In the late 90’s the move from Perth to Melbourne was still a big one. Before you could Google your way around the world, everything took longer.
Gareth Liddiard and Rui Pereira landed in Melbourne not knowing anyone, their bass player Fiona Kitschin followed six months later. The Drones started out self-managed like most unknown bands do. They signed a deal for their first, prophetically entitled album Here Come the Liesand then had to wait two years to be free of contractual restrictions before they could release Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By. The wait paid off because the album made a big impression both here and overseas, launching their careers.
When Gareth and Fiona came in to speak at our November weekend, people were particularly interested in hearing how they toured their music overseas. Gareth remembered it taking him eight months to book their first tour through Europe and the U.S, “I just looked at bands we liked, saw where they played and called the publican. This was a bit before you could find everything online, so it took a lot longer than it would today.” At the end of 2005 The Drones licensed Wait Long By the River to All Tomorrows Parties, opening the door to further opportunities to play overseas and giving them an official platform to release their music outside of Australia.
It was on their first trip to SXSW Austin TX, that Gareth had a conversation with Black Flag’s Keith Morris that would change his approach to touring overseas. Morris felt that trying to become well known in other countries before you were known in your own was a back-to-front approach. He recommended Gareth make a name for The Drones in Melbourne first and work from there. His sound philosophy of making your music business sustainable at home before building an audience overseas would bode well for The Drones.
Black Flag released music through their own label in the 80’s more from necessity than choice, but the world could learn from punk’s DIY ethic – we’re seeing first hand that business built on the foundation of debt can see whole economies crumble.
Which brought us to the next question, ‘Can you tour overseas in a way that is sustainable?’
For each band or artist the answer will be different. One of Australia’s most successful independent exports John Butler told me that for the past decade he’s only spent three months of each year at home in Australia. When you have a wife and kids, that’s a lot of time away. Mia Dyson moved to the U.S three years ago to pursue a career in the States and told me how she had to start again, venue by venue, town by town, sometimes playing to ten people, sometimes playing to two hundred. Perhaps you get the opportunity to tour in support of an already established band or play a big festival, a good way of introduction, but you’ll have to sell a shit load of CD’s to see any returns.
But we’ve also heard the grizzly tales of bands that break up overseas or go into so much debt they have to spend the next three years working to pay it off as they watch their creative output slowly grind to a halt. We often go to another country expecting to find some kind of musical Mecca of acceptance, only to discover how much smaller we feel in a massive community of bands. We learn that Australia doesn’t really factor on the international landscape. But this is slowly changing.
There are people doing great things for Australian music overseas, one of my favourite organisations being Sounds Australia, headed by the inspirational Millie Millgate. They’ve established inroads for Aussie bands to be heard at SXSW, MIDEM, CMJ, The Great Escape and Canadian Music Week, garnering real partnerships and support from overseas labels, booking agents, touring companies and publishers. And we need this, particularly as self managed artists, where business is built on quality relationships with people who understand what we are doing.
It was agreed over the course of the weekend, after much discussion, that making the commitment to overseas touring works best when you’ve released music in that territory. The Drones recently decided to self manage again. Gareth made the analogy of your local butcher deciding to give 20% of his gross income to someone outside of the business, “He’d think you were crazy if you told him that’s how you conduct your music business”. With a hands on approach, both Gareth and Fiona agreed, that working with a supportive and well-informed label has made all the difference. “Having those already established networks takes a lot of the headache and worry out of touring” Fiona observed, reminding us that beyond all of the business considerations touring is still, “A great way to see the world.”