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  • Charlotte Abroms: Gender Inequality in so-called Australia

    By Charlotte Abroms, Jake Amy and Rose Bassett From Jake: Around March/April, Rose and I sat down to discuss an issue that had been getting on our nerves for some time. In late 2019, we both posted a Facebook status calling for specific experiences surrounding gendered discrimination. I couldn't believe how many comments and private messages I received... Crude passing comments. Inequitable opportunities. Belittlement. Unconscious discrimination. Stigmas I didn't think still existed. Wake the fuck up, Jake. My naivety as a privileged white male had blinded me from realising the blatant extent of the gender divide. It had been staring me in the face for years. Why was no one in my tertiary music course talking about this?! I was so angry at myself. I felt that my previous silence spoke volumes and it became so obvious that we (the male gender) disproportionately perpetuate this shit and how we must step up our game. It was so good to speak to Rose about this. Previously, I had liked to think that I was supportive of women in the scene. I realised that I needed to take any opportunity I could to facilitate so many more conversations. Rose and I knew we would have Attaboi as a platform to push minority voices, so, we both present this gender inequality series to you. I still have so much more to learn. As does any male reading this. From Charlotte: I would like to preface this article by saying that I am writing from my personal experience as a female manager. I acknowledge that there are an array of genders people identify as. When I use the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’, I would like to acknowledge that there are also people who don’t fit into those terms and likely also experience prejudice. I would also like to acknowledge that there are men of varying races, ethnicities and sexualities that experience discrimination within the workplace. These answers are specifically addressing the misogyny I have experienced personally, without discounting or excluding the experiences of others. Could you describe, if any, the worst misogyny that you’ve experienced working in the music industry? I have only worked in the music industry full time for three years. Prior to that I worked in acting and creative agencies. There’s the obvious misogyny I have experienced in the workplace; the boss who asked me to wear heels, the client who assumed I was an assistant and asked me to do a coffee run, the boss who joked that I had to wear a bikini on casual Fridays, the colleague who asked me when I was going to have babies (in a boardroom meeting in front of 15 clients I didn’t know), the few men who have raised their voices at me aggressively on the phone for no justifiable reason. The notion of misogyny I have experienced within the music industry has taken me a long time to articulate. Historically, there is a music manager archetype. He wears a suit, he has slick hair, he drives an expensive car. He’s often controlling and dominant. He commands a lot of respect. He usually has money. Sometimes he’s a bit more rock ‘n roll, he gets loose with the band, he thrives off attention from female fans. He’s usually a middle aged man. He’s always a man (and he always has slick hair). Often we find out he’s robbed the band. He’s the guy we see in the films, we read about him in the news and the autobiographies. I’ve met him a couple of times in real life actually! I’m nothing like him. Like any ingrained discrimination, people cast judgements on people they perceive to be ‘different’. In my experience, some men within the music industry are more aligned with this archetype, or they have an expectation that managers should be like him. Occasionally from these men, I’ve experienced a subtle sense of hostility, a somewhat underhanded punishment. These punishments have come in all forms; in an office it might be a little put-down (negging I believe it’s called in the dating world), a disregard for the woman’s input, interrupting the women in the room, closed body language towards the women and open body language towards the men, encouraging her idea until it almost comes to fruition and then pulling it for no real reason. I’ve experienced men who have tried to prevent my progression. In a venue it might be completely ignoring the women in the room, shaking the hands and greeting the men while not even making eye contact with the women. It might be the bouncers questioning the honesty and legitimacy of the female manager when she tries to go backstage with her AAA pass. It might be the venue manager asking the male session players to make key decisions and knowingly ignoring the manager who has just introduced herself. For an artist, it’s sometimes crew inferring that she doesn’t know how to use her own instruments and gear. What I have come to see and understand is that there is often an expectation for a female manager to provide feminine qualities. Women are supposed to be compassionate and empathetic, right? They are often nurturers. Sometimes these sensitive so-called ‘feminine’ qualities are perceived as maternal, you hear the term ‘Tour Mum’ thrown around a lot. If that’s your role, then there’s an expectation that you step aside to allow the men to fulfil their ‘masculine’ roles. As a female manager, I am taught not to rob him of respect or his position of leadership and authority. I learnt about this topic listening to a podcast with Ezra Klein and Kate Mann. I was searching for answers. I’ve been victim to the unnecessary penalties for unknowingly competing for a leadership role. I have never seen it as competition, I like collaboration. My clients appointed me with this leadership role, so in order to fulfil it and be the best I can be as a manager, I’ve had to challenge these social norms and expectations. I’ve observed within myself that I carry a lot more guilt than my male counterparts. I’ve been a much more apologetic leader at times, than what I have observed of them. What if I am all of those things? What if I am nurturing, empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, but I am also a capable leader? I didn’t understand this narrative until I had experienced enough small ‘punishments’ to really delve into the psychology behind it. There were too many times I didn’t feel I was being heard. I’ve been faced with more resentment when I have challenged an idea, than when a male has challenged that very idea. I’ve observed being interrupted more than the men in the room. I’ve wondered why the lack of eye contact, specifically with me? I might have come up with the idea, but I’ve been subtly excluded in an email thread because I am not a ‘bro’ or a ‘lad’ or a ‘gent’ or a ‘chap’ or a ‘mate’. The obvious solution to me is that we can’t just destroy these social norms around the expectation of the woman. We have to also look at societal expectations of men. It’s pivotal for everyone to understand that women are also capable leaders and that should not be threatening to other men in the room. There can also be more than one leader, it doesn’t matter what gender they identify as. It’s equally as important to acknowledge that men are allowed to be vulnerable, sensitive, compassionate and empathetic. Now more than ever! Luckily I work for myself, so I’ve had the ability to be able to choose the people I work with. Our teams are made up of clever, kind, caring, respectful people who don’t showcase this kind of behaviour, regardless of their gender. "Sadly, when I have seen powerful men call out gender inequality to other powerful men, the message has been understood more clearly and quickly than when I’ve tried." What barriers have presented themselves with managing female artists? I don’t know what it’s like to be a male manager working with a male band, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the barriers. What opportunities would any of us get, if we weren’t already who we are? I’ve had the pleasure of working with both male and female artists. I cannot pinpoint a difference in the artists themselves, based on their genders. I work with artists because of how their music connects to me, their creative ideas, ambition, followed by their moral compass. Everyone I’ve managed (men and women) have strong feminist values. They all consistently have a great sense of humour, so that has worked out well. The obvious barrier I’ve experienced is when the artists I manage are being asked to do something because of their gender. Often people are open about it, in saying that they are asking because they would like more women on the bill, or the panel or to feature more female-identifying artists on their playlist. I’m in two minds about this. I think this is showing signs of positive progression. People you least expect are becoming more considerate about diverse line ups when it comes to race and gender. At the same time, when they point out that it’s the primary reason they are asking, it can be devaluing to an artist. It’s not often you hear the term “male musician” or “male manager”, but we are often approached because they are looking to include more “female musicians” and “female managers”. It can be obvious (and again, devaluing) when it’s an afterthought. At the moment it’s a conscious effort, so I can see why people are spelling it out. The hope is that eventually it comes naturally to include people of all walks of life, because their music is good. What barriers have you experienced as a female manager? Again, I would need to have experienced being a male manager to answer this properly. I have a lot of close male friends who are managers, I don’t see too much of a difference in what we collectively experience. We go through similar challenges and successes. I am a firm believer that success comes first and foremost from the music. If the music connects to an audience, the manager’s job is to facilitate, build and guide. I have been lucky to work with artists whose music has resonated deeply with people and collectively we’ve been in receipt of some wonderful opportunities. When it comes to these opportunities, I haven’t noticed gender being a barrier, as a manager. I was recently in a situation where I was a guest backstage at a festival where all of the managers of the bands playing the festival were men. I found myself more drawn to spending time with artist friends than the managers. It didn’t feel like I was part of their community. This stuff was never obvious to me when I was younger but through a number of disappointing experiences, I’ve become more aware of the energy in the room. I think I’ve probably received a few less high fives than some male managers, metaphorically and literally, when the artists I work with have achieved similar milestones to the artists they work with. I will say I’ve been interrupted a lot, by people who I don’t work directly with. The people on our teams are progressive in their thinking. We work with people who don’t subscribe to that kind of behaviour. Within our team, we receive a lot of high fives. And we don’t need high fives these days anyway, there’s a viral pandemic! In 2020, it’s bizarre to think we are working in an industry that still has gender inequality. Why do you think it’s such a persistent/resilient issue? Sadly, it’s across every industry. I have only worked in creative industries which are probably a lot more progressive than most. I can’t imagine what it might be like in other fields and within other cultures. The most important thing is that people are educating themselves and others. It’s important that people are listening to experiences of minorities and becoming more inclusive and understanding. Misogyny is engrained in our society, males aren’t the only people that can exhibit misogynistic behaviour. Like any movement, it can take time to make significant changes. I’m thankful to my mother’s generation who fought for women’s rights in the 70’s. Because of that, I never questioned if I was any different to a man when it came came to my ambition. It took a long time to understand that I was experiencing sexism. We need to keep fast-tracking the process by opening everyone up to seeing people as people, as equals - no matter their gender, race, sexuality. It baffles me that anyone ever thought otherwise, but unfortunately I’ve learned a lot of people do. We can’t just speak about it though, we need to provide solutions. In relation to the amazing artists you book on a global scale, and thinking about Australia and its music scene, where do you think we sit on a global scale regarding gender equality? I have definitely observed a lot more women in senior positions within the music industry in other countries. I can see there are efforts being made by people in positions of power within Australia to bring this issue to the forefront and call out bad behaviour. It’s important that it’s not just women’s voices speaking about women’s issues. I’ve been in situations where high up men have called out possible gender-inequality in meetings and that’s also very effective… dare I say, more effective? I was in London a couple of years ago where a study came out about the lack of women in senior roles at record labels in Australia. Being new to the full-time music world myself, I had noticed that it wasn’t just a lack of women, but a general lack of diversity. The person (the head of the company actually!) asked me why it was this way in Australia. She said, “What’s the deal with Australia, why don’t they hire more women in senior roles?”. I really didn’t know the answer. I don’t know. Does anyone know? My friend and I discussed this yesterday and she thinks it’s because it benefits men to stay at the top of the pyramid as the most powerful, the face of the job. She said, “Learning more about the experiences of women and being more inclusive would be inconvenient/uncomfortable for them”. A young artist told me that they learnt at school that you have to “see it to be it”, so I’ve been forthcoming in speaking on panels and doing guest lectures, I want young women who love music to know that they can be a music manager. This is where I can forgive the sub-section phrase “female manager”, because if it encourages a younger generation, then it’s igniting change. As a female-identifying manager, do you find that you are sought out more often than male-identifying managers to talk on these issues, and can you elaborate on whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing for men to reach out to women to discuss these issues? Absolutely! There’s this great quote in Fleabag where they’re discussing the Women In Business Award and the fantastic character Belinda who was awarded the ‘Best Woman in Business’ (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) describes it as “infantilising bollocks.” She says, "It’s a subsection of success - it’s the fucking children’s table of awards". This dialogue helped me understand why I felt uncomfortable about female-specific awards and events. I don’t want to be asked to do something purely because I am a woman, I want to be asked because I’m good at my job and work with fantastic artists. I don’t want to be considered a sub-section, I want to be a manager, not a ‘female manager.’ Where I have an internal debate though, is that I want to be proud that I’m a female manager, in a largely male dominated role, and I want to be the “see it to be it” for younger managers. Talking on panels and writing interviews so frequently about this issue can sometimes be exhausting. I do it because I understand that it can help make positive changes, but sometimes I would prefer the focus was on the amazing things the artists I’ve worked with have achieved. It’s so important that everyone is asked to speak on gender inequality, not just women. If everyone is prompted to think about it in the same way, everyone will be more aware of the subtleties that it took me so long to understand. As I’ve said, sadly, when I have seen powerful men call out gender inequality to other powerful men, the message has been understood more clearly and quickly than when I’ve tried. I will reiterate that it’s important that men (not just men, everyone!) are also encouraged to be vulnerable, gentle and emotionally-driven. It is unhealthy to feel like those raw, wonderful, expressive human traits are to be hidden. Keep up to date with Charlotte here We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

