Monday, 3 December 2012

More than SGs and Wobble Boards – Music from the Big Red Rock

From Firebrand Magazine Issue #2, November 2012

For a lot of people living outside of Australia, the mention of Australian music usually means one of a few things – for baby boomers, there’s a good chance that their first thought will be of AC/DC, the rock band that took the world by storm and never let go. For older music listeners (in particular in the UK), they may remember Rolf Harris, with his wobble board and novelty songs such as “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and “Two Little Boys”, or Folk/Pop group The Seekers, with their lush close-harmony vocals surrounding the beautiful voice of Judith Durham. But there’s more. Much more.

Prior to colonisation, Australia had a 40,000 – 60,000+ year history of indigenous music which produced the iconic Didgeridoo, as well as featuring Tapping Sticks and, of course, the human voice. Having no written language, Aboriginal culture and legend was passed down through the generations by way of stories and song. Thus, music was of vital importance to the first Australians as a way of preserving and passing on their culture and heritage.

With the first colonies came waves of British and (later) European settlers, who brought with them their own unique musical instruments and influences. From this melange of styles came the Bush Ballads, based on the Anglo-Celtic traditions of the settlers and convicts that came (voluntarily or otherwise) to the Great South Land. The best known of these songs is Waltzing Matilda, which over the years has become Australia’s adopted unofficial national anthem – which is interesting, considering that the song (words by Banjo Patterson) is about a sheep thief who drowns himself to avoid capture by troopers.

With the post World War II waves of European immigrants came more and more colours to the Australian cultural spectrum. German, Italian, Greek and Scandinavian music influenced what we sang, played and listened to, and as Australians began to establish their own national identity, these influences were melded together as part of the emerging Australian sound. At this point, American influences were also being felt as the United States, drawn out of it’s pre-war isolationism, added it’s own, smaller wave of immigrants to the mix, bringing blues and jazz to a new audience. Adding to this influence was the relatively new advent of television, which meant that these musical forms were being seen and heard by an ever-increasing part of the world’s population. All of these influences were drawn upon as Australians worked out what they liked to play and listen to.

These days, Australia is as much a cultural melting pot as ever, and has produced a great many artists that have achieved success at home and abroad. Acts such as AC/DC, INXS and Men At Work became known around the world, but there is a much deeper history of Aussie rock and roll. From the outset, when rock music first swept the globe, Australians have been rocking, and I will endeavour to outline how we did it.

In the mid-1950’s, American rock and roll spread across the world. Sydney-based independent record label Festival Records was the first to get on the bandwagon in Australia, releasing Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1956. It became the biggest-selling Australian single ever released up to that time. American-born promoter Lee Gordon was the first to bring US acts to Australia, staging big tours with the likes of Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis playing to rapt audiences around the country. Before too long, Australia had its own ‘bad boy’ of rock’n’roll in Johnny O’Keefe, who became Australia’s first rock star imitating Americans such as Elvis and Little Richard. This was the first wave of Australian rock, and lasted to the early 60’s, when a more clean-cut style of band started to dominate the airwaves. Although the more family-friendly acts were on the radio, there were still guitar-oriented rock bands playing the live scene, many influenced by instrumental surf-rock bands like The Shadows and Dick Dale. One of the most prominent home grown bands of this era was The Atlantics, who scored a worldwide hit with their classic, ‘Bombora’.

In 1964, following the phenomenon of The Beatles, another wave of Australian rock bands hit the scene, again borrowing from the style of overseas hits and developing from there. A lot of bands that had been playing the instrumental surf music recruited singers and took off in the new direction of ‘beat’ music, a la the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Some of the most popular acts around this period were Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, Ray Brown & The Whispers, The Easybeats, The Bee Gees and The Masters Apprentices. Another solo star rose in the form of Normie Rowe, and acts such as Max Merritt and The Meteors, Dinah Lee and The La De Das made their way across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to try their luck on Australian shores. Also at this time, many Australian bands and singers tried to further their careers by moving overseas, mainly to England, then seen as the place to be. Few bands were successful in their ventures, and only The Seekers and The Bee Gees (who were born and raised in the UK anyway) enjoyed long-term success. Other acts that made the trip were The Easybeats (the first rock band to crack the UK market), The Twilights and the La De Das.

