Brisbane’s Big Sound is a hybrid music industry conference and festival, held every September in the northern capital. The event has been carefully nurtured by some far-sighted state government investment over the past decade. A whirlwind of industry hook-ups, private parties, “meet-ups”, networking events and gigs, Big Sound is now the dominant music industry conference on the Australian calendar.
The agenda last week was very much a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. Panels ranged from industry structure, YouTube algorithms and gender balance through to personal fulfilment and a special keynote speech on raising musicians, delivered by none other than Dave Grohl’s mother, Virginia Hanlon Grohl.
As Big Sound’s CEO Joel Edmondson told Crikey, “every year grows, we’ve got 15 per cent more delegates here this year, and I think that’s about sending the message that this isn’t about experts sitting on stage, it’s about the wisdom of the crowd”.
The international presence was particularly strong this year, with festival buyers from as far afield as Iceland, France and the US. “That’s more about the fact that Australian music is amazing and they’re here to get Australian bands on their roster before anyone else does,” Edmonson argued.
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Australian contemporary music is on a jag. International interest in Australian music is at an all-time high, with royalties agency APRA-AMCOS pulling in record export earnings last financial year. Recent years have seen a new crop of young artists emerge with global appeal, such as Flume, Amy Shark, Tkay Maidza and latest overnight sensation, G Flip. Pop culture mavens Junkee have proclaimed a new golden age of Aussie pop.
Fresh sounds, forget the guitar
On Wednesday night at the Levis Showcase, I got to see G Flip, a hyper-kinetic young woman in ripped jeans and baseball cap who sings, drums and plays bass, sometimes all in the same song. A furious blend of soaring choruses and banging drum solos, the effect is somewhere between late-career Sia and early career tUnE-yArDs. It’s slickly commercial, but also affectingly authentic.
Big Sound is a good snapshot of career progression. A year ago, G Flip was at Big Sound as an unrepresented indie artist, shopping demo songs. This year she’s well on her way to global stardom.
For every superstar, there are 100 or 1000 up-and-comers, some of them with genuine careers ahead of them, but many more facing years of grinding obscurity. Even so, young artists persist. A good example is young Victorian artist Alice Skye, playing at Big Sound across a number of nights. Skye, from Horsham in regional Victoria, plays a lilting and melancholy folk-pop with timeless stylings.
“This is my first proper Big Sound, although last year I played here as an unofficial showcase,” Skye told Crikey. “It was a really nice crowd, I was really scared and thinking, ‘maybe no-one will come.’ But it felt really nice. Both the sets we’ve played here were some of my favourites.”
Alice Skye and G Flip are a pretty fair representation of a lot of the music on offer at Big Sound: young, female and electronic. There was also plenty of hip hop. There were hooks. And there were oh-so-many millennial whoops.
On the other hand, there was relatively little traditional guitar rock, a development that some have blamed on a move to apartment living for millennials, and others have put down to the eclipse of the electric guitar itself. Of course there were still guitars at Big Sound, with a number of buzzy acts plugging in and turning it up loud. Highlights included New Zealand indie band The Beths and the piquantly named hair metal outfit Psychadelic Porn Crumpets, a rifftastic four-piece whose homage to guitar heroes of yore has already seen them signed to the Arctic Monkeys’ management and booked on a 20-date tour of western Europe.
Aussie artists soar globally
While the music provides the artistic focus and the all-important buzz, the industry side of Big Sound is far more prosaic. The general impression was one of an industry flexing its muscles, as revenue and profit growth returns. Music is making money again, and that growth is percolating through an increasingly confident sector.
“It’s fair to say we are a very strong, growing, healthy industry and that should really be indicative of the vision we set for the industry and where we see ourselves going,” an upbeat APRA-AMCOS CEO Dean Ormston told attendees of a Berocca-fuelled business breakfast. “APRA’s going to report a group revenue of just around $420 million, about 8.7 per cent up on last year.”
In particular, exports are a source of genuine optimism. The world has woken up to the talent on offer in Australia. Ormston pointed to the copyright body’s increase in foreign revenue. “We’ve reached a record high this year with $43.7 million and for people in the crowd what that means in real terms is public performance and broadcast of Australian works, New Zealand woks internationally, so it’s a very strong indicator of how healthy our industry is and what people are doing internationally.”