  • Callum Mintzis: Capturing Experiences in Sound

    Written by Hugh Heller Twenty-year-old musician Callum Mintzis has a burgeoning reputation as one of Melbourne’s most innovative young composers. Callum and several of his jazz-influenced contemporaries, hailing from Melbourne’s north, form a ‘new wave’ which is about to break on the Melbourne art-music scene. His music is informed by a deep contemplation of his own experience, and is intimately connected with his personal reflections on consciousness and sound. Recently, Hugh got the opportunity to sit down with Callum and get an insight into the creative process for That Place, Our Place, and find out what informs the mind of a young composer in today’s world. What’s been going through your mind recently? There's personal things and there's greater worldly things. If I had to sum it up, I have been thinking about relating everything back to the idea of balance. I feel like it's a key that I came across at the start of the year through some interesting experiences, and I feel like it's become an antidote to anything else that gives me problems at the moment. I feel like that relates to music as well. Having so much time to think and also just to "be", has been overwhelming and rewarding at the same time. It's how you balance the time. It's a weird thing. How has that idea of balance manifested in your life and also with regards to your latest album, That Place, Our Place? I think the most relevant idea of balance for me is revolving around feelings and thought. The intellect is just one part of consciousness and it is generally accepted in society as the most important part of consciousness. I think this is an interesting mark on society itself… and it can become out of balance. If you think about thought everyday then you have nothing to think about but thoughts and you kind of lose touch with reality. I think I've potentially been straddling the extremes of the intellect versus feeling over the last few years. I also feel hesitant to talk about these things as a twenty-year-old… it’s hard to feel like you've earned any proper idea of the sense of these words because you haven't really seen the greater depths of life. So there are problems in talking about these things. And trying to put a concept like balance into words is another point of control, because once you start to intellectualise the idea of balance you then have something to aim for, which is balancing, and then you start to try to control things more. You can end up overcomplicating things in life and over-intellectualising when sometimes what you need is a little grain of intuition to help you out. Sometimes you want to leave things unsaid. I've been trying not to let my thoughts reach a fully concise point, which I think I previously strived for. I'm enjoying letting thoughts bobble around and not getting attached to them. As soon as you get attached to thoughts, you start identifying with them and then you can wind up in all sorts of trouble. Just like getting attached to anything, I guess. A big part of creating the music for the album was trying to balance the thinking, intellectual mind with the feeling self. Too much of either when writing the music led to results I didn’t really enjoy. As soon as you start getting specific into all these little details, then you have more opportunity to control things, and we don't want to be controlling things, we want to surrender to them... but we don't want to surrender too much because then you get washed away by a storm of things. The predicament is talking about these things in such airy ways and trying to be concise about them… but to be too concise is to be too controlling. It's an interesting game. "I thought ‘I am receiving this music, I'm not really the one creating it'." Do you think there’s an inherent contradiction in trying to enforce balance by controlling your language, action, or thoughts? Such is the way of Zen - to know there is no man or woman behind the mask. The agent behind whatever is happening is exactly the same thing as what is happening. To try and control that can lead you into all sorts of trouble, but you do have to push the stream somewhere. You can’t be passive. You can't just do nothing because then you're doing something! The point is to minimise the anxiety that you can be having about things but to not completely neglect thought. Then again, these are instructional, and it shouldn't be instructional because then you have expectation, and as soon as you have expectation you can get anxiety. I agree with you, [balance] just happens by itself. It’s a liberating idea, because you begin to feel less attached to things you do, the ideas you have. It doesn’t mean you’re just a free agent and there’s no such thing as ethics, because that would be ridiculous, yet it means you have more freedom than you previously bargained for. It's beautiful, I think. There’s magic and freedom and beauty, and then there's measurement and science, and neither is better than the other - that wouldn't be balanced either. They've all got their merits. How do you translate these thoughts and feelings into the concrete process of creating your music? Firstly, I don't really feel that I am creating these ideas because all our ideas come from somewhere else anyway. Anyone who feels responsible over their creation or their work, is not really responsible over it, as much as you should still give them credit, of course. Everything comes from somewhere else, and that includes nature, I guess. I would be lying if I said this album came from a place of thinking and measurement. It definitely came from feeling things, feeling things quite intensely, and feeling like I would be stupid not to steer or channel these things into something creative. Around the time I started writing the album I was in Europe, travelling with my dear friend, and we had a ridiculous rollercoaster of experiences, which I don’t think could ever be really captured by anything. They might be similar to that of a film or book, and I think that the music is essentially a film score to all of that, if I had to characterise it as something. I feel like we can remember emotions and memories more so via music than a lot of other senses, or at least I can. I feel like I should say that, maybe that’s a good preface to the music. In terms of the actual writing process, it would involve a drafting process where I wasn't trying to write a piece of music. One session at the piano would never equate to a full seed of an idea which would become a piece. Things would evolve in/at different places, most things evolved at the piano. I have an especially romantic upright piano in my music room at my home. Whenever I'm feeling things intensely, I'll sit down and start playing and then something will come out of that. It wasn't always just at the piano, the process was definitely a result of my brain archiving different experiences and things I heard and pulling from them - some of this was unconscious of course, some was conscious. For example, I really like the sound of children playing. In one of the pieces there is a field recording and I never thought that would turn into a piece. This is what I mean when talking about seeds coming from different places. I remember thinking late last year, when I got that recording, that it is an amazing, beautiful sound - in the first fifteen years of our life we are literally hearing that every day. We hear those sounds every day at primary school and in the playground, and it's a sound we know very well. This gives me a sense of how sound relates to consciousness and experience, as well as it relates to creativity and ideas. I think I've always found that to be a particularly touching sound, hearing the atmosphere of a school. I guess that’s another interesting topic, where sound relates to all of our experiences [not just the musical] and how it makes us feel things. I don't know if you are familiar with the electronic musician, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai)? He's a Berlin musician who uses a lot of high-frequency electronics to create these beautiful soundscapes. He said that he stumbled upon that high-frequency sound and he loved it, then found out ten years later that that was the frequency emitted by his television when he was a boy at home. It was the same frequency! So he found comfort in that frequency because it felt like home to him. So, there are all these interactions that we have sonically that we are unconscious of and I’m trying to get some kind of knowledge on them in relation to my own experience. It seems that a lot of roads you need to take to be an artist are roads to get to know yourself better. We're talking about an intensely personal attachment to sound. Can you talk about the value in sharing one's intensely personal experience with other people through a creative medium? Interestingly, I didn't really set out to write the music with the idea of people listening to it as an end-result, however if by making them feel something significant, or shaping for a moment, I take comfort in that. I guess there's a lot of reasons to write music and "music as process" is also very appealing to me, so I found writing the music itself very therapeutic and healing. I like the idea that to prescribe too much to a listener is to really take away from their interpretation of something, much the same as someone reading a book is not prescribed the scene visually as in a movie - they can imagine exactly what they want to imagine to accompany the text. So, I don't think I thought that much about trying to steer listeners in a certain direction, or the accessibility of the music to people, or making it open to a wide audience, because to have any of those kinds of thoughts would be aiming for too much control and too much intention, when all I want is for people to surrender to it. In a way I thought, "I can never be in someone else’s consciousness, I can only be inside my own". If I can be aware of my own to a significant extent then I can probably understand what makes me feel certain things, what makes me think certain things. That's also a big reason I didn't play trombone on the album, because I was at much less of a risk of thinking about my personal playing - getting caught up on bad playing or whatever. You described not wanting to get caught up in the self-conscious trappings of being a ‘player’ while creating this album. Do you think you could maintain the composer’s perspective on your music while also playing in the band? I think that’s definitely the next place. The next thing I write and record will definitely involve the trombone. At the start of the year, when I was writing the album, I did actually think about how I could fit in the trombone. I had initially planned a track that was a duet with Paul Williamson, and we were about to record some music at a big space like a hall or a church, but I think I realised I was doing it to get the trombone on the album and that wasn’t a good enough reason. I think I’m getting to that space of being uncritical. It’s an interesting balancing act because you do need to be critical to keep your craft going, but it’s all about the amount that you are attached to the criticism. I think that attachment is what I struggled with. I do strive to get to a place on my horn which is similar to my writing, and when I get closer to it I’ll probably write some more music and record. It’s about that difficult but enviable ability to listen to the music on a macroscopic perspective versus the microscopic perspective of your own instrument. For some, the somatic experiences associated with feelings are relieved or find expression in the physicality of playing an instrument. Could you talk about using the piano as a compositional instrument with regards to those sensations or feelings? I definitely feel the most viscerally free on the piano. I think not having any perfectionism tied to the piano, not needing to be a good technician, sums up why I feel so free with the instrument. It's also the first instrument that I ever played, and while I got lessons here and there, it was mostly self taught. I think that’s why it is a place where I feel quite free from logic and theory, even though I have my theoretical knowledge of music and harmony and everything else. I think that is an interesting thing because it also makes me feel more physically free. It makes magic more possible, it makes things more personal. The place where things begin is always a place of magic and wonder. Of course a C major chord is boring after it's called a C major chord, but if you're hearing it played by someone and you never understood anything in your life, then… the amount of connotation on things comes from societal conditioning, not that societal conditioning is a bad thing, but there is a lot of freedom in playing an instrument and not thinking rigorously while it's happening. The brain is one of the fastest working mechanisms in the world, and if you have to think before doing everything it just makes it more clumsy and cumbersome. I think being at the piano is the most freedom-inducing place, it gets me in the right state, and I think I have an association with sitting down at the piano and being as honest with my feelings as possible (and being able to get mathematical as well, in a balance). But it’s definitely a special place. It's almost something that can't be described in words. I am curious to hear; being a person in the political and social context of today, how has this affected your own subjective experience? There are so many things that have happened in the world over the past 6 months. We had the bushfires, which was deeply saddening. I was away in Europe for most of that, so I returned to a strangely different Australia, and now COVID has swooped through, and everything that has happened in the last few months with bla(c)k rights and police brutality. It's deeply troubling, and they're all issues that are easy to feel quite helpless about because we are so isolated, and we are all coming from different places at the same time. I guess an interesting point here is; I like the idea of thinking about every single human being as 'me' - ‘I'm talking to you now, but you are me’, so to speak. When we are born we have the experience of being a self and it's shaped by all of these exterior things like experience and ideas and people, but at the root of it, at the initial point, whatever consciousness feels like would be relatively similar. This obviously changes - our experiences are so different, and from when you discover, as you grow up that you're a living creature and you're a human and you are part of the world - it can be an extremely isolating experience, I think. Of course, I can't really comment on what will happen in decades to come, but if there was a value that had to be clung to and rejoiced at and fought for, it's the idea of us all being common as human beings. There is a relationship between the world and us, and it's all the same, really. I think if you have some principle like that then you have more of a foundation for compassion towards everyone. Of course, we should also all be giving as much as we can, in every way possible, to supporting causes that need our support in this damaging time; through donations, raising awareness, allyship, understanding history and understanding the historical outcomes of certain ideas. What exciting projects do you have planned in the future? I’ve started scoring some music for a horror film with Theo Carbo, and that’s been a lot of fun. It’s opening doors in my mind towards writing more music for film. I’d like to finish some more music for a jazz ensemble, maybe a quintet or septet with three horns and a rhythm section. I’m getting more interested in electronic processing of sound, and what that entails as far as feeling… an orchestra can make you feel many things, but electronics can give experiences that are also quite expansive and probably a million times cheaper than hiring an orchestra. I started writing prose recently, and am enjoying writing poetry a lot, though I’m not very good at it. I think I want to write a novel at some point, but it wouldn’t be something that I wouldn’t be precious about. But the top priority is to focus on my craft as a trombonist, over the next few years. This album was something I felt like I had to do, and maybe I’ll write more music in a similar vein at some point, but I think it was a therapeutic release more than it was related to my instrumental craft - in future I want to push myself at the horn more. I’m enjoying the freedom of not being too specific with what I want to do, because that’s exciting. It’s liberating. Keep up to date with Callum here We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Thank you dearly to Callum for your time. ​ Interview with Callum conducted on 25 June 2020. Article first published 15 July 2020. Photographs taken by Ceridwen McCooey, Jared Becker and Betty France. Written and edited by Hugh Heller with contributions by Zac O'Connell.

