All posts tagged iain-shedden

  • Announcing my appointment as national music writer at The Australian, from January 2018

    I have been appointed as national music writer at The Australian, as announced in the newspaper on Saturday 25 November 2017:

    Andrew McMillen announced as The Australian's national music writer, starting January 2018

    Before I start my next chapter at The Australian in January 2018, I wrote a Medium post to summarise my eight years in freelance journalism. Excerpt below.

    Never Rattled, Never Frantic

    Staying motivated during eight years in freelance journalism

    'Never Rattled, Never Frantic: Staying motivated during eight years in freelance journalism' by Andrew McMillen, December 2017

    Underneath my computer monitor are three handwritten post-it notes that have been stuck in place for several years. They each contain a few words that mean a lot to me.

    From left to right, they read as follows:

    1. “Alive time or dead time?”

    2. “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines practised every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.”

    3. “Never rattled. Never frantic. Always hustling and acting with creativity. Never anything but deliberate.”

    Since I began working as a freelance journalist in 2009, aged 21, I have worked from eight locations: two bedrooms, two home offices, three living rooms, and one co-working space.

    At each of these locations, I took to writing or printing quotes that I found motivational or inspirational. Most of them I have either absorbed by osmosis or outright forgotten, but there’s one I found around 2011 that retains a special resonance. I printed it in a large font, and stuck it to my wall:

    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is practically a cliche. Education will not: the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful.”

    That long quote was torn down and tossed during a move, but the message was internalised. If I had to narrow my success down to a single attribute, it’s persistence. I could have quit on plenty of occasions, after any one of a number of setbacks. But I didn’t.

    In these motivational quotes, you may be sensing some themes.

    I would be lying if I told you that the act of writing and affixing these quotes helped me on a daily, or even a weekly basis. I didn’t repeat them out loud, like affirmations. Most of the time, they were as easy to ignore as wallpaper.

    But often enough in recent years, during down moments, or in times of stress or upheaval, I’d shift my gaze from the words–or the bright, blank page–on the computer monitor, and find that these few handwritten notes would help to centre my thoughts.

    Let me tell you why.

    To read the full story of how I kept myself motivated during eight years in freelance journalism, including significant help from my mentors Nick Crocker and Richard Guilliatt, visit Medium.

    And keep an eye on The Australian from January 2018 to see where I take the newspaper’s music coverage in my new role. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Discussing ‘Lonesome Highway’

    Let me tell you about ‘Lonesome Highway‘, my first feature for The Weekend Australian‘s ‘Review’ arts + culture lift-out. The story – which you should read (or glance at) here before continuing – discusses the challenges faced by Australian country musicians in 2010.

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

    I spent the week beginning Monday, 18 January 2010 playing the part of ‘freelance writer without work’. I was pitching stories every day, and none of them were sticking. By Friday – after alternating between liaising with editors, and catching up with some friends in the Brisbane music scene – all I had was an approval to interview a hip-hop act for an online publication.. who don’t pay for online content, as I learned soon thereafter.

    Earlier that week, I’d sent a Dirty Three/Laughing Clowns tour-related pitch to the editor of the Weekend Australian’s ‘Review’ arts and culture lift-out. I’d been email-introduced to her by a helpful fellow editor at The Australian a few months ago, when I was pitching the idea of a story around the Robert Forster book launch/conversation at Avid Reader. (That one didn’t stick either, obviously.)

    Fevered as I was in my determination to get a story idea – any story idea! – accepted, I sent that D3/Clowns pitch and promptly forgot about it. I’d prefaced it with a reminder stating that I’m a writer for Rolling Stone, jmag, etc, and that we’d last emailed in November.

    At 4pm on Friday, 22 January – generally despondent, after a week of work with few returns – the editor of ‘Review’ called me. That’s 5pm local time from her office in Sydney, owing to daylight savings.

    “I’ve got a problem,” she began.

    “Oh?” I replied, wondering a) what I might have done to cause a problem, and b) whether I could perhaps solve said problem.

    “I need a story on Australian country music following the conclusion of this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival. My regular music writer’s just gone on leave. Would you feel comfortable taking on this story?”

    I paused for several seconds. “…you know I’m mostly a rock writer, right? For Rolling Stone, and stuff?”

