12 September 2009

Big Sound Summit : Day 3

What a day I had yesterday! I met Van Dyke Parks AND Jeff Martin at the same session, but more on that later...


Keynote Address : Glenn Wheatley

We all know in Australia who Glenn Wheatley is: he managed John Farnham and was sentenced in 2007 for channelling more than $650,000 through tax fraud schemes. I went into this session with images of the egotistical, flamboyant Wheatley of the '80s. This image was radically challenged and I came away from this address believing of all people in the Australian music industry, Glenn has the most sage advice to impart.

He started off with a Hunter S. Thompson quote which, in my book, can't go wrong: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." No quote could better sum up some of the experiences Glenn has had in his 40-something year long love affair with music.

He started off going to highschool at Everton Park in Brisbane and, when he was 16, was offered the opportunity to play guitar with Lobby Lloyd in The Purple Hearts. He played in that band for a couple of months but, when they went on tour, his mum wouldn't let him go. Instead, he remained in Brisbane and set up the St George Club.

When he turned 18 he joined a band named Bay City Union and moved to Melbourne. From there, he joined world famous band, The Masters Apprentices and for the next four years undertook a tour of Australia. (In 1998 the Masters Apprentices were inducted into the ARIA hall of fame.) The penny dropped for Glenn, as a musician, when the band sold out Festival Hall in Brisbane - a 5000 or so capacity crowd - yet the band had only been paid $200 by the promoter to perform. He realised bands were getting screwed over, so he decided to move into band management instead to get fairer treatment and pay for musicians.

He moved to London with The Masters Apprentices and said that, back in those days, you could walk into a radio station, hand your album to the DJ, and it would get played on-air immediately. Halcyon days for the music industry. He returned to Australia and began to manage some musicians named Little River Band.

The knockbacks he received when trying to promote LRB and get them signed were incredible. One label rep from United Artists listened to their album, sat in his chair tapping his fingers together for a bit, then said, "Kid, you ever run your fingernails down the blackboard?" Despite this disparaging remark, Glenn didn't lose faith in his band and eventually got a deal with Capitol. LRB went on to sell 20 million albums. The song Reminiscing got to number one in the charts.

Throughout the '80s, Glenn managed John Farnham, Australian Crawl, Pseudo Echo, Real Life, and Moving Pictures. He was the first person to acquire an FM licence for radio in Australia, and he went on to establish 2MMM and buy out FM104, which he changed to Triple M. During this time, his company the Farrow Group went bust and Glenn found himself in receivership due to admittedly spreading his interests across too many sectors (music, radio, sports management). A song was written about his flamboyant '80s behaviour, named Paper Paradise. He put all of his remaining money into recording an album with John Farnham and the rest is history: the album was Whispering Jack, which went on the sell 1.7 million copies.

Glenn was recently released from a prison sentence: he served a 10 month jail term and five months on home detention for tax evasion, after following advice from his lawyer on how to save on tax. His advice: always read the fine print and never 100 per cent trust advice you're given.

Glenn believes that there are some changes that need to occur in the music industry today, mainly in the arena of ticket sales. He said promoters and managers must work together to provide reasonably priced shows for fans as, when surcharges and booking fees rise, the band loses out. Sometimes, he said, the music industry forgets it's the fans who pay their bills. Piss off the fans, and what do you have left?

He said bands need to market more intelligently: be innovative, utilise technology at your disposal, and never be afraid to have crazy ideas because sometimes they're the best. Musicians should practice every day, and show tenacity and determination to turn the music industry on its head, as the industry needs to be invigorated. Always value your fans and deliver what it is about your music they like. Trust your manager, but always have the last say. Oh, and invest in a GREAT sound system. Never hawk a sponsor from stage: fans don't like musicians who sell out.

Glenn warned bands to be wary of the new record label model of 360 degree deals and to get good advice before signing such deals; do you really want 50 per cent of your touring or merchandising revenue to go to your record label?? When a deal sounds too good to be true...it probably is.

The internet, while a great way to promote your band, is getting crowded; at last count, he said, there were over 10 million bands on MySpace alone. That makes it very difficult to get noticed, so understand you have to have something special to offer fans / labels to make it worth their while. Define why you want to be in the music industry...is it for the right reasons? i.e. because you live and breathe music and it's something you simply have to do.

Glenn's address gave some wise advice and he seemed a changed man. Considerably for the better. Great choice for keynote address on the final day of the summit.


