Sounds Australia

Beginning with initial operational funding of $50,000 from the Australia Council in 2009 to a budget of $931,890 in 2018, Sounds Australia has received over $7m in financial and in-kind support to date. Its stated roles are to:

  • • Provide the best possible environment for Australian artists at international showcase events;
  • • Provide industry value-added networking and business matching opportunities at international events and centralise export strategy across national, State and Territory funding agencies and industry bodies to reduce the duplication of available resources;
  • • Raise the profile and visibility of Australian artists and industry in key international markets; and
  • • Facilitate the introduction of buyers and sellers of Australian music (Sounds Australia, 2018a).

In similar ways to other case study nations examined in the next chapter, Sounds Australia invests its resources heavily in the showcase/trade fair model. This includes a range of activities that are specific to particular artists, managers and companies that emphasises industry-wide sharing of knowledge.

According to its Executive Producer Millie Millgate, in its 10-year history, Sounds Australia has showcased 1,708 Australian acts and coordinated 176 B2B networking events, 39 trade stands and 15,274 meeting opportunities. Its staff have been involved in 22 panel presentations, and organised 115 Australian speakers at international conference events; since 2009, Sounds Australia has been involved in 80 different international events, in 69 different cities and across 25 countries (ibid.). For example, Australian showcase nights are offered at the Folk Alliance International in North America; an Australian pavilion stand is offered at Jazzahead in Bremen and Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam; and in 2019, 33 Australian artists performed at The Great Escape, the primary showcase event in the UK. At South by Southwest, an Australia House was established in 2018 to present acts over five days and nights in Austin. There is also a large annual presence at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg.

In addition, Sounds Australia has hosted a range of veteran and emerging acts at the Americanafest in Nashville, and at Music Matters, Asia’s prominent independent music festival. Based on expressions of interest, a delegation is also taken to A2IM, the “Indie Week” conference held annually in New York. Sounds Australia staff also attend the annual BIGSOUND Festival in Brisbane and have led in events where Australia has been nominated as the "spotlight” country at Canadian Music Week (2015), The Great Escape (2010, 2019) and the Reeperbahn Festival (2019).

Sounds Australia does not select artists for particular showcase or promotional events; the organisation becomes involved once an act has been invited to perform. Instead, the organisation is activated upon an artist or manager’s presence or acceptance to an international event or strategy:

What works I think incredibly well with our initiative over other territories is that we have nothing to do with the artists being selected, and it’s something we try to remain distant; the less we have to do with that, the better ... We’ve been asked, but the more arm’s length we are, the better. I’ve looked at initiatives [in other countries] who are backing their best horses attempting to filter locally, and then push ... but if a festival booker in Brighton, or Austin, or Toronto has decided that “this artist might do well in our market”, that's when we step in, when they then come to us. To me, that’s a much more effective way of making that decision. Once you’re committed, then ... we get involved with export training, with information, what state and federal funds they can go for.

(Interview 17, 2009)

Domestically, Sounds Australia coordinates information sessions in each State fox- artists, labels and managers interested in export activity, with an emphasis upon expectations and preparedness to be "export ready”.

The project undertook to observe Sounds Australia at key events; authors observed their staff at A2IM, The Great Escape, MIDEM and Reeperbahn, while also conducting interviews with other national export staff and attendees. We observed the general flows of traffic through events, where attendees were primarily juggling many activities throughout one day, according to their industry roles: Business meetings, managing a showcase for their performer, attending a panel presentation for market reconnaissance, gauging the related market and regulatory contexts of the host country, scoping media opportunities, scoping licensing opportunities, etc. This included Sounds Australia activities such as “speed networking” for businesses, business stand representations, networking receptions, Australian market briefings or the distribution of Australian marketing materials or digital start-up sessions. Alternatively, Sounds Australia will facilitate specific market reconnaissance meetings for Australian managers (e.g. “Meet the Canadians”; Irish networking breakfast).

In our observations of Sounds Australia’s presence at key events, it was clear that Millie Millgate enjoyed an enviable reputation among other national export staff. This has been earned by Millgate’s collegiality with other national stand staff and managers, and her accumulation of knowledge about the international flows of personnel, genres and gatekeepers (and it is rare for the same senior expoxt manager to remain in the role for ten years, an unusually long period). This uniquely places Millgate to observe trends in national policy, and the evolution of showcase work tied to other activities.

Previous incarnations of export assistance—the Australian Music Office work in locations such as Los Angeles in the 1980s, for example—have described their primary task to be that of “matchmakers” (see above). For Australian industry personnel, Millgate exemplifies the “intermediary” model (Negus, 2002) of harnessing industry knowledge and different elements of a global network where applicable. According to one artist manager:

I think that on a very personal level having [Sounds Australia] people in those markets at those big showcases, when the managers have problems or wobbles, or don’t know what to do about something, that sort of friendly person from home is actually really, really important, and I think they do a really good job of that.

(Interview 18, 2018)

Budget considerations, mixed with the “hands-on” approach of the Sounds Australia team, also means that they are more likely to perform on-the-ground duties themselves:

Other [national schemes], they just would never think to deal directly with a venue ... They’d want to put someone on the ground locally who will know ... It means you’ve got a relationship with the artist that is very, very personal and very close.

(Interview 16, 2018)

This seemed very different from the fee-for-service model favoured by the federal governments of the 1980s and 1990s.

That nations (and by extension, music export offices and programmes) are engaged in competition within “attention economies”, and related goals of improved export revenues, is at times implicit and explicit. However, we observed high levels of cooperation between export office staff at showcase events, supported by the comments of various staff interviewed. Beyond competitive instincts, there was acknowledgement that at times shared resources and expertise could benefit all parties:

So we’d help out the Canadians and then when you go back to Canada or the U.S. or whatever, the Canadians would say “come along to the party”. And then you're meeting up with all the different ones, so we became part of the gang. And I can remember for Australia we did Liverpool Sound City, we were all in the same physical space, the Australians were downstairs, we were upstairs. So we said, rather than one competing with the other, why don’t we do an exchange? Like, I’ll pay for the beer, you pay for the barbeque. It will be a Brazilian band, an Australian band, Brazilian band, Australian band. And in Millie's case it works really well because she doesn’t have ego, she’s not like “no, no, no”, it’s okay, so it works ... We do these things almost out of povei-ty, we have to be inventive to find new means of attracting publics and so on.

(Interview 19, 2016)

This reminds us of the different hierarchies of support available to export administrators, contingent upon the emphasis and related funding within national cultural budgets. Yet it also reinforces another intangible factor at play: A much broader desire to see artists succeed, irrespective of their national origins.

While State governments had always interacted with Sounds Australia, collaboration is also gradually increasing with other federal government sectors. For example, in 2018, Sounds Australia assisted Tourism Australia’s “G'Day USA” programme and Austrade to provide an Australia House platform at South by Southwest, which included the use of celebrity chefs and film stars promoting Australian food parallel to the music offerings (Interview 20, 2018).

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