  • Musings on Innovation During COVID-19

    Written by Rose Bassett If you’re like me, living in Melbourne and attempting to develop a career in one of Australia’s most thriving music cultures, you’ll know that 2020 has proven itself to be a particularly challenging year so far. As Melbournians head back into the second instalment of lock-down we are reminded of the devastating impacts this virus has reaped upon our industry, where only a week earlier I had optimistically felt that live gigs weren’t so far away. With cancellations of major live events, gigs and festivals occurring almost hourly in the initial outbreak, it’s as if someone has taken out the lungs of our industry and left only a small calling card with the name ‘Rona’ plastered to the front. This is not to downplay the importance of taking measures to protect our communities from the dreaded virus, yet rather to understand that these measures are impacting our arts sector in significant ways. Our live music scene has lost most if not all of its revenue, not to mention the genuine human connection served on a silver platter at gigs and festivals. However, we are a resilient bunch, as our industry proves time and time again. At the core of creative and artistic people and communities, there is a spark of innovation built into the very nature of what we do. This was the topic of my engaging conversations with two incredible women from our industry this week. For, whilst the cold reality of this virus can certainly be classed as overwhelming, so too is it important to converse on the innovative approaches people are employing to overcome the various challenges we face during this time and where these approaches are leading into the future. With 15-odd years of experience in various sectors of the music industry, it’s safe to say that Bonnie Dalton is a passionate lover of the arts. Currently based in two roles, General Manager at the Victorian Music Development Organisation (VDMO) and seconded as the Music Industry Liaison for Creative Victoria, Bonnie has a view of the industry from the unique perspective of someone immersed in the sector. I spoke to Bonnie over an enthusiastic zoom call about her view of the past few months. How have you observed the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the music industry? “The impact has been really devastating. The live music industry can’t ‘pivot’ as some industries have been able to do, and COVID-19 has demonstrated something that we probably didn’t want to face: that live income was covering the inadequacy of income from all other sources. In general, even those still streaming music and selling merch online are in a significantly worse financial position than they would be otherwise. There are also many for whom live music was their only outlet - incredible artists who just haven’t recorded music and don’t connect with audiences that way. There’s also the social impact. Music is so often underpinned by community, it’s a release for creators and audience and it can be tied to identity; that’s all being challenged right now, which has broad implications, from creativity to mental health.”  ​ It was after this response that we both admitted to feeling burn-out at some level to the constant flow of pessimistic information, with Bonnie stating she had only recently deleted Facebook off her phone to limit her continuous exposure: “It’s really important to stay informed, but you can also go down rabbit holes...”. I decided to hunt down a different rabbit hole, one which shed light on the amazing work coming out of this crisis. How are people responding to the challenges the industry is currently facing? Do you have any examples of innovative approaches that people are employing to overcome these challenges? “This is a very resilient and dynamic sector and, as expected, the responses have been incredible. The live streaming we’ve seen, and audiences’ appetite for it, has kept people performing and connecting (eg Isol-Aid, Medicine Songs, Untitled Day Party, Open Mic), being paid fees for performances (Iso-Late, Couch Concerts, State of Music, Distance Between Us, The Boite) and even paying crew and venues too (Delivered Live). ​ “In addition to this, I’ve found that the exploration and development of digital opportunities is really varied and exciting. Iso-Late utilised the Twitch platform which is definitely a space with many more possibilities for music than were being used before COVID and even good old-fashioned YouTube has been getting more focussed engagement [workshop later this month]. At the VMDO we piloted a program to connect indie game developers with independent artists/bands to co-create games around existing tracks [hear about the project here]. There’s so much happening out in the sector! From virtual writing sessions, to recording, to tech innovation, to unique socially distanced performances. It’s been amazing to see different kinds of collaboration, involvement and inclusion of people who previously maybe wouldn’t have been able to for a whole range of different reasons. Although, connecting to community and experiencing things live gives you a resilience to keep constantly changing. When we don’t have that aspect, it makes it really hard to go out time and time again and keep finding reserves to adapt.” Do you think that there is potential to reshape the way our industry is built via the live streaming services that are currently at the forefront of our response to COVID-19? “I think it’s an additional new offering. I don’t see it as a replacement. It’s similar to when VCRs first came out and people said, ‘no one will go to the movies’ and of course they did. I’ve already heard whispers that there are TV networks that are looking to commission music programmes because they have seen the impact that streaming has had and the pretty consistent numbers of a home audience base. So it’s really exciting that this sort of innovative grassroots movement could impact the more mainstream culture.” Do you think these live streaming services can help diversity and accessibility in the scene? “They can and they can’t. It’s another pathway for artists and audiences to connect, but there are still processes and mechanisms in place which won’t disappear just because it’s easy to get onto a platform. Similar to the democratisation of streaming services, you can take away the gatekeepers and suddenly anyone can put their music up online. The lie of this is that then we’ve all got an equal chance to ‘get to the top’ and create a career out of music. That’s definitely not the case. The proliferation of music online doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s having a huge impact. What I would say to any artist is setting your goals and then identifying whether what you're doing is getting you closer to that or further away from that.” What innovation do you think is needed to make our scene more stable in the face of this crisis? “Music has always been full of innovation and the survival of our creative scene is assured by peoples’ need for music. The scene we rebuild needs to be really considered so we can ‘build it back better’. Government intervention can play a role in doing that. In my role I’m mindful of the fact that ‘recovery prioritises incumbent success, and leaves behind the ones who started behind’, so that’s something to be weighed in every decision. We need to support the artists and their teams around them to ensure that they can stay well, be able to create and stay connected to each other and to audiences ahead of a return to live. ​ “If you’re in the creative industries, you can’t be a one trick pony and you must have diversified income. “At the moment, people seem up for supporting things they care about with money. I think it raises an opportunity to rethink the relationship between fans and the artist. Maybe we can ask fans to support the artist more and in ways that we previously didn’t bother with, because currently we say ‘just buy a ticket and we’ll call it even’. Just take a look at the Save Our Scene movement. They got 16,000 ‘e-signatures.’ It’s something that people really care about. I think there’s evidence to say that we can ask more of fans.” What advice would you offer our readers at this time? Especially in Melbourne who are back into stage three restrictions? ​ “I've definitely spoken to a lot of artists who’ve said, ‘I think I probably need to take a break.’ And yes, there is definitely an element of giving yourself permission to just watch TV or something, but if you’re in the headspace to be creative then there's definitely opportunities for now. One of the things we’ve been doing with the VDMO is looking towards people doing professional development. Things that maybe don’t return immediate outcomes, but that can pay dividends in the future.” ​ My conversation with Bonnie certainly left me with a lot to think about and caused a flutter in my heart at the idea that audiences are still willing and able to support the artistic community. One such avenue which has seen an incredible virtual ‘turn-out’ is that of live streaming. Enter Emily Ulman, creator and managing director of Isol-Aid music festival. Speaking with Emily as she was perusing the aisles of a store for trackies before the next instalment of isolation, I got a view into the mind of one such innovative creator, trying to maintain a sense of connection between artists, fans and the wider community. How did you approach creating something like Isol-Aid during this time? “I guess it’s about adapting and seeing the need to respond to a situation or group of people. I program festivals (CHANGES conference, Isol-Aid, Brunswick Music Festival) and all of those situations are about reflecting on what other people would be responding to, or looking beyond the realm of what I, as Emily, would want to see or do or participate in. So, seeing the greater needs of the community, and whether that be in the music industry, or, you know, the music community or, just out in the industry as a whole. I think really, it’s just about being flexible and adaptable. ​ “I think that taking a ‘micro’ perspective rather than this enormous ‘what is this going to look like for the next six months’ kind of thing, made [Isol-Aid] more approachable and manageable. After the first weekend I realised that there was merit there, and that people wanted it to continue. Just thinking about it in a way that meant I wasn’t overwhelmed or inundated by millions of different ideas. Because it did happen so quickly. Once I realised it was going to be more than just a once off, I was very careful to create a vision statement, which I still refer to today. It outlines all of the values and principles that are important to me as a person, but also things that I want to instil in the people that are part of the festival and the wider community. Sometimes when you’re so stuck in it, it can be hard to look at things objectively, so it’s good to have something to refer back to.” Streaming has become part of the norm in the space of a few months. Do you think that it will continue to grow as a medium into the future of our industry? “I absolutely think it’ll continue. As everyone was caught so unaware and unprepared, the technology has really struggled to keep up with the demand and various consumer and musician requirements. In terms of tech, I think there is a way to go in being able to cater to everybody’s specific requirements. By the same token, I think that online and virtual events, streams, gigs and festivals are never going to replace real experiences. Nor should they, and nor do I want them to, but there is definitely room for both. Isol-Aid has really highlighted to me how many people didn’t have access to live music for various reasons, whether they be geographical, physical or psychological barriers. Lots of people contacted me saying how amazing it is to have the opportunity to see live music. They hope it doesn’t stop. I don’t think there is a reason for it to stop. We have this opportunity to put the live music model back together in a really different way. For example, with musicians not being at the bottom of the food chain and venues not being so heavily reliant on alcohol sales.” Do you have any advice for people in maintaining their innovation? “I think that no matter what you are doing, whether you are writing a song, baking a cake or starting an online event, I think that knowing what you’re doing and why you are doing it is crucial. It can be different in regard to creativity as this can just happen naturally but asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ and 'who is the audience?' and 'what purpose will it serve?' and then referring back to something you can hold onto. Being mindful as well.” ​ “Being mindful” is a statement that resonates throughout this entire year so far. As a musician myself, so much of what Bonnie and Emily discussed aligned with my experiences so far. Thinking about the stability of our music scene and the actions that are both being taken and what’s to come makes me so grateful that I work in an industry which seems ready and able to reinvent itself. With the most recent ‘I Lost My Gig’ tally sitting at $340 million in losses across the Australian music industry, it’s important to understand that innovation and continued resilience are going to be what pulls us out of the muck. The breakdown of our scene, whilst both devastating and frustrating to us who are wedged in the middle, may just provide the opportunity for us to build a better, more sustainable and inclusive industry. I think it’s up to us to decide which way it goes. Keep up to date with Bonnie here and Emily on Facebook We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Thank you dearly to Bonnie and Emily for your time. ​ Interviews with Bonnie and Emily conducted between 7 and 10 July 2020. Article first published 12 July 2020. Photographs taken by Jake Amy, Simon Fazio and provided by Bonnie. Written by Rose Bassett. Edited by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.

  • Musings on Innovation During COVID-19

    Written by Rose Bassett If you’re like me, living in Melbourne and attempting to develop a career in one of Australia’s most thriving music cultures, you’ll know that 2020 has proven itself to be a particularly challenging year so far. As Melbournians head back into the second instalment of lock-down we are reminded of the devastating impacts this virus has reaped upon our industry, where only a week earlier I had optimistically felt that live gigs weren’t so far away. With cancellations of major live events, gigs and festivals occurring almost hourly in the initial outbreak, it’s as if someone has taken out the lungs of our industry and left only a small calling card with the name ‘Rona’ plastered to the front. This is not to downplay the importance of taking measures to protect our communities from the dreaded virus, yet rather to understand that these measures are impacting our arts sector in significant ways. Our live music scene has lost most if not all of its revenue, not to mention the genuine human connection served on a silver platter at gigs and festivals. However, we are a resilient bunch, as our industry proves time and time again. At the core of creative and artistic people and communities, there is a spark of innovation built into the very nature of what we do. This was the topic of my engaging conversations with two incredible women from our industry this week. For, whilst the cold reality of this virus can certainly be classed as overwhelming, so too is it important to converse on the innovative approaches people are employing to overcome the various challenges we face during this time and where these approaches are leading into the future. With 15-odd years of experience in various sectors of the music industry, it’s safe to say that Bonnie Dalton is a passionate lover of the arts. Currently based in two roles, General Manager at the Victorian Music Development Organisation (VDMO) and seconded as the Music Industry Liaison for Creative Victoria, Bonnie has a view of the industry from the unique perspective of someone immersed in the sector. I spoke to Bonnie over an enthusiastic zoom call about her view of the past few months. How have you observed the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the music industry? “The impact has been really devastating. The live music industry can’t ‘pivot’ as some industries have been able to do, and COVID-19 has demonstrated something that we probably didn’t want to face: that live income was covering the inadequacy of income from all other sources. In general, even those still streaming music and selling merch online are in a significantly worse financial position than they would be otherwise. There are also many for whom live music was their only outlet - incredible artists who just haven’t recorded music and don’t connect with audiences that way. There’s also the social impact. Music is so often underpinned by community, it’s a release for creators and audience and it can be tied to identity; that’s all being challenged right now, which has broad implications, from creativity to mental health.”  ​ It was after this response that we both admitted to feeling burn-out at some level to the constant flow of pessimistic information, with Bonnie stating she had only recently deleted Facebook off her phone to limit her continuous exposure: “It’s really important to stay informed, but you can also go down rabbit holes...”. I decided to hunt down a different rabbit hole, one which shed light on the amazing work coming out of this crisis. How are people responding to the challenges the industry is currently facing? Do you have any examples of innovative approaches that people are employing to overcome these challenges? “This is a very resilient and dynamic sector and, as expected, the responses have been incredible. The live streaming we’ve seen, and audiences’ appetite for it, has kept people performing and connecting (eg Isol-Aid, Medicine Songs, Untitled Day Party, Open Mic), being paid fees for performances (Iso-Late, Couch Concerts, State of Music, Distance Between Us, The Boite) and even paying crew and venues too (Delivered Live). ​ “In addition to this, I’ve found that the exploration and development of digital opportunities is really varied and exciting. Iso-Late utilised the Twitch platform which is definitely a space with many more possibilities for music than were being used before COVID and even good old-fashioned YouTube has been getting more focussed engagement [workshop later this month]. At the VMDO we piloted a program to connect indie game developers with independent artists/bands to co-create games around existing tracks [hear about the project here]. There’s so much happening out in the sector! From virtual writing sessions, to recording, to tech innovation, to unique socially distanced performances. It’s been amazing to see different kinds of collaboration, involvement and inclusion of people who previously maybe wouldn’t have been able to for a whole range of different reasons. Although, connecting to community and experiencing things live gives you a resilience to keep constantly changing. When we don’t have that aspect, it makes it really hard to go out time and time again and keep finding reserves to adapt.” Do you think that there is potential to reshape the way our industry is built via the live streaming services that are currently at the forefront of our response to COVID-19? “I think it’s an additional new offering. I don’t see it as a replacement. It’s similar to when VCRs first came out and people said, ‘no one will go to the movies’ and of course they did. I’ve already heard whispers that there are TV networks that are looking to commission music programmes because they have seen the impact that streaming has had and the pretty consistent numbers of a home audience base. So it’s really exciting that this sort of innovative grassroots movement could impact the more mainstream culture.” Do you think these live streaming services can help diversity and accessibility in the scene? “They can and they can’t. It’s another pathway for artists and audiences to connect, but there are still processes and mechanisms in place which won’t disappear just because it’s easy to get onto a platform. Similar to the democratisation of streaming services, you can take away the gatekeepers and suddenly anyone can put their music up online. The lie of this is that then we’ve all got an equal chance to ‘get to the top’ and create a career out of music. That’s definitely not the case. The proliferation of music online doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s having a huge impact. What I would say to any artist is setting your goals and then identifying whether what you're doing is getting you closer to that or further away from that.” What innovation do you think is needed to make our scene more stable in the face of this crisis? “Music has always been full of innovation and the survival of our creative scene is assured by peoples’ need for music. The scene we rebuild needs to be really considered so we can ‘build it back better’. Government intervention can play a role in doing that. In my role I’m mindful of the fact that ‘recovery prioritises incumbent success, and leaves behind the ones who started behind’, so that’s something to be weighed in every decision. We need to support the artists and their teams around them to ensure that they can stay well, be able to create and stay connected to each other and to audiences ahead of a return to live. ​ “If you’re in the creative industries, you can’t be a one trick pony and you must have diversified income. “At the moment, people seem up for supporting things they care about with money. I think it raises an opportunity to rethink the relationship between fans and the artist. Maybe we can ask fans to support the artist more and in ways that we previously didn’t bother with, because currently we say ‘just buy a ticket and we’ll call it even’. Just take a look at the Save Our Scene movement. They got 16,000 ‘e-signatures.’ It’s something that people really care about. I think there’s evidence to say that we can ask more of fans.” What advice would you offer our readers at this time? Especially in Melbourne who are back into stage three restrictions? ​ “I've definitely spoken to a lot of artists who’ve said, ‘I think I probably need to take a break.’ And yes, there is definitely an element of giving yourself permission to just watch TV or something, but if you’re in the headspace to be creative then there's definitely opportunities for now. One of the things we’ve been doing with the VDMO is looking towards people doing professional development. Things that maybe don’t return immediate outcomes, but that can pay dividends in the future.” ​ My conversation with Bonnie certainly left me with a lot to think about and caused a flutter in my heart at the idea that audiences are still willing and able to support the artistic community. One such avenue which has seen an incredible virtual ‘turn-out’ is that of live streaming. Enter Emily Ulman, creator and managing director of Isol-Aid music festival. Speaking with Emily as she was perusing the aisles of a store for trackies before the next instalment of isolation, I got a view into the mind of one such innovative creator, trying to maintain a sense of connection between artists, fans and the wider community. How did you approach creating something like Isol-Aid during this time? “I guess it’s about adapting and seeing the need to respond to a situation or group of people. I program festivals (CHANGES conference, Isol-Aid, Brunswick Music Festival) and all of those situations are about reflecting on what other people would be responding to, or looking beyond the realm of what I, as Emily, would want to see or do or participate in. So, seeing the greater needs of the community, and whether that be in the music industry, or, you know, the music community or, just out in the industry as a whole. I think really, it’s just about being flexible and adaptable. ​ “I think that taking a ‘micro’ perspective rather than this enormous ‘what is this going to look like for the next six months’ kind of thing, made [Isol-Aid] more approachable and manageable. After the first weekend I realised that there was merit there, and that people wanted it to continue. Just thinking about it in a way that meant I wasn’t overwhelmed or inundated by millions of different ideas. Because it did happen so quickly. Once I realised it was going to be more than just a once off, I was very careful to create a vision statement, which I still refer to today. It outlines all of the values and principles that are important to me as a person, but also things that I want to instil in the people that are part of the festival and the wider community. Sometimes when you’re so stuck in it, it can be hard to look at things objectively, so it’s good to have something to refer back to.” Streaming has become part of the norm in the space of a few months. Do you think that it will continue to grow as a medium into the future of our industry? “I absolutely think it’ll continue. As everyone was caught so unaware and unprepared, the technology has really struggled to keep up with the demand and various consumer and musician requirements. In terms of tech, I think there is a way to go in being able to cater to everybody’s specific requirements. By the same token, I think that online and virtual events, streams, gigs and festivals are never going to replace real experiences. Nor should they, and nor do I want them to, but there is definitely room for both. Isol-Aid has really highlighted to me how many people didn’t have access to live music for various reasons, whether they be geographical, physical or psychological barriers. Lots of people contacted me saying how amazing it is to have the opportunity to see live music. They hope it doesn’t stop. I don’t think there is a reason for it to stop. We have this opportunity to put the live music model back together in a really different way. For example, with musicians not being at the bottom of the food chain and venues not being so heavily reliant on alcohol sales.” Do you have any advice for people in maintaining their innovation? “I think that no matter what you are doing, whether you are writing a song, baking a cake or starting an online event, I think that knowing what you’re doing and why you are doing it is crucial. It can be different in regard to creativity as this can just happen naturally but asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ and 'who is the audience?' and 'what purpose will it serve?' and then referring back to something you can hold onto. Being mindful as well.” ​ “Being mindful” is a statement that resonates throughout this entire year so far. As a musician myself, so much of what Bonnie and Emily discussed aligned with my experiences so far. Thinking about the stability of our music scene and the actions that are both being taken and what’s to come makes me so grateful that I work in an industry which seems ready and able to reinvent itself. With the most recent ‘I Lost My Gig’ tally sitting at $340 million in losses across the Australian music industry, it’s important to understand that innovation and continued resilience are going to be what pulls us out of the muck. The breakdown of our scene, whilst both devastating and frustrating to us who are wedged in the middle, may just provide the opportunity for us to build a better, more sustainable and inclusive industry. I think it’s up to us to decide which way it goes. Keep up to date with Bonnie here and Emily on Facebook We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Thank you dearly to Bonnie and Emily for your time. ​ Interviews with Bonnie and Emily conducted between 7 and 10 July 2020. Article first published 12 July 2020. Photographs taken by Jake Amy, Simon Fazio and provided by Bonnie. Written by Rose Bassett. Edited by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.

