First published on 1 Aug 2012. Updated on 7 Aug 2012.
Let’s talk a bit about your formative years. Were your schools a hotbed for music enthusiasts?
Melbourne High was I guess. One of the first bands I signed to Mushroom, Madder Lake, two or three of them went to Melbourne High. One of the good things to come out of these TV shows like The Voice is that about 10, 12 years ago there was a real period of time where kids were really, I guess, computer games were all the rage for kids, but in the last 10 years there's been a real change and live music has really taken a real front foot. And now, because of whatever reasons – TV shows, Jusin Bieber – I've seen kids going to shows at five or six years old.
When I started it was a very backyard industry and so a lot of those bands had a rebellious attitude. Sure there was pop, but it was something that was a bit controversial, whereas now so many kids are trying to be in music. It's a tough business in the sense that there's no real formula. There are a lot of incredible artists around who actually don't want to be number one. There are lots of ways of making a career out of it without actually um, attempting um, you know to, to be the next big thing, but it’s still very, very competitive.
I guess one of the things that I'd like to happen before I cark it would be… you know that Australian music invasion of Kylie, Men at Work, Midnight Oil, INXS and those sorts, [the second wave] has been a long time coming. At the moment you've got incredible success with Temper Trap, massive success with Gotye, and Husky just got single of the week on iTunes in America. The Jezabels… Hayley’s an absolute superstar. She’s come so far in one album. I think Gypsy and the Cat have got a lot of potential, and Lanie Lane. The teaming of distance and new technology is in a way a lot easier, but things are also a lot more competitive.
The way forward for the publishing industry is increasingly thought to be niche, boutique publications. Do you think the same goes for record companies?
The record industry's survived its own failures. I tell people that have worked in it for a long time, don't look back. If you're going to live in the past, go somewhere else, because it's a different world.” Single sales – you know, no one talks about this – are five times what they were 20 or 30 years ago for number ones. The great thing with iTunes is that there's no such thing as returns anymore. In the old days you'd be sending singles out in droves and if it didn't work it'd come back – and that's an expensive exercise. It’s also much more legitimate now: it's very difficult to hype charts. The independent labels have come to the fore again because the idea of a label has changed so much that it's about managing rights. It's encouraging to see like labels like Sub Pop doing well, or the fact that Adele's on an independent label and has sold massive amounts.
A lot of the major labels are so occupied with TV – like Universal have got The Voice, Sony have got X Factor and Australia's Got Talent – that's taken the place of artist development. It gives the independent labels a lot more time, because then they understand that a lot of things can happen with one song: bang! But with real artists it's like building anything – you have to have real solid foundations like with Lanie Lane... we haven't had a hit song. She got five more nominations for the APRAs; than Gotye did. I said to her, “Listen; you won't win any but don't be worried – it's just such a compliment and it's better to be the underdog.” The next album, with those foundations in place, will get her in a much better place.
It’s just a matter of having that song – and for some acts that song never comes. But Gotye, you get people overseas going, “Where, where did that come from?” You know, “He's just come from nothing!” The guy's had two albums and worked in a band before to build up to that point! Those kind of songs are what everyone dreams of but they're very hard to follow up.
I want to talk about you a bit. Just lately I've been reading bios by or about Stephen Cummings, James Freud, Skyhooks and Christina Amphlett, and you get a large mention in all of them. There always seems to be a very grudging respect.
They’re different situations. Most of them – I haven't read all those things – look, Kylie had a song 'Better the Devil You Know' that...
That was about you, was it?
No. She didn't write it anyway! But look, I'll fight hard for my artist. Most of the people, particularly in the growing days, it was tough and a lot of people didn't like the fact that I set up what became around the world a ‘360 deal’. We’re a small country and to be able to continue doing Australian music it just made sense that we could afford to try and compete. But I'm very proud of the fact that I've never been to court with an artist ever. I might have settled once or twice! I try and be as positive as I can for the artist but with some artists you know, you've got to be a bit tough. Stephen Cummings, in particular, was such a great talent and he's a writes good books and everything else, but he's a bit of an anti-star. And so we used to sort of lock heads a bit.