In the 1970’s, a lot of the 60’s stars had faded, and Australian music underwent many changes. This period saw the emergence of what was to be known as the ‘Pub Rock’ scene, which spawned acts who would go on to great things in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Bands such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, Skyhooks and The Angels went on to dominate Aussie airwaves for the best part of a generation. It is also around this time that Australian media got into the game, with magazines, radio programs, TV shows and record labels dedicated to rock and pop music springing up to cater to the needs of an ever-increasing listening public. Australia was beginning to forge a real identity as a rock and roll nation. In these seminal years, there were many acts that helped create that identity. These acts included Air Supply, Dragon, Kevin Borich Express, Jon English, Little River Band, John Farnham, Sherbet, Hush, Ted Mulry Gang, Brian Cadd, and many, many more.

The 80’s and 90’s saw Australia start to break free from overseas influences and stand on its own, without “needing America and the UK to tell us what was good” (Nick Cave). Many rock bands appeared in this period, including Men At Work, Divinyls and the Hoodoo Gurus who all went on to great success internationally. Other bands such as Hunters & Collectors and The Bad Seeds achieved a great deal of success locally, with some small amount of overseas recognition.

Today, we see more Aussie bands than ever making a mark on the music scene, both at home and overseas. For the rockers, there are bands like Voyager, Chaos Divine, Karnivool, Jet, Eskimo Joe, Ragdoll and many more that are proudly flying the flag for Aussie rock. Bands such as Airbourne are playing the festival circuit in the US and Europe to huge crowds, and AC/DC still rule the stadiums when many artists of a similar vintage have long ago hung up their guns. We suffer the same media-inflicted blight of so-called TV ‘talent shows’ (Idol, X Factor, et al) down here, but there are still enough ‘real’ acts out there to warrant a long and satisfying browse through the Australian lexicon of rock.

There are many names that have been omitted from this yarn due to time and space constraints, but I hope that I have described to some extent just how far Australia has come as a musical nation. Whatever your taste in music, be it Classical, Jazz, Blues, Pop or Metal, there is a huge range of very real talent coming from these sunburnt shores. If we weren’t so far away, you would all hear much more from us. As prolific as the Aussie scene is, it is still at the other end of the world from Hollywood, New York and London, and not all of us can afford the trip to the Northern Hemisphere. That being said, there is always the magic of the internet. When you have a minute or ten to spare, try googling some of the names in this article, or maybe have a search on YouTube. I guarantee that you will find something to make you smile and tap your foot - or bang your head!

Read the rest of Issue #2 here.
Read my latest column in Issue #3.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Then ‘Til Now – Is It Better?

From Firebrand Magazine Issue #1, October 2012

Back in 1982, when I was first turning pro in the music industry, there was a standard way of getting your music under the noses of radio programmers and record labels. You transferred your carefully-crafted demos (recorded in a proper studio if you could afford it) onto cassette tapes – normally from a ‘master’ cassette that you made either at home or in-studio – and labelled them as neatly as possible. If you had some extra money, you could have a heap of tapes made at a duplicating facility that could run off multiple copies at once, saving time, energy and tape wear on the precious master. If the tape machines were not perfectly calibrated, the songs might be a tiny bit out of concert pitch, but it was hardly noticeable unless one of the machines was way out of whack, so it hardly mattered. The next step was to type out the band bio – with a typewriter (remember them?) – and take the prepared pages to a post office to get them photocopied – no home printers in those days. Once the tapes and bio sheets were ready, all that remained was to add some 8 x 10 inch glossy black-and-white photographs of the band (professionally done if possible) to the packages, then back to the post office to send them to the recipients. After all of that came the wait to see if the music and images were what the radio stations and record labels wanted for their playlists or artist rosters.

Today in 2012, you can put a band bio and photos in a PDF, put it in a zip folder with a selection of mp3 audio files, and email it – done. We’ve come a long way from photocopies and the humble audio cassette. But is it any easier to make it in the music industry? Are we better off? Maybe, maybe not.

The world music industry has indeed changed since the halcyon days of rock and roll, when massive acts played massive concert tours to massive audiences and travelled in their own airliners – this is now the exception rather than the rule. Musical tastes have changed, the world economy has changed, the media has changed, and public accessibility to music has changed. The thing is, it is debatable whether or not all these changes have been for the better. The obvious thing that has had a huge impact is, of course, the internet.

