ‘West’ album about two years ago. I just didn’t get it. It was messy when I handed it in, and I just failed. That happened one other time as well. I’m not a journalist that’s had 15 years experience, done university, worked at The Courier-Mail, worked at Sydney Morning Herald, done stuff overseas. I’m not that journalist. I’m still failing. I’m still messy, and I still miss what I’m trying to get at, every now and again. You’re getting better. I am getting better, but it’s still scary. Month by month. Thank you very much, Robert Forster. Thank you. Thank you for coming along. I appreciate it. John Wilsteed, everyone! Fiona: Robert, Avid Reader would really like to thank you because you had a sell-out session last week, and because of the sell-out you agreed to a second session. You’ve had 200 people in Avid Reader listen to you, which has never happened in the history of Avid before. Thank you so much for your generosity. Thank you for coming along! More on Avid Reader at their website; more on Robert Forster at his.

  • Big Sound 2009: Online Publishing Panel Notes

    On September 9, 2009, I moderated a discussion panel at Big Sound called ‘Blogging, Twittering and Online Publishing: Tastemaking or Time-Wasting?‘. Here’s the precis, taken from the Big Sound site:

    The whole world is online! Whether you’re typing essays for eager fans or 140 character pearls of wisdom, online publishing is quickly becoming the new bastion of communication and online journalism. What is Twitter and why would you use it? How do you start a blog and why would you? Is this online thing just a waste of time? Find out how those that do it well do it and find out why those that fail miss the point.

    The panel featured the input of the following gentlemen [pictured left-right; photo by Justin Edwards just before the discussion began]:

    Online Publishing panel, Big Sound 2009. Deep in thought.

    These were the suggested points of discussion:

    • How important is blogging and online publishing in communicating with music fans?
    • Is Twitter everything it’s hyped up to be?
    • How can you use social networking online to promote your band and how SHOULDN’T you?
    • What’s the best way to start a music blog and what does the audience want?
    • What does online publishing mean for music journalism?

    A couple of days before the panel – notably, after I’d put it off for a fortnight – I sent the following email to the group.

    Hi gents,

    In addition the points of discussion that were provided, I’m going to touch upon on the following topics.

    When I have you introduce yourselves, I’m going to ask each of you:

    • When did you last buy music?, and
    • How do you find new music?

    Online engagement for bands: how much is too much?

    Reading reference: and particularly this Imogen Heap quote: “About 5% of my time goes to actually making music sadly. The rest is promo, technical, planning, running around, schedules..blah”

    • Artists have a range of tools and mediums with which to connect to fans; tools such as Twitter et al have lessened the gap between fan and artist. But at the same time, if their attention is focussed on the screen instead of their instruments, will their art suffer?
    • Everett and Jakomi, I’ll use your experience of the pre-web era to draw comment on what it was like when you didn’t have the ability to know where your favourite bands were or what they were doing at that very instant.
    • The ‘always on’ internet culture allows conversation to occur across the world instanteously. Has this removed some of the mystique that has historically attracted audiences to artists and performers? What are the implications?

    Old vs new models of online promotion. Reference:

    • It’s a long article, so you’re forgiven for not reading the whole thing. But Godin’s point – here, and throughout his work – is that for musicians, it’s not a matter of shouting at everyone (the old model), but of whispering at your niche (the new model).
    • So instead of signing to a label who can fund mass marketing campaigns (radio, print, TV), it’s smarter for bands to work their existing audience to build it organically, while coming up with creative/interesting/share-able web campaigns to capture wider interest (eg. OK Go’s treadmill video –
    • Jerry and Cam, have you found this to be the case during your time as a manager and artist, respectively?

    More Godin: as for messages to the fanbase from the artist, Godin suggests that these are to be ‘anticipated, personal and relevant’ in every instance. Fans should be thrilled to hear from their favourite bands, and disappointed when anticipated messages are delayed.

    • This is a lovely, utopian vision, but in the real world, is it viable?
    • Elliot, where do record labels sit within this vision? Is it just a matter of streamlining the process of delivering content from the band to the audience?

    Beyond musicians, where do label A&R folk belong in this web discussion?

    • Historically, A&Rs are the people who’re exposed to enormous amounts of music, and who often dictate which bands are exposed to wider audiences.
    • Nick Crocker wrote: “I think A&R people at labels should start building their profiles online, developing a following and sharing their stories with fans. Inevitably, A&R people end up being hugely networked musically and build big, smart, connected networks of music lovers. They each have a market ready and waiting for their tales.”
    • Everett, I know you’re comfortable with calling yourself a tastemaker. Do you agree with Nick’s idea, that A&R people should establish themselves as tastemakers? What potential benefits would music fans receive?
    • Jerry, has become a tastemaker after building an audience over several years. In your mind, what is the site’s role among music media? Would it be feasible to base a ‘new media’ music label on the WhoTheHell blog concept?

    Music criticism on the web has given everyone the ability to give their opinion about what’s good and what’s shit. Reference:

    • Gareth from The Drones wrote in a column for Ampersand Magazine: “Music criticism, to quote Chuck D: “You talk about it but you can’t do it.” But now that there is all this blogging shit going on critics have become like mild mannered primary school teachers trying to control their bitchy little charges. Which is funny cause nine out of ten critics are at uni. Blogging has cut the balls off music criticism. But even when critics are being cool it’s still weird. Rock’n’roll is pretty retarded and writing about it is really scraping the literary barrel. Why would you bother? Do something useful for fuck’s sake.”
    • Reactions from the panel? Jakomi, what’s your take on this?
    • Everett, what does this mean for established critics like yourself? I know it’s something you’ve been grappling with. (This’ll give you a chance to discuss your PhD and your findings thus far, perhaps?)

    We’ve focussed heavily on discussing online publishing. But what about the role of print music journalism?

    • Are print readers losing out due to the instantaneous commentary that occurs online, or does the latency/distance between the printed article allow a more measured, less hyperbolic approach?
    • What about album reviews? What’s the point of the reviews we read in street press and music mags, since in many cases by the time they’re printed, the web has already aggregated, rated and reviewed these releases?
    • Note that in July, Sydney street press The Brag opted to stop publishing album and live reviews due to budget quotes. (Source: In this instance, what’s the point of the mag, if they’re no longer willing to comment on the music itself?
    • Cameron, which printed music publications do you read? What do you gain from them that you can’t find online?
    • If print audiences are declining – and as a result, advertisers can’t justify their expenditure – where does this leave staffers of the printed article? As music fans, should we care? What do we stand to lose, other than these publications’ reputation and history?
    • Everett, I’ll rely on you here, as you’ve got a history in both publishing and writing for the web.
    • Jakomi, where do you see The Music Void sitting within this discussion? Why did you launch it as a website and not a magazine?
    • What are the alternatives to printed music journalism? What will the music magazine of the future look like?