  • DRMNGNOW on Music Revolution and Society

    By Jake Amy and Hugh Heller For Neil Morris, we are at a potentially transformative moment in history. Artists are engaging with social injustice in a manner that is reminiscent of the revolutionary 1960s artistic movements, and the recent events of horrific treatment towards BIPOC people have prompted widespread questioning of the ongoing injustices inflicted upon First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. The coincidence of this with unprecedented isolation due to COVID-19 means that it is more important than ever for artists and allies to stay connected and work towards an equitable society. DRMNGNOW is at the cutting edge of this intersection between art and activism, and Jake had the opportunity to have a chat with him this week. What's been going through your mind recently? A lot of things. COVID-19 in and of itself has had quite a big impact on me as a First Nations person. Right now, my primary concern is how First Nations peoples can maintain their functioning in a way that fulfils whatever needs we may have. Globally, my concern is how something such as COVID-19 will disproportionately impact our First Nations peoples, and more generally peoples of colour and people within Western-colonial constructs. From a music standpoint, obviously there's a lack of income for everybody, which has a legitimate impact on our lives (including my own), but in one sense, there’s potentially a silver lining to this. Even though music falls into the medium of “entertainment” within Western-contemporary societies, it is still inextricably tied to justice and equity for First Nations peoples and practice of culture. Within a time such as COVID-19, I think that there is a chance to press ‘reset’ on parts of the music sector. When we roll back out, how can we reconstruct the industry in a way which is the most beneficial for the greatest number of people? What will be the considerations from a justice perspective? Historically, I’d thought about these things well before I entered into the world of music; in fact, a driving consideration in my decision to join the industry was to create space and opportunities for First Nations peoples, obtain liberation and observe how we value First Nations song. The tragic passing of George Floyd has had a flow-on effect to considerations around the value of Bla(c)k lives. In this country, and in being the land of a Blak Indigenous people, that is first and foremost First Nations peoples. Unfortunately, that type of conversation may have never reached the same fever pitch, but the momentum around that has prompted us to converse about what justice actually looks like and what justice actually looks like living on this land. Is justice driving society in this land? Is living a life that results in the greatest opportunity of sustainable survival driving society in this land? We need to get First Nations justice sorted out. We need to look at First Nations custodianship and sovereignty, and understand what implications that has in creating a just, equitable and sustainable society. Everybody has a role to play, whether we want it to be that way or not. What are two current music trends that you're most excited about? Firstly, in these troubling times, subject matter about current issues in our society becomes more and more relevant. I guess that we are reaching an interesting period of time at the moment, where we see that high-quality music exploring injustice is very much accepted and very much vital for people to be listening to. I feel that the music of this time may influence our society as much as the music of the 1960s liberation movements. Ultimately, artists drive the music sector, so they will definitely have a big role to play within this, but I feel like there's something in the wind that says we're ready to delve into that. It comes down to the question of whether or not those that have the most influence in our sector want to be a part of that. If not, then is there another way that they're willing to support that? In recent years, we've had big-time artists come out with some quite politically-charged content. Beyoncé, Childish Gambino… even though the content has been put within the larger assets of the sector sporadically, it definitely does feel like we could have this moment where it becomes more widespread. We have to realise that music is an influential sector in society, whether we want it to be that way or not. It has the ability to inform other parts of our world, even government decisions, to some degree. These issues are currently the most pressing for humanity. This very particular moment in history could shape the next couple of hundred years, or we could somehow just slip back into the humdrum of things as they were... that’s always a reality, isn’t it? Secondly, First Nations music and the rapid increase in talented young artists who make quality work. In my opinion, these artists are doing it in a way that reflects individual identities, not necessarily an homogenous First Nations identity, and there’s a diversity there which is really moving. I'm currently extremely excited about the ability of those artists to intertwine cultural aspects of their identity into their music. For me, an artist who is really doing that at the moment is Miiesha. She’s phenomenal. You raised over $1.8m in an online fundraiser for First Nations Fire Relief. What did you learn about the most from that experience? During the peak of the fires, there was a widespread sensitivity amongst humans for each other that I don't know I’d ever experienced in so-called Australia. For the first time in my life, it felt that there could be a pathway forward in doing work focussed on community survival whilst doing away with things that were distracting and creating divides. In that time, the most beautiful thing for First Nations people to bear witness to was how people's hearts can be so beautifully open in supporting something that is just. At times, I feel like there may be only a certain amount of individuals who are really down to help do the dirty work against the oppressive elements of society. It’s easy to be sceptical or get down sometimes - there are only so many people who ride the journey with the First Nations cause in a really robust way. In that moment, there was an enormous feeling of genuine, deep empathy that a lot of people do have for the First Nations cause in this land on a more global scale. I realised that there are a lot more people than what I might have initially expected to be on that journey with us, and those people came from all walks of life. Respect and love to those who made a commitment to that cause. It heightened my appreciation for allyship in a way that really filled my cup a lot. It was a beautiful thing to bear witness to, yet my work is still just one little piece of a very big puzzle. What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist? I’ll preface this by saying that personally, I uphold quite strong values around my responsibilities as an artist. For others, it may not be in their makeup as a human being to facilitate well on that front. Perceived responsibilities can lead to mental health issues for people who are pressured into becoming that kind of a person. It can lead to people losing interest in creating art altogether, so I get that. I respect that and understand that. The reality is that there are responsibilities as an artist. Whether we like it or not, we do have influence, especially on social media, and we can influence a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to be an all-out “activist”. Not everybody is adept at that and it’s not necessarily the most effective way to navigate our responsibilities. However, at the very least, we need to be cognisant and conscious of our privilege and our platform and the way that that has the ability to influence. If you've got a million followers on your music page, that's a million people who you can take on a journey of understanding. That’s a lot of people. Say you’re one of the highest-selling artists in so-called Australia… You may have access to a social media page with this kind of global reach. You don’t have to be vocal about issues, but by recognising your privilege, you can influence opportunities that are given to the rest of the music industry through your bargaining power, through interacting in the industry on your own terms. I stretch that out to society as a whole as well. I think it’s vital to recognise position and privilege and how we can use that in enabling equality, equity and a just society. For me, that points back to the fact that in this land, you can't have an equitable and just society without First Nations leadership and First Nations sovereignty. I do feel a responsibility to advocate for human rights issues that First Nations people are subject to. I do feel that if I have some visibility, that is often more of a visibility than the First Nations person sitting next to me. I do feel that I have an opportunity to impact current issues by sharing content on my social platforms. Obviously, I want to depict a well-rounded perspective of the Indigenous experience. The complexities of the First Nations experience within this land are very diverse. One of the beautiful things about the social media era is that you can cultivate supportive groups of people who become engaged with you and your values who will then go on and do similar work themselves. Obviously, that's not everybody's reason for using social media - it can be purely about vanity and narcissism. "There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world. People need to realise that" Who are the people who engage with your social media content the most and what is the implication of that? Within so-called Australia, the people that I see engage quite frequently with my posts are Indigenous people and other black and brown populations. There’s also a lot of Anglo so-called Australian people. Furthermore, I think that there are a lot of people who are on their journey of understanding how they can best live in this land in a way that is sustainable for First Nations cultures. I’d hope that the Indigenous people who engage with my media find the content empowering; I’d hope that other BIPOC people resonate with the experiences I share and find value in understanding furthermore how they can stand correctly whilst living in this land. I think that First Nations visibility is increased by First Nations people who walk within all sectors of life and who present their own indigenised understanding of how they view their world. Someone who follows my page might also follow a few hundred other amazing Indigenous people: people are not musicians, who own a business with bush foods, who run a fitness company, an Indigenous law firm, an Indigenous architect. People can easily build an amazing knowledge system which becomes embedded into them to the point where they walk out into society and start to question things. “Couldn’t there be an Indigenous person contributing to that?” I think it’s really profound how people can receive a whole gamut of Indigenous information which is out there through social media. I'm always curious about what people get out of the content that I share, particularly my First Nations peers. Having conversations about social media use is healthy and it helps people. We can’t always see what impact we’re having, whether that may be positive or negative. In terms of allyship, that’s a really key space and there's a lot more discussion that needs to be had around what being an ally within the constructs of social media looks like. Currently, a lot of people want to be allies with causes that they support, but without a lived experience of their predicament we need to be wary of our protocol in maintaining a safe space. J: I’ve been particularly grateful for the resources that you've been sharing on your instagram page. It’s a pleasure. To be honest, I feel blessed to work in this place that we’re at in the world right now. It’s something that my ancestors would have done - work in the face of a greater adversity. If anything, I just feel like I’m doing my part to continue their work. If I can help to create awareness in our society, then I’m thankful. At the same time, I’m gaining as much understanding as anybody else is as well, from the work that everybody is doing. Why does music become considered “protest music”? A lot of people might call me an activist, though I feel that all I’m doing is acting on my greatest responsibilities as a First Nations person at this point in history. If circumstances were different in society, I'd be doing something else. Ultimately, cultivating a platform to raise awareness about injustices and/or living on country and interacting with land are both instances of carrying out First Nations custodianship. My role is to be a protector of the land and the ongoing survival of First Nations people. Before coming to music, I was working with my own people for a number of years in the Shepparton area of Yorta Yorta country. Throughout that time, there were concerns about how, as First Nations people, we could actually voice our needs without potentially losing the things that we were getting. There was a tipping point for me after the 2015 protests where I felt like I needed to find a way to start speaking on certain things in a manner that could get greater reach. I really set the intention of using my art for that purpose. It's been a very premeditated intention to use music to elevate the prospects of liberation for First Nations people. Those things considered, that's a great question. I find that “protest music” is a really interesting term. There’s not necessarily a power in calling music that. I don't denounce that songs aren’t protest songs, because they are. I think that “protest music”, which was a term that was used throughout the 1960s, is driven by the broader concept of what it means to rise up against a system of oppression. Obviously people of different identities have different experiences in society. What are the implications of this for artistic collaboration between people of differing identities? That’s such a valuable space, but it’s also a complex space. I feel that it’s vital because we can uncover things through these processes that we might not uncover otherwise, and you can present a sense of togetherness, of connection, of understanding. Art is such a sacred thing for me, and it’s a really big thing to collaborate with somebody because the sole driver behind my work is doing the work of my past ancestors, and doing it for future ancestors. The question is: how can the wholeness of that exist alongside a different kind of identity? I definitely take a lot of time around collaborating, even with other First Nations people. That’s a process in itself to make sure that what I'm doing and what they’re doing is going to benefit one another to the fullest extent and be the most powerful thing. I don’t know if “crossing over” has been valued to the fullest extent. Collaboration has been a beautiful thing in the arts sector in this country, but I think much of the amazing collaborative artwork has gone under the radar. If you can create an example of an amazing artistic collaboration, then that means more than just an artistic collaboration. In reflecting on collaborations that I’ve done with people from different ethnic backgrounds, on entering into important pieces of dialogue to create that work, on the largeness of the work that I do… I think of all the people that I’ve collaborated with as adopted family or something to that effect. They will always have their own identity, and they are their own ethnic group, but there’s this sense of a uniformity of connections through those works. I feel that the greatest way I could do a Welcome to Country for someone is to do an artistic work with them, to show them that I’m willing to open my spirit up to the fullness of that person in the same way that they are willing to do to me. Being able to enter into a dialogue and a synergy to create the work gives artistic collaboration a transformative element. It enhances connections between communities. It explores how identities in this land and this society might look like in the future, where we might not need allyship anymore. What would that society look like in which everybody gets it, and where everybody understands certain things in terms of a justice-based society that has a value for Indigenous sovereignty? What kind of collaborations would then happen within those spaces? What does that do to the identities of people, and to different roles for those types of identities and societies? I do think that artistic collaboration can give us a glimpse into what a post-colonial society can look like. It creates a post-colonialistic sense of liberation, that is seldom seen and seldom felt. What do you think are the next steps for addressing gender inequality in the Australian hip hop scene? There needs to be a lot more support around gender equality within the hip hop scene. I feel like Sampa The Great has single-handedly done a lot of the work around that. While she hasn’t necessarily been in the industry with that support from the outset, she has had an incredible amount of wonderful people who believe in her, (most often people from her own communities, from the African diaspora, in so-called Australia). I really admire Sampa for her respect for First Nations people. The beauty I see in Sampa’s story is how it can be so empowering and uniquely valuable when a woman is supported by their own community. There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world and for me there’s obviously an understanding that needs to take place for people to realise that. Everybody’s got their own taste, but for me, Sampa’s work is unmistakably powerful and has shown why we need to get behind these things and how the biggest steps are about equitable resources and contribution. There needs to be more resources put to supporting First Nations women and other black and brown women within music. What I’d like to see are academies for hip hop that have a focus purely on women. We should be looking to develop a specialist environment for them to be nurtured and developed. I feel this is crucial for gender non-conforming artists and queer artists as well. There also needs to be at least 50% non-male artists on the rosters within hip hop. That needs to be a benchmark that everyone needs to be aiming for and reaching. As long as we continue to have rosters that are more than 50% male, then we have a problem, and I feel that we’re at a point in society where the greatest content is going to come from women and gender non-conforming or queer artists. We’re in a time where these voices just need to be heard, and it’s their time to shine. I look at some radio playlists and think, “Why do these playlists still look like this?”. It needs to change, because everybody is going to benefit from that. If there was one aspect from the Australian hip hop scene that you could take to the world, what would that be? Barkaa. She’s an amazing artist and First Nations woman currently based on Eora countries in so-called Sydney. I see a real ancestral fire within her work - it’s just incidental that she also lives in Sydney, where colonist society originated in this land… I guess it makes sense that she has this level of fire and power and passion. I wish that the world could see this artist and how she’s a product of the Indigenous fight against the colony. There’s something incredibly powerful when I listen to her. I’m not hearing hip hop. I’m feeling a force of ancestors who are not happy and who are projecting themselves through this amazing young artist. As a First Nations people, I think there has been a beautiful and natural relationship with hip hop. A lot of artists with political and oppressive struggles have gravitated towards hip hop and they all have a certain way of expressing themselves in that genre. [Hip hop] is a groove-based music… I guess in this land, First Nations music is also groove-based music. There’s a synergy there. It’s so beautiful to see how First Nations people have then taken their identities into a medium such as hip hop. I think this crossover is the most special and unique element of hip hop in this country, given that it integrates people who have been of this land for over 60,000 years. Keep up to date with Neil on Instagram: @drmngnow We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Photos provided by artist

