All posts tagged Radio

  • BuzzFeed story: ‘The Royal Prank’, August 2013

    A story for BuzzFeed; my first for the site’s longform vertical. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    The Royal Prank: The Story Behind The Worst Radio Stunt In History

    by Andrew McMillen / illustration by Justine Zwiebel

    When a pair of Australian DJs went viral by prank calling the London hospital treating Kate Middleton last December, they were lionized at home and vilified in the U.K. Then the nurse who answered the phone committed suicide amid the outrage, raising questions about mental health, privacy, and the very definition of a joke. What responsibility do pranksters have to their victims?

    'The Royal Prank: The Story Behind The Worst Radio Stunt In History' by Andrew McMillen for BuzzFeed, August 2013. Illustration by Justine Zwiebel

    Speaking with the Queen of England on the telephone, even for a moment, is, by any measure, an out-of-the-ordinary experience. But Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse at King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London, didn’t mention her brief conservation with Her Majesty to her husband Benedict Barboza on Tuesday, Dec. 4, last year.

    Barboza and their children — Junal, 17, and Lisha, 14 — lived 118 miles away in Bristol. Along with the hospital’s reputation of caring for upper-class British citizens came a higher income than Saldanha previously earned at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, which in turn allowed the family to live in comfort while they paid their mortgage. Saldanha’s life consisted of staying at nurses’ quarters during the week and savoring weekends at home.

    The nurse spoke to her family again on Wednesday and made cryptic reference to the fact that they should watch the news on television. But she didn’t call at all on Thursday. Concerned, Barboza called the hospital soon after 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, and asked a colleague to check on his wife. What they discovered in her room was a lifeless body with cut wrists, hung by a scarf tied to a wardrobe.

    Three suicide notes were found: two at the scene, one among Saldanha’s belongings. The first note was addressed to her employers, and reportedly contained criticism of hospital staff. The second asked that she be buried in her hometown of Shirva, Udupi, India.

    The final handwritten note read: “I hold the Radio Australians Mel Greig and Michael Christian responsible for this act. Please make them pay my mortgage. I am sorry. Jacintha.”

    ++

    The hospital had been quiet that early Tuesday morning. That one of the most famous women in the world, the Duchess of Cambridge, was resting upstairs, recovering from acute morning sickness was not unusual; the hospital had been treating royalty since 1899. Elizabeth, the queen mother, underwent treatment here many times: In November 1982, a fish bone was extracted from her throat during surgery. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, was hospitalized here for five nights with a bladder infection in June 2012. There was no reason for the skeleton staff on the night shift to expect anything out of the ordinary.

    On the other side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, two radio announcers at 2Day FM were recording a bit for their nightly program. Michael “MC” Christian, 25, had only that week begun hosting the summer edition of the Hot 30 Countdown program, broadcast nationally through Southern Cross Austereo’s Today Network each weeknight from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., alongside 30-year-old Mel Greig. The show mixed pop hits with softball celebrity interviews and gossip items and, as such, attracted some of the country’s biggest advertisers. It also launched the careers of a few now-famous Australian radio personalities such as “Ugly Phil” O’Neil, Kyle Sandilands, and “Jackie O” Henderson.

    “Here’s the thing,” Christian said at the beginning of the segment. “We’ve been handed a phone number. We’ve been told that this phone number is the hospital where Kate Middleton is currently staying. We thought we’d give it a call. We don’t want to cause any trouble, we don’t want to stress her out. But I reckon we could maybe get her on the radio tonight.”

    “Look, I don’t know,” Greig faux-cautioned. “I mean, everybody would be trying this.”

    “Well, this is why I’ve thought of a plan,” Christian replied. “We can’t just ring up and go, ‘Hi, it’s MC and Mel from the Summer 30, can we chat to Kate?’ Hang up. Not gonna happen. You are going to be the queen…”

    “This is awesome!” whispered Greig, a former Amazing Race Australia contestant. She affected an upper-class British accent. “Hello, I’m the queen.”

    “I’m going to be Prince Charles.” Christian gestured through the glass to his producers, Emily Mills, 26, and Ben Hamley, 21. “Ben and Em, you’re involved in this as well. We thought that maybe you could be the royal corgis, if you’re OK with that?”

    The pair made enthusiastic barking sounds. “Sure, we’ll pop on in, in a sec,” replied Mills.

    “This is fun!” Greig said. “I mean…” She readopted the posh British accent. “…this is fun.”

    Christian gave his best attempt at imitating a British man nearly 40 years his senior. “Hello. Prince Charles over here, mummy!”

    “Oh, you’re Prince Charles,” Greig-as-queen said. “I like your ears.”

    Shortly after 5 a.m., a telephone rang at the hospital’s front desk. Answering the phone wasn’t really Saldanha’s job, but since the reception switchboard wasn’t staffed overnight, she must have felt obliged to pick up after three rings.

    “Hello, good morning, King Edward the Seventh Hospital,” she said.

    A haughty, straining British accent replied, “Yes, hello, I’d like to speak to my granddaughter, Kate.”

    Saldanha recognized the voice immediately, though if she was taken aback by this request, she didn’t show it. “Oh, yes, just hold on, ma’am,” she said.

    Gentle strings and a tinkling piano played while the pair held the line.

    “Are they putting us through?” asked Christian, dropping the Charles facade.

    “Yes!” Greig replied. They both laughed.

    Christian lowered his voice. “If this has worked, it’s the easiest prank call we have ever made.”

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed. On a personal note, I’m honoured that this story resulted in my first mention on both Longform.org and Longreads.com, the web’s two leading aggregators of longform journalism.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘The Discovery Channel: triple j’s power over Australian music’, December 2011

    A feature story published in the January 2012 issue of Rolling Stone Australia, under the ‘National Affairs’ banner.

    Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    National Affairs: The Discovery Channel
    Is triple j’s power over Australian music being used for good, or evil?

    by Andrew McMillen. Illustration by Andrea Innocent

    In many ways, triple j studios – located on the third level of the cavernous ABC building on Harris Street, in inner Sydney – also functions as the central nervous system of the Australian music industry. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of listeners across the country are tuned in. Label owners, promoters, publicists and musicians follow the station with relentless fascination, as its playlist and musical preferences can literally make, delay, or break careers in the notoriously fickle music business.

    For decades, since the national broadcaster’s inception in August 1980, triple j has continued to grow: in terms of staff numbers, audience popularity and, as a direct result, cultural influence. With great power comes great responsibility. As triple j continues to slowly evolve into a gangly octopus whose arms now extend far beyond its initial radio habitat into print media, significant online networking, year-round event promotion, and – with the October launch of a standalone Unearthed station – digital radio, it’s worth taking a magnifying glass to the station’s many activities to examine whether their great power is being used for good or evil.

    Two senses are immediately pricked entering triple j studios: the eyes are met with bloody red walls contrasting against innocuous whites, and the ears latch onto the sounds of triple j being piped through the station’s corridors, while Zan Rowe broadcasts her morning show live to air just a few metres away. Station manager Chris Scaddan strolls past their huge music library to his corner office. His coffee table is stacked with months’ worth of printed music media: street press, monthlies, international imports. A recent issue of triple j magazine sits conspicuously atop the pile.

    He turns down the live broadcast to a quiet gurgle as he considers a question: how would he describe triple j to someone who’d never heard it before?

    “It’s uniquely Australian,” Scaddan says. “We’re about new music; mainly, new Australian music. We’re targeted at 18-24 year-olds, so we’re here for young Australians. We play diverse styles of music; we’re independent and non-commercial, which is important. At this point, we’re a brand that reaches across quite a few different platforms. We’re our audience as much as anything, as well. We’re really in touch with our listeners, and we hope that what we’re doing is reflecting and inspiring what they want, and what they want to listen to, and what they want to know about.”

    Eight minutes into the interview, in response to a question about whether triple j’s support is crucial to the success of Australian bands on a national scale, he cites a recently discovered statistic that he’s clearly very proud of: in October 2011, the station posted audience figures of 1.5 million in the five capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide).

    “At the moment, we’ve got as many people listening as we ever have. But are we crucial to a band’s success? I don’t think so,” Scaddan says. “Certainly we’re a national broadcaster, and we’ve got a really strong audience. I wouldn’t say it’s crucial to whether you make it or don’t. There are so many different ways that you can find a career or an audience through the Australian music industry. There’s so many examples of bands who may not have been played by triple j who are doing just fine.”

    “Just fine” is a relative term, of course. For every Art Vs Science, Boy & Bear or Washington playing to thousands-strong crowds on the national stage, there are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of acts across Australia who enjoy strong support within their hometowns or capital cities, but struggle to make the jump to national notoriety without the nod from triple j. Does Scaddan find that bands get pissed off when they get told, ‘thanks, but no thanks’ in response to their latest release?