    On the day, we discussed through most of the above, before 50-60 live human beings.

    I’m told the panel was both entertaining and informative, though by session’s end I was severely doubting the latter, after spending around 90 minutes talking about blogging, which is second only to talking about tweeting in terms of tedium.

    Ian Rogers of No Anchor at their Judith Wright Centre launch, 21 March 2009Ian Rogers of Brisbane bands No Anchor and AxxOnn [pictured right, playing live for the former] wrote this about the panel:

    “I write about myself because no one else will. And I write about music because it’s what I like and because it’s more interesting to other people than writing about babies”. And so Everett True, former Golden God of the British Press and present Brisbane resident introduced himself to the afternoon’s delegates. The panel was about digital publishing and contained a puzzlingly configuration of quiet bloggers (“Uhm, I just like getting the free records”) and industry boffins – one preconscious, one loud and angry. And Everett. Mr True acquitted himself well post-introduction, happily making whatever comment occurred to him – more often than not correct as I read it – as the industry folks shifted around in their seats wondering, ‘Who the fuck is this weird old guy?’.

    [I recommend you read Rogers’ summary of Big Sound days one and two – he’s fucking hilarious]

    In all, it was an enjoyable experience that I’d happily relive. Thanks to Big Sound executive programmer Stephen Green for asking me to take part. I know the panel was filmed by the event organisers so I’ll post the transcript and/or recording when they’re available. My wider thoughts on the event are here.

  • The Music Network story: ‘For The Record: An Album Retrospective Part 5’, August 2009

    In the final piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. After speaking to passionate Australian artists like Hungry Kids Of Hungary, Urthboy and Eleventh He Reaches London last week, Andrew verbally prods two innovative Brisbane-based acts who have turned the album-release expectation on its head.

    Were this album-centric article series an actual album, we’d have since bypassed the hit singles, the forgettable middle filler, and the surprising experimental freak-outs. This’d be track twelve; the last gasp that’s strategically-placed to reward the attentive hard-core of fans. Luckily, reader, track twelve is this metaphorical album’s hidden gem: it describes two Queensland acts who’re subverting the traditional cycle in favour of a flexibility that benefits both artist and fan. Press play and get comfortable, won’t you?

    Drawn From Bees: animal loversBrisbane natives Drawn From Bees [pictured right] are riding a healthy buzz following their recent national tour and more than a few nods of approval from Triple J. The art-rock four-piece have self-imposed an interesting alternative release strategy: a new record every six months. Explains bassist Stew Riddle: “Over a few drinks after our first rehearsal last year, we decided to use the fact that we’re a band of four songwriters to our advantage, and aim for a prolific introduction to the band. We felt that it would be interesting to break from the new-band cycle of ‘release an EP, tour for 6-12 months, release another EP’, and instead try to put something out every six months.” But the Bees are in a unique situation that encourages frequent releases; Riddle admits: “Dan, our singer, is also a producer, so we can afford to record very cheaply. If we had to hire studio and producer time, it might be a very different story.”

    Two EPs into their two-year experiment, Riddle contemplates the band’s feeling toward the album format: “I tend not to think about what we’re doing in terms of working towards an album, as to me, the length is largely irrelevant. I feel that each record needs to make a statement, and to be a snapshot of where the band is at that particular time. Our third release is looking to be an 8 or 9 track record that has a more melancholy flavour. Is it an album or an EP? We don’t know, so we’ll just call it a record and let other people decide!”

    When asked where he thinks the album format belongs in the future of music, Riddle is sceptical. “It’s a hard one to judge. It seems that while the physical single is dead, the digital single is now king. No one buys albums anymore, but if you look on my friends’ mp3 player, they tend to collect not just full records, but full catalogues of acts that they love. I think that the album will live on. Certainly, at least in the sense of releasing bodies of music that make various statements at different points in an act’s career. Does it mean that the length of an album will remain between 30 and 70 minutes? Maybe not. Musicians aren’t constrained by the format anymore; vinyl and plastic don’t dictate the length.” With a fourth release due around Christmas to bring the four-EP commitment to a close, what’s next for Drawn From Bees? “We’ll probably do an album. Or a greatest hits box collection, who knows?” laughs Riddle.

    From a regular-release ideal to a staggered album: meet Brisbane indie rock band 26 [pictured below left], who’re midway through an ambitious project to release a twelve-track album in three-song installments every three months. After releasing two albums in the standard manner since their 2005 debut The King Must Die, singer/guitarist Nick O’Donnell explains the genesis of the concept dubbed 26×365: “We don’t sell all that many hard copies anymore, so we decided to release the next album in small portions. We were finding that people were buying singular songs rather than the whole albums off of iTunes.”

    Each of the four parts to 26×365 is priced at $3.39. O’Donnell continues: “We thought maybe we could package a couple of songs together at a lower price point and you could get people buying them because they think they’re getting a bargain, as they’re getting three songs for the price of two. By April next year we’ll have the twelve songs that you can buy as a whole product, but our true fans can get the songs every three months. This allows us to introduce the songs gradually into our live set; in terms of the record, it’s like our fans are coming along for the ride.”

    26: averse to smiling

    With the new release, the band are aiming to reduce the comparative tedium that they’ve experienced with past releases. “It’s not like the situation where the band records the whole album and they’re already already kind of over the songs; you know, you’ve already been playing the songs for a year or so. As an artist, you get to the end of the album process and the songs aren’t fresh for you, but they are for the public. So you’re pretending that they’re new to you, but they’re not.”

    The band’s website further addresses the reasoning behind the project. Perhaps unwittingly, 26 have put their heads together and specified a bold manifesto for independent artists the world over. 26 state:

    Unless you’re Coldplay, Metallica or Andre Rieu, the one thing a band must do is maintain momentum. Peoples’ attention span is becoming shorter and shorter, so we want to be attracting CONSISTENT attention.

    The 26×365 release process will allow:

    1. New material to the audience, but not so quickly that it will lose its impact.
    2. Offer a time-based point of interest for the band
    3. Allow the audience to see how we are progressing as a band
    4. New content for an entire year, including pictures, videos, blogs, and give aways
    5. New gig material for an entire year and having it ready for consumption on iTunes. No waiting for the whole album to be released.