    She confirmed, and reiterated the question. The story was due on Wednesday; as in, five days’ time. Word length unspecified; it could be 1,200, or it could be 2,000. I inhaled, and accepted the challenge.

    Immediately I pictured myself frantically pushing a library ladder around towering bookshelves that represent the contact details of everyone I’ve ever met. “Which of these people knows something about country music?” I yelled, in my mind. I sure didn’t.

    In a gesture that would be repeated throughout the time I spent researching, writing and editing the story, the editor took her time to provide me with some suggested paths of research, historical background, and narrative guidance.

    As soon as I hung up, I emailed dozens of my contacts within the music industry, searching for anything resembling a lead with regard to country music-related interview subjects. I put the call out on to my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. And for the first time, I used a site called SourceBottle, which allows journalists to request sources within a wide range of industries and subject matters.

    To my surprise, helpful responses began appearing in my inbox as fast as I could send out requests. My contacts introduced me to experts on the subject. My friends on social networks tipped me off to artists and their managers. And SourceBottle delivered some great offers from watchful PR professionals, who were keen to have their clients represented in a story.

    So began a crash course in researching the current players in Australian country music. I read stories filed from the Tamworth festival by The Australian’s regular music writer, Iain Shedden, who I’d interviewed a few months earlier for One Movement Word. I wrote an outline of what I planned for the story to cover, and warmed up with some phone conversations over the weekend. I spent Monday on the phone to country musicians, radio announcers, artist managers, alt-country artists, schoolteachers, historians and record label staff.

    All told, I conducted 18 interviews, throughout which I scribbled notes in preparation of listening back to the recorded audio. Tuesday – the 26th, Australia Day – was spent shaping what I’d learned from the experts into a coherent story.

    While interviewing, a frequently-recurring topic prompted me to pay more attention to the apparent dearth of  media opportunities available to country musicians. Ultimately, this would become the focal point of the story: what was imagined as a mere discussion on where the genre stands in 2010 morphed into a sympathetic piece highlighting the many challenges faced by country performers. As stated in the story, these are related to image, airplay opportunities, marketing, media attention, and even differences within the community.

    I submitted my first draft at 4am the next morning. Upon review, my editor suggested that a couple of follow-up quotes were required from Troy Cassar-Daley to describe the genre in his own words. And somewhere between fact-checking and quote-verifying, I’d forgotten to tighten the narrative structure, so my editor reshaped the piece to improve its flow.

    Upon confirming her final edit, the biggest story of my career was out of my hands. It wouldn’t appear in print for 10 days. (The cover from the February 6 issue of ‘Review’ is below right.)

    The Weekend Australian 'Review', February 6 2010It was the most exhilarating journalistic experience of my life. Five days focussed on researching and synthesising the story of a centuries-old art form into around 2,000 words. What a challenge. I’m so glad I accepted it. It even resulted in my first live-to-air radio interview for ABC Mid-North Coast the day before the story was published. (At the time of writing this, I’ve not yet listened back to it, owing to embarrassment…)

    In a way, the whole experience – the initial unexpected, but not unplanned-for phone call, the willingness on the editor’s part to take a chance with me – justified the time and effort I’ve dedicated to my writing since I changed my mindset and became serious about pursuing it as a career.

    Looking back, it seems that this occurred sometime in June 2009. I’m simply thrilled that eight months later, I’ve been published in The Weekend Australian, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Awesome. If you have any questions relating to this story, I’ll try to answer them in the comments.

    Thanks to the following people who helped with the story.

    Interview subjects: Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Graeme Connors, Amber Lawrence, Anne Kirkpatrick, Joy McKean, Felicity Urquhart,  Luke Austen, Chris Pickering, Roz Pappalardo, John Elliott, Geoff Walden, Nick Erby, Bill Page, Aneta Butcher, Cheryl Byrnes, and Scott Lamond.

    Contact sources, miscellaneous inspiration: Stephen Green, David Carter, Craig Spann, Deb Suckling, Ed Guglielmino, Rick Chazan, Nick O’Byrne, Alison Brown, Dan Stapleton, Deborah Jones, Rachael Hall, Tim Lovett, Blair Hughes, Paul & Deb McMillen, and Matt Weller.

  • 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.