    “That does happen,” he replies. “That’s the nature of the business we’re all in. Just like artists who are pitching for articles in Rolling Stone and don’t get a mention get pissed off, and can’t understand it sometimes. It is really, really difficult. We’re always looking to try and find a really good balance of genres, of locations – nationwide, so we’re not just picking bands from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane all the time.”

    “It’s difficult, and sometimes bands who want to get triple j airplay might not crack it on the playlist. That doesn’t mean they’re still not getting played in other ways on the station. They tune in and they’re not getting played as often as Gotye, or Florence + The Machine, and they think they should be. You just hope they can understand that there’s a limit to how much music can fit on the station and make it work.”

    Such programming decisions lie not with Scaddan, nor with music director Richard Kingsmill, but with the entire triple j staff. When Kingsmill is questioned – in jest – about whether he’s the most powerful man in Australian music, he practically explodes in exasperation from a couch positioned nearby the station’s carefully stacked CD collection.

    “It is not anywhere near the truth. It is just such a misconception to think this place isn’t a team of people,” Kingsmill says. “I have said this time and time again, and if people still think that I sit there and basically call all the shots, they are wrong. I can’t say it enough. This station is built on teamwork. It always has been. If you’ve got a bad framework, or teamwork vibe happening in this place, it shows on the other end of the radio. When we all work together, we get the results. It’s as simple as that.”

    ++

    What happens when your band wins the musical equivalent of the lottery, the triple j Unearthed slot to open the main stage of Splendour In The Grass? In 2011, the competition was won by Brisbane indie pop band Millions. Twenty-two-year-old drummer James Wright is being a little humble by equating the contest to a lottery: those rely on luck alone, not songwriting talent.

    Still, it’s curious to hear Wright honestly state Millions’ intentions upon forming in December 2010. “The entire objective of the band was using triple j to get where we want to go,” he says. A four-piece comprised of members from three Brisbane bands you’ve never heard of, Millions realised during their initial rehearsals that their sound might appeal to the national broadcaster.

    “There was the fleeting chance that, if we maybe more deliberately went towards the triple j sort of sound, in terms of being more accessible than our previous bands, then we might have a shot at actually doing some good, and getting played,” Wright says. “We didn’t exactly have high aspirations for it, but we were really happy with the two songs we’d written [at the time].”

    He says that Millions are “the exact opposite” of their previous bands, in that their path was “extremely thought through, to the point of calculating exactly how many shows it would take us to get where we wanted to go, and to who we should play these shows with and why we should do them and where we should play them.” The Splendour 2011 slot was unexpected for the band, and “pretty much blew everyone’s mind” according to Wright, but not unsurprising given their ambitions.

    Stephen Green is well acquainted with this kind of mindset among artists. Since beginning as a radio “plugger” – a guy who pitches new music to stations across the country – he now runs his own publicity consulting business, SGC Media.

    “The problem of triple j being so dominant is that it artistically skews what some bands are coming out with,” he says. “If you’ve got the opportunity to do the song that’s in your head that’s not very ‘triple j’, or you tweak it somewhat and make it sound like bands that are getting airplay… I think a lot of bands are going down [the second] path a little more.”

    “The tracks that I think work least are the ones that the band have gone, ‘right, we’ve got to get on triple j’, and they’ve tried to write a ‘triple j song’,” Green adds. “If it just happened like that, then – great. But I think too many bands push down that path. Being generic so that you sound like every other band is not usually the way to stand out and have a particularly successful career.”

    When Green works on publicity with Australian artists, he never plans a campaign assuming that the act will get triple j airplay. “If you do that, you’re setting yourself up for a big disappointment,” he says. “I don’t think you can make assumptions that anybody’s going to play anything.” So what happens when triple j rejects the song or record you’re pitching them? “Well, you kick the wall, the client gets shitty and says, ‘you didn’t rep it properly’. You break up, and that’s the end of that!” he laughs, clearly joking.

    Like Green, Megan Reeder Hope places a high value on including triple j in her marketing plans. As general manager at Secret Service Public Relations, Reeder Hope works regularly with the Brisbane-based record label Dew Process, whose roster includes Mumford & Sons, The Grates and Seeker Lover Keeper. “triple j is essential,” she says. “It’s probably the crux of my plans of how we work at Dew Process.”

    “That’s not to say that we don’t value the rest of the media: community radio is really important, as is commercial radio when you get to a certain point,” Reeder Hope says. “But I think triple j is that centrepiece that needs to be in place to be able to do all of the other ones, as well. From our perspective, triple j has a high level of integrity. They really do things in a way that’s uncompromising of their own editorial policy, while still always putting the music first. It really is all about the music for them. They support artists, and they support them throughout their careers.”

    Back at the station’s Sydney studios, music director Richard Kingsmill is clearly proud of the station’s success, and unapologetic to its critics. “If anyone’s got any complaints and arguments against us, or thinks that we’re in some ways trying to monopolise the Australian industry….” He pauses. “You get damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we sat back and went, ‘Well, we shouldn’t monopolise the Australian music industry, we should sit in this corner and do our little job and not try to do anything,’ we’d get criticised for being negligent and not proactive. If you’re proactive, then you tread on toes a little bit, I guess, but we’re not meaning to tread on toes.”

    “It’s not supposed to be 100 per cent,” Kingsmill continues. “No one can be 100 per cent, and no one should expect triple j to be 100%. We do what we do to the best of our abilities, and we try as hard as we possibly can, with the best of intentions. But at the end of the day, we’re all humans. So we’ll take chances and we’ll take risks, and sure, we’ll piss people off, but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think there was a section of the community out there who was actually enjoying it.”

    Further reading and discussion:

  • The Vine story: The Flaming Lips ‘Zaireeka’ iPhone experiment at 4ZZZ Brisbane, November 2011

    A live review-of-sorts for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    The Flaming Lips – Zaireeka iPhone Experiment
    4ZZZ Studios, Brisbane
    Sunday November 20 2011

    “There’s a lot of things where, when you think about them, you think they could work. But it’s different when you do them.” Wayne Coyne, singer and songwriter of The Flaming Lips, is sitting before a microphone at Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ. It’s 12.50am. Four hours earlier, Coyne and his band headlined the Windmill Stage at Harvest Festival. Now, at Triple Zed, he’s here to lead something that’s never been done before: an attempt to simultaneously play all four albums of the Lips’ 1997 album, Zaireeka, live on the radio, in sync, via 160 iPhones split into four groups of 40 fans.

    “It’s tough to get this many people together, and to be doing it live on the air, and not knowing whether it’s going to work,” Coyne says. “But you seem to be open to the idea of experimentation, and I think your audience will be forgiving enough if it’s not perfect. Everybody out here is having a good time, so that seems to count for something.” He’s right. The station’s three floors and car park are buzzing with the excitement of iPhone-wielding fans, harried-looking Zed staff, and plenty of hangers-on who’ve snuck in via the back entrance just to be a part of it all. Judging by the sunburns, most spent their day at Harvest. Many are in altered states.

    The singer is being interviewed on air by Zed presenter Brad Armstrong, who began petitioning his ‘Bring The Lips to Zed’ campaign in late August. Armstrong eventually got through to Coyne’s camp, and the two have been in touch for weeks leading up to his arrival tonight. “In the end, you and me were texting back and forth,” Coyne says to the 23 year-old presenter. “There was a couple of times you were calling, and we were just getting ready to walk on stage. I was like, ‘Hey Brad, I can’t talk to you…’” The pair laugh. Armstrong is nervous; his mind repeatedly blanks during the interview. “But persistence is a good quality, for sure,” the singer smiles. “You seemed like you were interesting to work with. Now I’m at the mercy of your organisational skills.”

    Though Armstrong is clearly enjoying himself in the booth, he’s shot himself in the foot somewhat. He’s the default mastermind of this whole operation. While he eats up airtime, a handful of Zed staff flit between the groups, trying to make sense of it all. Guest ‘conductors’ include Richard Pike from PVT, a dude from The Holidays, and local punk duo DZ Deathrays. None of them have any idea what they’re doing. Someone forgot the seemingly obvious step of supplying radios for the four groups; these are eventually put in place, while Armstrong attempts to lead a test run. In the preceding week, the 160 iPhone holders were instructed to download the Atomic Clock app and transfer one of Zaireeka’s four discs to their phone, plus a test track. Eventually Armstrong communicates that everyone should set the test track as an alarm for 1.32am, and then hold up their phones so that microphones can pick up the sound. Zed staff then run throughout the building, yelling out the same message. Watching all of this unfold is exhausting.

    For the full story, visit The Vine, where you’ll also find a gallery of photos taken by Justin Edwards, including the image used above.

  • Interviewed: 4ZzZ Book Club on National Young Writers’ Month, freelance journalism, and UnConvention Brisbane 2011

    This is a three-way live radio interview conducted by Sky Kirkham, Amy Stevenson, and Alexander Atkinson, the co-hosts of the4ZzZ Book Club, on Thursday 26 May 2011. 4ZzZ is a community radio station in Brisbane.

