At the Big Sound music festival in Brisbane last month, 150 hot young acts were strutting their stuff by night and hoping to catch attention which would lead to brighter lights. Tash Sultana – who is currently on a sold-out US tour – is one who had done just that after performing at Big Sound last year.
But, by day, the industry was in conference mode and turning its attention to the big issues. Music does that with refreshing candour. For example, here’s Nkechi Anele, from the Aussie band Saskwatch, talking about culture and categorisation:
"I fucking hate the words 'world music'. The only way I can see it making sense is if we discover another planet.”
Big Sound featured more swear words, cigarettes, tattoos, beers over lunch, and bare-midriffs than your average conference. But there’s plenty of upside among all that.
Here are nine things the music industry were discussing at Big Sound.
Mental health is a sleeping giant
Numerous sessions at Big Sound put a focus on mental health, including one with the hip-hop artist 360 (whose mates call him Matt Colwell). Matt talked about the “big comedown” of both coming off stage and off tour, and how, when his second album didn’t live up to the first, it “smashed his ego”. Periods of depression hitting during press days were another major struggle.
“It takes its toll on you,” he said, while acknowledging people in his home were walking on egg-shells when he returned from tour.
Matt had also faced challenges around drugs. He'd overdosed in Byron Bay, realised he was a junkie, had gone through paranoia in detox, but was now clean - and writing better, "more intricate", songs as a result.
It wasn’t just headline acts under pressure, either. Teresa Patterson, who chaired one of the mental health panels, spoke of one survey suggesting 55% of tour crew had considered suicide.*
Performance preparation is getting more serious
In a session looking at both sporting and musical performance, the boys from the Australian act Client Liaison spoke about having coconut water and protein shakes backstage. And, for Harvey Miller from the band, in-ear monitors had been a performance game-changer for a couple of reasons.
“I get replication of the sound I want each time,” he said, “but the biggest change is when it comes to reducing anxiety.” Harvey asks his sound engineer to “keep talking positively” into his ears before each show, which helps keep him in his comfort zone. The band also film their shows and post-gig you can find them, protein shake in-hand (presumably), watching their performances back, looking for ways to improve.
Teresa Patterson, who heads New Zealand’s Music Managers’ Forum, spoke about acts she’s managed having a ‘one-beer policy’ before taking the stage. Any grumbling performers get a quick reminder that they're going to work – “and you wouldn’t have a beer before 9am in the office”. Asking for fruit in a rider was another way to try and maintain some normality on the road.
For 360, before he got clean, touring would regularly see him not sleep or eat well, get rundown, fall sick and lose his voice. But getting clean has seen him change his routine – and select his mates more carefully too.
“You have to choose who you have around you on tour or it gets super toxic.”
Diversity is a work in progress
To quote the conference manual: “For all its self-professed aspirations of diversity, the music industry remains a white male-dominated space.” And – just like in society –changing that isn’t plain sailing.
As Nkechi Anele so eloquently mentioned in the intro here, having a ‘world music’ stage or award isn’t part of the answer that she sees. And, as one of Big Sounds’ panels concluded, these only came about through a “grotesque mixture of good intentions and bad practice.”
"I fucking hate the words 'world music’," Anele said. "The only way I can see it making sense is if we discover another planet. Those artists should be playing on stages with everyone else."
Bring on the data! (Now what do we do with it?)
Streaming services like Spotify have opened up access to data that just wasn’t available before. So, bands can now see how many listens their tracks have had, where their listeners are from, and which others bands their listeners are into. But that’s just the start.
Acts have been able to get info on specific types of fans, like the number of Regulars (who listen to their music most days of the month), Loyalists (who listen to them more than any other artist) and Streakers (who've listened to their music every day of the last week – some, perhaps, unclothed while evading security staff).
And all that is gold, but with most income in music coming from live performances, do streams equal gig-going fans?
