Case study: Courtney Barnett

One interesting artist to consider in relation to how combinations of industiy and state support can be utilised to harness international opportunities is the Melbourne- based singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett. Originally from the northern beaches of Sydney, Barnett arrived in Melbourne in 2008. By 2010, she was playing second guitar in two local bands, subsequently finding and promoting her own gigs in inner-Melbourne pubs such as The Old Bar (The Australian, 2015). The former CEO of Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR), Nick O'Byrne became her manager in 2011, with Barnett’s first EP released in 2012, along with the establishment of her “indie” label, Milk! Records with partner and Melbourne artist Jen Cloher. Barnett’s second EP, How to Car>e a Carrot into a Rose and single “Avant Gardener” were showcased at the CMJ Music Marathon in October 2013. Pitchfork magazine named “Avant Gardener” its best new song for 2013, while Stereogum amiounced How to Can’e a Carrot into a Rose as its “Album of the week”, with favourable reviews in The Guardian and The Times (ibid.).

Barnett’s album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was released in 2014. It partially derived from an independent label funding grant of $15,000 provided by copyright body PPCA and the Australia Council. The album was released through Mom + Pop Records in the US in 2015 (and Marathon/ House Anxiety in the UK) while gaining four Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) awards in 2015: Breakthrough Artist, Best Female Artist, Best Independent Release and Best Cover Art. The album was also nominated in the same period at the BRIT Awards and the Grammys (Best New Artist). In 2015, Barnett was also awarded International Pathways funding from the Australia Council ($20,000) for showcasing activity at New York's CMJ Marathon event, coordinated by Sounds Australia. In May 2016, Barnett was the musical guest on the season finale of Saturday Night Lire's 41st season, hosted by Fred Armisen, and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In June 2017, Barnett won the Breakthrough Artist of the Year award at the A2IM Libera Awards in New York.

In some respects, Barnett's career trajectory from inner-city Melbourne pub performances to large international festivals represents an astonishingly quick progression from Emerging to Established artist. Strategising impact across different media, live performance and other industrial events, in hindsight, was essential in allowing audiences in different territories to become fans and build momentum. The local timing of the album release in March 2015, with subsequent release scheduled internationally, set up showcase possibilities:

It was just so lucky ... for it all to happen right there, just couldn’t have been better timing for her. And it really came down to timing ... if South By [Southwest] had been in April, it wouldn’t have worked ... There’s only a two or three month window ... if the record had been not completed by January, then we would have had to put the record out in the back half of the year, and we wouldn’t have had that same opportunity. So, yes ... seeing an opportunity and just running with it, hard ... you’re just ready to recognise something when it presents itself.

(O'Byme, 2018)

For Barnett, South by Southwest (SXSW) provided the opportunity to synchronise plans for further exposure: "Our booking agent was able to bring down every promoter in the country to see her show” (ibid.). South by Southwest organisers awarded Barnett the Developing Act Grulke Prize, awarded to those “who are breaking new ground with their creativity and show the most promise in achieving their career goals” (Baroni, 2015). This was preceded by appearances at CMJ and The Great Escape; yet the SXSW appearance was formulated to synchronise with a range of other activities:

At that point in time, we had every single partner in place. And it was the week before Courtney’s record came out ... we could play shows in front of every important press outlet in America, and many internationals ... play[ing] 70 shows in front of the world’s media the week before your record came out was just too perfect... Our booking agent was able to bring down every promoter in the country to see her show, publicists were able to bring TV bookers down. We did an event with Tumblr ... solidify relationships with Pitchfork or Stereogum.

(O'Byrne, 2018)

As a strikingly distinctive writer and performer, Barnett’s catalogue of witty and ironic depictions of everyday life laid the foundations for success beyond Australian audiences. Yet her path is also a textbook case in the ways in which the patchwork of state and federal export assistance can work in establishing a solid domestic base before preparing for international forays. This has included involvement as a performer with Victoria’s youth music programme The Push, an Australia Council/PPCA grant to perform at SXSW, Sounds Australia support to play at “Aussie BBQ” events at CMJ and The Great Escape, Creative Victoria funds for touring and Victorian state funding through its New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) assisting with establishing Milk! Records. For Barnett,

Government grants gave me creative independence when I was starting out, because it meant I was worrying less about impressing for label and publishing advances, and I was less reliant on taking some big-company sponsorship to fund a tour.

(Barnett cited in Hogan, 2017)

Collaboration—across territories and sectors—is an important feature, particularly if the artist and managers’ experiences can assist Emerging artists:

I think we do lots of things for free, both for ourselves as a company, and also on behalf of other artists. So, one example might be organising Courtney and some other bands in the upcoming Laneway tour. I’m trying to launch the Girls Rock! Adelaide chapter, to come a day early and have Courtney and Cam Cope ... there's no financial benefit for any of us to do that, apart from maybe giving back.

(O'Byrne, 2018)

Beyond management, Barnett utilises a team of nine people (tour manager, front of house mixing, foldback mixing, lighting personnel and four band members) fox- touring. However,

If you take a further step out, she has three booking agents - one based in North America, one based in the UK, and one based here [in Australia]. And then a UK-based label, an American label, each of those companies with teams of ten or twelve people ... Courtney’s American publicist has been quite fierce and a big part of her success ... [The] managers are the inner sanctum, but going far and wide, hundreds of other people get on board.

(O'Byrne, 2018)

Experiences with Barnett and other acts have provided her manager with firm views about understandings of “export ready”:

I’ve just never seen anyone build a buzz without a speck of buzz before. Buzz is a bad word ... Having success in the domestic market, it makes you a good artist because you’ve been plying your trade for a while ... It’s totally feasible, maybe more at a pop level, that you could have fans in a pocket of the internet overseas, that you can build on through an export strategy, without necessarily having fans here. But it’s always going to help if there’s a story at home.

(O'Byrne, 2018)

For Barnett, Sounds Australia have provided vital complementary functions to various state funding support. Beyond appearances at carefully selected showcase events, the primary benefits of Sounds Australia collaboration have been in networking:

It’s like the spider web analogy, where basically they help you line by line. You’re filling in this web until you kind of catch who you need, whether it be a record label for your artist, or not. They’ve provided 40 or more opportunities for me to draw another line and meet someone else.

(O'Byrne, 2018)

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