The sudden appearance and spread of the World Wide Web caught the music industry – and probably many others – with their pants down. Legally and logistically, there was simply nothing in place to deal or cope with the new deal in entertainment consumption. Songs, movies, games and books were placed online to be accessed and downloaded anonymously by anyone with an internet connection, and there seemed to be little any of the regulating bodies could do to stem the tide of pirated copies and illegal downloads. The original dramas surrounding the Napster download website are now the stuff of legend, and some of the reactions by the industry have been a case of too little too late, or in some cases, too much directed at the wrong people. For a lot of people in the general public, the net seemed like a paradise of everything they wanted, available for free at the click of a mouse button. For musicians and other artists trying to sell their wares through traditional means, this felt very much like the death knell for their established or nascent careers. Widespread panic ensued, and the dust had yet to fully settle on a number of fronts.

To be sure, there are other factors affecting the legitimate sale of music and various forms of entertainment – if people are under financial hardship, they are less likely to spend their hard-earned cash on trifles and luxuries. Likewise, if people are living in a war zone, entertainment makes way for survival. Thus, economic and political factors will always figure into the habits of any particular population. These factors have always been with us. The internet is something new that has not been experienced before, and the adjustment, locally and globally, will be a protracted and uncertain one.

But is all of this stopping us from creating and expressing that which burns within our creative hearts and souls? Most certainly not. For those of us who have made music our lives, it is not so much something that we want to do – it is something that we have to do. In fact, being a musician is not a matter of what we do, but who we are. For this reason, it is in our own best interests to come to grips with this new, ever-changing landscape and find a way of continuing to do what we were born to do without selling our souls (nothing new there), yet still turn a profit. For all the creative and artistic satisfaction that being a musician brings, we still have to make a living. To do so, we must find ways of making this new technology work for us – we have to get smart, and get educated about this twenty-first century way of doing things.

For those of us without ready access to the big record labels, the internet age has provided myriad ways of reaching our potential audience without having to score that elusive record contract. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook give us a free place to hang our shingle and display our wares, and to directly touch people that may like our music enough to purchase it, via digital download or good old hard copy. Building a web page, however, is the easy part – people still have to be made aware of the existence of the web page, and have to be driven to it in order to be impressed with our product. This has its analogue in the ‘real’ world, where you would take up residence in a store and advertise the location and content of said store. Putting a website online is like sitting in the middle of a very large ocean and dangling a single line in the water, hoping for the big fish to happen by. Possible, but improbable. Luck plays a huge part in ‘making it’ in this business, but with the right strategy and a lot of persistence and hard work, luck can be tipped a little in our favour. Getting informed is the first step.

One encouraging thing about the new musical landscape is the emergence of the independent label. Once relegated to the fringes of the music biz and dealing with obscure acts, there are now a number of well-run indie labels that have done good things for the acts on their books. While not having the cash reserves of their big league counterparts, the indies have shown that in some cases, dedication and application, combined with a sound work ethic can do amazing things in the absence of massive advertising budgets. Labels like Frontiers and Roadrunner now boast some impressive names on their artist rosters, and have become a viable alternative to major labels that may or may not put time, money and effort into any given artist at any given time. Internet radio, similarly, is more accessible to unsigned artists, and a good way to reach an otherwise unreachable audience.

Today, we stand on the threshold of a new ‘normal’, where big label advances for bands have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and kids listen to crappy mp3 files on iPods with tiny earbuds. Just as when people first witnessed the phenomenon that was Jimi Hendrix, music will never be the same. The music industry as we knew it has been irrevocably altered, and it is up to us to find our place in the new state of things. Those of us who are driven to create and express will continue to do so – nothing will change that. Those of us who take the time and effort to explore the new possibilities on offer will stand a much better chance of finding a way to do what we love and, with a bit of luck, find a way to make it pay.

Is this new way better? Many would argue no, and they would have a valid point. The fact of the matter is that things have changed. Whether the change is for better or worse, we have to adjust, to adapt, to evolve in order to survive. Living organisms have been doing just that for millions of years without leaving our planet a barren wasteland. It can be done, and with our famous human ingenuity, perhaps we stand a better chance than the dinosaurs.

Want to help? Get out and see a band. If they have product for sale at the gig, buy some. You might just be helping to save a precious species from extinction.

To read the issue of Firebrand Magazine (#1) that this column is taken from, click here.
To read Issue #2 of Firebrand, click here.

Introducing this blog - G'day!

The entries in this blog started out as copies of my monthly columns for Firebrand Magazine, and are a collection of op-ed pieces concerning the music industry based on my personal experience as a professional Musician, Composer and Journalist. I hope that you gain something positive from my musings, and maybe a smile or two along the way.