“You Aussies can have your sport, we’ll have the culture.” A bit of friendly banter between an English music executive and an Australian journalist in the early noughties over a pint at the Brixton Academy, the south London citadel for bands who’ve made it. A throwaway line, with perhaps a nugget of truth. The English hadn’t done much in sport to that point, not since that famous final across town in the 1966 World Cup. Likewise, the Australians could rely on a few music heavyweights in their corner — Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave and AC/DC (when they’re in cycle) — though the conveyor belt never delivered the goods in predictable fashion.
There was the odd international hit (Madison Avenue, Josh Abrahams), the shooting star (Avalanches), and the tease of an “Aussie Wave” (the Vines and Jet, then later Gabriella Cilmi, Wolfmother, Pendulum and Sam Sparro).
And then something odd happened. The Brits started beating us in sport, all too regularly. And Australia’s musicians were seemingly landing a few blows of their own, more regularly and from new voices.
If Gotye and his monster hit from 2011 “Somebody that I Used to Know” was indeed “ground zero” for Australia’s so-called “golden generation,” a cadre that included Sia, Vance Joy, Tame Impala, Flume, Iggy Azalea, Alison Wonderland and others, the ripple-effect hasn’t weakened. Gotye is no longer hot news, though the spotlight on new Australian acts has arguably intensified.
So what’s changed? Technology has changed. Perceptions have changed.
As Australia matures, its musical export are reshaping stereotypes of a sunburnt country where sweaty bands once played rock ‘n’ roll in pubs carpeted with sawdust. For an outsider looking in on today’s crop, Australia doesn’t represent a cohesive scene. There’s something for every taste, from EDM to country. From Courtney Barnett, with her raw indie rock energy which earned a Grammy nomination for best newcomer (she lost out to Meghan Trainor) to Hiatus Kaiyote, the future-soul group which can boast Prince as a fan and a recent Grammy nomination. Tame Impala’s story keeps building. Kevin Parker’s psychedelic-rock outfit did in February 2016 what few Australians have managed by winning a Brit Award for best international act (beating U2 in the process). Tame Impala’s third album “Currents” peaked at No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 4 in the U.S. and became the first No. 1 on the U.K.’s prog albums chart when it launched in April 2015.
As Australia matures, its musical export are reshaping stereotypes of a sunburnt country
Pop-punk gang 5 Seconds of Summer joined some lofty company when their sophomore set Sounds Good Feels Good vaulted straight to No. 1 in the U.K., U.S. and Australian album charts in 2015, becoming just the third Aussie act in history behind Men At Work and AC/DC to have simultaneous No.1 albums in those three markets. They also became the only band — not vocal group — to see its first two full-length studio albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Electronic-pop boy-wonder Troye Sivan made the leap from YouTube star to big-league recording artist/producer, delivering top 5s on the Billboard 200 chart with “TRXYE” and “Wild” and earning adoring praise from Taylor Swift and Sam Smith (“Wild” also peaked at No. 5 in the U.K. in 2015). Meg Mac signed a co-publishing arrangement with BMG and Pulse Music Publishing in early 2016, while Tonight Alive’s “Limitless” and Matt Corby’s “Telluric” are impacting in the U.K. In an offbeat success story, Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” finally cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in January some eight years after its release, thanks to the power of a TV U.S. commercial. The 2008 release also reigned atop Billboard + Clio Music’s Top Commercials chart thanks to Honda’s use of the Australian electro-pop song.
The Australian accent, once deemed so harsh the distributors of “Max Max: The Road Warrior” dubbed the classic film for American audiences, became accepted in the U.S. as Australian actors swept into Hollywood. Apparently the accent is mellowing just fine with European audiences. The European Broadcasting Union and Swedish broadcaster SVT has welcomed Australia back to participate in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, with reality TV star Dami heading to Stockholm in May as the nation’s rep.
The twang, notes Henry Rollins, is working to Australians’ favour. The American punk-rock hardman and radio DJ is an Australian music enthusiast with a borderline obsession which can be traced-back to the Saints’ trailblazing 1977 recording“(I’m) Stranded”. “There’s myriad reasons why music is so good from Australia,” explains Rollins. “It has a lot to do with geography and being left alone. But also the way you sing and speak makes it interesting. If you have sympathetic productions, the Australian twang and accent does a beautiful thing with the English language. If you put that to rock ‘n’ roll, with fast-paced, slow-paced, single guitar and singing, it is so beautiful and it works so well it just melts over the notes in a natural unforced way. With the Australian lilt of the language of English put to any instrument, it just wins.” Rollins’ obsession extends to such acts as Blank Realm, Jonny Telafone and Eddie Current Suppression Ring.