  • DRMNGNOW on Music Revolution and Society

    Written by Jake Amy For Neil Morris, we are at a potentially transformative moment in history. Artists are engaging with social injustice in a manner that is reminiscent of the revolutionary 1960s artistic movements, and the recent events of horrific treatment towards BIPOC people have prompted widespread questioning of the ongoing injustices inflicted upon First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. The coincidence of this with unprecedented isolation due to COVID-19 means that it is more important than ever for artists and allies to stay connected and work towards an equitable society. DRMNGNOW is at the cutting edge of this intersection between art and activism, and Jake had the opportunity to have a chat with him this week. What's been going through your mind recently? A lot of things. COVID-19 in and of itself has had quite a big impact on me as a First Nations person. Right now, my primary concern is how First Nations peoples can maintain their functioning in a way that fulfils whatever needs we may have. Globally, my concern is how something such as COVID-19 will disproportionately impact our First Nations peoples, and more generally peoples of colour and people within Western-colonial constructs. From a music standpoint, obviously there's a lack of income for everybody, which has a legitimate impact on our lives (including my own), but in one sense, there’s potentially a silver lining to this. Even though music falls into the medium of “entertainment” within Western-contemporary societies, it is still inextricably tied to justice and equity for First Nations peoples and practice of culture. Within a time such as COVID-19, I think that there is a chance to press ‘reset’ on parts of the music sector. When we roll back out, how can we reconstruct the industry in a way which is the most beneficial for the greatest number of people? What will be the considerations from a justice perspective? Historically, I’d thought about these things well before I entered into the world of music; in fact, a driving consideration in my decision to join the industry was to create space and opportunities for First Nations peoples, obtain liberation and observe how we value First Nations song. The tragic passing of George Floyd has had a flow-on effect to considerations around the value of bla(c)k lives. In this country, and in being the land of a blak Indigenous people, that is first and foremost First Nations peoples. Unfortunately, that type of conversation may have never reached the same fever pitch, but the momentum around that has prompted us to converse about what justice actually looks like and what justice actually looks like living on this land. Is justice driving society in this land? Is living a life that results in the greatest opportunity of sustainable survival driving society in this land? We need to get First Nations justice sorted out. We need to look at First Nations custodianship and sovereignty, and understand what implications that has in creating a just, equitable and sustainable society. Everybody has a role to play, whether we want it to be that way or not. What are two current music trends that you're most excited about? Firstly, in these troubling times, subject matter about current issues in our society becomes more and more relevant. I guess that we are reaching an interesting period of time at the moment, where we see that high-quality music exploring injustice is very much accepted and very much vital for people to be listening to. I feel that the music of this time may influence our society as much as the music of the 1960s liberation movements. Ultimately, artists drive the music sector, so they will definitely have a big role to play within this, but I feel like there's something in the wind that says we're ready to delve into that. It comes down to the question of whether or not those that have the most influence in our sector want to be a part of that. If not, then is there another way that they're willing to support that? In recent years, we've had big-time artists come out with some quite politically-charged content. Beyoncé, Childish Gambino… even though the content has been put within the larger assets of the sector sporadically, it definitely does feel like we could have this moment where it becomes more widespread. We have to realise that music is an influential sector in society, whether we want it to be that way or not. It has the ability to inform other parts of our world, even government decisions, to some degree. These issues are currently the most pressing for humanity. This very particular moment in history could shape the next couple of hundred years, or we could somehow just slip back into the humdrum of things as they were... that’s always a reality, isn’t it? Secondly, First Nations music and the rapid increase in talented young artists who make quality work. In my opinion, these artists are doing it in a way that reflects individual identities, not necessarily an homogenous First Nations identity, and there’s a diversity there which is really moving. I'm currently extremely excited about the ability of those artists to intertwine cultural aspects of their identity into their music. For me, an artist who is really doing that at the moment is Miiesha. She’s phenomenal. You raised over $1.8m in an online fundraiser for First Nations Fire Relief. What did you learn about the most from that experience? During the peak of the fires, there was a widespread sensitivity amongst humans for each other that I don't know I’d ever experienced in so-called Australia. For the first time in my life, it felt that there could be a pathway forward in doing work focussed on community survival whilst doing away with things that were distracting and creating divides. In that time, the most beautiful thing for First Nations people to bear witness to was how people's hearts can be so beautifully open in supporting something that is just. At times, I feel like there may be only a certain amount of individuals who are really down to help do the dirty work against the oppressive elements of society. It’s easy to be sceptical or get down sometimes - there are only so many people who ride the journey with the First Nations cause in a really robust way. In that moment, there was an enormous feeling of genuine, deep empathy that a lot of people do have for the First Nations cause in this land on a more global scale. I realised that there are a lot more people than what I might have initially expected to be on that journey with us, and those people came from all walks of life. Respect and love to those who made a commitment to that cause. It heightened my appreciation for allyship in a way that really filled my cup a lot. It was a beautiful thing to bear witness to, yet my work is still just one little piece of a very big puzzle. What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist? I’ll preface this by saying that personally, I uphold quite strong values around my responsibilities as an artist. For others, it may not be in their makeup as a human being to facilitate well on that front. Perceived responsibilities can lead to mental health issues for people who are pressured into becoming that kind of a person. It can lead to people losing interest in creating art altogether, so I get that. I respect that and understand that. The reality is that there are responsibilities as an artist. Whether we like it or not, we do have influence, especially on social media, and we can influence a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to be an all-out “activist”. Not everybody is adept at that and it’s not necessarily the most effective way to navigate our responsibilities. However, at the very least, we need to be cognizant and conscious of our privilege and our platform and the way that that has the ability to influence. If you've got a million followers on your music page, that's a million people who you can take on a journey of understanding. That’s a lot of people. Say you’re one of the highest-selling artists in so-called Australia… You may have access to a social media page with this kind of global reach. You don’t have to be vocal about issues, but by recognising your privilege, you can influence opportunities that are given to the rest of the music industry through your bargaining power, through interacting in the industry on your own terms. I stretch that out to society as a whole as well. I think it’s vital to recognise position and privilege and how we can use that in enabling equality, equity and a just society. For me, that points back to the fact that in this land, you can't have an equitable and just society without First Nations leadership and First Nations sovereignty. I do feel a responsibility to advocate for human rights issues that First Nations people are subject to. I do feel that if I have some visibility, that is often more of a visibility than the First Nations person sitting next to me. I do feel that I have an opportunity to impact current issues by sharing content on my social platforms. Obviously, I want to depict a well-rounded perspective of the Indigenous experience. The complexities of the First Nations experience within this land are very diverse. One of the beautiful things about the social media era is that you can cultivate supportive groups of people who become engaged with you and your values who will then go on and do similar work themselves. Obviously, that's not everybody's reason for using social media - it can be purely about vanity and narcissism. "There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world. People need to realise that" Who are the people who engage with your social media content the most and what is the implication of that? Within so-called Australia, the people that I see engage quite frequently with my posts are Indigeous people and other black and brown populations. There’s also a lot of Anglo so-called Australian people. Furthermore, I think that there are a lot of people who are on their journey of understanding how they can best live in this land in a way that is sustainable for First Nations cultures. I’d hope that the Indigenous people who engage with my media find the content empowering; I’d hope that other BIPOC people resonate with the experiences I share and find value in understanding furthermore how they can stand correctly whilst living in this land. I think that First Nations visibility is increased by First Nations people who walk within all sectors of life and who present their own indigenised understanding of how they view their world. Someone who follows my page might also follow a few hundred other amazing Indigenous people: people are not musicians, who own a business with bush foods, who run a fitness company, an Indigenous law firm, an Indigeous architect. People can easily build an amazing knowledge system which becomes embedded into them to the point where they walk out into society and start to question things. “Couldn’t there be an Indigenous person contributing to that?” I think it’s really profound how people can receive a whole gamut of Indigenous information which is out there through social media. I'm always curious about what people get out of the content that I share, particularly my First Nations peers. Having conversations about social media use is healthy and it helps people. We can’t always see what impact we’re having, whether that may be positive or negative. In terms of allyship, that’s a really key space and there's a lot more discussion that needs to be had around what being an ally within the constructs of social media looks like. Currently, a lot of people want to be allies with causes that they support, but without a lived experience of their predicament we need to be wary of our protocol in maintaining a safe space. J: I’ve been particularly grateful for the resources that you've been sharing on your instagram page. It’s a pleasure. To be honest, I feel blessed to work in this place that we’re at in the world right now. It’s something that my ancestors would have done - work in the face of a greater adversity. If anything, I just feel like I’m doing my part to continue their work. If I can help to create awareness in our society, then I’m thankful. At the same time, I’m gaining as much understanding as anybody else is as well, from the work that everybody is doing. Why does music become considered “protest music”? A lot of people might call me an activist, though I feel that all I’m doing is acting on my greatest responsibilities as a First Nations person at this point in history. If circumstances were different in society, I'd be doing something else. Ultimately, cultivating a platform to raise awareness about injustices and/or living on country and interacting with land are both instances of carrying out First Nations custodianship. My role is to be a protector of the land and the ongoing survival of First Nations people. Before coming to music, I was working with my own people for a number of years in the Shepperton area of Yorta Yorta country. Throughout that time, there were concerns about how, as First Nations people, we could actually voice our needs without potentially losing the things that we were getting. There was a tipping point for me after the 2015 protests where I felt like I needed to find a way to start speaking on certain things in a manner that could get greater reach. I really set the intention of using my art for that purpose. It's been a very premeditated intention to use music to elevate the prospects of liberation for First Nations people. Those things considered, that's a great question. I find that “protest music” is a really interesting term. There’s not necessarily a power in calling music that. I don't denounce that songs aren’t protest songs, because they are. I think that “protest music”, which was a term that was used throughout the 1960s, is driven by the broader concept of what it means to rise up against a system of oppression. Obviously people of different identities have different experiences in society. What are the implications of this for artistic collaboration between people of differing identities? That’s such a valuable space, but it’s also a complex space. I feel that it’s vital because we can uncover things through these processes that we might not uncover otherwise, and you can present a sense of togetherness, of connection, of understanding. Art is such a sacred thing for me, and it’s a really big thing to collaborate with somebody because the sole driver behind my work is doing the work of my past ancestors, and doing it for future ancestors. The question is: how can the wholeness of that exist alongside a different kind of identity? I definitely take a lot of time around collaborating, even with other First Nations people. That’s a process in itself to make sure that what I'm doing and what they’re doing is going to benefit one another to the fullest extent and be the most powerful thing. I don’t know if “crossing over” has been valued to the fullest extent. Collaboration has been a beautiful thing in the arts sector in this country, but I think much of the amazing collaborative artwork has gone under the radar. If you can create an example of an amazing artistic collaboration, then that means more than just an artistic collaboration. In reflecting on collaborations that I’ve done with people from different ethnic backgrounds, on entering into important pieces of dialogue to create that work, on the largeness of the work that I do… I think of all the people that I’ve collaborated with as adopted family or something to that effect. They will always have their own identity, and they are their own ethnic group, but there’s this sense of a uniformity of connections through those works. I feel that the greatest way I could do a Welcome to Country for someone is to do an artistic work with them, to show them that I’m willing to open my spirit up to the fullness of that person in the same way that they are willing to do to me. Being able to enter into a dialogue and a synergy to create the work gives artistic collaboration a transformative element. It enhances connections between communities. It explores how identities in this land and this society might look like in the future, where we might not need allyship anymore. What would that society look like in which everybody gets it, and where everybody understands certain things in terms of a justice-based society that has a value for Indigenous sovereignty? What kind of collaborations would then happen within those spaces? What does that do to the identities of people, and to different roles for those types of identities and societies? I do think that artistic collaboration can give us a glimpse into what a post-colonial society can look like. It creates a post-colonialistic sense of liberation, that is seldom seen and seldom felt. What do you think are the next steps for addressing gender inequality in the Australian hip hop scene? There needs to be a lot more support around gender equality within the hip hop scene. I feel like Sampa The Great has single-handedly done a lot of the work around that. While she hasn’t necessarily been in the industry with that support from the outset, she has had an incredible amount of wonderful people who believe in her, (most often people from her own communities, from the African diaspora, in so-called Australia). I really admire Sampa for her respect for First Nations people. The beauty I see in Sampa’s story is how it can be so empowering and uniquely valuable when a woman is supported by their own community. There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world and for me there’s obviously an understanding that needs to take place for people to realise that. Everybody’s got their own taste, but for me, Sampa’s work is unmistakably powerful and has shown why we need to get behind these things and how the biggest steps are about equitable resources and contribution. There needs to be more resources put to supporting First Nations women and other black and brown women within music. What I’d like to see are academies for hip hop that have a focus purely on women. We should be looking to develop a specialist environment for them to be nurtured and developed. I feel this is crucial for gender non-conforming artists and queer artists as well. There also needs to be at least 50% non-male artists on the rosters within hip hop. That needs to be a benchmark that everyone needs to be aiming for and reaching. As long as we continue to have rosters that are more than 50% male, then we have a problem, and I feel that we’re at a point in society where the greatest content is going to come from women and gender non-conforming or queer artists. We’re in a time where these voices just need to be heard, and it’s their time to shine. I look at some radio playlists and think, “Why do these playlists still look like this?”. It needs to change, because everybody is going to benefit from that. If there was one aspect from the Australian hip hop scene that you could take to the world, what would that be? Barkaa. She’s an amazing artist and First Nations woman currently based on Eora countries in so-called Sydney. I see a real ancestral fire within her work - it’s just incidental that she also lives in Sydney, where colonist society originated in this land… I guess it makes sense that she has this level of fire and power and passion. I wish that the world could see this artist and how she’s a product of the Indigenous fight against the colony. There’s something incredibly powerful when I listen to her. I’m not hearing hip hop. I’m feeling a force of ancestors who are not happy and who are projecting themselves through this amazing young artist. As a First Nations people, I think there has been a beautiful and natural relationship with hip hop. A lot of artists with political and oppressive struggles have gravitated towards hip hop and they all have a certain way of expressing themselves in that genre. [Hip hop] is a groove-based music… I guess in this land, First Nations music is also groove-based music. There’s a synergy there. It’s so beautiful to see how First Nations people have then taken their identities into a medium such as hip hop. I think this crossover is the most special and unique element of hip hop in this country, given that it integrates people who have been of this land for over 60,000 years. Keep up to date with Neil on Instagram: @drmngnow We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Thank you dearly to Neil for your time. ​ Interview with Neil was conducted on 1 July 2020. Article first published 5 July 2020. Photographs taken by Cassidy Cloupet, Snehargho Ghosh and provided by Neil. Written and edited by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.