    The purpose of this article series is not to eulogise the demise of the album, or to bemoan the recording industry’s omissions. Instead, it’s to highlight that right now is a better time than ever to consider the ideal manner in which to distribute music to an artist’s fanbase. For independent artists, a direct artist-fan (one-to-one) connection may be the most appropriate business avenue. For bigger artists – the aforementioned Coldplays and Andre Rieus – a one-to-many, traditional distribution method may still be the ideal outcome. The keyword in this discussion is choice. Not only do customers now have the ability to choose how they consume music with more freedom than ever before; now, artists are privy to a wealth of release strategies, business models, digital distributors, while still retaining the option to engage in traditional physical product manufacturing and distribution.

    “A lot of purists tend to complain now that an album’s artwork is gone. I think it’s really great, because what has gone is all the shit surrounding the music. You can still get the music itself, so you’re getting the purest version of the art, because it’s just the music. It’s nothing else.” – Nick O’Donnell, 26.

    Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at

    (Note: This is part five of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #748, July 27th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part one, part two, part three, and part four)

  • The Music Network story: “For The Record: An Album Retrospective Part 4”, August 2009

    In the fourth piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew quits hypothesising, and instead speaks to those responsible for history’s loved and loathed albums: musicians!

    In the last three weeks, we’ve indulged in much reminiscing and theorising on the value of the album format in an era of unparalleled consumer choice. “The track has been disengaged from the album!” “Artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming!” “It’s easier to choose to part with around a dollar for a song you’ll love, rather than $15-20 for an unfamiliar collection!” You’re familiar with these arguments, professed from this writer’s listener/critic position. But, er – what about the artists themselves? The ones who make music? Where do they think the album belongs in 2009?

    Hungry Kids Of Hungary: Bigger fish to fryBrisbane’s Hungry Kids Of Hungary [pictured right] write hook-heavy songs that’re informed by a studious observation of the pop legends of generations past. Their two EPs have attracted radio attention, festival slots and, most recently, a Q Song award nomination. Are they treading down the pop-proven album release path? “We sure are!” replies singer/keyboardist Kane Mazlin. “We’re currently demoing and writing songs for a debut album. Like most independent bands, it’s a matter of balancing time and finance as to when we will record and release, but we’re certainly hoping to be in a studio within three months. I think it’s just a natural progression for us to put our ideas down on a long player. It will give us more scope to present ourselves more accurately, which is something we’ve only been able to touch on when creating EPs.”

    No surprise, then, that the Hungry Kids are album purists. Drummer Ryan Strathie explains: “Artists put a lot into creating an album as an entire piece – a single song is only one part of the album puzzle. I think it’s crucial for an album to be experienced in full, artwork and all. For me, its just not the same without the whole package.” Strathie cautions, however: “Artists – big or small – need to take responsibility for the quality they put out. If you can’t put out 10 great songs, then don’t do an album! It’s obvious that people will still buy a record if it’s any good; too many artists maximise on a single song or a hit and put out an entire album, even if it’s not good enough.” He concludes: “People aren’t stupid, they have been burnt!”

    From young upcomers to an established act: Perth’s Eleventh He Reaches London [pictured below left] have forged a respectable name for themselves at the intersection of the nation’s hard-rock, metal and hardcore communities. Their 2005 debut album The Good Fight For Harmony preceded 2009’s Hollow Be My Name, for which the five-piece received a $13,000 recording grant from the Western Australian Department Of Culture And Arts. Drummer Mark Donaldson rationalises the decision to release music in this manner: “We never really gave any thought to releasing an EP or singles, because we believe that you can get more enjoyment out of our band across an album. We wanted to release something that was quite cohesive, and had some continuity, with a good hour-long running time.”

    Eleventh He Reaches London: simply red“I’m still a huge fan of putting on an album and listening to it all the way through. It’s very rare to experience an album that you can listen to from start to finish, and not get bored. It’s very rare to experience that, and it’s one of the things you look forward to in life, as a music fan – that next band that you’ll become completely obsessed with.” When questioned about the free MP3 downloads offered on the band’s Last.FM profile, Donaldson continues: “It’s still good for people to be able to download a song in reasonable quality, just in case they are thinking about downloading the full album. Because we’ve basically arrived at the situation where you can download a song for free, get a feel for the quality of it, and then decide whether you want to waste your bandwidth on it!”

    We laugh at the madness of trying to explain the rationing of 60-100 megabytes to a music fan fifteen years ago. But how does he feel about fans of the band who purport to love their music, but who’ve never bought anything from the band? “There’s no ill feelings toward those who don’t pay. What I don’t like is when people download the album, love it, but then don’t attend a show when we’re near them. That really cheeses me off, because touring is such a massive effort. You look forward to sharing the music with the audience, and that’s what playing live is all about. Being able to share your love of your songs with others.”

    As co-founder of the Elefant Traks label and a renowned hip-hop artist in his own right, Sydney’s Urthboy [pictured below right] understands the record business better than most. Born Tim Levinson, his third album Spitshine is due in August 2009. He reasons: “I love the idea of the album because it allows an artist to make a little book, rather than a short chapter. I completely respect that people receive music in their preferred form, but as an artist I think the whole LP is worth holding onto. The album allows the artist to stretch out a bit, and from that perspective you’re able to tell a better story.”

    Urthboy: both dapper and chipperIt’s a valid comment, given that hip-hop song structures are perhaps more reliant on narrative than their rock counterparts. When asked about digital distribution’s effect on the album format, Levinson concedes: “It’s slowly changing people’s attitudes and expectations toward consumption of music. We’re in a transition period where albums retain a huge significance – but some signs suggest it’s disappearing. Stranger things have happened and trends don’t always result in their predicted outcome, though.”

    Levinson’s position at the helm of Elefant Traks informs his optimistic wisdom. When asked whether Elefant Traks have adopted alternative release strategies to album delivery, he responds: “We’ve discussed it a lot; I want to keep open-minded about it. One of our key methods of promotion is bundling as many activities into the one ad spend. Usually this is simple: the album and the tour. We’re a record label, but we’re also a default management company – we spend money to invest in the artist who hopefully invests in themselves, and in turn helps us sell their records. Touring is not lucrative across the board – that’s an industry myth – but it forms part of the overall picture. The point I’m getting at, is that not every artist can simply put out a few songs regularly, sling ’em to radio, excite the public’s imagination and wait for the money to roll in. There are significant costs associated with any release, whether EP or album. The public may like the freedom of picking and choosing but I don’t believe they’ve fallen out of love with the album yet. Singles aren’t for everybody, but our music industry is; there’s no use writing eulogies at this point in time.”

