Fledgling indie songstress Gossling at SXSW
Helen Croome, who sings under the moniker Gossling, sounds just like the baby bird after which she named herself. Her sweetly quiet voice seems almost too young to belong to a 31-year-old woman, her diminutive frame too fragile to be lugging music gear through a 30,000-strong crowd in the middle of Texas. But Gossling takes it all in her stride. When I tell her that playing a half-hour set in front of all the music industry representatives she hopes to impress seems almost cruel, she shrugs. “I had a lot of people warning me that it’s a really full-on experience. I think I made it to be quite a stressful thing in my head, then it hasn’t been as bad as I’d imagined. It was almost a relief, really, to see that it wasn’t quite as intense a week as I’d built up in my mind.”
The folk pop singer-songwriter from Melbourne, whose debut album Harvest of Gold was released late last year, was one of 55 Australian acts that played at this year’s South by South West (SXSW) music conference in Austin, Texas. The festival is a mythic event in music industry networking: a convergence of showcasing musicians and record label people, immense in number and dreams, all hoping to discover or be discovered. This year’s Australian contingent was a record number. “It’s not a festival for regular punters,” Croome tells me a week after SXSW, from London, where she’s playing two shows and co-writing with Sparkadia’s Alexander Burnett before heading home. “I went in with the headspace of knowing that it was the place to meet the industry and impress the representatives across the other side of the world.”
SXSW is a daunting prospect for Australian bands. Without a record label or booking agent, many of the artists who made the journey to Austin this year struggled to attract much of an audience. Those who did, had a limited time to make a lasting impression. In a festival that’s become in recent years more about promotion than discovery, the multinational corn chip brand Doritos received more recognition than any band managed to – with the exception of Lady Gaga, because she played on a stage housed within a giant Doritos vending machine.
Smaller, less organised bands often misconstrue playing in front of a roomful of industry reps as coming down to luck. The smart ones, such as Gossling, know that it’s a matter of hard work and timing. Croome’s manager, Laura Wallbridge, was able to line up eight showcases for the festival, making sure that Gossling performed in front of the international labels, lawyers and agents they needed to impress. I catch her fifth showcase, on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Maggie Mae’s, where we speak briefly before she and her band head out into the crowds, on their way to play another two shows before the last day and night of the festival are through. Although short, Gossling’s set is a remarkable crash course in gorgeous pop songcraft. Her songs are sonically rich and beautifully realised, with plenty of guitar climaxes and that dreamy voice layered over it all. The 200-strong crowd packed into the upstairs bar to see her is a mix of 30-something industry reps, younger fans who drift happily between each stage, and a determined group of over-50s who have taken over the bar’s lounge furniture and don’t look as though they’ll move all day. After her set, Gossling packs up her gear in three minutes flat, hurriedly exiting the stage so she doesn’t take up any of the next band’s precious half-hour slot.
“I was quite anxious to get to SXSW,” she tells me over the phone from London, “but my label and management held me back, saying that all of the pieces weren’t quite ready yet, that we needed to make sure the timing was absolutely right. Although I didn’t want to hear it at the time, it turned out they were right.”
Wallbridge tells me that Gossling’s SXSW debut was a plan several years in the making. “We actually declined SXSW invitations for the past two years, because we just didn’t feel the timing was right. Her debut album needed to be finished, her live show needed to be super tight, and we had to have enough going on in Australia to justify shifting our focus to the rest of the world,” she says. “If you go to SXSW too early it will be a huge waste of time and money.”
Glenn Dickie, who co-founded the now institutional Aussie BBQ showcase 12 years ago, agrees. “A great band in Australia who are 18- or 19-year-olds might be cool, but they might not be ready to go overseas and they certainly might not be ready to be playing SXSW. Getting accepted doesn’t automatically mean you should be going,” he explains. “Laura was really smart about her timing, and a lot of managers are following suit – pulling out at the last minute because of funding, or they just don’t feel there’s enough buzz or traction back home. It’s crucial to get that timing right.”
For Australians in particular, playing SXSW is a huge and expensive undertaking. Bands have to travel further than anyone else, and compared with the rest of the world, there’s only a small amount of government arts funding available. It’s for this reason that Dickie is mistaken for a government representative to this day. “You know, the Brits and the Canadians invest millions in local music, and even the New Zealanders have a couple of hundred grand or something crazy available to them,” he says.
After attending SXSW for the first time as a music fan, Dickie started the first dedicated showcase for Australians the following year “by accident”. He and a friend, Age music columnist and booker Mary Mihelakos, had noticed there was no real focus on Australian bands at the festival. “There were all these bands who were going over that didn’t really know what to do,” Dickie says. “International reps didn’t know that they were there, or that they even existed. We had enough contacts that we could put on a show, so we booked a car park, bought some meat, cooked a BBQ, and then we just kept on doing it.”