  • Allysha Joy: "Artivism", COVID-19 and Gender Bullshit

    By Emma Volard, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller Our world is shaped by numerous social, economic and political forces, and the turmoil of our recent past has made painfully apparent how these forces are all entwined. Though art can provide us with a sense of relief or escape, it is not created in a vacuum outside of these forces. Choosing to make art, even if it is ostensibly apolitical, is a political and economic statement. In this interview, Allysha Joy discusses how her art engages with the forces around us, learning and evolving in 30/70, and the constant challenges of being a female-identifying artist in this day and age. Can you tell us a little about your childhood and where your passion for music came from? Straight to childhood! I guess I’ve always been a singer - my mum sings, my dad sings, both of my grandmothers sung, my sister sings… Lot’s of singing in my family! A really large part of my musical upbringing was church. We were pretty regular attendees at church as my grandfather is a minister. I guess ‘church’ is still a part of my music, even though I no longer attend it. I respect the spirituality, ritual and community [associated with it], and there is so much that we can learn from leaders of worship: how to engage an audience, how to make people feel something and how to cultivate a culture. I got pretty deep into jazz around the age of 12 or 13. I just started listening heaps. I never had any lessons on an instrument but I taught myself piano over the years. What was the process of learning an instrument later in life? I bought a piano two years before I wrote my debut album, ‘Acadie : Raw’. (Or maybe it was just a year, I can’t really remember now)... It was a moment in time where I decided to really commit to [learning the piano]. I was going to uni and had quit my job after studying in New York for a couple of months. In that period, a lot of music [that I was writing] felt like an act of feminism. So much of what was holding me back was the bullshit instilled in us females about not being good enough, and how [as artists, creating music] is not a valid use of our time. There’s also a mentality that you have to start learning a musical instrument when you’re five, otherwise you’ll never be good enough to make a career out of it… That’s all bullshit. What’s it like being a female-identifying artist in this day and age? As a female-identifying musician, it’s been such a journey. It is still so challenging. I have to constantly assert myself and pursue what it is that I want, unashamedly. [How you’re perceived as a female] goes so far beyond musicality and craft. It’s how you manage your life, your team, your finances, and how you assert yourself in the scene. I think people really struggle with women asserting themselves. It’s fucked.  [Women and non-binary folk] need to do what it is that they want to do. I think that is activism: being loud, being yourself and aspiring for more… It’s fucking challenging and I don’t really feel like it has gotten much easier. As much as people think that it gets easier as your career develops, it doesn’t. It’s constant. It’s a constant grind. I have to work extra hard to even just suppress the barrage of societal pressure telling me that I should do the opposite of what I’m doing. “Is [being an artist] worth my time? I should just get a job - I’m not good enough”. This is drilled into my (and other women’s) head(s)... Body image [is yet another] ideal front-people are pressured by and susceptible to. I’ve noticed that you refer to yourself as an ‘artivist’. Could elaborate on what that means? I don’t like to quantify it, but most of my music is essentially about environmental, social or political change… Just ‘change’ really. I think that in 2020, it is an act of activism to be an artist. It’s anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist. It is a big part of creating a sense of community, maintaining culture, spreading a positive message, storytelling and getting back to why we exist as humans on this Earth. Beyond that, it’s important to support your community, not just within the art but also within the activism. You have to be a part of both worlds, otherwise your art is not representative of the time or of the people. I think some people would go so far as to say that all art is ‘politics’, because even not having an opinion is making a statement. You participate, whether you like it or not, just by opening your mouth or keeping it shut. No matter how we engage with the world, it is political and it is social. I think we're all growing and changing as artists. The better informed we all are, the more we can speak up. I don’t want to express my opinion in a forceful way (and I feel like at times I have)... I want to just express my opinion. The more we can engage in creating and learning, and empathetic understanding, the better we will be at our craft and the better a society we can cultivate. Sometimes there’s a bombardment of information and we get so confused about what we want to do within society and how we can participate. Often I think that capitalism wins over everything, so we forget to read for our own pleasure, engage within our community, and forget to just express our opinion in a loving way. We’re so often shut down. I was listening to 30/70’s ‘Fluid Motion’. Was there an overriding message that you intended to weave through the album? [‘Fluid Motion’ as a song] Is not only about us women asserting ourselves, but our inherent connection to Mother Earth: how we treat people who are ostracised by our community is the same as how we treat our planet. It’s about how [as a society], we’ve come to treat ideas of ownership of land and our First Nations people. I’m trying to encourage empathy and understanding. Living harmoniously is a very important thread throughout my music, particularly in that song and particularly in that album… There are so many different messages throughout ‘Fluid Motion’ as an album though... there’s even a tune about fucking! As part of 30/70, how have you seen your ‘sound’ develop over time? Our relationship as a collective has developed so much over time. It has affected how the music is made and produced. As 30/70 is so collaborative, individual, personal growth results in even bigger changes. There are six people who practice all the time. Everyone has grown together and it’s pretty inspiring to be around that energy. A recent change: thinking about a song’s production as we’re writing has had a huge impact on our [compositional] process. We’re writing another album at the moment, which is exciting, but so different to anything we’ve done before. Ziggy is overseas and we’re all separated. It’s weird, but it’s cool because it’s a chance to explore a different way. You’ve been on a few international tours with 30/70. What’s it like? Touring is so amazing yet so difficult. I’ve learned the importance of having really solid connections with the people you’re playing with and the team that you’re surrounded by. Being around good people, having fun and bringing that energy to stage is so important. The audience wants to be a part of your world. If you're creating a beautiful culture around your band, then you’ll have an amazing time touring. I’m so grateful to have built some amazing connections and had some amazing experiences. It can be super challenging… having good communication skills is massive… We were meant to be going overseas again (pretty much now), but I’m kind of glad that I’m not going. It’s nice to just be here in Australia, and centred, and calm: chilling out for a bit, and writing more, and practising. When I was going to return to Europe this year, I was planning to stay, so it is on the cards to move there and I think it will happen at some stage (but now that lockdown has happened, I’m glad I’m in Australia). Who are some artists that are inspiring you at the moment? A group that I find incredibly inspiring is Izy (who just moved to Melbourne)... Their skillset, but also their vibe, their energy. Further within that crew is Tiana Khasi, an incredible songwriter. I wish she knew it more… she’s such a badass. Also, Ziggy [Zeitgeist] is incredibly inspiring. He’s in Berlin at the moment, practising every day… I don’t know how he’s feeding himself or paying his rent, but I don’t think he cares. He’s the most dedicated dude I know. Other than music, what have you been doing with your time in isolation? At the moment, I’m living on Boon Wurrung country on the Peninsula. There was a lot of resistance at the beginning [of isolation] in remembering that it's okay to actually take time for yourself. Most of the time, it’s not a selfish act. You’re able to give more from a place of love to the people around you and the world. I’ve been doing a lot of self-care, getting really good sleep, eating well, and spending lots of time in the sun. I’m currently reading the book ‘Vagina’ [by Naomi Wolf], which is an incredible book I recommend to all. Any experience with ‘writer’s block’? Sometimes, I turn into stone. Being super honest, when I feel uninspired, I just feel shit. I do think that it’s good to not force it and actually be with. Sitting and obsessing over music can become painful. I prepare for the moments when I do feel inspired by journaling ideas. How do you think the music industry will be affected by the current situation? I feel that artists are doing okay at the moment. Everyone who is on the other side of the stage will need a lot of support coming out of this. It will take a long time to recover and I think that will be really hard. Of course, as artists, we all want to be paid for our craft, but it’ll be really interesting to see if that money is there. I think that we’ve all worked so hard to build a community that encourages artists to be paid fairly. It will be strange and challenging to have those conversations when everyone’s been struggling.  As there won't be any international touring [for a little while], I think that it could be really beautiful to see the Australian music scene become a lot closer. Bigger festivals will have to support Australian musicians (and I think that will be really cool). At least within myself, I don’t really have much desire to perform at the moment. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been spending heaps of time on my own and just lushing out in the sunshine and getting creative at home. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up, and who’s feeling a change… a course in myotherapy! I don’t know! [Throughout this period,] I’ve played live streams for Boiler Room, Isol-Aid and MLIVE. I’m really lucky that a couple of those were paid and [broadcast] to a pretty large audience, but they were also really stressful. Trying to go from relaxation mode into performance mode is just really strange. Coming out of isolation, I think that I really want to build a practice of preparing for shows and also coming down from shows. (For Isolaid, I really noticed a change in my energy [during] the lead-up to the gig and afterwards. I don’t think I had noticed as much [pre-COVID] - I was constantly running around, engaging socially, and then performing… I want it to become more ritualistic for myself. Do you have any advice for emerging musicians? I’ve got so much advice… “Take your shit seriously”, “Read the contract”, “Do it because you love it and all the other shit will fall into place”. There’s one little piece of jaded advice in there… but it’s real. Also, nobody talks about the admin. We gotta talk about admin! Do you have new stuff in the pipelines? Yeah. I’ve got a lot of music that I’ve been patiently waiting to put out. I’ve got an EP coming out with Clever Austin and an album coming out...I don’t know when. The EP will be out this year for sure, and the album of my solo shit will be out soon after that. Keep up to date with Allysha on her website We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Please consider donating to one of these causes as part of Black Lives Matter.