    It’s worth reinforcing that the purpose of this column series is not to eulogise the album as a whole. Rather, it’s to highlight that digital distribution has allowed listeners to choose how they consume music, and musicians to choose how to deliver their creations to listeners. Next week, we’ll meet some artists who’re rejecting the album-release expectation in favour of innovation, and look to a bright future where musical expression isn’t necessarily confined to 10-12 tracks.

    Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at

    (Note: This is part four of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #747, July 20th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part one, part two, part three, and part five)

  • A Conversation With Neil Ackland, Sound Alliance Managing Director

    Sound Alliance. You mightn’t be familiar with the name, but most Australian web users will be aware of their music communities: inthemix, FasterLouder, and recently, Mess+Noise. The alliance was formed when Neil Ackland joined Libby Clark and Andre Lackmann, who launched dance music community inthemix out of a spare bedroom in 2000. They’ve since expanded to a team of 45. Their influence on the Australian web industry is huge, so when the opportunity to interview Neil arose, I jumped at it.

    Andrew: Neil, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience with planning, goal setting, and so forth for the Sound Alliance. When planning a new venture, have you found it’s best to shoot for the top, as opposed to aiming for a less ambitious goal?

    Neil Ackland: Positively glowingNeil: I think it depends on how you value success, really, in terms of shooting for the top. I think we’ve taken a very long-term view to a lot of the ventures that we’ve launched. I think the game we’re in is not a make-a-quick-buck game, by any stretch of the imagination. I think our intent here is of running inthemix, for example, and sites like FasterLouder, and Mess+Noise, and [gay/lesbian community] SameSame require constant energy, nurture and investment – both in terms of time and money – to get them to continue to grow and to continue to flourish.

    I don’t think we ever went into this thinking that it was going to be a massive success [when inthemix first began in 2000]. We just saw an opportunity in the market to do something a little bit interesting. We saw some gaps there, and fundamentally just believed that online was the way of the future for the way people were going to consume content. Whether that happened in a year or ten years, we were confident that was eventually going to be the way it was going to go.

    Over the last couple of years, it’s started to really bear fruit. I think we’re an ambitious bunch and we obviously want each of our media properties to be the leading destination within that category. We didn’t come into it saying, “Let’s go global, and take in the world and become the next MySpace,” or whatever. It was always much more about providing a good solid base for Australian music fans, I suppose.

    What were your goals with Sound Alliance for those first couple of years?

    I’ll put it in context for you. Before we had Sound Alliance, inthemix [ITM] was the first business that we launched. It was set up as a hobby. We came together, the three partners here, and we’re all really passionate about dance music and electronic music, and we set it up as something that we do in or spare time, outside of our day jobs, and very humble beginnings.

    We never really had any great aspirations of it becoming Sound Alliance, at that time. It was more a case of wanting to do something we were really passionate about. All of us had day jobs that didn’t really fulfill our entrepreneurial flair, our passions, or our interests. They were just day jobs. We wanted to do something a bit different outside of that.
    It just flourished from there. The first couple of years were about were trying to establish enough of a business model around inthemix so that one day we could stop doing our day jobs and do it full-time. That was the first goal and the first dream that we wanted to achieve.

    It must have been an amazing time, at the point where you could quit your day jobs and focus on inthemix and Sound Alliance as a business.

    Yeah, I actually got fired from my job, so…

    That was convenient!

    [Laughs] It was actually the best thing that ever happened, to be honest with you. It was a good time. It was really exciting. I think whenever you’re launching a new business, you’re young, enthusiastic, and you are confident in your ideas and you want to go out there and have a go, it’s a really exciting time. I think that is what I love about setting up new businesses, that feeling of something new. I think ultimately, the three of us are all entrepreneurs at heart. We get a real buzz from seeing things, coming up with ideas, or working with other peoples’ ideas and taking them through to fruition.

    I look back on that stage of my career very fondly, because at that time, the game was much more about something that you’re really passionate about. I was just bouncing out of bed in the morning, really enthused and excited about the day. Working all the hours, going out on the weekend and getting amongst it and really immersing myself and seeing, and enjoying something that was very fresh and new at the time.

    inthemix was one of the first online communities in Australia that really had some momentum behind it. It was really exciting to be a part of that. You really felt like you were part of something bigger than just a business. It was much more than a business. It was a bit more of a movement, I suppose, at the time.

    So from starting as a part-time hobby, and not really measuring your goals in any specific way, how has that changed since Sound Alliance has become a profitable business, of late, with its numerous ventures?

    It’s changed a lot in a sense, but now there is a lot more responsibility. It’s far more professional and the scale of it has changed dramatically over those ten years. The same fundamentals exist; we’re still passionate about our product and our sites, and we’re really passionate about the subject matter: the music industry in general, and being a part of that.

    I think that running a team of 45 staff is a big responsibility. I think our business skills have probably expanded and evolved over time, quite a lot. I think we’ve really been able to refine our business model and our business skills, and learn about quite a diverse range of areas within the music industry. It’s become a real business now, rather than just a hobby.

    That’s good, because if you do the same thing for a long period of time, it has to constantly evolve and change, otherwise, you can’t stay engaged at the same level. I think for the three partners in this business, it feels like every year we’re almost taking on a new role and a new challenge. We’re constantly engaged, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve been in the same job for ten years because we haven’t; we’re always doing something new and fresh and interesting. It keeps us focused and really engaged with the business.

    You and your Sound Alliance co-founders were recognised as ‘Creative Catalysts’ earlier in the year. Are you often approached by young people who view you as a source of creative inspiration, or was that a new experience for you?

    We were really surprised by that. We were quite honored to be included in that list. I wouldn’t say that type of thing happens very often. I think we probably try to provide as much inspiration as possible to the people within our team: our staff, our contributors, our state editors and that type of thing, whenever we get an opportunity to speak to them face-to-face, or get some time with them. I think inspiration is really important.

    We put a lot of effort into trying to nurture talent within our business. We’ve had a lot of staff who joined us as contributors. Tim Hardaker joined inthemix as a part-time writer when he became a contributor while he was at uni. He’s been with us for six years and is now the General Manager of inthemix. Those are the types of things that we are quite proud of, in terms of not just giving people inspiration, but giving them opportunities to succeed, as well.

    In the early days of Sound Alliance, who were your sources of inspiration?

    Neil Ackland: eyez on the prize

    I was inspired by quite a few people in a lot of different areas, just generally people around me. I was quite inspired by different promoters and DJs. When I first came to Australia in ’98, I met quite a few different people around the Sydney scene. I found it really vibrant and really open and welcoming, versus what I’d experienced in the U.K.

