So accustomed is he to talking tactics, that no sooner has Michael Gudinski put down the phone and turned his attention to Time Out (who's sat patiently on the vast office sofa), than he pre-empts our first question and launches into a low-rumbling monologue that’s off like Fiorente.
The czar of Australian music, but a champion of this city in particular, Gudinski is the subject of a new RMIT Gallery exhibition. Music, Melbourne + Me: 40 Years of Mushroom & Melbourne’s Music Culture has his 40-year career at its focus, with additional contributions from the personal collections of Molly Meldrum, Split Enz, Crowded House, Skyhooks and Kylie Minogue.
Curated by RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies, it will loot the drawers of the empire that Gudinski started as a schoolboy – which now includes Frontier Touring Company, Premier Artists, The Harbour Agency, Future Entertainment, Liberation Music, Mushroom Music Publishing, Australian Tour Merchandise, Illusive Records and a smattering of venues.
A key figure in many a rock star’s memoir, Gudinski had been approached before about doing an exhibition, but it was the magic word – ‘free’ – that made him crack this time.
“Having it free to get in, I figure, is giving something back to so many people that have supported what I’ve and my artists have done,” he acknowledges. “A lot of people are doing music courses at the moment, so it might inspire them career-wise. I want to feel like I’ve left a legacy behind.”
The exhibition will be a treasure trove of memorabilia: ten-inch vinyl, coloured vinyl, cassettes, contracts (keep an eye out for that of AC/DC), posters and more, and there will also be individual talks (including Richard Lowenstein and Lynne-Maree Milburn on Autoluminescent and former rock manager Simon Fenner on the changing live music scene), as well as acoustic performances.
“The success of our Every Poster Tells a Story book proves the interest young kids have in retro music,” Gudinski says. “Vinyl this year is selling better than it has in 10 years; then you’ve got artist like Dave Grohl who are really pushing analogue recording… it all seems to come back around.”
Gudinski enjoys the archival aspect of the exhibition – he’s a fan of docos like Dave Grohl’s Sound City and MAX’s Great Music Cities of the World – and, thankfully for us, his distaste for technology means his own archives still exist in physical form.
“I’m famously known that I don’t ever send emails,” he admits, preferring to wax forth on the phone. “I send SMSs to let people know they’re in trouble. I’ve been stupidly stubborn on the technology level and I’ve been able to get away with it. I’ve never used an ATM in my life.”
The timing of the exhibition is fortuitous. A week before it begins, Gudinski will hand over the title of Melburnian of the Year to the next recipient, then it starts smack bang in the middle of Melbourne Music Week. Within its first few days, Frontier Touring will have brought Leonard Cohen into town, and Gudinski hopes to coax him into playing an extra special show in Storey Hall – part of the RMIT complex that has hosted Hunters and Collectors and Nick Cave in bygone years. Then the exhibition winds up on the same night as White Night – the citywide dusk-till-dawn festival, which may also have a Gudinski touch to it – watch this space. Coincidental it may all be, but it’s like the city has strung out the bunting for Music, Melbourne + Me.
The centrepiece of the exhibition will be the construction of his own office – or something approximating it. Hopefully they’ll install some kind of penthouse view so that you can survey the city beneath you as you sit with your feet up on the desk… that’s if Gudinski’s not actually sitting there.
“I’m thinking of going to work from there for a few days,” he contemplates. “Kate Ceberano heard about it and wants to resign her publishing contract in there.”
Gudinski’s been in his actual Albert Park office since the 1970s. “It was an old biscuit factory during the war and we liked it because it looked like shit from the outside,” he says. “It reminded me of when I first used to go to Portobello Road, to Virgin, which used to be in a laneway [Vernon Yard].”
In the early days, the staff at Albert Park would print T-shirts downstairs, so that the whole building would smell of silk-screening. Now there’s a site in Sydney, too, but the Melbourne HQ, with its warren of “little caves” has been irritating Gudinski to the point that he was thinking of leaving – until his son Matt, who is Executive Director of the Mushroom brand, stepped in. “He said, ‘Dad, this is history.’ I felt really proud that he got it.” In January he’ll apply to extend the building – and now he's bought the Future property nearby.
Outside of the exhibition, Gudinski is in talks about making a documentary, about taking a Frontier tour from the very start to completion, to show the viewer how promotion works.
“Overseas when I started, it was all ‘a record costs that’ and ‘a concert ticket costs that,” he says. “We never would have been able to exist in a small country without ever having that kind of model. You have to be a leader, not a follower, so I created a different model out of necessity. At first it was a battle to last the distance, but the most important thing is credibility. We’ve never been to court with an artist ever, which is something very few labels in the world can say.”
When asked if he’d ever considered skipping town for good, he says, “I love Melbourne and I made a conscious decision when I had kids to bring them up in Australia. It makes me a big fish in a small pond, but I love driving by my old school where we recorded this and we used to run gigs here… stuff like that.
“Perhaps that’s the reason we haven’t had more success,” he reflects. “For example, when I wouldn’t go to England with Split Enz they sacked me as their manager. These days the tyranny of distance isn’t that bad because of all the technology, but at the time it was.” He cites his friend Roger Davies, who managed Sherbet when Gudinski was managing Skyhooks, and went on to manage Tina Turner, Cher and Pink because of his willingness to relocate.
“But you know, you can’t have everything. Having a family now and having seen them get involved with/in the business. I’m just too Australian to do it. The most important thing I say to people is if you get a job and you enjoy it you’ll be better at it and if you’re enjoying your job you’re half way to enjoying your life...
“…And there’s your interview,” he concludes, leaping to his feet at the end of this 40-minute spiel. As he shows us out we pass a large fish tank installed into the wall.
“They put that there to calm me down,” he notes with a chuckle. Nice try.
What to watch out for at Music, Melbourne + Me
Footage of the legendary Sunbury Festival; Kylie's diamante-encrusted microphone; audio of Red Symons talking about Skyhooks' Living in the 70’s album cover; the history of the Save Live Australian Music movement; plus find out Adalita’s favourite live music venue; hear about Michael Gudinski’s proudest moments; learn what Paul Kelly’s favourite Mushroom album is; and discover who Dan Sultan considers his mentor.
Read Time Out's Bourne Identity inteview with Michael Gudinski