Labelled with love
June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, EG, June 20, 2008
Sophie Best, Ash Miles and Wayne.
Major record company sales may be dropping but Melbourne’s indie scene is thriving, writes Dan Rule.
THE second bedroom of Sophie Best and Ash Miles’ Fitzroy North terrace doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of the successful record label office. There are no gold-plated records hanging on the walls, no leather-backed chairs, no mezzanine level.
Instead a tiny shared desk, unruly towers of CDs and garish tour posters jostle for space. “You have to be careful not to get lost around here,” jokes Miles.
“Oh, and the cat sometimes turns the computer off,” adds Best, deadpan. “Apart from that, it’s all systems go.”
She’s right – Mistletone is one of the most successful emerging independent record labels and touring companies in the country. Since its foundation in mid-2006, Best and Miles’ Mistletone imprint has managed to drop a comparatively whopping 19 releases, including acclaimed international releases such as Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti 5 and Beach House’s Devotion, not to mention records from genre-busting locals Kes Band, Ross McLennan and Francis Plagne.
Mistletone has also organised successful tours for New Zealand’s Bachelorette, Dan Deacon from the US, the aforementioned Aerial Pink and, most recently, Canary Islander El Guincho.
“We just really go on our own tastes,” says Best. Indeed, according to the former music journalist, the way she and Miles run their business is determined much more by what they like than projected sales.
“We’ve always just figured that if we like something, the chances are that other people will like it too.”
The sheer concentration of Mistletone’s activity may seem surprising in an industry climate of purported recession.
Last month’s botched publicity campaign for a new anti-piracy film for schools, Australian Music in Tune, painted a dire picture of the state of play in the mainstream music industry. Co-ordinated by representative body Music Industry Piracy Investigations, the 10-minute film features big-name, big-label artists such as Powderfinger, Jimmy Barnes, the Veronicas and Silverchair bemoaning dropping sales and lost income.
The statistics more than confirm the sales slump. In April 2007, the number one album in Australia, Extreme Behaviour by Oklahoman muscle-shirt-clad rockers Hinder, sold fewer than 5000 copies for the first time since the ARIA charts began, with a paltry 4858 copies sold.
Meanwhile, the scene’s more established labels, such as Guy Blackman’s Chapter Music, Unstable Ape Records, Lost and Lonesome and Sensory Projects and record shops such as Polyester and Missing Link continue to prosper.
“We kind of thought that starting up a label was totally unattainable, that you needed a lot of money to do this,” says Miles, who has a background working in independent record shops. “And I think you did in the past.
“More than anything, it’s probably the internet and downloads that have really helped us, which is kind of ironic, I suppose, because it has affected the top end of the music industry in a very different way,” he says. “It’s so much easier for people, including us, to find music these days and much easier to market.
“In the old days you would have had to have spent a lot of money on advertising, and we don’t spend anything, really, because we think it’s a waste of money. It’s much better to use MySpace. In many ways it doesn’t matter that sales have dropped; now it’s about reshaping what you do to represent your artists on this different front.”
Best puts it in slightly more romantic terms: “It is kind of like the 1960s all over again. All these old systems have collapsed, no one really knows what they’re doing and no one actually really knows what the new models are. So they’re just doing it and defining themselves as they go, which is just amazing.”
A prime example is Albert’s Basement, a collective of 20-something Brunswick kids putting on shows in warehouses and bedrooms around Melbourne’s inner north. Since their first show in founder Michael Zulicki’s bedroom in March 2007, the crew has helped put on between two and four gigs a month, including local indie artists such as Kes Band and Pikelet as well as releasing a 12-inch vinyl compilation.
“There was one show in my bedroom with 15 bands, and it was just such a great gig,” says 21-year-old Zulicki. “I didn’t know any of the bands, I had just found them on MySpace, so it was just great to meet a whole bunch of new people. And, you know, to have 15 bands in a bedroom was just so unique.
“Through the internet we’ve just discovered endless amounts of experimental and underground bands, locally and internationally, who otherwise wouldn’t get heard outside of their bedrooms,” he says.
In this scene of intimate scale and international reach, the Toff in Town, in Curtin House in Swanston Street, has emerged as a key player. Since opening early last year, the small venue has played host to everyone from overseas acts including Smog’s Bill Callaghan and US doomsmiths sunn0))), to obscure local acts such as ii, Francis Plagne, Hi God People and Curse Ov Dialect.
According to Toff booker Tom Larnach-Jones, the venue reflects a new modus operandi on the Melbourne scene. “It’s certainly not another big rock room,” he says. “Gigs that don’t have the big machine behind them are now able to get the kind of attention they deserve.
“I think there’s a lot more scope and accommodating venues for smaller bands to be able to come out earlier in their careers.
“CD sales may be dropping or going digital, but in terms of live stuff, I feel like it’s going crazy, especially in Melbourne.”
Oren Ambarchi, who curates the weekly Maximum Arousal international experimental music series at the Toff, which has included overseas artists as diverse as Tim Hecker, Damo Suzuki and Philip Jeck, agrees. “The whole climate has changed so much that it’s just amazing,” says Ambarchi, an internationally respected sound-artist himself. “It’s just blooming. People are coming out every night to see things they wouldn’t have in the past.
“I travel internationally all the time and I really do believe that Melbourne has one of the more thriving live scenes and underground communities in the world right now. There’s so much activity here and it’s a real pleasure to be able to put on this kind of stuff in a venue that’s nice and has a really, really good PA.”
Back in North Fitzroy Best describes the shift in terms as an alternative economy based on small scales, high turnarounds and sharing of information. “It feels as though the Australian music industry is way over there and we’re way over here,” she says. “There’s this real self-supporting thing that’s happening. No one is making big amounts of money at all, but all that money gets fed back into this economy and circulates,” Best says.
Michael Kucyk, 23, whose Nervous Jerk label has released nine records, including debut albums for Sly Hats and Fabulous Diamonds, since starting in 2006, agrees. “I think there’s a real willingness to co-operate and help each other out. There’s no competitiveness or suspicion at all. If you’re in it for the money, then you’re going to be very disappointed,” he says with a laugh.
Patrick O’Brien, who is putting the final touches on his new specialist underground record shop Sunshine and Grease, in Little Lonsdale Street’s Bus Gallery, echoes Kucyk’s sentiments. “What I’m doing is simply about pushing under-represented art,” he says. “I’ve always really been into people who are doing things for love, not money; people who make things in their bedrooms. If I can pay the rent with it, it’s a bonus.”
Nonetheless, Miles and Best can’t help but show a little defiant pride about finally being able to quit their day jobs. “When we first signed our distribution deal for Mistletone, we were walking down the street in Sydney and we ran into an old stalwart of the Australian music industry,” Best recounts.
“So we’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve just started a label’ and this guy just started yelling at us, saying, ‘It’s 2006! What are you doing? It’s 2006!’ ”
“And as we were walking off, we were kind of going, ‘Oh God, what have we done?” she laughs. “But 2006 was actually an amazing time to start a label.”