    There were some interesting inspirations. Jon Peters, who was the brainchild of kGrind, back in the day. He was a really interesting guy who had some really stretched thinking and really out-there ideas. He managed to get people to buy into his ideas and I found that really inspiring at the time; that the power of an idea could be enough to bring a whole group of people together behind something. That was quite inspiring. I was always inspired by people who had come from not much, but who had still been able to achieve a lot with a bit of street smarts and because they were passionate about what they did.

    Did you have a mentor during that time?

    I didn’t, actually. I’ve always relied heavily on my business partners, and them on me in return. I don’t think it would have been possible to do what we’ve done with just me running the business, or just the two of us. I think the “alliance” part of Sound Alliance is one of our key strengths.

    There are so many facets of running a business and getting a business from where we were to where we are now. It’s not just beyond my own skill set, but just things I’m not passionate about that my other partners are, the technical or legal aspects or financial or accounting aspects of the business. All these different areas, I would look at any one entrepreneur who was able to launch a business on their own and try to do all those things and think that was pretty amazing, because the skill set required is really quite broad and quite vast. That’s why I always felt that I had support and a different skill set requirement amongst the three partners in the business.

    We help each other through the tough times, and we share in each others’ successes.

    Despite being the head of Australia’s largest independent online publisher, your personal online presence is reasonably subdued, in that you don’t tend to blow your own horn too often. Was this a conscious strategy from day one, or are you naturally modest?

    I’m not crazy about being thrust into the limelight, it has to be said. I prefer to let the results and our products do the talking rather than me, always. In the last year or so, I’ve probably taken a bit more outward approach to getting our name out there. I’ve had some success around that, but I don’t know. There is so much to our business that is just about the team effort. I’m happy to fly the flag for the team, but I don’t really see it being something that’s about any one particular person.

    You can see where I’m coming from though. Guys in their sales and advertising fields don’t tend to let their achievements speak for themselves too often. I respect that you’re pretty low key about your achievements. That’s really awesome.

    I suppose I’m very aware of the tall poppy syndrome in Australia. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, over the years, who have come out telling a big story and shouting from the rooftops about not a lot, in terms of actual delivery, or the reality of what they’ve got. I’ve always looked upon that type of thing with a bit of cynicism, and I just think it’s never really been our style. We’ve got a slightly different approach to the way we do things and that’s worked for us so far. We haven’t really felt the need to go shouting too much.

    Is there a particular reason why you don’t share your business and motivational thoughts with the world, in the form of a blog, or is it just a matter of being time-poor?

    It’s funny you say that. I am actually setting up a blog at the moment, which will be probably going live in the next few weeks. We’re going to combine blogs, so there will be a developers’ blog, which will be Andre [Lackmann] who is the CTO here. He and his development team want to share some of the work that they’ve been doing and invite input from other developers, around some of the social media tools. Myself, and Stig [Richards], who runs the agency [Thought By Them] here, will be updating our side of the blog, which will be coming at the music industry from amarketing/brands/advertising/digital kind of perspective.

    A lot of it does come down to just being dedicated to something and being very time-poor. I’m interested in changing. I do read a lot of blogs and I follow some people whose opinion I really value. I think we’ve got some interesting stuff to share. I don’t think we’ll be updating it every day or anything, but I’m sure there will be some interesting tidbits coming through.

    Definitely. I think you’d attract a significant audience if you guys told the story behind what’s going on with Sound Alliance and how you got there. That’d be a great story.

    Cool, thanks for the feedback. Let me know what you think of the blog when it goes live.

    I will do. Personally, my connection to Sound Alliance began when I started writing for FasterLouder in June 2007. I now write for Mess+Noise [pictured below right, in magazine form], and I’ve always thought it was interesting that one of these sites pay its contributors, while the other doesn’t. What’s the difference between the two?

    Mess+Noise: definitely not available in the supermarket.When we were initially presented with the opportunity to acquire Mess+Noise, we were really interested in the community. We really loved what they’ve been able to create and recognized how unique it was, in the sense that it really didn’t take a lot of time and a lot of different factors to create success in terms of doing a community online. Those guys have achieved that really well.

    One of the things we were really attracted to about Mess+Noise is that it had a real focus on allowing its writers to focus on quality, and not be constrained by either an advertorial approach to content or word limits, or the speed at which they had to respond. They very much did things their own way, at their own pace, and they said exactly what they wanted to say. We really respected that. I liked that about what they were doing.

    I think FasterLouder, for us, is a great platform for writers, photographers, and creative people to start engaging with the live music scene. I think the way we would view Mess+Noise is that it was less about the immediacy of having the gig review and photos up a couple of days after the gig; it was much more timeless, and focused on quality over quantity.

    We wanted to take a different approach with Mess+Noise and try to focus on that; really try to nurture some of the great professional writers and professional photographers who are out there, and bring them across to Mess+Noise to engage with the site.

    Our reason, I suppose, is that a young writer could hone their skills, cut their teeth if you like, by contributing to FasterLouder, and eventually when they’re ready, they’ll be able to move up to start writing for Mess+Noise, and start to be paid for what they do. That’s the path we’re hoping we’re able to take young writers and young photographers on, and that they can see that we can nurture those skills, give them feedback, and pass them through that process to a point where they can hopefully become professional writers or professional photographers.

    That’s really cool that you talk about it like that because I’d like to continue the discussion along those lines. I found my experience to be exactly what you said. Taking the time to contribute for free is wonderful and a great opportunity for people who are just starting out in web publishing; often the experience, the community feedback and the industry freebies are seen as a reward in themselves. But as you know, there comes a time when these free contributors decide to move onto paid work. I think the Australian street press has a similar staff turnover: writers learn the ropes and then tend to leave within a few years.

    FasterLouder: goes to 11, sometimes

    I think it’s really tough. It’s changed the dynamics and the economic structures of a whole range of things. The one thing I do think something like FasterLouder helps provide is an opportunity for feedback. It gives a great feedback loop and an opportunity for writers to see how many people have viewed their articles, and to get people to ‘heart’ and comment on it, discuss it. I think that is one of the great things that FasterLouder offers, in terms of being able to get some feedback on your writing.

    You could put something out on a blog about a gig that you went to on the weekend, but the number of people who are likely to see it is quite limited. I think you get to expose your work to a broader range of people and the pressure is not as intense, and as high as it would be as if you were writing for a very critical, discerning audience on a site like Mess+Noise. The parameters are not quite as restrictive.

    I think that’s really cool that you guys have kind of had that strategy from the start at FasterLouder, and then progressed on to Mess+Noise when the time was right.