What musicians really want: the basics
Helen Marcou, from Bakehouse Studios in Melbourne, is a veteran behind-the-scenes player who is one of the best-connected figures in the sector. She told Crikey that she wants a long-term music strategy from policy-makers. “We’re finding there is a bi- and multi-partisan support for music. A lot of them are starting to get the intrinsic value of music.”
“The NSW Inquiry [into live music] received nearly 300 submissions. At that hearing you had a group of parliamentarians that had no idea, they don’t know what was broken and what needed fixing, they had no idea about the breadth of the community and what that means for their electorates.”
“I think we’ve got a fairly vocal industry, and some of the fairly big spokespeople, let’s say, mansplain for the rest of the sector — a lot of the people I talk to have different needs, needs like affordable housing, being close to their community, child care, all the things that are barriers that keep you out of the industry. We had Leanne de Souza from the music managers’ association talking about the unpaid labour for workers and managers, it’s a massive issue for the industry.”
If the onstage discussion at Big Sound were generous and harmonious, there were also tensions lurking beneath the surface.
Sticky subject of bullying
One fascinating subtext of the festival was the whispered conversations about one of Australian music’s most controversial acts, Sydney lad band Sticky Fingers. Crikey heard several conversations, all off the record, in which the band’s recent notoriety was keenly discussed.
The Sticky Fingers controversy pushes all the buttons of an outraged time. The band’s public record encompasses freely admitted episodes of drunkenness, verbal abuse, public urination and hotel room trashing, and contested accusations of violence against women, racism and transphobia. Their sound, a mixture of Cold Chisel, reggae and Britpop, seems tailor-made for a certain sort of unreconstructed millennial male; and the alcohol-drenched masculinity of the group’s image has sometimes attracted an ugly audience.
On Saturday, just as many delegates were flying home, The Australian’s Richard Guiliatt published a long exoneration of Sticky Fingers, in a 4000-word feature article provocatively entitled “Between a rock and a safe space”.
Guilliatt’s article framed the anger at Sticky Fingers as an excess of political correctness, an activist pile-on without substance or fact. But is it? Lead singer Dylan Frost is a gifted frontman with a controversial past. He has been arrested for arguing with security at a festival in Western Australia, and the band was evicted from a venue in Wagga Wagga, allegedly after urinating from the balcony. The band’s keyboardist, Freddy Crabs, freely admits in Guilliatt’s feature that they were “obnoxious drunks who’ve trashed hotel rooms”. Frost has also suffered from significant and legitimate mental health issues.
The truth of the allegations remains murky. Many instances are denied by the band, in particular two 2016 incidents, at the Red Rattler in Sydney, and during a confrontation with Indigenous singer Thelma Plum.
It is true that the online anger directed at Frost and Sticky Fingers has been intense, and in some cases factually untrue. On the other hand, what Frost has admitted to is scarcely a glowing endorsement. “I have gotten into verbal fights, and at times fights with other lads over the years,” he wrote in his 2018 public statement, admitting that “my alcoholic behaviour in the past has made people intimidated or feel unsafe around me” and adding that he was working at “keeping my temper under control”.
What can’t be denied is that the Sticky Fingers controversy tells us some important things about the state of the cultural industries in 2018. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to insist that art and politics are somehow separate. Deeply held political beliefs will continue to intrude on discussions of culture, just as they should.
The irony is that the Sticky Fingers brouhaha obscures some welcome progress by the music industry to clean up its act.
Music has a dismal history of sexual and racial abuse, poor mental health for workers, dangerous drug taking, and victim blaming. Although a long way from parity, more female artists are finally being programmed at music festivals. Massive long-term problems like the mental health of musicians and crew, and in terms of female safety at venues and festivals, are finally starting to be taken seriously.
Judged by what was on stage, the new landscape of diversity is delivering some very good new music — as acts playing at Big Sound showed. A new generation of female and Indigenous talent is emerging. Judged by the sets on offer from Thando, G Flip, Fortune Shumba, Alice Skye and Beatrice, to name just five, the future of Australian music is bright.
Correction: this article originally stated that Richard Guilliatt failed to contact Thelma Plum or others who had made allegations of misconduct by Dylan Frost. In fact, Guilliatt did seek comment from Plum and others, but they did not respond to his request.