    Our half-hour interview concerned National Young Writers’ Month 2011, my freelance journalism, and my role as co-organiser of UnConvention Brisbane 2011. Their questions are bolded.

    If, for some crazy reason, you’d rather listen to the audio of this interview than read the transcript, you can do that here.

    Welcome Andrew, and thank you for joining us today.

    Thank you.

    Andrew is the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month. So I suppose to start off, tell us about National Young Writers’ Month.

    Sure, National Young Writers’ Month starts next month, funnily enough. So I’ve been organising some events here in Brisbane and up in my home town of Bundaberg in anticipation of next month, to get young people inspired about writing and to start thinking about setting some goals to work towards during the month of June.

    I’s really about getting young people talking about writing, and helping them work towards those goals by building a little community around young writers across the country.

    How is the event doing that?

    It’s online-based, and there’s a website which Express Media have organised. National Young Writers’ Month is promoted by Express Media, who are a Victoria-based arts company. The website is expressmedia.org.au/nywm.

    We will put a link to that from our Facebook page at the end of the show. How did you get involved in National Young Writers’ Month?

    The coordinator of the event came across my work somehow, I don’t know, through a search engine or something. And she liked what I was doing, so she asked me to be involved because she could see that I was under 25,and the event is targeted towards under 25s. She could see that I’d done a fair few interviews with writers in the past, and hoped that could translate through to helping other people be inspired enough to start writing.

    Is there any particular reason for the age 25 limits on it? It seems almost arbitrary.

    It does seem arbitrary, doesn’t it? It’s not my decision. I couldn’t answer that question.

    I guess you have to cut ‘youth’ off somewhere.

    What kind of goals are people going to be setting? Are these all manner of writing, or is it non-fiction and fiction?

    It’s all manner of writing. Of the national ambassadors, I’m the only journalist. The rest of the ambassadors are fiction writers, poets, and that kind of thing. So it’s for any kind of writing, whether you want to start a book or get a few chapters down during the month, or start a blog and write every day, or even just write yourself a diary entry every day. It’s just to get the juices flowing.

    Whatever achievable goal you think you can do in a month.

    Yeah. It’s about making it an achievable goal, too, so not like “I’m going to write a book in a month!” because you’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

    I’m sure some people try.

    Are there any physical workshops coming up? I know you’ve just run a couple of seminars or conversations with local authors.

    I don’t have anything else planned. In the last 10 days or so I’ve done three events; two here in Brisbane, and one in my hometown of Bundaberg. Last Tuesday I had Benjamin Law and John Birmingham talking about freelance journalism – which is what I do, and what they are both well-known for doing. And this Tuesday just past, I had the Courier Mail’s Qweekend magazine staff talking about feature journalism, which I think was pretty cool because that magazine is regarded as being the best journalism in Queensland. Certainly among the best in Australia too.

    So that was Trent Dalton —

    Matthew Condon, and Amanda Watt.

    Who was your favourite interview?

    On stage, you mean?

    Yeah.

    Andrew: Matthew Condon, because… actually, it’d be a tie between him and John Birmingham, because they both have the rare distinction of being writers who speak as well as they write. Most writers… myself definitely included; I don’t speak as well as I write, because I like to have that time to get my mind focused. But somehow, JB and Matthew Condon have that ability to form whole sentences and witty comments on the fly.

    Makes you wonder if their writing comes out that way in one smooth, flowing, fully-formed script.

    Yeah.

    Yes, we try to do that on the 4ZzZ Book Club. We don’t always succeed. [laughs]

    To take a step back; you’re saying you are a freelance journalist. How did you get into that industry in the first place? What was it that drew you to it, and what was your first step in getting involved, as advice to all of our young writers out there who might be interested.

    I started… I guess the first time I was published was in mid-2007 and for a couple of years following that, all I did was review live shows here in Brisbane for Rave Magazine and for FasterLouder. So for those two years, it was just purely live reviewing, the occasional CD review. That was my ‘journalism’ for two years, and I was happy to leave it at that was because it was a fun little pastime for me. It meant I got free concert tickets and I could go to see shows that I otherwise would pay for.

    So that was cool, but at the same time it gave me the ability to work towards deadlines, and to word counts, and to be concise and to the point. So that was a hobby. I graduated from uni with a Bachelor of Communication in mid 2009. I didn’t really intend to do anything with journalism, but around that time I quit my job in web design, and I was kind of at a crossroads where I could decide to either pursue another full-time offie job or try something else that I knew; which, in that case, was freelance journalism fulltime. So I decided to put my mind to that. And it took many months, in financial terms, before I saw the fruits of that effort, but over those last two or so years, I think I’ve kind of got on top of it.

    Is it possible to earn a living from freelance journalism?

    It is, but you have to be incredibly dedicated and persistent. You have to get up every day and market yourself to editors, and have ideas, and constantly be thinking weeks or months ahead in terms of publication schedules, and what’s going to be current a few months down the track.

    What would you describe as maybe the thrills and perils of freelance journalism?

    The thrill is… for the year or so I was working an office job, the morning commute is quite upsetting. You have to get up early, make your lunch, catch a bus or train in… That gets old pretty quickly, as I’m sure everyone can appreciate in some regard. [Andrews note: I didn’t get to finish saying it, but the ‘thrill’ I was referring to was setting my own hours, and working from home…]

    I suppose in those earlier days you would have been working to finance yourself some other way, as well.

    That’s true. I did a bit of copywriting and web account management for a friend’s business, but in the last year or so I’ve given that up and I’ve just been freelance writing full-time. The thrills… and what was the other part?

    Perils.

    Perils. Well, it comes down to finance, I suppose. I mean, like I said; you have to be marketing yourself every day, and if you’re not doing that, then you’re not getting paid, and you can’t pay your rent or feed yourself.

    And become yet another impoverished writer.

    Exactly. I didn’t want to become a cliché, which is why I’ve been successful. [laughs]

    Or living the stereotype. Is it all about generating a portfolio? Is that how you tend to market yourself once you have volunteered [as a writer] and you’ve got stuff that you haven’t been paid for, and people can see you’re good at what you do, then you can take your portfolio further?

    In a way, yes. Those two years when – I was doing the stuff for the street press and FasterLouder – was essentially unpaid. But at the same time, I didn’t expect to get paid, because it was fun for me; free tickets and all that. But after I quit that job and made the distinction that I wanted to be a writer full-time, then I only pursued paying publications. I did that doggedly, for months on end, before I really saw the return.

    That’s how you have to think; months down the track, instead of on a day-to-day basis, because you can do excellent work and people can like your work across Australia or across the world, but you don’t see the invoice until a few weeks or months down the track.

    We are talking to Andrew McMillen on the Book Club here tonight on 4ZzZ. Andrew, what was your first paid journalism article?

    I interviewed the Brisbane band Screamfeeder for a website called messandnoise.com. It was funny, because I’d been doing – in some ways – music journalism for a couple of years, but I’d never actually interviewed a band. So in anticipation of that I bought a little recorder, and I did all my research and preparation and took notes, and all that sort of thing.

    It went really well, and it was published online, and it was worth $60 or something like that. It was a breakthrough for me because it was like, “holy shit”; here’s this article which I put a lot of effort into and I could see the results, and it was well received among the [online] community and all that sort of thing. And that first paying success, as it were, I still feel that to this day when I get published in The Weekend Australian or Rolling Stone.

    I mean, obviously I’m a full-time writer. I like to get paid for my work, but it’s also still a thrill to see my name in print and to see people responding to an article, whether through comments on an article or on Twitter or Facebook; that sort of thing.

    You’re saying how you write full-time. What was the draw of journalism in particular? Did you ever have any aspirations of pursuing other writing activities?

    No, I didn’t. Now that you asked that, I’m not really sure. I’m curious. I guess I’m naturally curious, and the role of the journalist, I think, is to remove curiosity from day-to-day life. A good journalist is asking the questions that you want to know, and putting them into articles or radio programs or TV shows that are answering those questions. I guess I like being rooted in non-fiction, because it’s where I live on a day-to-day basis, rather than being lost in my head with fictional characters.

    I suppose in journalism as well, you get to come out of your hidey-hole and interview people.

    Yes.

    Actually have contact with people.

    Exactly, because I know from experience you can spend enough time in your bedroom, or your workspace, and it’s days before you actually go out and see someone. So it’s always a thrill to be out and to meet people, definitely.

    As one of the challenges of freelance journalism, you’re talking about the need to market yourself constantly, and to look ahead. Is there this trade-off where, I suppose, you would have some freedom as a freelance journo that you wouldn’t otherwise, that you have to work almost as hard at the marketing side as you do at actually writing your articles?

    Definitely, that’s the balance. It’s great to be able to roll out of bed at midday, or stay up late and not have to worry about getting up for work, or whatever, but in terms of why I have been successful is because, from the beginning, when I had that first paying article, I started uploading all of my articles to my own blog, which is andrewmcmillen.com. Every time I would introduce myself to another editor, I would show them my blog and show them my three best articles up to that point.