Australia’s music exports are as diverse as the landscape of the country they call home
Barnett might just possess the winning formula Rollins speaks of. The singer and songwriter has made the leap from Melbourne pubs to major international festivals and the upper tiers of sales charts with “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” (which reached No. 16 in the U.K. and No. 20 in the U.S.) With a knack for storytelling, always delivered in her own
accent, Britain’s “Independent” newspaper, like others, has described Barnett as “Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan.” Barnett, whose debut album has won major domestic honors the J Award and Australian Music Prize and a swathe of ARIA and AIR Awards, admits technology has made the leap “a little easier” for acts who in days past rolled the dice and relocated abroad. “There’s always been good music, but the Internet has made it easier to be heard.” Barnett’s route into the U.S. began with a stint at CMJ and a few appearances on late night TV which “nudge you into another realm”. There’s been no magic marketing campaign. “We just keep doing what we’re doing and people come. Maybe it’s been word of mouth,” she says in a laconic style which breathes across her songs.
Britain’s Independent newspaper has described Courtney Barnett as ‘Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan.’
“There’s no doubt that the Internet has lowered the barriers to entry. Songs can cross borders instantaneously now. You no longer need access to big promotion budgets and suchlike to get things started,” notes John Watson, the Sydney-based president of Eleven: A Music Company and John Watson Management. Watson has guided the careers of Silverchair, Missy Higgins, Cold Chisel and Gotye among others. “That’s why you see great local talent like Courtney Barnett, Troye Sivan, Tame Impala and Chet Faker getting discovered internationally at much the same time as they’re establishing their careers back home. Once upon a time it would have taken several years for them to get heard overseas but now blogs and Soundcloud are exposing them to millions before they get their first mainstream radio airplay.” Cheap flights and price-competitive online travel services (Airbnb, Uber) are also softening the punishing cost of touring.
Pop-punk gang 5 Seconds of Summer … vaulted straight to No. 1 in the U.K., U.S. and Australian album charts in 2015
Watson has a message for acts wanting the big prize. Work hard, think smart and keep going. “If you look at the history of Australian music you can see that the artists who made serious international forays tended to make better music for longer than those artists who settled for being big frogs in a small puddle and typically became a bit complacent.” Great artists will somehow always find ways to form deeper and more enduring connections, he adds. The challenge now is “not so much getting attention as sustaining attention.”
The impact of Australia’s music exports is measurable. For the year 2014-15, APRA AMCOS reported a 26% year-on-year revenue increase to $34 million for the performance of Australian works overseas. Double digit growth is again forecast for the 2015-16 reporting period. The likes of Barnett, Sia, Tame Impala, 5SOS and Sivan have “in no small way” contributed to the total, notes Head of Member Services Dean Ormston.
The dearth of cold, hard empirical data on Australian artist’s economic contribution should be addressed in a major Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project, which will ascertain the value of Australia’s net export against GDP. The three-year study began in recent months with a research team including Sounds Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts, and Newcastle and Monash Universities. It’s also understood AIR is poised to launch a research project with Deloitte that may offer additional insight.
There’s myriad reasons why music is so good from Australia … the Australian twang and accent does a beautiful thing with the English language – Henry Rollins
As tastes have evolved and technology forced every industry to adapt (or die), the disruption has arguably created opportunities, particularly so for alternative English-language repertoire
sources like Australia. “The potential pool of buyers has considerably broadened. And there’s more interest today in North America to what is happening in Australia,” notes Larry LeBlanc, the award-winning Canadian music industry journalist who pens the “In The Hot Seat” column for “Celebrity Access”. “But that interest is part of a bigger picture in which there’s more general interest in acts from abroad that might fit the North American touring and radio landscape.”
The Australians have a reputation for getting out there. LeBlanc notes the presence of Australia’s music export office and the tireless work of Sounds Australia’s Millie Millgate “draws a strong applause with North Americans for providing a bigger picture of Australian acts.” LeBlanc also cites the work of such promoters Michael Chugg, and Michael Gudinski and artist managers John Watson, Bill Cullen, Catherine Haridy, and Craig Lock as being “instrumental in holding up the banner of Australian music to those outside the country.” Among those artists from Australia now being tracked by North American music industry executives, says LeBlanc, are Megan Washington, Avalanche City, the Rubens, Lime Cordiale, Gypsy and the Cats, the Griswolds and Dan Sultan.
the tireless work of Sounds Australia’s Millie Millgate draws a strong applause with North Americans for providing a bigger picture of Australian acts.
Australia’s strong showing comes at a time when the powerbase of the music business has gone global in scope. “Go-to songwriter Max Martin is from Sweden, Adele rules the world from her home in England and the EDM movement has opened up opportunities for artists from many corners of the globe,” notes L.A.-based music business consultant Geoff Mayfield, formerly VP of business analysis and market research for Universal Music Group and director of charts/senior analyst at Billboard. “You have to wonder if we owe some of this globalization to the fact that of the three remaining majors, the largest one is now run by a Brit and another is owned by a Russian. Back when we still had four, only the smallest of them was run by someone who wasn’t American.”
Mayfield has the last word. “I don’t know that we’re at a point where being Australian represents an A&R advantage, but by the same token, Five Seconds’ avid fan base and the inescapable hit of Gotye proves that a Down Under passport doesn’t limit an artist’s potential.”