    I think we tried to adopt that approach even before we had Mess+Noise, in the sense that the heads of the talented and the really passionate always pop up above the crowd, and we try to bring them in. As I said before, we’ve got staff here who came through that contributor process, and have now come through to be full-time employees down the line, or just contributors being paid by Mess+Noise.

    There are not millions of opportunities, but they do come up occasionally. Where possible, we always try to include the people who’ve worked with us over that time.

    The people who are really outstanding do tend to rise above the crowd and receive more opportunities, so it’s kind of a natural selection process. That’s cool. Moving on; your LinkedIn profile states that you’re adept at establishing profitable business models from niche social media.

    You’ve done your research!

    How long did it take for inthemix to become profitable, broadly speaking?

    Off the top of my head, I’m not entirely sure about inthemix. I think inthemix was probably more of a phenomenon than even we thought it was going to be. Our approach with what we did with our business was always to reinvest. inthemix, in isolation, had we just kept that company running as five or six people working on the business, it would be an extremely successful business, but what we’ve chosen to do is to build our company out, create Sound Alliance, and reinvest all that money back into building the business we have today.

    I think in isolation, inthemix is still a fantastic company, business, and community; all of those things, and it continues to grow. Every time we think we’ve definitely reached our maximum audience at the site, it defies belief and keeps on going. That’s a really solid business model right there. I didn’t really answer your question, did I?

    No, not specifically, but that’s okay. [Laughs] Has Sound Alliance ever sought venture capital funding?

    Yes, we have. We’re one of the few Australian companies in our industry who have succeeded in getting venture capital funding. I know a lot of people who have tried and failed. The process is exhausting, and it’s a whole new world out there, I can tell you.

    We managed to get a round of funding last year, and the partner is Albert Investments Group, which is a parent company of Albert Music, the publishing and recording business. They have music studios over in Neutral Bay; they’ve got AC/DC and Dallas Crane, and a few other acts. They’re a really great fit for us.

    We’ve really seen eye-to-eye with them in terms of the cultural sphere of our business and the fact that they’re family-run. They’re one of the oldest music businesses in Australia, and they ended up being a really great partner. There were a lot of companies fishing around out there when we were entering that ‘boom’ period just before the financial crisis There were a lot of conversations going on. I don’t think there was a single online company worth its salt that hadn’t been approached by numerous people, at that time. It was just the way it was back then.


    We’re very fortunate. We managed to take on a partner as a minority shareholder in the business, who shares our goals and our vision for what we’re trying to achieve. They are hugely supportive in getting us there, and have been able to provide a lot of value and not just in terms of capital investment, but in terms of the network they’ve been able to open us up to, their skills, and knowledge of the music industry have all been invaluable.

    So you guys had pursued that for most of your time as Sound Alliance, but you only found a partner, just last year?

    No, we’d only been out there looking for about nine months, or something like that. It wasn’t something that had been a priority prior to that.

    Returning to yourself; do you have a daily routine?

    Not really. If I had the choice, I would probably a lot more routine focused. My day is pretty irregular, in terms of what happens. I have a lot of regularly scheduled meetings that happen week in, week out but outside of that, I could be pulled in any number of directions, depending on what’s going on at any one time.

    In a way, I kind of like that aspect of my role, in that it’s very dynamic and it requires me to use left brain/right brain, and switch on and off in different occasions and at different times. It’s what keeps it really challenging. No, I don’t have a massive routine in terms of the way I structure my day.

    Has this changed since you started ten years ago?

    I wouldn’t say I’ve always been a massive routine person, in terms of what I do. I will always try and dedicate some of my day to researching into keeping up with what’s going on out there. I don’t always do it at the same time every day, but I’ll always spend some of my day doing that whenever I can sneak it in; when I’m on a cab checking my phone, checking out news stories and blogs, or when I get home before I go to bed at night, or however I can squeeze those types of things in. I don’t say “At 9:00 in the morning, I’m going to do this for twenty minutes.” I’m a bit more sporadic than that.

    Do you ever struggle with procrastination?

    When I’m tired, yeah, but I tend to make quite quick decisions. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t dwell on things too long. You have to use your instinct and your gut to make a lot of your decisions, where when you’ve got time to procrastinate and pore over the details, that’s great, and sometimes I’ll do that. But generally, my instincts will tell me which way to go and I just don’t have the time to procrastinate.

    So you don’t have any trouble remaining focused on the task at hand? You just devote the time necessary and then move on?

    Yeah, I think I can get through quite a bit of stuff quite quickly. I can process a lot of things during the day and move through quite a few things in a short space of time. If I have to focus on something, I’ll go home and work from home. If I’m writing something really important or working on numbers or spreadsheets, I’ll put my headphones on or get out of the office and try to focus on it there.

    Let’s talk about [Sound Alliance marketing consultancy arm] Thought By Them for a moment. Is it at the stage where companies and events come to you for consultancy or do you guys still submit proposals for these projects, like regular businesses?

    Thought By Them: they make ideasIt’s a lot more people coming to us now. It used to be, in the early stages, us going out there and trying to tell people about what we’re doing. We’ve never really been out there in terms of pitching all the time, and trying to win big pitches. We have taken the approach that what we’re offering is quite a specialist thing and it doesn’t suit all brands; it only suits certain types of brands at some stage in their lifecycle. More often, they’ve kind of found us rather than us finding them.

    With Thought By Them, we didn’t want to get too big, too fast. We try to focus on delivering really good value and really good ideas, and constantly innovating, rather than exploding and taking on too many clients. We’ve really focused on having one client in one brand category, rather than having a lot of different clients in the same category.
    It’s been a really organic approach. I think that’s really suited us because we’ve been able to learn a lot during that time, and really hone our skills, like how unique our position is in the market.

    How did the music licensing and CD production arm of Thought By Them come about?

    We don’t do too much of that at the moment, to be honest. It was really more a case of just seeing opportunities for brands. We don’t tend to work within strict disciplines, in terms of our work arrangements and that type of thing. We tend to be quite fluid, and try and react as things are going on amongst consumers and provide our solutions right to that, rather than sticking within a mandate of just being a digital agency, or an events agency, or a music agency.
    With music licensing, and that type of thing, if it’s the right solution for what one of our clients is looking to achieve, then we would recommend it. It’s not something that we roll out as part of any standard product offering.

    I’m assuming that digital music distribution has affected the CD production aspect that you guys offer.

    Yeah, but the CD production stuff is such a small part of what we do. We’ve only really done it a few times for specific clients when it’s been a requirement, but it’s not really a core part of what Thought By Them is doing.