    I’m not sure, because none of my editors have ever said it, but I think that taking that kind of time to build a web presence and keep it updated, and take pride in that; I would hope that has swayed them in some ways to think, “Okay, this guy’s serious about what he does.”

    Interviewer 1: You see that with authors and websites as well. There are some authors who have the most fantastic websites and then you have ones which look as though they haven’t been touched for years, and are atrociously formatted. You have to wonder whether they’re actually interested in booking themselves up, because they’re obviously not committed to it.

    Interviewer 2: That comes back to the balance again, I guess, of authors who feel they shouldn’t have to do anything other than write.  I believe we’ve heard even people on this show talk about that, but definitely I’ve heard other interviews with authors feeling quite indignant that they have to do something other than —

    Interviewer 1: “What? I have to market myself?”

    Interviewer 2: Exactly.

    Interviewer 1:: “Don’t people get paid to do that?”

    Interviewer 2: It seems pretty lonely to engage in writing that way, lock yourself up in a little room and just do nothing but write. I think it’s a skill that probably our generation is in grasp of a lot more. We are a generation of bloggers and Facebookers. We have no problem really of announcing our ideas to our community of friends, and taking that on to a larger step as a professional basis. You probably have to be quite good these days, because everyone’s tried their hand at that sort of lifestyle.

    I was adept at that kind of social media, or whatever you want to call it, because I’ve grown up with the internet. I’ve been using it hardcore since I was 12, and I don’t see myself stopping.

    Didn’t you first start writing on the internet; gaming reviews or something?

    Yeah.

    See, we’ve done research!

    The first time I was published in some way, I suppose, is when I was about 12 or 13, for an online video game community [NINTEN] where I was essentially rewriting press releases. Which is as glamorous as it sounds. But it was cool because I was already a member of this community but it was also helping me to show some talent of mine: that I could write, and that people might want to read about the latest Nintendo game or some other thing that’s coming out. It feels silly to talk about it now, but at the time I loved it because I was passionate about video games, and for years I wanted to be a video game journalist, which I have kind of…

    Sounds like a rad job.

    Video game journalist?

    Yeah; you play the games, you tell people about them. The dream job.

    I’ve kind of done some video game journalism, but it’s been nothing to do with playing games; more about looking at the business side of games, which I don’t think many people – either in Australia or in the world – are doing. I got into that because, here in Brisbane a studio called Krome shut down the end of last year. For a week or so, there were rumours floating around that they’d fired all their staff, but no one was confirming it.

    Because no one was looking into it I was like, “I’m going to go check it out for myself.” There’s a gaming website called IGN, which I approached the editor of. I said, “Can I do this story for you?” He’s like, “Yeah man, I really want somebody to do it because, like you, I’m curious.”

    So I found a bunch of staff who had left the studio recently, and I put together their stories and theories on why the company went out of business. Then I got an interview with the CEO. It was the first time he’d spoken to media since the rumours started, because all the Courier Mail reporters [and the like] and all were calling up to say, “Is this true?!”. They were really confronting him, whereas I came in under the radar and said, “Look, I’ve done this research with some past employees. They’ve told me this; is it true?”

    I guess it’s that kind of tenacity that really drives a young journalist. Do you have any writing heroes, or literary heroes that you used as a model for that, or any sort of model for your writing?

    Yeah, also around the time I quit that [web design] job, I went down to Sydney to interview my favourite writer, Neil Strauss. He’s an American author who’s best known for writing for Rolling Stone and New York Times for about 20 years, and in 2005 he had a book called The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.

    I think I’ve heard of that one.

    He had a new book that came out in 2009, and I had an interview lined up with him. He was meant to come to Brisbane for this book tour, but it didn’t come through. He was just going to Sydney and Melbourne instead, because I guess there wasn’t enough media attention up here. So I had resigned myself to just doing a phone interview with him, like any other writer or musician I’ve done before. My friend said, “If this guy means so much to you, why don’t you take a few hundred dollars and take the cost and fly down and see him?” Which I hadn’t considered at all.

    So I did that, and I met him. I interviewed him for 45 minutes or so. That was a massive formative experience for me, because here’s this guy who has literally built his life around writing and publishing words. And that made me realise that I can do that; that’s what I wanted to do.

    So you’ve clearly gone a few paths as a journalist. You’ve got your musical background and, I guess, more straight stories, things like the current one [‘Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart’]. How do you plan the difference in approaching those, and also, how do the publications you’re dealing with approach your involvement in them as a freelance journalist?

    It depends very much on the publication, and what they want from their writers. For example, the majority of music writing I do these days is for a website called TheVine.com.au. And mostly what I do for them is interviews, which are published in a straight Q+A format. So there’s a few hundred word intro and then it’s just the conversation as it happened. Which I’m really big on, because I remember reading street press, before I was writing for it. I would see, “this band’s touring”, or they’ve got an album coming out. There’s this little 300 or 500 word article and there’s a couple of quotes that are plugged in there, but it’s like – “what did the writer and musician talk about for the rest of those 15 minutes?” Because most bands give 15 minute phone interview blocks.

    It confused me, because I wanted to see the full story. So both TheVine and Mess+Noise are quite good at publishing full interviews, but that’s, again, because they are web publications, whereas a magazine like Rolling Stone or triple j mag, they’re constrained by space.

    I guess that’s a major thing; the advent of online media to the point where it can actually generate a business model these days and allows that additional space. It also has allowed the rise of a larger group of freelance journalists to get published and get their information out there.

    Maybe for less money.

    Almost definitely, which is a shame, because I prefer writing for the web. Because like I said; I’ve grown up with it and I spend most of my day online and I like to see what’s new and what’s current. But at the moment, in terms of writers getting paid or journalists getting paid, the scales are definitely still tipped in print’s favour. I like writing more for Rolling Stone or The Australian because they pay really well, as opposed to —

    Could you put a figure on it per word?

    Yeah. Rolling Stone pays 60 cents per word, and The Weekend Australian pays 70 cents per word.

    Online that would be…?

    TheVine, for example, pays $150 per interview, or $50 per review. It’s the shift between per word and per article and it’s great; TheVine is run by Fairfax Digital, who had a quite forward-thinking business strategy a few years ago when they launched TheVine and Brisbane Times, and those kind of sites. [Andrew’s note: those two sites launched at different times, however.] They’ve been monetised and profitable for years now. Hopefully that balance between print and web will tip towards web’s favour. I think it will, because more advertisers will be going towards the web, because more people are reading websites.

    You are listening to the Book Club on 4ZzZ 102.2 FM. We are joined today by Andrew McMillen, who is the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month. Let’s talk a bit more about National Young Writers’ Month. You were saying there’s online workshops. Are you involved with that at all? How does that work? How do you get enrolled?

    Not so much online workshops as a community built around the forum, and blogs that are on that website.

    How are they going? Have they started yet?

    All the ambassadors have written their response to ‘Why I Write,’ which I think is where you got your research from, maybe… maybe not. [laughs] And we’ve had a few guest authors do that, like Benjamin Law put his response in, which was, in typical Ben Law style, quite humorous. There’s forums where you can talk about journalism or blogs or fiction writing or poetry. They’re trying to cover all the bases in terms of writing forms, which I think they’ve done.

    How do people get involved with that? They go to the website, subscribe and register and then have access to the activities?

    Yeah, you can join the community and make friends and do all those kinds of social networking activities.

    Is there any other support groups around? I know Visible Ink which is in the valley which is a government initiative supports young writers and I suppose some of the publishing bodies we’ve talked about today like FasterLouder and stuff sort of support young writers in a way, to their own benefit in a way as well. Are there any other associated organisations involved in this one?

    Not involved in this [NYWM] specifically. The Queensland Writers’ Centre are quite visible, obviously.

    We talked about The Edge as well, in the break and that’s something else that’s quite a beneficial, useful little space.

    It is, and they often have workshops, government workshops there. I’m not sure how many of them are writing based.

    Andrew: They do have occasional ones. I remember last year – which I wasn’t in town for it – they had a feature journalism chat with Trent Dalton. Young writers could come along and ask questions; much like they could at my events in the past 10 days.

    There is also a broad range of things that go on at The Edge, one of which is something else you’re also involved in, which is UnConvention, which is coming up on the 11th and 12th of June. Can you give us a bit of rundown on that, while you’re in the studio?

    Sure. I am a co-organiser of UnConvention Brisbane 2011. It’s the sequel of UnConvention Brisbane 2010 funnily enough. It started last year as a grassroots independent music community networking event. It’s much the same format this year, with more of a focus on encouraging discussions during the panel sessions.

    As well as that, there’s a networking event at the Boundary Hotel on Saturday night, and a few local artists will be showcasing throughout the weekend at the Edge and at the Boundary Hotel.

    How did you get involved with the UnConvention organisation?