“Sometimes”, was the Big Sound answer. One promoter talked of presenting an act with millions of streams, putting big promotion behind the event, and selling 20 tickets. It seems the data behind streaming needs investigation, especially if many streams have come from landing a spot on a popular playlist.
Mind the gender gap
Data collected by the Triple J radio station in Australia showed that only one in five songs registered with APRA was written by a woman and that rarely more than 40% of a festival bill featured acts with at least one woman. Are quotas the answer or just mere tokenism?
Much like diversity, addressing gender issues isn’t happening at a great rate of knots. But there was some relief that at least the spotlight was coming onto this territory. When asked what the biggest change she’d seen in the music industry in the last 12 months was, Emily Kelly, from Deathproof PR, responded:
“The industry is being held accountable for lack of female support, acknowledgement and representation. Finally.”
You need patience in the promo game
In the old days of CDs, you’d front-load your marketing efforts to sell albums. The plan was to make a noise, make the charts, shift some units. Job done.
That’s not the streaming game, though, so PR teams are now looking at how they can continually drip-feed promotions to drive streams over six months or more. ‘More work for less return’ was how some framed it.
Getting heard through the social media noise was another challenge for the PR people at Big Sound. And they were very conscious of reaching fans through whatever social platforms they were hanging out on.
Old school methods – like direct email and traditional mainstream media coverage – certainly still had a place, though, with one panel noting that engagement through social media was stronger when referencing people to a story covered by established media.
And storytelling was something the likes of Nate Auerbach, from Versus Creative in the US, wanted to see more of:
“It’s amazing that you can listen to any song with streaming,” said Nate, “but it’s sad that there aren’t stories around them. I think people are coming back to that."
Play nicely with each other
We’ve all been at gigs and felt intimidated by what’s going on around us – or been aware that others were feeling that way.
The Massachusetts indie rockers Speedy Ortiz, and their frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, had seen things from the stage that didn’t look right, so they created a hotline for fans to text if they needed assistance during shows. That move, in 2015, has led to a growing movement around ‘safer spaces.’
“I think the nice thing behind the expression ‘safer spaces’ is that we’re always learning how to treat people better,” said Sadie.
Over the last couple of years, Speedy Ortiz have added safer space guidelines and bystander intervention strategies that they leave at the merch table. And they’ve been heartened to see the thinking catching on, with many venues implementing safer spaces policies and festivals setting up booths.
“It’s just great to show up to a show and realise that everyone is working together to make concerts a better experience for everyone.”
Pop-stars don’t have to be human
There were multiple discussions on artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), robotics and blockchain (the mysterious digital distribution method) at Big Sound.
But it was talk about the virtual Japanese pop star IA that especially caught my attention. IA (pictured) is not new, but had performed in Australia for the first time this year. Her voice (and name) are inherited from the Japanese singer, Lia. And, at least if the story from the lady in the seat next to me was correct, Lia’s representatives were looking for a way to continue the momentum in her career while she took a break to have children. That brought about the birth of IA, with Lia’s voice powering a Vocaloid voice synthesiser to create the J-pop star.
IA didn’t seem an overly enticing pop offering to me, but the point was made that today’s kids don’t have the ‘generational bias’ that I might. Supposedly-open-minded-me didn’t enjoy hearing that, but conferences are designed to challenge thinking. And I was even more unsure what to conclude when it was pointed out that my generation had taken a keen interest in Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project, which was roughly an early version of the same thing. Hmm.
And, lastly, will hitting the big-time make me happy?
That’s according to Simon Napier-Bell. And he knows a thing or two, having managed the likes of T-Rex, Boney M, George Michael and Sinead O’Connor.
“If somebody grumbles because they’re not a star, they’re going to grumble when they are a star – it will just be about something else.
“Who you meet the day you meet the artist is who they’re going to be when they’re successful.”
So, now you know.
Caley Wilson writes about entertainment and sport. He is a former media manager of New Zealand Rugby League and netball's Northern Mystics and has worked on festivals from Rhythm & Vines to the Big Day Out. He is a co-founder of Blinder.