Entrepreneurialism in the Music Industry 

The music business has a history of characters and risk-takers and the new millennium isn't stemming the tide of new ideas, new ventures and new blood in the industry. In this session, we chat to a number of entrepreneurs about what makes them tick, etc.

Facilitator: Ritchie York (Freelance Journalist, AUS)

Panel: Andy Cassell (Winterman & Goldstein, AUS), Glenn Wheatley (Talentworks, AUS), Danny Goldberg (Gold Village Entertainment, US)

Largely anecdotal discussion about the panel members' experiences. Advice imparted included:
  • learn how to handle rejection
  • a lot of success is simply down to good luck and good taste
  • when you sign a new act, don't look at recouping expenses for up to two years
  • if you recoup financing on a first album, it's a miracle
  • internet is the music industry's salvation during this time of economic downturn
  • fans sharing music and word of mouth probably still best form of marketing
  • syncing and licensing opportunities the way to make extra money, and
  • release an EP to test the waters, then tour and THEN release an LP once your career is building momentum...and capitalise on that momentum while you can.

The Songwriter Sessions 

This session focuses directly on the art of songwriting. Join some brilliant songwriters as they discuss how they create their work and give you tips and inspiration for how to bring the best out of your own songs.

Facilitator: Mark Callaghan (AMPAL, AUS) - AND ex-Gangajang singer / songwriter!

Panel: Van Dyke Parks (Artist, US), Jeff Martin (Armada / Tea Party, CAN/AUS), Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo / Elephant 6, US), Charles Jenkins (Artist / Songwriter, AUS), Romy (Artist / Songwriter, AUS), Kevin Mitchell (Bob EvansJebediah, AUS)

I was on my way for a quick loo break between panels and I saw this curly black haired, black clothed man in the hallway who looked like Jeff Martin from behind...holy crap, it was! I said, "Hi Jeff, I've loved your music since the early '90s and..." blah blah fan talk something he's heard a million times before blah blah. Sat back in my seat and in he comes as a last minute addition to the panel and sits right in front of me. Aaargh. Fan moment extraordinaire. But, in person, he's a bit too cool for school, with all his long-haired female followers who shadow him for the rest of the conference. But I suppose that's just Jeff and it fits his rockstar image.

This session was to provide songwriters with some hints about writing good songs, getting through dry spells, etc. If you're a songwriter, you know what I'm talking about.

Mr Park's first bit of advice is that he loves how the power of rhythmic cadence will produce an inevitable melody. Start off with a rhythm and allow it to create in your mind music that fits that pattern. That's how he comes up with some great music ideas. "If you face songwriting honestly, you'll realise it's a revelation. If it's pre-determined, it's dullsville." When you start experiencing difficulties finishing a song, that's the real albatross in the room. On the issue of co-writing or writing on demand, Mr Parks described when he wrote a song for a section in a children's show when a goldfish dies. The execs at the company told Mr Parks to "keep in mind, this scene may occur when a three year old is in the room alone, dealing with death for the first time", which amped up the pressure a little! He considered writing something about God, but decided he "didn't want to put Jesus in because I think he stares too much", so he loaded on the sitar and found the emotion he was looking for.

Jeff said his music writing process is more cathartic, similar to a possession which comes on unexpectedly. He said he has to give into it when it happens and all the people he loves run for cover. He sees colours in his mind and translates this into sounds. As far as writing lyrics is concerned, he makes a proper chariot upon which the words can ride. When it comes to production, it's a different monster; when producing other artists, he said he just tries to find the emotion in their music and enhance that. Regarding writers' block, Jeff said "Without incriminating myself, I do whatever it takes to get to the right state of mind"...Robert agreed. Once Jeff begins songwriting, he has to see it through to its end. He cites red wine as a dry spell killer and Mr Parks chimed in, "Nothing like some Percocet and red wine...or heat-seeking heroin suppositories!" I almost died laughing...this is not the kind of thing you expect to come out of Mr Parks' mouth, but the paradox in that made it all the funnier. That, to me, was the quote of the day.

Jeff advised songwriters never to be afraid of the full emotional spectrum that opens up in front of them when they start writing, as some of the best songs come from the darker side of the psyche. Mr Parks said, "I have written some dark matter since George W. Bush was in power, but I'm wondering if it's too virile for the saloon I play in. There's so much that pisses me off. So much disinformation in the corporate, Murdoch press. Putting some velvet gloves on the fisty cuffs is the way to write a song."