    It’s based on a concept that started in the U.K. a few years ago and it’s since been replicated around the world, like in Brazil and India and all sorts of places. UnConvention Brisbane last year was the first Australian UnConvention. A co-organiser named Dave Carter who is a lecturer at the Conservatorium and a local musician himself, he saw the idea and thought about bringing it to Brisbane because he felt there was a bit of a gap in terms of strengthening bonds within the independent music community and bringing them together.

    That’s what we really aimed to do, and based on feedback from last year we had about 220 people come along to the Edge and hopefully we’ll do the same again this year. The feedback was really positive.

    I caught a thread online the other day about Brisbane and the difference — a lot of people say that Brisbane isn’t quite as cultural as our other cities of Australia and whether that was a problem of representation in the music industry, or whether that was a lack of talent in Brisbane. The general consensus was that there’s bits of both but there’s slightly less cohesion I suppose was the general consensus of the thread. I wasn’t a contributor or anything, I just took it off.

    This is on Collapse Board, perchance? [‘An Open Question to Brisbane’]

    Yeah.

    It’s an interesting thread. I’ve kept an eye on it too, and I haven’t contributed myself either. It’s one of those discussions that’s been around for a long time and I know the guy who started it, Everett True, who is running a workshop at UnConvention about online publishing or self publishing.

    He’s a pretty good writer.

    Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s literally been a music journalist his whole adult life; he knows what he’s doing, for sure. But he started it because he wanted to answer the question “Why does Brisbane perceive itself to be a cultural backwater”; those sorts of questions. There are no easy answers for that because… I don’t even know where to start.

    Interviewer 1: I was thrown to each side of the argument as I read on. I thought, “Yeah, clearly because everyone leaves Brisbane and goes to Melbourne if you’re a creative person.” And the I read a little bit further and I thought, “No, I know there’s venues in the suburbs and there’s music.”

    Interviewer 2: We do have a massively creative scene as well. The number of good local bands coming out is always pretty impressive.

    Interviewer 1: I think it’s a stigma that holds around that there’s not much going on in Brisbane. Just the fact that there is a stigma, people keep re-saying it.

    It’s funny, because it exists down south. People down south perceive Brisbane to be like that, and somehow, for some reason, Brisbane people believe that, in some cases. That’s why I think it perpetuates.

    I think so.

    So you’re saying Everett True’s running a workshop on self-publishing.

    He’s co-hosting that with Bianca Valentino, who’s done a lot of her own zines called “Conversations With Punx”.

    I think I’ve been to a seminar by Everett True a couple of years ago. He was pretty cool.

    There we go; a reason to get along to UnConvention in a couple of weeks! You panelled, at the last one, a discussion on music and the media. Is there going to be something similar this time or is that retreading old ground at this point?

    We have aimed to start a whole new series of topics, although we have retained a similar kind of one in the music and culture discussion. I think that was really valuable. This year that’s being held by Kellie Lloyd of Screamfeeder, and Q Music. What was the question again? The music and media panel, last year. No, we’re not doing that exact topic this year but we are doing ‘documenting Brisbane’s music scene’, which is run by Justin Edwards, a local music photographer.

    Cool. I’d say there’s a lot to get to as well as National Young Writers’ Month, which you can log on. We’ll post up the site.

    UnConvention is held at The Edge in South Bank, next to the State Library of Queensland, on June 11 and 12. That’s the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. It’s $30 to get in and that gives you access to both days of panel discussions and networking events, as well as lunch on both days. For more information, you can visit unconventionbrisbane.com

    Andrew McMillen, thank you very much for joining us today. Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist, the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month, and one of the co-organisers at UnConvention. So a very busy man, and he also runs a blog, which you heard him mentioning before, which is andrewmcmillen.com.

    We’ll also post the link to it on our Facebook page after the show, for those that don’t write at the speed of my voice. It is a quarter-to-eight. You’re listening to the Book Club on 4ZzZ.


  • A Conversation With Blair Hughes, Brisbane Sounds founder

    Blair Hughes, Brisbane Sounds founder. Photo by Elleni ToumpasI first met Blair Hughes when he began working the door at The Zoo, one of my favourite live music venues, sometime in 2008. We’ve since struck up a friendship around Brisbane Sounds, an annual compilation CD he started producing in 2007 to promote the city’s independent music scene.

    This year I helped Blair out by MCing the Brisbane Sounds 2010 media launch at The Zoo, and writing about the project in my first story for The Big Issue. What follows is the email interview I used as the basis for that story. [The first two photos are via Elleni Toumpas.]

    Andrew: As you see it, what’s your role among the Brisbane music scene?

    Blair: I view myself and the role which I have created with Brisbane Sounds as an educator or ambassador for Brisbane music. That obviously comes from my previous role working as a middle year’s school teacher and the fact that I’m very passionate about the Brisbane music scene and the diversity of genres and talent in Brisbane and want other people to hear that message. At another level I also see myself as an emerging music promoter that has created something important for Brisbane but knows that I still have a lot to learn in the music industry.

    Was starting Brisbane Sounds one of those ‘ no-one else is doing it, so I’ll give it a shot’-type situations?

    To an extent it was very much like that and it really just started out as a hobby. When I get behind an idea, I see it through to the end and I really had no idea at the start where this was going to lead. Brisbane music has been a part of my life since adolescence but I never imagined that I would end up becoming a promoter, let alone producing a compilation album.

    Brisbane Sounds started in October 2006 when I was finishing up a degree in Education and Behavioural Studies at UQ and I had decided to head off to England to commence the first year of my teaching career. I produced Brisbane Sounds 2007 as a way to showcase Brisbane music to new people on the road and had a little success throughout the year, but on a coach trip from Cambridge to London towards the end of 2007, I wrote inside the cover of the book “How to succeed in the music business” a few goals for the following year. Those goals were to find a job in a music venue in Australia, promote a gig, make a professional CD release with Brisbane Sounds, and work at a music venue in England. A week later back in Australia I got a job at The Zoo nightclub in Brisbane, put on the first Brisbane Sounds gig in February 2008, have since produced three professional releases in Brisbane sounds 2008-2010 and worked at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

    How did your previous career in education help your work with this initiative?

    I have always wanted to work with young people and after high school, education was an obvious choice but I also did a degree in Behavioural Studies which was also useful for understanding human behaviour. In the future I would like to find a positive way that I can combine both Brisbane Sounds and working with at-risk young people to improve their lives.

    I was bullied every day throughout primary school and that made me want to become a teacher and never see the stuff that happened to me, happen to any of the students under my care. When I was transitioning from the school setting to the music setting, I found the transition quite easy to be honest as there were a lot of elements in the music industry that I found I was already skilled in from working with school students, such as planning, time and behaviour management.

    From my experience, the parallels between working with children and working with musicians are that they both need guidance and counselling from time to time, they need a leader or role model with the knowledge and expertise in their area to then guide them forward, they need a lot of help getting organised and management of their behaviour and they also need someone who will help them harness their creative and hungry minds.

    Blair Hughes speaking at the Brisbane Sounds 2010 media launch. Photo by Elleni ToumpasSixfthick, The Gin Club, Hungry Kids of Hungary, DZ and one to watch, The Honey Month.

    Of the 24 acts on this year’s compilation, which single band or artist would you recommend to the head of a major label?

    If I only had time to name one band from the Brisbane Sounds 2010 compilation, I would probably go with Hungry Kids of Hungary who have a good management team, have a sound that would work for both the US and the UK music scenes and have the work ethic to make it happen. Apart from that, they have a handsome lead singer and girls just love that and it brings them to the gigs!

    Is ‘getting signed’ at the top of the list of goals you’d like for Brisbane Sounds-associated acts to achieve? If it’s not, what is at the top?

    No certainly not, the idea of an artist getting ‘signed’ is probably more like second or third down the batting order because Brisbane Sounds is more about promoting the Brisbane music scene as a whole and creating a movement to draw awareness to the quality and diversity of artists in Brisbane. It’s not just about promoting the artists on the compilation as Brisbane Sounds is inclusive for every band in Brisbane. The main goal is to actively promote how good the Brisbane music scene is and that more 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. 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.

    You’ve created this compilation to promote Brisbane music. Which is more important: the industry introduction aspect, where you’re trying to put the disc into the hands of labels, agents etc. Or is it aimed more at music fans, those who might find some new bands they love, and show all their friends?

    Overall, the compilation is about putting together an item which serves three purposes. The first being that it can be used as a marketing tool for the promotion of Brisbane, the second that it can get into the hands of A&R and radio reps and the third and best point is that anyone can purchase Brisbane Sounds 2010 and play it front to back because there is something there for everyone. The way I structure the Brisbane Sounds compilations enables me to tap into those three groups by producing a CD that has all of them in mind. For example, Brisbane Marketing have been right behind the project since last year and have been distributing copies to international delegates to Brisbane, I’ve had meetings with A&R reps from Sony and Live Nation in London and the CD has been selling well through independent record stores across Australia. Red Eye Records in Sydney even sold out of stock before Rockinghorse Records in Brisbane did!