  • Allysha Joy: "Artivism", COVID-19 and Gender Bullshit

    Written by Emma Volard and Jake Amy Our world is shaped by numerous social, economic and political forces, and the turmoil of our recent past has made painfully apparent how these forces are all entwined. Though art can provide us with a sense of relief or escape, it is not created in a vacuum outside of these forces. Choosing to make art, even if it is ostensibly apolitical, is a political and economic statement. In this interview, Allysha Joy discusses how her art engages with the forces around us, learning and evolving in 30/70, and the constant challenges of being a female-identifying artist in this day and age. Can you tell us a little about your childhood and where your passion for music came from? Straight to childhood! I guess I’ve always been a singer - my mum sings, my dad sings, both of my grandmothers sung, my sister sings… Lot’s of singing in my family! A really large part of my musical upbringing was church. We were pretty regular attendees at church as my grandfather is a minister. I guess ‘church’ is still a part of my music, even though I no longer attend it. I respect the spirituality, ritual and community [associated with it], and there is so much that we can learn from leaders of worship: how to engage an audience, how to make people feel something and how to cultivate a culture. I got pretty deep into jazz around the age of 12 or 13. I just started listening heaps. I never had any lessons on an instrument but I taught myself piano over the years. What was the process of learning an instrument later in life? I bought a piano two years before I wrote my debut album, ‘Acadie : Raw’. (Or maybe it was just a year, I can’t really remember now)... It was a moment in time where I decided to really commit to [learning the piano]. I was going to uni and had quit my job after studying in New York for a couple of months. In that period, a lot of music [that I was writing] felt like an act of feminism. So much of what was holding me back was the bullshit instilled in us females about not being good enough, and how [as artists, creating music] is not a valid use of our time. There’s also a mentality that you have to start learning a musical instrument when you’re five, otherwise you’ll never be good enough to make a career out of it… That’s all bullshit. What’s it like being a female-identifying artist in this day and age? As a female-identifying musician, it’s been such a journey. It is still so challenging. I have to constantly assert myself and pursue what it is that I want, unashamedly. [How you’re perceived as a female] goes so far beyond musicality and craft. It’s how you manage your life, your team, your finances, and how you assert yourself in the scene. I think people really struggle with women asserting themselves. It’s fucked.  [Women and non-binary folk] need to do what it is that they want to do. I think that is activism: being loud, being yourself and aspiring for more… It’s fucking challenging and I don’t really feel like it has gotten much easier. As much as people think that it gets easier as your career develops, it doesn’t. It’s constant. It’s a constant grind. I have to work extra hard to even just suppress the barrage of societal pressure telling me that I should do the opposite of what I’m doing. “Is [being an artist] worth my time? I should just get a job - I’m not good enough”. This is drilled into my (and other women’s) head(s)... Body image [is yet another] ideal front-people are pressured by and susceptible to. I’ve noticed that you refer to yourself as an ‘artivist’. Could elaborate on what that means? I don’t like to quantify it, but most of my music is essentially about environmental, social or political change… Just ‘change’ really. I think that in 2020, it is an act of activism to be an artist. It’s anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist. It is a big part of creating a sense of community, maintaining culture, spreading a positive message, storytelling and getting back to why we exist as humans on this Earth. Beyond that, it’s important to support your community, not just within the art but also within the activism. You have to be a part of both worlds, otherwise your art is not representative of the time or of the people. I think some people would go so far as to say that all art is ‘politics’, because even not having an opinion is making a statement. You participate, whether you like it or not, just by opening your mouth or keeping it shut. No matter how we engage with the world, it is political and it is social. I think we're all growing and changing as artists. The better informed we all are, the more we can speak up. I don’t want to express my opinion in a forceful way (and I feel like at times I have)... I want to just express my opinion. The more we can engage in creating and learning, and empathetic understanding, the better we will be at our craft and the better a society we can cultivate. Sometimes there’s a bombardment of information and we get so confused about what we want to do within society and how we can participate. Often I think that capitalism wins over everything, so we forget to read for our own pleasure, engage within our community, and forget to just express our opinion in a loving way. We’re so often shut down. I was listening to 30/70’s ‘Fluid Motion’. Was there an overriding message that you intended to weave through the album? [‘Fluid Motion’ as a song] Is not only about us women asserting ourselves, but our inherent connection to Mother Earth: how we treat people who are ostracised by our community is the same as how we treat our planet. It’s about how [as a society], we’ve come to treat ideas of ownership of land and our First Nations people. I’m trying to encourage empathy and understanding. Living harmoniously is a very important thread throughout my music, particularly in that song and particularly in that album… There are so many different messages throughout ‘Fluid Motion’ as an album though... there’s even a tune about fucking! As part of 30/70, how have you seen your ‘sound’ develop over time? Our relationship as a collective has developed so much over time. It has affected how the music is made and produced. As 30/70 is so collaborative, individual, personal growth results in even bigger changes. There are six people who practice all the time. Everyone has grown together and it’s pretty inspiring to be around that energy. A recent change: thinking about a song’s production as we’re writing has had a huge impact on our [compositional] process. We’re writing another album at the moment, which is exciting, but so different to anything we’ve done before. Ziggy is overseas and we’re all separated. It’s weird, but it’s cool because it’s a chance to explore a different way. You’ve been on a few international tours with 30/70. What’s it like? Touring is so amazing yet so difficult. I’ve learned the importance of having really solid connections with the people you’re playing with and the team that you’re surrounded by. Being around good people, having fun and bringing that energy to stage is so important. The audience wants to be a part of your world. If you're creating a beautiful culture around your band, then you’ll have an amazing time touring. I’m so grateful to have built some amazing connections and had some amazing experiences. It can be super challenging… having good communication skills is massive… We were meant to be going overseas again (pretty much now), but I’m kind of glad that I’m not going. It’s nice to just be here in Australia, and centred, and calm: chilling out for a bit, and writing more, and practising. When I was going to return to Europe this year, I was planning to stay, so it is on the cards to move there and I think it will happen at some stage (but now that lockdown has happened, I’m glad I’m in Australia). Who are some artists that are inspiring you at the moment? A group that I find incredibly inspiring is Izy (who just moved to Melbourne)... Their skillset, but also their vibe, their energy. Further within that crew is Tiana Khasi, an incredible songwriter. I wish she knew it more… she’s such a badass. Also, Ziggy [Zeitgeist] is incredibly inspiring. He’s in Berlin at the moment, practising every day… I don’t know how he’s feeding himself or paying his rent, but I don’t think he cares. He’s the most dedicated dude I know. Other than music, what have you been doing with your time in isolation? At the moment, I’m living on Boon Wurrung country on the Peninsula. There was a lot of resistance at the beginning [of isolation] in remembering that it's okay to actually take time for yourself. Most of the time, it’s not a selfish act. You’re able to give more from a place of love to the people around you and the world. I’ve been doing a lot of self-care, getting really good sleep, eating well, and spending lots of time in the sun. I’m currently reading the book ‘Vagina’ [by Naomi Wolf], which is an incredible book I recommend to all. Any experience with ‘writer’s block’? Sometimes, I turn into stone. Being super honest, when I feel uninspired, I just feel shit. I do think that it’s good to not force it and actually be with. Sitting and obsessing over music can become painful. I prepare for the moments when I do feel inspired by journaling ideas. How do you think the music industry will be affected by the current situation? I feel that artists are doing okay at the moment. Everyone who is on the other side of the stage will need a lot of support coming out of this. It will take a long time to recover and I think that will be really hard. Of course, as artists, we all want to be paid for our craft, but it’ll be really interesting to see if that money is there. I think that we’ve all worked so hard to build a community that encourages artists to be paid fairly. It will be strange and challenging to have those conversations when everyone’s been struggling.  As there won't be any international touring [for a little while], I think that it could be really beautiful to see the Australian music scene become a lot closer. Bigger festivals will have to support Australian musicians (and I think that will be really cool). At least within myself, I don’t really have much desire to perform at the moment. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been spending heaps of time on my own and just lushing out in the sunshine and getting creative at home. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up, and who’s feeling a change… a course in myotherapy! I don’t know! [Throughout this period,] I’ve played live streams for Boiler Room, Isol-Aid and MLIVE. I’m really lucky that a couple of those were paid and [broadcast] to a pretty large audience, but they were also really stressful. Trying to go from relaxation mode into performance mode is just really strange. Coming out of isolation, I think that I really want to build a practice of preparing for shows and also coming down from shows. (For Isolaid, I really noticed a change in my energy [during] the lead-up to the gig and afterwards. I don’t think I had noticed as much [pre-COVID] - I was constantly running around, engaging socially, and then performing… I want it to become more ritualistic for myself. Do you have any advice for emerging musicians? I’ve got so much advice… “Take your shit seriously”, “Read the contract”, “Do it because you love it and all the other shit will fall into place”. There’s one little piece of jaded advice in there… but it’s real. Also, nobody talks about the admin. We gotta talk about admin! Do you have new stuff in the pipelines? Yeah. I’ve got a lot of music that I’ve been patiently waiting to put out. I’ve got an EP coming out with Clever Austin and an album coming out...I don’t know when. The EP will be out this year for sure, and the album of my solo shit will be out soon after that. Keep up to date with Allysha on her website We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Please consider donating to one of these causes as part of Black Lives Matter. ​ Thank you dearly to Allysha for your time. ​ Interview with Allysha was conducted on 18 May 2020. Article first published 21 June 2020. Photographs taken by Finn Rees, Abi-Chan, Maddie Stephenson and Joli Badman. Written by Emma Volard and by Jake Amy. Edited by Hugh Heller.

  • Michael Tortoni: Rockstar to Venue Owner

    By Jake Amy and Hugh Heller Melbourne’s jazz culture survives and thrives in the city’s atmospheric jazz clubs, where the creative genius of the top musicians in the country is on display every night for locals and visitors alike. Once a year, these clubs are flooded with artists from all over the globe who gather here for the vibrant Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), a cornucopia of music and culture. Michael Tortoni has been a significant figure in making the Melbourne scene what it is today. The bassist and former rock musician founded the legendary Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, incarnated its descendant venue ‘The Jazzlab’, serves as Artistic Director of the MIJF and helps thousands of musicians find a platform for their art. You were a teen rockstar! Can you talk about that? To cut a long story short, at the age of 15, I played in a band called Taste with Virgil Donati, Ken Murdoch and Joey Amenta. Bill Joseph Promotions had us working as a school band and had Chris Nolan (an A&R guy from Warner Brothers) come and see us one night where we were playing. As soon as he saw us, we quickly got signed to Warner Brother Records. Within months we had hits. Top 10 hits one after the other. It all happened very quickly and as those stories tend to go, success came too early. Our manager Chris Nolan was very friendly with the guy who ran the record label for Queen. The first time that Queen came to Australia, they were booed off stage. Chris was there and stood beside them. A few years later, Queen heard our third album ‘Signs of Love’, loved it and we did a deal. We were set to tour the United States with them. By then, Queen were big stars. Virtually on the plane’s doorstep, Joey and Virgil’s fathers got involved and gatecrashed one of the band parties. They found all sorts of things going on. Girls. Drugs... We were having a great time, but they definitely didn't like their children being involved. They got us all by the ear and said, “That’s it. It’s over. It's finished”. So that was it. They basically killed the band and we’re still crying about it. For me, it’s very funny in some ways and quite choking in other ways. I went on to do a whole lot of other things which I’ve enjoyed and am very happy with. Virgil too. Ken and Joey continue to do music full time, but I think they’ve struggled from those days to recapture that sort of success that we had. As we learnt later in life, it's not that easy to have record labels falling over themselves trying to sign you up. Certainly not these days. What was it like being signed with Warner? Well, we were kids, in our teens. We were younger than a lot of bands who we toured with, such as Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Skyhooks. Being signed to Warner, I felt like I lost control and I was just part of a juggernaut. We were on the road or in the studio continuously. It was quite a hard existence in many ways because we were always under pressure to deliver. If that sort of success happened again now, it’d be different because I’m an adult and I know what’s going on - I’d negotiate a much better arrangement. In those days and as a teenager (not having any real developed skills), we kind of let them dictate everything. We saw very little money. What were some of the pros of having a record label? When you’re charting they fund everything. They put you everywhere. You’re not scratching your head about where you’re going to play next. You have a whole list of gigs and there are always offers coming in. We were able to meet Queen and were offered to tour with them. Opportunities like that are much harder without a record label with some clout. Everyone is independent today and it’s so hard when it’s such a crowded market. Our manager negotiated the best thing for our band, but at the end of a day, we were just a product and Warner was trying to maximise their return. How did you move on? After the whole thing was blown up on us, I didn’t really want to join another rock band. It was quite devastating in terms of what happened. Even though we considered ourselves as serious musicians, I still couldn’t read music and I didn’t know anything about music other than what I could hear (I listen back to the first two albums and I still scratch my head), so I went back to school to try and unravel what the hell I’d been doing. I did Year 12, then auditioned for the VCA classical stream on double bass. What was your experience like directly after you completed your course at VCA? Did you know what would become? While I was studying at the VCA, I realised what an incredible pool of talent Melbourne had. Although I completed the classical stream, I used to sit in with the jazz stream and I came to love jazz music (I thought I actually chose to study the wrong stream). While studying, I was doing a lot of gigs around town and on the way home, I’d always wish that there was somewhere really cool to go back to, have a drink and listen to some great musicians jam. There was really nothing around that was staged properly and that had the right sort of atmosphere fit for the music. I dreamt for many years of starting a jazz club. It was always a fantasy. Not coming from money I didn’t know how on earth I could ever do it, but I always felt like I would. Once I’d finished at college, I had made up my mind. What were the pressures that you encountered when starting up Bennetts? There was always financial pressure. In the early 1990s, things had gone very quiet. In 1987, the property and stock markets had crashed, and that’s how I got my hands on the Bennetts Lane property… because nobody wanted it! I scraped every penny I had and I finally managed to open my own jazz club in the city in 1992, but no one was around. In the end, I was the only person who stayed open. All the little places seemed to just have died. Whilst there wasn’t much happening (and that was a problem), it kind of left that space to me for about 10 years.  Everyone asks me what my business plan was for Bennetts Lane. I opened the doors to see what happened! I was prepared to take all the risks that I had to take all the risks that I had to and I knew that I was young enough to recover if I lost everything. It was all an experiment for me as I’d never owned a bar. I didn’t know if I could charge for jazz music. I asked my staff at the time, “It’s not really working out to be paying the musicians over the bar. Do you reckon we could charge a few dollars over the door?”. How did Bennetts Lane Jazz Club become synonymous with Australian jazz? I had actually graduated from VCA in 1985. My connections to the college were still very strong because I continued playing with the musicians I met there. For me, Bennetts Lane was really a continuation of the VCA. It was there for the musicians, where the music was right - an ideal place for musicians to play and experiment. I guess the “serious” musicians understood what Bennetts was and what I was trying to achieve. The success fed on itself. Bennett’s was genuinely where musicians wanted to play and I was genuine about my endeavours. It was a great marriage and it all happened very quickly. Bennetts became this institution where visiting international musicians would come back and play. That built such a strong reputation. I became a flagship venue for the MIJF when I opened a second room in 2000. Your venues have attracted some incredible performers from all over the world. How did you start developing those relationships with artists? I always thought of Bennetts Lane as a late-night jam place. My contemporaries (people like Paul Grabowsky, Christine Sullivan) fell in love with it. It didn’t take long for [other] musicians to catch on. A lot of touring artists [who visited Melbourne] came and played. Betty Carter’s band, Christian McBride from Sting’s band, Maceo Parker in Prince’s band, Janet Jackson’s band, Kenny Kirkland, Harry Connick [Jnr]. Once those musicians started hanging out at Bennetts Lane it fed on itself. Some nights I’d sit on the stairs at Bennetts, look down at the stage and think, “I could be anywhere in the world with these great musicians. New York, Paris, London. This is absolutely what I dreamt of and what I’d envisaged in my deepest dreams, and there it is, happening in front of me”. Leroy Jones had his birthday at Bennetts Lane and Harry Connick was there playing piano. Harry took a solo on my double bass (which freaked me out), and I thought, “How the fuck did you do that?”. [Playing the] double bass takes strength and technique… you haven’t got the notes sitting in front of you… I still play that bass.  At the end of the first year I’d been open, I remember standing next to Wynton Marsalis and him saying, “this is a great place you’ve got here”. I said, “you must play in these places all the time”, and he replied, “No. There aren’t too many jazz clubs like this around the world. You’re on the right track”. Those words from Wynton really stuck in my mind for my whole career. What's so special about the Melbourne music scene? You hear everyone talking about Melbourne being culturally rich. I think the key is that you have quite a depth of talent that live here, a bit like New York, London and Paris. In New York, you’ve got 40 jazz clubs and you can hear some great world-renowned musicians. World-renowned musicians playing small clubs for very little money because that’s where they live. Melbourne, to some extent, is a bit like that. Bennetts Lane was open seven nights a week, and we always had great musicians playing. It might have only been to 10 or 15 people on a Monday night, but the point was that those 15 people would walk out and say how incredible it was. I definitely wasn’t scratching around to get somebody on stage. Melbourne has a really special depth of talent that will play seven nights a week. Now being artistic director of MIJF, what challenges do/have you faced when creating a diverse and inclusive program? I’ve always worked on an inclusive, expansive and edgy program that pushes boundaries all the time. I see jazz as something that absorbs so many influences and then keeps re-informing. Politics, fashion, all sorts of things. [Jazz] is part of the culture, it’s part of life. In terms of diversity, I’ve always tried to include all sorts of musicians [in my program]. Whoever deserves the gig gets it, regardless of race, gender. If they are there and at the ability that we need to maintain the standard, then they’ll get the gig. The thing with music is that having a qualification [is irrelevant]. Your peers will know where you’re at in the first four bars that you play. That’s the overriding measure, at the end of the day (which can be quite harsh in itself). I understand that people can develop and become something else given time and I’m very open minded and willing to give everybody another go. In recent years, the issues of women in jazz and gender diversity have been pretty big. Instinctively, I have been addressing these important issues my entire career, both through the jazz clubs and the MIJF. Over the last decade, [MIJF] has built a really strong international reputation. Herbie Hancock was here last year. He’s still the biggest name in jazz (even at 80 years old). It seems that now everybody will pick up my [MIJF] call. In the last 5 to 6 years, I’ve really strengthened our relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) - that’s the synergistic meeting of my two careers (the classical world and the jazz [world]). MSO are so happy with the collaboration and the cross-pollination of the audience that we are now doing yearly concerts. It's been a huge success and very satisfying on many levels. As a jazz club owner, what’s the most amazing musical experience that you’ve had? There are two. The first? I hate to be obvious. Prince. Both times he played at Bennetts were just unbelievable musical experiences that went on for hours. He is just such an incredible musician - he can play anything that he wants. Both of his appearances were simply exciting and amazing.  A little story: Prince came to the club the night before his first show, and he said, “Look, there will just be a few people coming tomorrow… some friends, family. Nothing big”. I don't know how the news got out, but by the morning, there was a queue right down to Little Lonsdale Street and the police had to come. The funniest thing was that my brother was in the lane and trying to get in. I was on the door and he was shouting, “I’m Michael’s brother, let me through”. Suddenly everybody started saying, “I’m Michael’s brother”, in an attempt to get in! It was a nightmare. There were so many great nights that I can’t even recall them all. A personal memory: one night I was playing, the room was full and everybody was clapping. I looked across the room and thought, “I’ve got an absolutely full room in the city. Everybody’s happy and applauding. I’m the owner. I’m the bass player. What more could a human being want? This is utopia”. When I realised Bennetts was working, I was content and I didn’t want anything more. And I think that’s the thing… knowing about how to keep yourself in the saddle. People keep wanting more and more and more and more, but I don’t want more and more and more and more. I just want my jazz club… and that’s why I’m so pissed off that it’s closed at the moment! How have you dealt with the COVID closures? I’m desperately trying to work out when we can open the Jazzlab so that I can start programming again, but most of my attention has been turned to programming the 2021 MIJF. I’m very deep into it now. We’re moving to October 2021 and it’s going to be a strong program so I’ve focussed on keeping the energy levels up. We’re going to be doing some online streaming with the festival starting on the 30th of May. Technological innovation has been pushed ahead so fast now due to the current situation. What are your thoughts on live streaming music events? To be honest, I’m not a great fan of live streaming. For my whole career I’ve been interested in live performance. That’s where the magic happens. It’s that synergy between the audience and the musicians. It’s when the audience is genuinely applauding and you can feel them being genuine about it. When you lock in, there’s a whole different energy. I’ve experienced that with jazz and I’ve experienced that in the rock band. It’s what I play for and that’s what drives me to play and book gigs. For me, streaming is a whole different experience. My Prince experience - you could only be there to really feel it and remember it forever. Ultimately, I believe the world is a far better place with live music. What's next? A new Taste album is going to be released soon. Down the track I have this idea that I might open a second room next door to the Jazzlab and make that a real jazz hub. Also growing the MIJF in terms of presentation, exploration and collaboration globally. Keep up to date with Michael on Jazzlab's website We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Please consider donating to one of these causes as part of Black Lives Matter.

