Bigsound Music Festival
My alarm was set for 5am, so of course I woke up at 2am instead. My alarm is the raucous “Undecided” by The Masters Apprentices, and it’s trained me to wake before it sounds, but three hours early was a little excessive.
My mind was racing with thoughts of the day ahead. I was about to go to Bigsound, where I had been booked as a guest speaker on two music industry panels. One of those, in particular, had me worried: it was about music rights and I had been forewarned that one of our other panellists was indifferent, if not hostile, to the interests of music creators. Somewhere about 4.30am I gave up trying to get more sleep and prepared for my flight to Brisbane.
Since its humble beginnings as an industry-only music conference 22 years ago, Bigsound has grown to become the premier showcase for new Australian music. It expanded into a fully fledged music festival in 2002, and this year 1100 Australian artists vied for a spot on the bill. Apart from general music fans, the four-day conference attracted 1400 delegates, including a sizeable contingent of international tastemakers and talent spotters. Bigsound has become the most important place for emerging artists to make their mark and be discovered.
My first panel had been given the dry-sounding title, The Formulas (or Lack Thereof) for Award Judging. Starting at the ungodly hour of 10am, it attracted a sparse crowd – no surprise given Bigsound had already been going for two days. After a couple of nights of hard partying, I doubt I would be enticed from my bed by such an unappetising subject. In fact, why was I even here? A sense of duty, I suppose. That, and standing up for what I believe in: I’ve been a judge for The Australian Music Prize since it began in 2005, and occasionally our decisions have been criticised. As a musician myself, I find the idea of awarding prizes for artistic merit contentious. Debates about aesthetics go back as far as Plato. But I’m happy to defend what we do in the AMP. My co-panellists were Dan Rosen, representing the Australian Recording Industry Association and its high-profile, often-controversial ARIA Awards, and Joel Edmondson, one of the main people behind Bigsound and its associated Levi’s Music Prize. The latter prize is only new, so it hasn’t attracted any opprobrium yet, but give it time. Despite the best efforts of our moderator, Kate Hennessy, our discussion didn’t arouse much passion in the room, which was a shame. No one there believed in any “formulas” for award judging and so “lack thereof” became the prevailing sentiment.
Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is an ideal location for Bigsound, with a remarkable number of bars, clubs and pubs within walking distance of each other. In fact, there are 18 official Bigsound venues featuring 146 different artists during the four days of the festival, with each venue hosting up to five acts a night. Everywhere I looked, I saw familiar faces. Invariably, the conversation centred on: “Who did you see play last night and who are you seeing tonight?” As much as outsiders might think otherwise, most music industry people are diehard music fans who like nothing better than to hear something new and exciting. For us, Bigsound is like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and a Sunday barbecue with friends all in one.
My afternoon panel, Rights and Who Owns What, attracted more people than the morning session, and more passion, too. I joined with music publisher Jane English and David Sheils from the Australasian Performing Right Association in vigorously defending the rights of creators to license and restrict the use of their work on digital platforms and other media, a stance that brought us into conflict with Queensland University of Technology academic Nicolas Suzor. He advocates widening “fair use” provisions as well as introducing “safe harbour” legislation and, to support his case, Suzor recounted an anecdote about a mother who put a clip of her baby dancing to a Prince song on YouTube. Her clip went viral and Prince’s publishers demanded it be taken down, something Suzor thought was morally wrong. Doesn’t everyone have the right to a million YouTube hits? Never mind that YouTube makes a fortune selling advertising off the back of these videos. I thought we should take this further. What if the mother had instead dressed her baby in a T-shirt advocating white power or, God forbid, the charming slogan, “God hates fags”? Should a songwriter be powerless to stop their music being associated with that?
Though there were no displays of temperament during our discussions, I was mightily relieved when it was over. Now I could relax and enjoy what Bigsound is really about: the music of up-and-coming artists.
After a quick nap, I arranged to meet a friend at Bigsound’s pop-up bar in the Brunswick Street Mall, then headed over the road to The Foundry to watch my first live performance. OJ Mengel’s angsty pop reminded me of Car Seat Headrest mixed in with early Triffids, though the latter may largely be due to the viola. It made a promising start to the evening.
Three bars later found me at The Zoo, a beautiful first-floor club that has the warm acoustics of a small church hall. The windows were open wide to the warm September night, like being in the tropics without the mosquitoes. Brightness, hailing from Newcastle, are a band with a big future. In late June they released Teething, a fine debut album, and, going by the performance I saw, they have the potential to grow into something wonderful. A definite contender, they even look like the real thing.
I went off piste for my next band. Tasmania’s Ewah & The Vision of Paradise were one of the many acts that missed out on a spot in the festival line-up when it was decided four months ago. Undeterred, they found a gig at Netherworld, a groovy pub-cum-pinball arcade situated at the wrong end of Brunswick Street and only a stone’s throw from the official venues. Ewah is a gem of a band with a charismatic lead singer who plays a twangalicious Gretsch White Falcon guitar. Her striking black taffeta dress cost me $5, too: I bet someone it was custom-made but it came from a Tassie op-shop.
My final stop was at Heya Bar, back in the mall, to see the wonderful Jess Ribeiro. Unfortunately, Jess had to put up with the worst mix of the night, and the sound mixer had to put up with an earful from me about that afterwards. Still, there was no mistaking that Ribeiro has written some fantastic new songs and she’s taken a bold new direction. A great performer and a great way to end the night.
So, apart from new Australian music, what else is on trend this year, according to Bigsound? More T-shirts are being tucked, and there were fewer man buns and beards than I expected. Hallelujah to that. I’ve been to many festivals over the years and Bigsound has most of them beaten hands down, particularly South by Southwest, which is its closest analogue. I love Austin, Texas, but SXSW has become way too big and much too crowded. Even with a priceless AAA laminate, most venues are impossible to get into without queueing. At Bigsound it’s still possible to come and go as you please without any stifling crowds. Make sure you go before it gets ruined by success.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "State of emergence". Subscribe here.