    Are you able to comment on the factors that, in your mind, have contributed to Brisbane bands like Powderfinger, The Grates, Regurgitator, and more recently Yves Klein Blue and The John Steel Singers attracting attention from outside Queensland?

    Overall it’s that they have hard working management and creative marketing systems and teams in place. I also believe that if an artist is to be successful then they have to have something that people want and will go out of their way to get. Ultimately the music has to stand out and be above average, but at the end of the day, it is great management and hard working people which get those artists to higher levels in the music world. There are very passionate and intelligent people who are behind the artists you have mentioned.

    Brisbane Sounds 2010 posterHave you approached triple j with the compilation? What kind of response have you seen from them?

    Triple J has played the compilation which is great, but I’ve never had any direct contact or support from them as such. On the other hand, Brisbane independent radio station 4ZzZ has gone out of their way to support Brisbane Sounds. I hope that down the track Triple J becomes like the BBC in England where there are a few Triple J stations and perhaps a Triple J2 or something like that which has a main focus on local artists throughout Australia. In saying that I’m open to talks with the Jay’s so maybe Richard Kingsmill needs to give me a call.

    How did the partnership with Bandtag come about?

    I first heard about Bandtag through my boss at The Zoo in Brisbane. I was looking at creative and interesting ways to use new forms of technology to promote Brisbane Sounds and Bandtag was one of those exciting new opportunities. I contacted Erin who runs Bandtag on the Gold Coast and we struck up a partnership to take Bandtag to the QLD music conference Big Sound where we could promote both of our businesses at the same time. The benefits of Bandtag are that you can have the artist’s music tracks and artwork on a glossy card which has a code on the back that you enter into the Bandtag website. It means that for touring or going to conferences, it becomes a lot easier to carry and hand out then a CD. The ones which I have got for SXSW and Great Escape serve as a business card as well with my details on the back, artwork on the front and 15 tracks from the compilation embedded into the card.

    What are your plans to promote the compilation in Brisbane throughout 2010?

    There are many new elements that will form part of Brisbane Sounds over the next few months and leading into 2011. I’m organising a number of Brisbane Sounds spin-off gigs this year such as “Brisbane Sounds Presents….Hip-hop, Alt-Country, Rock, Indie” etc which will use artists from Brisbane Sounds 2010 as well as other Brisbane artists to create a night of that genre of music. I’ve set myself the goal of 20 gigs this year and I’m working hard to achieve that. I also now run a Brisbane Sounds stall at the West End markets focusing on what’s happening in the Brisbane music scene.

    I’m also looking at starting a management side to Brisbane Sounds and down the track I would also like to develop Brisbane Sounds into an outside festival.

    What about on a national level?

    At the national level I want to continue to network with people in the music industry and increase the profile of Brisbane Sounds across Australia. I want to form more business partnerships and solidify my place as a promoter and producer in Australia. I’d like to do some interstate tours or rural tours with Brisbane artists as well as apply for a few national grants such as the JB Seed because like anyone in the arts, I could use a bit of extra funding. I also set myself the goal of meeting and getting some advice from all seven music industry leaders from Christie Eliezer’s book “High Voltage Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Movers and Shakers in the Australian Rock Industry” in 2010.

    On an international level?

    The next few months are pretty crazy with international travel to music conferences in Austin, Texas and Brighton, England for South By South West (SXSW) and The Great Escape respectively. I’m focused on networking and meeting people who work in the music industry outside of Australia to be able to increase their knowledge and educate them more about Brisbane music. I always envisaged going to these conferences as a punter, but it’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to take my business to them.

    Brisbane Sounds 2010 album coverWho do you plan to meet while at these conferences, and why? What’s your networking plan of attack?

    I have two goals for the music conferences that I will attend this year. The first goal is that I plan to meet radio and A&R reps as well as music supervisors who place music in films and advertisements. I have already started making contact with some of these people for both SXSW and The Great Escape in order to have meetings while I’m in the US and England.

    The second goal is that I want to meet promoters, managers and artists to continue to get more skills and improve my professional development in the music industry. Overall, my plan of attack is to talk to everyone. I’m taking 500 of the Brisbane Sounds bandtags to these conferences and I’m going to try my hardest to meet music supervisors and promoters down to volunteers and local people. I’m very much the type of person who likes to talk and has the time to listen to anyone. You never know who you could be talking too and at these types of conferences that’s very exciting.

    Alright then, what’s your elevator pitch at those kind of events?

    G’day, I’m Blair and I work as a music promoter and cultural producer in Brisbane, Australia. I promote gigs involving Brisbane artists and produce the only annual compilation CD featuring a diverse selection of Brisbane bands called Brisbane Sounds the aim of which is to increase the visibility of the Brisbane music scene in Brisbane, Australia and across the globe.

    Cheers Blair. Visit brisbanesounds.com for more information on the Brisbane Sounds compilations. Check out my related story for The Big Issue here.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Lonesome Highway’, February 2010

    This is my first feature for national broadsheet newspaper The Weekend Australian‘s ‘Review’ arts and culture lift-out. Entitled ‘Lonesome Highway’, it’s 2,000 words on the challenges faced by Australian country musicians. [Click the image for a readable version.]

    'Lonesome Highway' by Andrew McMillen, The Weekend Australian Review, 6 February 2010

    This is by far the biggest story of my career; you can read about how it happened here. Full story text included below.

    Lonesome Highway

    Once a year country music gets its moment in the sun, then it all goes cold again. Andrew McMillen reports on a neglected genre

    The country music scene appears on the radar of most Australians only each January, at Tamworth Country Music Festival time. Television shows brief clips of guitar-slinging performers; newspapers run wide shots of cowboy hat-wearing, denim-clad fans lining the main street and, if we’re lucky, which we mostly are, we’ll be shown “the weirdest busker on Peel Street”, says singer-songwriter Felicity Urquhart with a sigh, referring to the many performers who line Tamworth’s main drag and vie for the attention of visiting news crews keen to shoot and run.

    Golden Guitar winners rate a mention in the mainstream media and then country music is put back in its box.

    As singer-songwriter Adam Harvey puts it, “people tend to dismiss country music without giving it a go. They think we still sing about the one where ‘my wife left me and my dog died’, or if you play it backwards, it’s where ‘my dog left me and my wife died,’ ” he says with a laugh.

    The problems are many: image, airplay opportunities, marketing, media attention, even differences in the sector about what country music should be in a wider music world dominated by glossy pop singers who flaunt skin and layer digitally enhanced vocals over processed beats .

    As Harvey suggests, not everyone even knows what country music is.

    The Australian’s music writer, Iain Shedden, puts it this way. “Country music, since it was first called that in the 1940s, has evolved and fractured into hundreds of sub-genres, from alt country to cowpunk to pop country crossover, so it’s impossible to attribute one strict formula to all of it.

    “In Australia, however, it’s a little easier to define. Stretching back to the pioneering output of Tex Morton and then Slim Dusty, songs have simple folk structures, generally led by acoustic guitar, but accompanied by other instruments also used in the folk tradition, such as mandolin, banjo, harmonica. Most often the songs are in waltz or 4/4 time,” he says.

    “The connection to the land is probably Australian country’s strongest lyrical characteristic, with John Williamson one of the leading exponents of that form. Lyrics often have a narrative, although at the pop end of country (taking Taylor Swift from the US as an example), they can be more abstract (or banal) with no ties to rural life at all.”

    Amiable superstar Troy Cassar-Daley calls country “the story of everyday people. Vocally, it’s sincere; instrumentally, it’s proud to wear sounds like banjos and fiddles in the mix. Other music steers clear of those because they don’t want to be labelled, but we proudly use instrumentation that has the feel of the hills that cover this great land,” he says. “Lyrically, it’s pure home-town pride. And you know you’re listening to country – not pop or rock – when you hear songs for the common man. There’s a lot of people living, loving and dying in Australia, and this music is about them.”

    Following this creed, Cassar-Daley won six Golden Guitars this year, including album of the year for I Love This Place, taking his career tally to 20.

    “Afterwards I got a text from Keith Urban asking, ‘Can you just leave some for someone else?’,” he says, laughing.

    Cassar-Daley was a popular winner, but there were questions elsewhere when writer-photographer John Elliott, a festival veteran, gave a lecture titled Let’s Get Real: The Need for Authenticity in Australian Country Music. “Great country music tells stories about our country; about who we are and where we come from. I think a lot of younger artists have lost this focus,” Elliott argued.

    He also said performers needed to have an appreciation of what had come before. “Without that respect it becomes very bad pop music,” Elliott said. “And it has to have more of a connection to the country than wearing a hat, having a twangy guitar and getting your clip played on the Country Music Channel.”