  • Michael Tortoni: Rockstar to Venue Owner

    Written by Jake Amy Melbourne’s jazz culture survives and thrives in the city’s atmospheric jazz clubs, where the creative genius of the top musicians in the country is on display every night for locals and visitors alike. Once a year, these clubs are flooded with artists from all over the globe who gather here for the vibrant Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), a cornucopia of music and culture. Michael Tortoni has been a significant figure in making the Melbourne scene what it is today. The bassist and former rock musician founded the legendary Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, incarnated its descendant venue ‘The Jazzlab’, serves as Artistic Director of the MIJF and helps thousands of musicians find a platform for their art. You were a teen rockstar! Can you talk about that? To cut a long story short, at the age of 15, I played in a band called Taste with Virgil Donati, Ken Murdoch and Joey Amenta. Bill Joseph Promotions had us working as a school band and had Chris Nolan (an A&R guy from Warner Brothers) come and see us one night where we were playing. As soon as he saw us, we quickly got signed to Warner Brother Records. Within months we had hits. Top 10 hits one after the other. It all happened very quickly and as those stories tend to go, success came too early. Our manager Chris Nolan was very friendly with the guy who ran the record label for Queen. The first time that Queen came to Australia, they were booed off stage. Chris was there and stood beside them. A few years later, Queen heard our third album ‘Signs of Love’, loved it and we did a deal. We were set to tour the United States with them. By then, Queen were big stars. Virtually on the plane’s doorstep, Joey and Virgil’s fathers got involved and gatecrashed one of the band parties. They found all sorts of things going on. Girls. Drugs... We were having a great time, but they definitely didn't like their children being involved. They got us all by the ear and said, “That’s it. It’s over. It's finished”. So that was it. They basically killed the band and we’re still crying about it. For me, it’s very funny in some ways and quite choking in other ways. I went on to do a whole lot of other things which I’ve enjoyed and am very happy with. Virgil too. Ken and Joey continue to do music full time, but I think they’ve struggled from those days to recapture that sort of success that we had. As we learnt later in life, it's not that easy to have record labels falling over themselves trying to sign you up. Certainly not these days. What was it like being signed with Warner? Well, we were kids, in our teens. We were younger than a lot of bands who we toured with, such as Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Skyhooks. Being signed to Warner, I felt like I lost control and I was just part of a juggernaut. We were on the road or in the studio continuously. It was quite a hard existence in many ways because we were always under pressure to deliver. If that sort of success happened again now, it’d be different because I’m an adult and I know what’s going on - I’d negotiate a much better arrangement. In those days and as a teenager (not having any real developed skills), we kind of let them dictate everything. We saw very little money. What were some of the pros of having a record label? When you’re charting they fund everything. They put you everywhere. You’re not scratching your head about where you’re going to play next. You have a whole list of gigs and there are always offers coming in. We were able to meet Queen and were offered to tour with them. Opportunities like that are much harder without a record label with some clout. Everyone is independent today and it’s so hard when it’s such a crowded market. Our manager negotiated the best thing for our band, but at the end of a day, we were just a product and Warner was trying to maximise their return. How did you move on? After the whole thing was blown up on us, I didn’t really want to join another rock band. It was quite devastating in terms of what happened. Even though we considered ourselves as serious musicians, I still couldn’t read music and I didn’t know anything about music other than what I could hear (I listen back to the first two albums and I still scratch my head), so I went back to school to try and unravel what the hell I’d been doing. I did Year 12, then auditioned for the VCA classical stream on double bass. What was your experience like directly after you completed your course at VCA? Did you know what would become? While I was studying at the VCA, I realised what an incredible pool of talent Melbourne had. Although I completed the classical stream, I used to sit in with the jazz stream and I came to love jazz music (I thought I actually chose to study the wrong stream). While studying, I was doing a lot of gigs around town and on the way home, I’d always wish that there was somewhere really cool to go back to, have a drink and listen to some great musicians jam. There was really nothing around that was staged properly and that had the right sort of atmosphere fit for the music. I dreamt for many years of starting a jazz club. It was always a fantasy. Not coming from money I didn’t know how on earth I could ever do it, but I always felt like I would. Once I’d finished at college, I had made up my mind. What were the pressures that you encountered when starting up Bennetts? There was always financial pressure. In the early 1990s, things had gone very quiet. In 1987, the property and stock markets had crashed, and that’s how I got my hands on the Bennetts Lane property… because nobody wanted it! I scraped every penny I had and I finally managed to open my own jazz club in the city in 1992, but no one was around. In the end, I was the only person who stayed open. All the little places seemed to just have died. Whilst there wasn’t much happening (and that was a problem), it kind of left that space to me for about 10 years.  Everyone asks me what my business plan was for Bennetts Lane. I opened the doors to see what happened! I was prepared to take all the risks that I had to take all the risks that I had to and I knew that I was young enough to recover if I lost everything. It was all an experiment for me as I’d never owned a bar. I didn’t know if I could charge for jazz music. I asked my staff at the time, “It’s not really working out to be paying the musicians over the bar. Do you reckon we could charge a few dollars over the door?”. How did Bennetts Lane Jazz Club become synonymous with Australian jazz? I had actually graduated from VCA in 1985. My connections to the college were still very strong because I continued playing with the musicians I met there. For me, Bennetts Lane was really a continuation of the VCA. It was there for the musicians, where the music was right - an ideal place for musicians to play and experiment. I guess the “serious” musicians understood what Bennetts was and what I was trying to achieve. The success fed on itself. Bennett’s was genuinely where musicians wanted to play and I was genuine about my endeavours. It was a great marriage and it all happened very quickly. Bennetts became this institution where visiting international musicians would come back and play. That built such a strong reputation. I became a flagship venue for the MIJF when I opened a second room in 2000. Your venues have attracted some incredible performers from all over the world. How did you start developing those relationships with artists? I always thought of Bennetts Lane as a late-night jam place. My contemporaries (people like Paul Grabowsky, Christine Sullivan) fell in love with it. It didn’t take long for [other] musicians to catch on. A lot of touring artists [who visited Melbourne] came and played. Betty Carter’s band, Christian McBride from Sting’s band, Maceo Parker in Prince’s band, Janet Jackson’s band, Kenny Kirkland, Harry Connick [Jnr]. Once those musicians started hanging out at Bennetts Lane it fed on itself. Some nights I’d sit on the stairs at Bennetts, look down at the stage and think, “I could be anywhere in the world with these great musicians. New York, Paris, London. This is absolutely what I dreamt of and what I’d envisaged in my deepest dreams, and there it is, happening in front of me”. Leroy Jones had his birthday at Bennetts Lane and Harry Connick was there playing piano. Harry took a solo on my double bass (which freaked me out), and I thought, “How the fuck did you do that?”. [Playing the] double bass takes strength and technique… you haven’t got the notes sitting in front of you… I still play that bass.  At the end of the first year I’d been open, I remember standing next to Wynton Marsalis and him saying, “this is a great place you’ve got here”. I said, “you must play in these places all the time”, and he replied, “No. There aren’t too many jazz clubs like this around the world. You’re on the right track”. Those words from Wynton really stuck in my mind for my whole career. What's so special about the Melbourne music scene? You hear everyone talking about Melbourne being culturally rich. I think the key is that you have quite a depth of talent that live here, a bit like New York, London and Paris. In New York, you’ve got 40 jazz clubs and you can hear some great world-renowned musicians. World-renowned musicians playing small clubs for very little money because that’s where they live. Melbourne, to some extent, is a bit like that. Bennetts Lane was open seven nights a week, and we always had great musicians playing. It might have only been to 10 or 15 people on a Monday night, but the point was that those 15 people would walk out and say how incredible it was. I definitely wasn’t scratching around to get somebody on stage. Melbourne has a really special depth of talent that will play seven nights a week. Now being artistic director of MIJF, what challenges do/have you faced when creating a diverse and inclusive program? I’ve always worked on an inclusive, expansive and edgy program that pushes boundaries all the time. I see jazz as something that absorbs so many influences and then keeps re-informing. Politics, fashion, all sorts of things. [Jazz] is part of the culture, it’s part of life. In terms of diversity, I’ve always tried to include all sorts of musicians [in my program]. Whoever deserves the gig gets it, regardless of race, gender. If they are there and at the ability that we need to maintain the standard, then they’ll get the gig. The thing with music is that having a qualification [is irrelevant]. Your peers will know where you’re at in the first four bars that you play. That’s the overriding measure, at the end of the day (which can be quite harsh in itself). I understand that people can develop and become something else given time and I’m very open minded and willing to give everybody another go. In recent years, the issues of women in jazz and gender diversity have been pretty big. Instinctively, I have been addressing these important issues my entire career, both through the jazz clubs and the MIJF. Over the last decade, [MIJF] has built a really strong international reputation. Herbie Hancock was here last year. He’s still the biggest name in jazz (even at 80 years old). It seems that now everybody will pick up my [MIJF] call. In the last 5 to 6 years, I’ve really strengthened our relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) - that’s the synergistic meeting of my two careers (the classical world and the jazz [world]). MSO are so happy with the collaboration and the cross-pollination of the audience that we are now doing yearly concerts. It's been a huge success and very satisfying on many levels. As a jazz club owner, what’s the most amazing musical experience that you’ve had? There are two. The first? I hate to be obvious. Prince. Both times he played at Bennetts were just unbelievable musical experiences that went on for hours. He is just such an incredible musician - he can play anything that he wants. Both of his appearances were simply exciting and amazing.  A little story: Prince came to the club the night before his first show, and he said, “Look, there will just be a few people coming tomorrow… some friends, family. Nothing big”. I don't know how the news got out, but by the morning, there was a queue right down to Little Lonsdale Street and the police had to come. The funniest thing was that my brother was in the lane and trying to get in. I was on the door and he was shouting, “I’m Michael’s brother, let me through”. Suddenly everybody started saying, “I’m Michael’s brother”, in an attempt to get in! It was a nightmare. There were so many great nights that I can’t even recall them all. A personal memory: one night I was playing, the room was full and everybody was clapping. I looked across the room and thought, “I’ve got an absolutely full room in the city. Everybody’s happy and applauding. I’m the owner. I’m the bass player. What more could a human being want? This is utopia”. When I realised Bennetts was working, I was content and I didn’t want anything more. And I think that’s the thing… knowing about how to keep yourself in the saddle. People keep wanting more and more and more and more, but I don’t want more and more and more and more. I just want my jazz club… and that’s why I’m so pissed off that it’s closed at the moment! How have you dealt with the COVID closures? I’m desperately trying to work out when we can open the Jazzlab so that I can start programming again, but most of my attention has been turned to programming the 2021 MIJF. I’m very deep into it now. We’re moving to October 2021 and it’s going to be a strong program so I’ve focussed on keeping the energy levels up. We’re going to be doing some online streaming with the festival starting on the 30th of May. Technological innovation has been pushed ahead so fast now due to the current situation. What are your thoughts on live streaming music events? To be honest, I’m not a great fan of live streaming. For my whole career I’ve been interested in live performance. That’s where the magic happens. It’s that synergy between the audience and the musicians. It’s when the audience is genuinely applauding and you can feel them being genuine about it. When you lock in, there’s a whole different energy. I’ve experienced that with jazz and I’ve experienced that in the rock band. It’s what I play for and that’s what drives me to play and book gigs. For me, streaming is a whole different experience. My Prince experience - you could only be there to really feel it and remember it forever. Ultimately, I believe the world is a far better place with live music. What's next? A new Taste album is going to be released soon. Down the track I have this idea that I might open a second room next door to the Jazzlab and make that a real jazz hub. Also growing the MIJF in terms of presentation, exploration and collaboration globally. Keep up to date with Michael on Jazzlab's website We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article. ​ Please consider donating to one of these causes as part of Black Lives Matter. ​ Thank you dearly to Michael for your time. ​ Interview with Michael was conducted on 8 May 2020. Article first published 13 June 2020. Photographs taken by Taste Music, Greg Noakes and Kevin Peterson. Written by Jake Amy, edited by Hugh Heller.

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