Kevin said that songs come to him when he's doing banal things, like washing the dishes. The lyrics are the hardest part of the song to write, and he usually writes sad lyrics for happy songs and happy lyrics for sad songs. He places more emphasis on the actual song than the quality of production. His biggest downfall with songwriting? Being lazy.

Charles said he wants his music to be a natural happening and has found when he sits down with pen and paper and writes songs, they don't sound right. He prefers to record ideas and then, later, record them properly to see if they sound okay. He likes to have healthy nights, take long walks and the like to create the right mindset for songwriting. He likens songwriting to dipping into a well of ideas and recommended filling that well up on a regular basis by listening, watching, paying attention to what's going on in the world.

Romy said she feels her music comes through her from some external force and she is simply a vessel. She finds the difficulty for her occurs in performing the music.

Robert said writing music for him is like sneezing: he has to do it at that moment when the feeling comes on, or it goes away. He grabs his guitar as soon as he's in the mood and said he usually ends up with too many hooks that he can't find anywhere to put the vocals in. He loves writing, but only does it when he feels like it. "I'll be like, "Oh, I thought I was writing a song about a UFO, but it's actually about a guy talking to a psychiatrist!". His song ideas evolve as he's writing. When asked by Mark if he shows discipline in songwriting, Robert replied, "Sure, I don black pvc and sit in this special chair designed to..." (which about sums up the hilarity of any interaction with Robert on any panel throughout the summit!).

Mr Parks' advice to songwriters who believe they've hit their peak is to always remember that "the windscreen is bigger than the rear-view mirror".

"If I wanted to go global with what's noble, I would take influences from other places then bloom where I am planted."

After the panel ended, I had to ask Mr Parks if I could give him a cuddle, because I think he's the bee's knees. He reciprocated. I've been cuddled by Van Dyke Parks. I had a moment ^_^


Managing the Artist / Fan Relationship 

More than ever, success in the music industry means an artist connecting with their fans. Whether it's at shows, online or through products, the conversation an act has with its fan base is more important than ever.

Facilitator: Jakomi Matthews (The Music Void, UK)

Panel: Tobin Watkinson (MySpace / Interscope Records, US), Tim Manton (Manton Management, AUS), Catherine Haridy (Catherine Haridy Management, AUS), Ellie Giles (Fiction / Polydor, UK), Old Man River (Artist, AUS)

Ellie's advice straight up was to decide on what image you'd like to project to your fans and if this image reflects your music. If you're someone like Lily Allen, tweeting works for her because she's an outgoing person and wants the attention. If your music is a little darker, or a bit more obscure, you might prefer a more mysterious aura which doesn't necessarily involve tweeting every time you eat something. Create a website that represents your world and invite your fans inside. She said the first place she goes when looking for music by a certain band is YouTube, then MySpace. If you're a musician she said you HAVE to be on MySpace. However, she cautioned against using MySpace as your website as you can't trust that MySpace will be around - or free - forever. She cited Radiohead as a great example of a band with a fantastic website through which they do everything: sell tickets and merchandise, show videos, sell downloads of their music, etc. She also recommended musicians read up on how Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) marketed his music and engaged his fans. (ed: Note that last night was the end of NIN, with Trent's last performance held in the US. We NIN fans around the world are mighty sad today...his departure and decision to focus on his personal life leaves a gaping hole in the alternative music scene...)

Catherine recommended that musicians ask their fans what they'd like to see on their website, blog, MySpace etc and to react to that fan input. She cited Chris Isaak as an artist who responded to requests from fans to meet him...with a small fee. At his gigs, he has a merchandise stand and, as long as a fan buys a piece of merch, he will sit there for hours after the show to sign it, meet and greet, and have photos taken with them.

While most panel members agreed competitions where you get fans to text a number at gigs to win a chance to meet the band backstage etc are fine, they said it's important not to start behaving like a telemarketer. Be careful with how you use email addresses and mobile numbers provided by your fans and respect their privacy.

For your MySpace page, Ellie recommended thinking about your visuals. "If I land on someone's MySpace page and they haven't given any consideration to what their site looks like, I'll think twice about listening to their music." She said bands should have a good profile photo, something interesting, not a band sitting around looking bored. She cited a great example of an interesting site and profile pic was when she found White Lies online and decided to sign them. She saw their profile pic - something like a polar bear on a red background - on a friend of a friend's friend's list, which intrigued her. She visited their profile and the site looked beautiful and very creative. She then listened to their music.

Ellie also recommended that putting one brilliant song on MySpace is more impressive than putting four mediocre songs on there. Especially if you're trying to appeal to labels.