    Dusty’s widow Joy McKean, who celebrated her 80th birthday with a concert on January 21 at Tamworth’s Capitol Theatre, agreed. McKean is a songwriter who managed her husband’s career for more than 50 years. “As yet, no one has crystallised what it means to be country like Slim did. He was the point of reference for country music, and I don’t think we have that now. A lot of people are paying lip-service to country music for their own means, without having a genuine feeling for the music.”

    The variety of music styles being presented in Tamworth this year gave some force to this argument, although Dusty’s daughter Anne Kirkpatrick, while warning today’s performers not to get “too wound up in the image to the exclusion of the heart and soul”, acknowledged the stature of Urquhart and Cassar-Daley in the business.

    But no matter how good the country artist, there is still the matter of getting them heard. Aneta Butcher, who manages Australian country music at the nation’s largest independent record company, Sydney-based Shock Records, says: “I don’t know if we’re ever going to get mainstream radio to pick up what we market as country music. If we’re taking a country act to radio, we generally have to provide a pop mix of their single and hope for the best.”

    In the US – where Urban is a huge star – there is a vast network of country radio stations, something Australia lacks. Urquhart, who won female artist of the year last month, has been sitting in as host of ABC radio’s Saturday Night Country program while regular host John Nutting is on leave, and says that in the absence of other outlets, “all we can do is try our best to promote, expand and educate the listeners of our ABC program … I truly believe there’s something in country music for every Australian.”

    Scott Lamond, who was raised in Bundaberg on a healthy diet of Dusty and Williamson, has reported on country music events for the ABC for the past five years. “I know ABC radio takes country music seriously, but generally speaking there are limited broadcasting opportunities for country artists outside of community radio,” he says. “I spoke with [2010 Golden Guitar winner for group of the year] Jetty Road, who mentioned that there’s around 70 commercial stations in Canada playing country music 24/7. Australia just doesn’t have that; the platforms on offer to artists who want to share their music are limited.”

    Harvey has tackled the issue of attracting attention by inviting performers from outside the country realm – including pop singer Guy Sebastian – to sing on his 2009 release Duets. Sebastian headlined a show at this year’s Tamworth festival, which was one of the first to sell out. The presence of such an unashamedly un-country artist was the talk of Tamworth, but as Harvey sees it, there has always been a diverse array of acts on display at the festival, where this year an estimated 2500 acts played across 10 days.

    “The old guard tend to forget that the traditional Tamworth crowd’s getting older,” he says. “I understand we’ve got to respect our heritage, but we’ve also got to make sure we’re encouraging a steady influx of young performers. And if we’ve got to drag a few people with us to move the industry forward, we’ll do what we have to.”

    Harvey’s willingness to test boundaries, is, he says, just “a bit of common sense. I’m aware of how important it is that we plan a long-term future for our industry.” Performers needed to remember “that we’re product who’re expected to sell records”.

    Twelve-time Golden Guitar winner Graeme Connors says the country industry is in something of a trough.

    “From my perspective, the music business cannot function without artists who are creating interesting, challenging, and diverse works … The business has this constant demand for large-selling records, and not every artist can do that with every release.” A powerful, individual voice is what’s missing, Connors says.

    “That void will be filled in time, if only because the human spirit is incapable of staying in a lull. In the interim, there’ll likely be someone at the young end of the spectrum who’ll find a voice that reminds us just how good music can be.”

    This year’s anointed up-and-comer is Luke Austen, winner of the 31st annual Star Maker talent quest. It’s a title previously held by Urban and Lee Kernaghan. Austen, 28, isn’t exactly a neophyte, having spent four years on the road with lauded bush balladeer Brian Young and six years as bassist for Cassar-Daley. He also co-wrote a song on Cassar-Daley’s I Love This Place.

    “We prefer to select a winner who’s already working professionally in the industry, because they get it,” quest co-ordinator Cheryl Byrnes says.

    A cautionary note is struck, nevertheless, by Geoffrey Walden, founder of the Gympie-based Australian Institute of Country Music. He contends that the Tamworth talent quest programs tend to build artists who don’t appeal to the younger demographic of potential fans. “It’s about marketability from the perspective of what the industry sees as the future of country music. They’re generally after someone who’s marketable and who’ll appeal to a wide audience, but not necessarily a young audience.”

    Austen is acutely aware of the expectation thrust on him. “There hasn’t been a major star in a long time, but I’d like to put that pressure on myself because I feel that I’ll perform better. It inspires me to dig in and really make it work. I’ve won the respect of my peers, and now I just have to concentrate on backing it up with good product.”

    Nick Erby is a Tamworth local who has attended all 38 country music festivals. “Competitively, contemporary Australian country music is the best you’ll find anywhere. We’re not backwards, we’re just underexposed,” he says.

    Erby has a long history of broadcasting country music on radio, but now works online. He points out that terrestrial licenses for Australian radio are restricted and finite, but thousands of stations exist online, each broadcasting to niche audiences. “Online technology is shaking up the radio industry. Once the cost of access drops, the option will become more attractive to a wide array of listeners.”

    He sees this as a potential answer to the lack of exposure for country music: his Country Music Radio online simulcast of this year’s awards overloaded his US-based server. “You watch,” he predicts. “In the next two years, the awards will be streamed via live video.”

    Industry insiders also point to the success of the 20-year-old Swift, whose career and style could entice young Australian performers and fans. Swift’s second album, 2008’s Fearless, has sold more than seven million copies in the US. Butcher voices a hope shared widely: “Swift appeals to younger girls, who might be influenced to give country music a try,” she says.

    Traditionalists may squirm, but this could be the future. As Urquhart says when despairing of the limited view of country music held by the media at large: “What about our shining lights and our new discoveries? There’s so much more to country music than footage of a hay bale and a guy with a chook on his head.”

    And even someone as successful as Cassar-Daley half-jokes as he helps out with phone numbers: “Good luck with the story, mate. Keep it positive. We need it.”

    This story originally appeared in The Australian’s ‘Review’ lift-out on February 6 2010. A link to the story on The Australian’s website is here.

  • The Music Network story: Jason Bentley Q+A, November 2009

    Jason Bentley Q+A in The Music Network, issue 760Here’s a story that appeared in The Music Network in October 2009. The published article was reduced from 1200 to 650 words; my original Q+A in its entirety is below.

    Directing KCRW

    Andrew McMillen gets to know Jason Bentley [pictured below left], Music Director of influential Santa Monica, California-based public radio station KCRW, ahead of his appearance at Perth’s One Movement For Music as panellist and DJ.

    Jason Bentley is a man of many talents. He’s equally at home supervising music for film – as evidenced by The Matrix trilogy – or serving in an A&R capacity, which he has done for both Madonna’s Maverick label as well as his own Quango Music Group. Most notably, he’s been KCRW’s Music Director since November 2008.

    Jason, what does the role of KCRW Music Director mean to you?

    It’s a dream job for me, since I’ve really grown up at KCRW. I started as a phone volunteer in the front office the summer after high school, more than 20 years ago. But apart from my own personal journey, the position holds a key tastemaker profile that has been developed by the three Music Directors before me. KCRW has a rarefied position in the world of arts and culture in the US, and so there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that.

    The two separate aspects of the job are hosting/producing the morning show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, on a daily basis, and then managing the music department. The latter includes coordinating on-air staff and our music initiatives in the community.

    Have you found that KCRW’s role within the music community has changed since you took on the role?

    Jason Bentley, music director of KCRW. JB to his friends, I presumeI think our role has been consistent in serving the community. We’re listener-supported, so it’s about delivering compelling radio and looking to grow that support base. I am hoping that the work we do in the music department and overall at the station can grow our audience, both to our terrestrial radio audience in Southern California, and online to a global listenership.

    As Music Director, you must get a lot of bands approaching you. Speaking broadly, how do you prefer that bands go about doing this?

    Ideally, a band will just focus on their art, and I’ll ultimately find them. Because I’m a DJ in the sense of someone who seeks exciting new music, you can be sure that if a band is doing the right things and creating their own buzz, then I’ll pick up on that. I’m truly passionate about what I do, and I’m never very interested in things that are being pushed on me. It’s a turn-off.

    Which are you more likely to pay attention to: a band who’re backed by a large marketing budget, or a band who becomes known in indie and niche communities?

    It always starts with the music first, no matter if it’s an indie or major label. The music has to be great. If I hear something that I think will work for us, I’ll start with some airplay and get a sense of how it sounds. I’ll pay some attention to listener feedback, via phone inquiries and online chatter. Once we have a bit of airplay established for an artist, I do look for other elements to kick in, whether that’s buzz online, touring, CD sales, remixes, and so on.

    But essentially, it’s important to be able to connect the dots with other parts of the market. If I start to feel like I’m the only one supporting a band, then it’s only a matter of time before I will move away from that record. This is one of the dangers of getting music too early, because I may be playing a record six months before anything else is lined up for the artist. Having said that, some bands want to use the early support from KCRW to actually get a record deal or touring opportunities. Early airplay may not be a bad thing in those cases.