Today, the Aussie BBQ is one of SXSW’s most popular showcases. When I arrived at 11am, an hour after it began, there was already a queue snaking around the block for the 35 acts on the bill. Five hours later, the fire marshal had to stop allowing people into the three-stage venue.
By the end of the 14-hour showcase, more than 3000 people have seen the likes of Mia Dyson, Vancouver Sleep Clinic, Gang of Youths and Lime Cordiale, as well as Gossling. Despite the number of industry people in attendance, weighed down with lanyards and standing a uniform 10 metres back from all the stages, the BBQ still feels like a neighbourhood street party, one that just happens to be taking place in a two-storey brick hotel in Austin. Most other SXSW showcases are heavily branded and rely on the supply of free drinks to draw in an audience, but the BBQ offers only plastic plates of sausages, burgers and potato salad. “Some people just come for the free food,” says Dickie, “because they’re bastards. But most are there for the music.”
Eventually, after six years, the Australia Council put a program together, started a group called Sounds Australia and employed Dickie, and together they now run the BBQ in Austin, as well as at satellite shows in Los Angeles and New York. “We’ve extended it well beyond what we ever thought it would be,” Dickie says. “It’s now an international brand for Australian showcasing. And I’m still broke.”
Money is one of the more delicate questions put to SXSW artists, and when I ask Wallbridge a rude question about Gossling’s funding, she laughs. “That is crass, but it’s a fair question.” Croome missed out on government funding this year, and getting her there was “a group funding effort”, says Wallbridge. “We had support from our record label and our publishers, and Helen had some money saved.” Of the 55 Australian bands that played SXSW in 2014, only “maybe five or seven” received funding, according to Dickie. As for the Aussie BBQ itself, “we’ve got money up until 2016,” he says. “We just have to hope that we’ve proved it’s a valuable asset to the arts and for exporting Australian music.”
The myth of SXSW
Despite all of the risks inherent in flying halfway across the world in the hope that a label executive will sit up and pay attention to an unknown band from Australia, SXSW is still the first and foremost music export destination for young artists. “The whole festival has such a buzz that people think if you’ve played SXSW you’re going to be discovered,” Croome says. “Truth is, though, those bands who are discovered have spent a lot of time setting things up beforehand, and it wasn’t just a SXSW performance that got them to where they are. It’s funny that SXSW has this huge burden placed upon it.” After we finish speaking, I go online to try to pinpoint a band famous for having definitively “made it” at SXSW. I find only Hanson, the ’90s boy band of brothers brought along by their father to perform unauthorised, impromptu auditions.
When I ask Dickie about the myth of SXSW – that it’s a festival designed so that one short performance will make or break bands – he shrugs. “SXSW and the Aussie BBQ are often just another piece of the puzzle,” he says. “We’re not the be all and end all. It would be very uncommon for someone to play the BBQ and then become Gotye, or whatever.”
Each showcasing band at the BBQ is asked to use the custom-made smartphone app to select the top four outcomes that they’re looking for – an agent, a label, a lawyer and a publicist being the most common responses. Making sure I understand that this is a rare example, Dickie tells me that last year Sydney-based folk duo The Falls were able to tick off all four goals over the course of the Aussie BBQ’s three US events. “For us, that was a really proud moment. We could see the lineage of what happened. It can take years and years for a band to achieve all those goals, but The Falls got every single thing they wanted out of one set of BBQ shows.”
Will The Falls’ success story ensure that Australian bands continue to make the long journey to Texas, hoping that they’re also good enough to make it? “The bands are usually good,” he says. “That’s not really the issue. It’s the team around them that has to work really well to make sure that there are any results, though. I’d almost say it’s less about the bands and more about their management team knowing what they’re doing.”
For Gossling, having a management team with specific goals, expected outcomes and long-term plans for her career means “I can switch off the business side of my brain and just focus on the music.”
“It does give me more space to be creative,” Croome says. “I know that Laura and her team have three- and five-year strategies, and are far more into planning than I am.”
When I ask if Croome knows what their five-year plan for her is, she hesitates. “Ummm. No. That’s terrible,” she laughs. “I’m a very realistic person, so I prefer to look back, rather than forwards. I have a little book where I write down little achievements as they happen over the years, and I find it more motivating and satisfying to look back, rather than thinking forward and dreaming about things. Sometimes that’s a bit of a flaw, in that you should dream big. But at the same time, if I’ve got professionals doing that for me…”
By all accounts, Gossling’s SXSW showcases will be worthy of an entry in her little book. “From what I understand,” says Dickie, “it was just the final pieces of the puzzle that needed to be set in place for Gossling, and her team was able to do that.” Gossling herself may not be paying too much attention to the nitty-gritty of her career, but all the pieces are now there.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Set to pop". Subscribe here.