The focus of the fan discussion did, however, predominantly focus on making connections with fans when you play live gigs and working up the numbers. However, in the conservative Operator Please / Grates obsessed Brisbane music landscape...what if you're an alternative electronica band, for example, and there are only one or two very small venues that will allow you to perform? And there are only 50 or so people in town who would like your music? But you know that if your music was exposed to people in Germany or the US, you'd be popular? When I asked the panel if they had any advice for alternative bands in this situation I was told "relocate". Hmm. Not so useful. Jakomi at least tried to answer the question by saying it's useful to think of meta tags when you're developing your website or your MySpace, to include references that might commonly be used if people were looking for music like yours: dark wave, gothic, etc. This way, if people google "dark wave", your music has a chance of coming up in the search results. My two cents worth on this would be to think of which band your music sounds a bit like, and send their friends messages saying "Hi, I saw you like the music of [insert band: Combichrist, KMFDM, etc] and thought you might like mine. If you do, please add me as a friend." Also, leave comments on band pages and people have more chance of seeing your profile.

There wasn't any discussion about using sophisticated marketing tools for fan-base development, which was extremely disappointing.


Keynote Interview : Robert Schneider 

From singer / songwriter responsible for indie pop darlings The Apples in Stereo, to founder of the Elephant 6 recording collective, to producer of Neutral Milk Hotel's indie classic, to children's entertainer and mathematician...

Interviewer: Steve Bell (Time Off Magazine, AUS) - well, he TRIED to interview Robert, but Robert is an ADHD interviewer's dream / nightmare. Difficult to keep on track, but simultaneously extremely open and talks NON-STOP!

I took an immediate liking to Robert. He shares my surname: tick. He's energetic and witty: tick. He's talented and interesting: tick, tick. His "interview" style is to be asked one question, go off on a 20 minute tangent ranging his conversation from songwriting to tattoos to his wife telling him he should think before he speaks. You could call him a maelstrom in the hot seat, and while Steve at times looked exasperated trying to keep the interview within time restraints and on target, ultimately the result was hilarious chaos.

Robert describes himself as "a poor man's Van Dyke Parks". When Robert created The Apples in Stereo with some other like-minded folk, he was basically wanting to represent his love for '60s psychedelic music. He "wanted to create anti-music, not just pop, not commercial music, not punk". His band, taking their inspiration from the Surrealist Manifesto, wrote a manifesto of their own, outlining their ideals. He created the record label, Elephant 6, and had the logo designed by co-founder Will Hart. Robert thought, as part of his devotion to the label, he'd get the logo tattooed on his shoulder. The tattoo artist put the first line in and Robert claimed he couldn't go on with it, the pain was too much. He went home, looked in the mirror and thought, "Oh shit, I have to go through with this, otherwise what am I going to tell people I believed in...a blue line??" Robert returned to the tattoo parlour and had the tatt finished. He said he wanted a tattoo that would make him look like an old sailor when he was old and grey, but instead is astounded that the tattoo looks that aged under 20 years later.

He said that if you record yourself and your own music, that's how you sound, it becomes part of your production aesthetic. He recommended when bands get a recording studio to record their music, to choose a studio with a special sound that suits the mood of their songs.

Robert's aim was always to write songs that would resonate with old and young people, but didn't have mainstream production values. He said his songs lack slickness, but have a lot of ambition in the production. On inspiration, Robert said, "I wrote some of my best songs while working in a popcorn wagon". The shittier the job, the better the inspiration. He would then quit his job, write for months, then sit there wondering what to write, then get another shitty job to inspire him.

"You're only on this earth once. You want to look back on your life and see something romantic about it. You want to do something special for yourself that makes your life meaningful. Or, if you're miserable, you want to write something so miserable that miserable people feel that someone is sympathetic to them. Do something that's fun. Music is a wonderful thing for humans; it makes life memorable for you."


What an amazing conference. Thanks to the team at Big Sound for letting me attend the conference gratis on a media pass. It was an absolute blast and I'll work on my shyness so next year, I can make the most of the networking opportunities. To everyone out there who took a business card from me, or who I've communicated with via email, please follow my blog and become a friend on MySpace and Twitter so we can continue this momentum and make Brisbane an exciting place full of opportunities for musicians, managers, media and labels alike. Let's kick the dust of these old boots and make a fuss!

Adios amigos!


Stephen Green said...

Everyone at BIG SOUND thanks you for the awesome (and kind) blogging! Glad you had fun and see you next year!

Andrew McMillen said...

Excellent summary Amanda!