    You’re a few years older than me, so you knew a time before the web dominated our means of mass communication. Something that I’ve been doing more and more in the last year is reaching out to individuals who inspire or fascinate me, such as yourself. Do you have any tips for approaching these seemingly ultra-busy, really important figures?

    [Laughs] I can only look back on the people who have approached me, and the ones that have had success in doing so. I’ve never shut the door on anybody or denied anybody my time, if they’ve been polite in the way they’ve approached me and I think I can assist them. If they’ve taken an interesting approach, then I’ll always give my time.

    I’d be surprised if many other people who are in the industry would take a much different approach to that, but I’m sure some people do. Generally speaking, I think if people were reaching out, asking for information and advice, I’m more than happy to try and provide it, if I can squeeze in the time.

    Nick Crocker: checking all the boxes, and the checkered shirtsWith Nick Crocker [pictured right; Native Digital owner, and my mentor], for example, when he first got in touch with me, it was a matter of a mutual friend saying, “Hey, you should catch up with this person. It’s worthwhile meeting up with him,” as he came to me through Luke at Universal. There was never really an agenda. It was just an interesting guy worth catching up with, much the same way as he now passed your details along to me, and we’re talking today.

    I think it’s good to really try to work on your network. You don’t always have to start by targeting somebody who is right at the top of your inspiration tree. You can find your way there by other means.

    It’s best to just have a go. I think you’d be surprised; a lot of people have this misconception of “Oh my God, I could never just find that person’s email address, or contact them through LinkedIn or Twitter, and ask them if they fancy coffee.” There is no harm in trying. I think you might be surprised. I’ve probably had a couple of people approach me with an ulterior motive; maybe they were a recruiter or something like that and I might not have got back to them, but generally speaking, if I think it’s somebody who is doing it for the right reasons, I’ll always respond.

    I’ve definitely found what you mentioned about being surprised about who will meet up with me. It’s an approach that Nick introduced to me this year, and I’ve definitely been blown away by the response, the respect and attention that I’ve received from some people I would have never thought would have given me the time of day. It’s pretty amazing.

    There is this outward perception that the music industry is so unapproachable, and that all these people are up on a pedestal, but it’s not like that at all. I think they’re all just real people doing their thing, and one of the things that always attracted me to work in the music business is that I saw this bunch of people that had all come together of their own steam. Their own entrepreneurial tendencies and flare are at the core of what the music industry is all about. It’s a whole bunch of people who are really passionate and determined, and they really love what they do and really love the industry itself.

    I’ve found it’s quite consuming and quite seductive to be so drawn into a space by that. That’s why if you’re talking about getting someone’s time, they’ve all been in that position before, so I think most of them recognize that and they’re happy to pass on any pearls of wisdom they might have, to do their bit.

    Much as you have, today. Did you have any specific tactics that you used to connect with inspirational or motivational figures when Sound Alliance was starting up?

    Not really. I would just try and make sure that I was very present. I think if you’re really passionate about working in the music industry, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You got to do your research, get out there, go to the gigs, go to the clubs, or whatever your particular genre interest is. Meet the people, network, and get amongst it. That’s how opportunities and many things arise. I think you’ve got to live the life and get amongst it if you really want to be taken seriously in getting into this space.

    We’ve just been interviewing some staff this week. We invited some junior staff members to come back in and do a presentation to us on some ideas of how they would help promote some releases. The presentations yesterday were from this young guy and girl, and I was blown away by the amount of research they’d done, and how they seem to know our product. They’d gone into this great level of detail to understand what it was they were coming back with, even though they hadn’t really been given direction. Even though their ideas were slightly off in some areas, it was so impressive just to see people going to that level. I think that’s what it takes to get your foot in the door in this industry: you have to really stand out, and be really prepared to go the extra mile.

    There are a lot of people who just think “Oh yeah, it’d be cool to work in music,” or cool to work in fashion, or whatever, but it’s not really the right reason to be involved in something.

    My final question, Neil, I understand that Sound Alliance has a new web project on the horizon. Can you give me any hints on its focus?

    We’ve got quite a few actually. I don’t know which one you’re talking about. [Laughs]

    I can talk about a couple of things we’re doing. We’re re-launching inthemix towards the end of this year, though there’s no specific date set yet. It’s a fairly major sort of overhaul for inthemix, in terms of functionality, tools, the design, and what it offers.

    I think it will send that whole community off onto the next level, in terms of their engagement with the site, what they can do with it, and what it can give them. That’s something really exciting, whether you’re a DJ, producer, or just a punter, we’re going to offer a lot of things on those levels that are going to enable them to connect to other people in the same space and really take the essence of what ITM’s strengths are and style them up a little bit more.

    inthemix has been running on the same platform for about four years and we know it’s a little bit tired and dated; it’s not exactly Web 2.0. We’ve been honing a lot of those tools on our other sites and seeing how people use them and interact, and getting them ready to roll them out on the big beast [ITM]. That’s a pretty exciting project for us, pretty massive, and it brings to an end about a four-year development schedule.

    The Sound Alliance heirarchy

    We’ve basically been putting all of our sites onto one codebase, one unified codebase. It basically means you’ll be able to make a change or add a new piece of functionality and they’ll all simultaneously go across all the sites. It will just have a slightly different front-end design look and feel. It will mean we will be able to get new developments to the market quicker, cheaper, and much more effectively without reinventing the wheel every time. This is quite a big launch for us.

    We’re also working on a whole heap of mobile stuff at the moment; we’re just about to launch a mobile site for Mess+Noise, to give that a try. We’ve launched mobile sites for inthemix forums, and we’re going to be rolling out a whole range of mobile stuff, possibly some apps, and a few things down the track, as well.

    We have this other thing called Sound Alliance Labs which we just launched recently, where we’ve allocated a budget every year, and our staff can pitch their own ideas for development. We have a monthly meeting where they have to come in and pitch ideas, not necessarily revenue-generating, not necessarily great business ideas, but just things they’ve seen or things they think would complement what we’re doing. They can either pitch them to the management team either individually or as groups.

    If we like their idea, we give them a budget and they can work on it outside of their hours. So if the developers come up with a great idea for an iPhone app or something like that, we give them a budget and pay them outside of their standard work hours to go away and develop it. We’re going to give an award for the best lab project every year, based on all the submissions that come through. We’re trying to maintain a focus on innovation and make sure that our staff have an opportunity to do all the things they’re really interested in outside of work, while bringing the benefit back to Sound Alliance, for the greater good of the overall company rather than going off and doing them on their own. We can just see a lot of our team working on some really exciting things, and we wanted to bring that within these walls, rather than see that innovation go off elsewhere. It’s things like that which are exciting and fun and challenging.