    Are you a fan of any Australian bands that you’d like to mention? How did you discover these bands?

    Two examples: I was recently pointed to The Middle East by their US manager, who I have known for years. He sent me a couple of songs and a video in an email. I thought the music was great, and I played them on the air the next morning.

    JB ripping up on the wheels of steelAlso, The Boat People had performed in-studio at KCRW prior to my tenure as Music Director, and they had already been green-lit to play our KCRW SXSW music festival showcase, so once I was in the MD position I checked them out and thought they were terrific. Their show at SXSW was really solid and they’re a great group.

    How do you prefer to be approached by unfamiliar artists?

    There are many ways for me to find new bands, but my favourite way is through the sense of discovery that I can trace back to being a teenager looking through vinyl stacks at local record shops. As a fan and collector, it’s the passion and personal interest that still gives me the greatest sense of reward. If you can feed my insatiable hunger for exciting new music, then you’ve got the best chance at winning me over as a supporter.

    What do Australian bands need to have in place before they attempt to ‘break’ the American market?

    It’s about talent, and a lot of hard work on the road. I think that right now is a very good time for independent artists, but it takes time and dedication. Don’t expect to skip any steps and become an overnight sensation; you’ve got the same chance at winning the lottery. Instead, work on building your own fanbase and surrounding yourself with talented people in various capacities. You can’t do it all on your own, so find like-minded people that have talents in complementary areas.

    You’re heading to Perth next week for One Movement. How do you prefer to be approached by bands and managers in this situation?

    Jason Bentley in DJ modeWhen I attend music conferences, I inevitably come away with a massive stack of CDs, and I actually try to sift through a lot of it and convert it to digital before I even leave town so I don’t have to pack the CDs on the flight. The music is going to end up on a hard drive anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether that happens in the hotel room or in my office back home.

    I can usually eliminate a certain amount of material just based on the most obvious indicators. If it looks like plastic pop drivel, it usually is just that. After all these years, and with hundreds of music pitches coming my way each week, I’m pretty good at calling it like I see it.

    I do look at a variety of indicators that may be a simple as cover art – or lack thereof; band name, label, where it’s coming from, descriptions included, or if I’ve heard of the band before. The reality is that I simply cannot listen to every single submission, so there is always going to be an initial pass of weeding out things that do not seem like they’re in the realm of what we do at KCRW.

    Jason Bentley is the Music Director of Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW. His signature music show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, can be streamed online 24/7.

    kcrw.com/music/programs/mb
    twitter.com/kcrw

  • Notes on Q Music’s PR, Promotion and Marketing Workshop

    I attended Q Music‘s workshop at the Troubadour last night. The topic was music promotion, marketing and public relations; speakers included Brent Hampstead (Media Hammer), Jo Nilsen (Butcher Birds), Megan Reeder (Secret Service/Dew Process) and Kellie Lloyd (Q Music/Screamfeeder). The venue was filled with seated bodies, mostly youngsters, who were privy to some valuable advice from the four experienced industry representatives.

    What follows is a series of notes I took in chronological order. It’s best to take each paragraph as a separate thought, though they are all joined under the umbrella of music promotion, marketing and public relations. My interjections are italicised.

    Introduction: marketing your music incorporates promotion and publicity.

    Steps as an artist:

    Record some music.

    Decide whether you’re distribute it online or in physical form.

    Write a marketing plan with specific targets. Budget? Street press goals? MySpace? Pitching to radio station? How do you plan to spend your budget?

    Decide and arrange how you wish to present your image as an artist. Use a creative photographer. 

    Conduct a cohesive launch of your product into the market.

    Create a community from a grassroots level – since that’s where you’ll be starting.

    Don’t overcommunicate your message; people have their own lives.

    Andrew: If they’re willing to take the time to listen to your music, that’s great. If they’re willing to reach out and communicate with you, that’s amazing. I don’t think enough time was spent discussing this. Getting a person to hear your music in an accomplishment. Being remarkable enough for a person – not a friend, family member, or acquaintance – to take the time to add you as a friend, send you a message, give you feedback on your creative output – that’s incredible. That’s to be cherished. It’s the equivalent of a person stopping you in the street and commenting on your appearance. That shit rarely happens. If I were a musician, I would not take my first fan for granted. The first ten. The first hundred, the first thousand. Attention is a scarce resource, and I think this is absolutely worth keeping in mind.

    Personalise your responses to any feedback or thanks, wherever possible. To be successful and valuable at any level of media, ensure that you engage in personal, polite and professional feedback.

    Acquire or subscribe to the Australasian Music Industry Directory (AMID). This contains key information that you’d otherwise spent hours Googling. Brent mentioned that the importance of the AMID was one of the strongest take-away points.

    Electronic press kits aren’t used much anymore. Instead, press releases via email – bio, photo, compressed mp3.

    Mailing physical copies of your recorded CDs is a waste of valuable merch money. These products are just added to a pile in an office and are easily ignored.

    Megan suggested targeting blogs before street press. She didn’t really expand on this. Jo mentioned Before Hollywood, Is By Bus and Turn It Up To Ten.

    Megan explained that Dew Process have people devoted to digital content creation and maintaining interest in their artists, through MySpace updates, video blogs, regular content to reminder each artist’s fanbase of their activity.

    Brent stated that you should think about online content as early as possible. Record and document as much as you can, as you’ll never know when you’ll want or need it. Andrew: This is an important point that they didn’t really dwell on – this generation has greater access to information and the ability to record and publish than any other. The cost of storage and data is constantly decreasing. Take advantage of this.

    Brent mentioned Short Stack as a great example of a band who have built a strong online community around them which has translated into success, popularity, tours and a record deal.

    Some web companies will provide content for free. Jo mentioned Moshcam, who’ll record your show (in Sydney) and provide you with a DVD recording free of charge. Andrew: This sounds a little hard to believe and requires further investigation.

    LastFM, FasterLouder, Mess+Noise, FourThousand and The Dwarf were all mentioned as valuable online resources and communities that should be leveraged on a local, national and international level.

    How do you attract people to your site, or your online community? This relates to setting out a coherent marketing plan. Target, in order: blogs, street press, newspapers, community radio, JJJ, television.. solidify each community before moving on. Andrew: They forgot to state that this takes time and requires patience, and dedication. But I guess that goes without saying.

    Prepare a biography that tells a story. How do you want to be presented? Answer the obvious questions – how you met, where the name came from – to avoid these being repeated in interviews. Though you’ll always get writers who have under-researched. Brent stated that your bio needs a hook – you need to give someone a reason to want to read about you.

    Print media runs on two types of lead times: long and short. Bigger publications such as Rolling Stone and Jmag tend to set a deadline six weeks in advance for the majority of content. Street press generally run on a one or two week lead time. Online is shorter again, due to the ability to quickly turn around content. Andrew: I just discovered that Rolling Stone Australia has no online presence. What a missed opportunity.

    Set a release date for your product – single, EP, album, gig – and work backwards from that point. Stick to it. Plan ahead so that you’re not caught out. Organise marketing efforts – remember, this incorporates promotion and publicity.

    With regard to street press – don’t hound them. Politely request interviews, reviews, features. They’re generally nice, but constantly under pressure to turn content around on a weekly (in the case of Rave, Time Off and Scene) or monthly (Tsunami) basis. The best way to get your name out is to gig regularly and be heard. Social proof! Again, Brent stated the importance of personalised invitations – in the mail, if you’re willing to go to the effort, since it will often be appreciated. Email costs nothing and takes little time.

    Extensive discussion which indicated that Richard Kingsmill decides whether you’re played on JJJ and effectively holds the keys to your national career. No one commented on how sad this is. Brent cracked a joke about how JJJ is taxpayer-funded: if you’re a taxpayer, it is your right to be played on the station! Though perhaps you’ll require greater tact than this to improve your chances.

    Create a network of friends – interstate bands, radio announcers, street press and blog writers. If they like you, they’ll become your champion. Andrew: This is absolutely true. Word of mouth musical recommendations are still my biggest influence; if the word’s coming from a respected or esteemed mouth, then I’m highly likely to listen.

    Being a musician is a constant juggling act: releases, gigs, merch, press, radio. Brent stressed the importance of multiple impressions across as many media as possible. Be relentless! But don’t overcommunicate. The more impressions that you’ve got circulating out there, the more potential eyeballs and ears to see and hear your output.

    Advice on approaching bands, promoters, street press, radio, or anyone throughout your life in general -just ask. Put yourself out there. Be tenacious, and sneaky on occasion. If you’re serious about making this work – what the hell are you holding back for?

    Advice on the music industry in general – be meticulous, patient, and prepared. Always.

    Andrew: Hopefully this’ll be of some use to those who missed out, or whoever stumbles across these notes in the future. The above summarises the thoughts and opinions of four music industry figures in late 2008. It’ll be interesting to look back on this post in 12 months’ time.