    And it’s fascinating for an outsider. It’s been really interesting to hear you speak about your past, the present, and the future. It’s been great to speak with you, Neil, and I thank you for your time.

    Cool, happy to share with you. I hope it’s been useful, and I look forward to seeing what’s ahead for you.

    If you’d like to get in touch, Neil Ackland is on the emails and the Twitters. Coincidentally, Denise Shrivell of Digital Ministry published an excellent interview with Neil earlier this week that focuses on the business side of Sound Alliance. Take a look.

  • The Music Network story: “For The Record: An Album Retrospective Part 3”, August 2009

    In the third piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew ruminates on the death of a pop icon, worldwide grief counselling through iTunes’ figurative cash register, and recent digital sales trends.

    One of the joys of writing on a short schedule is the agility with which weekly publications such as The Music Network can relate to current occurrences. After tracing the history of recorded music in the last two weeks – from technological advances, to the reduced reliance on singular album entities in favour of a more liquid, portable state – a significant event in musical history occurred. Thursday, June 25 2009 found Michael Jackson dead, aged 50.

    The grieving process translated into an outpouring of public reminiscence, which resulted in astounding sales figures for Jackson’s back catalogue. According to, US sales figures put the singer’s album sales for the week ending June 28 at 422,000, of which 225,000 were digital sales. A staggering 2.3 million individual song downloads found Jackson far and away the first act to sell more than a million downloads in a week. Within Australian shores, the disparity between albums and singles was curiously less noticeable: Jackson’s album and single sales were placed at 62,015 and 107,821, respectively, according to, while in another strange, archaic turn, only one out of every five Michael Jackson albums sold in Australia last week were digitally downloaded.

    Goodnight, sweet princeRegardless, Jackson’s enormous sales in the US simply couldn’t have eventuated ten years ago. Record stores inventories would’ve been exhausted across the country, and compact disc factories would’ve rushed to press more discs to meet the demand. Both of these outcomes still eventuated, but instead of experiencing weeks-long delays, music consumers have the option of instant online gratification: his 2.3 million download count resulted in six Jackson tracks appearing in the Billboard top ten.

    The Jackson phenomenon highlights several points central to the discussion raised in this column series. First, consumer choices are trending away from the album as the favoured mechanism of music release. Choice is key here: it’s easier to choose to part with around a dollar for a song that you’ll love, rather than parting with $15-20 for an unfamiliar collection. If money is no object to the consumer, then time surely is: as industry analyst Bob Lefsetz phrased it in his July 5th, 2009 column, “Who’s got the time to listen to an hour of music that you’re not truly interested in when there are all these other diversions that fascinate you?”

    Second, the popularity of digital music sales continues to snowball the trend away from the album as the industry’s singular organising principle. The modern music consumer can now purchase music from her home, without being subject to an array external factors while travelling to the record store. This operates in a similar manner to the ease with which she can cherry-pick her favourite songs from an online store, and ignore the rest, A simple point to make, but it’s worth reinforcing that digital distribution is the spark that set alight the consumer’s reliance on the album.

    Finally, a startling counter to the arguments that copyright theft is the primary factor crippling record labels’ established business models. In the period between Jackson’s June 25 death and July 1, streaming media analysts at report that combined views of the “Thriller” music video totalled in excess of 28 million. Considering that his aggregate single-song sales during the same period were 2.3 million – and just 167,000 for that particular track – it’s somewhat surprising that less than 10% of his fans chose to buy his music, and instead opted to stream it for free. But to step back within the boundaries of this discussion, let’s discount Jackson’s untimely demise and instead examine recent digital sales trends.

    The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) – comprising 1400 record companies in around 70 countries – released their annual Digital Music Report in January 2009. This report quickly became infamous within the recording industry, as media hurled themselves upon the IFPI’s estimation that, after collating studies in 16 countries over a three-year period, over 40 billion music files were illegally file-shared in 2008, which resulted in copyright theft rate of around 95%.

    But to focus on the near-past so as to not bore you with figures, here’s five key points garnered from the IFPI’s report on the international digital music business in 2008:

    • The digital music industry saw a sixth year of expansion in 2008, growing by an estimated 25% to US$3.7 billion in trade value
    • Digital platforms now account for around 20% of recorded music sales, up from 15% in 2007
    • Single track downloads, up 24% in 2008 to 1.4 billion units globally, continue to drive the online market, while digital album sales grew 36%
    • Consumer demand for music is higher than ever – NPD research found that total music consumption in the US rose by one third between 2003 and 2007

    The typical music listener, as imagined by marketing execs everywhereAt a national level, ARIA’s 2008 figures revealed that:

    • Physical sales declined from 51,866,917 to 44,438,874 (down 14%)
    • Digital sales overall rose from 47,267,034 to 128,532,126 (up 171%)
    • Digital album sales rose from 788,316 to 2,853,040 (up 261%)
    • Digital track sales rose from 17,647,057 to 23,464,576 (up 32%)

    It’s important to distinguish the disparity between album and track sales. While digital album sales experienced growth in Australia, they were still outsold nearly ten-to-one by single digital tracks. Why? In an era of musical abundance and complete portability, the consumer is spoiled for choice. We live in an age where you can experience “Thriller” for around a dollar, with a minimum of fuss – or you can stream it from YouTube, if you’d prefer. Freed from the constraints of physical products, we’re able to sample sounds before purchasing so as to reduce the rampant buyer’s remorse that we both feel while casting our eyes across our music collections.

    The record industry marketplace has fundamentally changed for content creators and consumers. To pound a cliché into your head: the internet has theoretically afforded any artist the chance reach your iPod earbuds. The barriers to entering the recording industry have been lowered, and the costs of bedroom production and online distribution are trending toward zero. As a result, it’s unreasonable for artists and labels to continue propagating an album-release business model that’s so firmly rooted in the past.

    But what about the present? I’m glad you asked, as part four of this five-piece puzzle will find me removing my hats marked “boring history” and “boring sales figures”. In their place, I’ll hatlessly hammer the thoughts that current musicians feel toward my incessant prodding of the album; that alleged, proverbial dead horse. Expect well-articulated rock-posturing, before part five finds us exploding in an orgy of alternative release models, innovative case studies and an unerring optimism for a recording industry who’ll eventually realise that as music fans, all we really want is our favourite artists to release great music as often as possible.

    Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at

    (Note: This is part three of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #746, July 13th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part onepart two, part four, and part five)