Look, in the first year of Mushroom Records I said there are artists for our strengths – and we're a very artist-friendly company, so I think that’s brought a lot of respect. But recently it’s really down to the people around me. In the last couple of weeks I’ve had a couple of good accolades – which, you know, I’ll take – but it really is all about people. There are [music industry] courses and stuff you can do, but most of my people have come out of work experience. Anyone that I've got that's a bit older and experienced – which we call the red-hot people – you put someone really young with. And you might go three people until you find the right one, but I find that that kind of practical experience gives people a chance to understand the business more. Because nowadays the business seems to be a bit of an umbrella in the sense that it’s also about managing rights and really placing them in the right direction.
There have been major changes. Twenty years ago you’d frown on big commercials and big syncs for TV shows, whereas now, that’s one of the most important things. Commercial radio is fantastic when you get it – and you’ve got to set up towards getting it – but all the international acts that have had big hits overseas have proven that commercial radio is competitive and you’ve got to fight for it. I find it incredibly frustrating when people sit around saying, “I’m not getting radio play’.” There are other ways of doing it, like when you have a sync. It’s ridiculous, but I’ll explain how it works. We had a sync for the Temper Trap’s ‘Trembling Hands’ on Offspring last week and the effect on the iTunes chart was instant – from 150 to 120 or something. That sync runs two times and then they play it out at the end of the State of Origin and the next day, the song’s gone from, I think, 110 to 27 in the chart. Now, radio will look at that, so obviously if you’re careful about where you put a song and plan it well, it can do wonders.
But those things have got to be planned, particularly things with movies – to get a couple of Temper Trap songs in 500 Days of Summer, which was critical for us, we had to get those songs to the music coordinator for that movie when they were in demo form. Because seriously, movies have got long time spans. So much of this business is to do with good luck, good timing, good artists and good people around you, but timing can be critical. You don’t want that sync to come four weeks before the songs out, you don’t want the sync to come three months after it’s already hit… because most of those things don’t pay, it’s different to a big commercial.
You hear so many people whinging about radio but there are other ways; live touring, selling at shows; you’ve got to try and get yourself started. Gotye was nearly No.1 on the charts before the big stations picked it up. With Little Red’s ‘Rock It’ we were already gold through mainly Triple J and maybe a bit of Nova, and then Austereo and Fox 2Day and Nova went on to pick it up and bang it properly – but the song goes from gold to platinum, we can’t get it off the radio.
Look, I sympathise, because we actually released the Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’ twice. Now that is one of the great anthems of the last 20 years, whether you like the band or you don’t. If they had been on any big label or if we had just given up, that song could have been missed. There are so many good songs that that happens to.
I reckon you’re evading my questions that are about you personally, so I’ll just return to that. In your teens, when you were putting on gigs like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, before launching Mushroom at 20, did you have any mentors?
Yeah I had a few… I’ll finish off what I was saying before. I didn’t finish school; I’d already started running dances. It was a very academic school; it’s theme was ‘Honour the Works’ so I guess it gave me a lot of good grounding but I wanted to have a job that I enjoyed. I really believed in Australian music, because I used to go out and see bands. The first band I ever saw, by luck it was a lunchtime show – discos and Coke and Fanta – it was the Loved Ones. Gerry Humphries, who was amazing, wrote that song, ‘The Loved One’, that INXS recorded.
In those days – which is why Mushroom started – bands only put out one album and a couple of singles and were told when to record. There was fuck-all creative process. I came in, going, “It’s supposed to be creative here and everyone’s stifling creativity,” so I guess the first mentor was the guy that talked me into leaving school. He was a big dance disco promoter around Melbourne called Bill Joseph and he ended up later on becoming part-manager of AC/DC when they moved to Melbourne. I put up posters, I worked in cloakrooms, I worked my way around, and then I became an agent in a company that I left pretty young and set up my own business with the other person, Michael Browning. He became the AC/DC manager who took them to England; who managed Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs when Sunbury was on and all that era. We were agents and managers – which in America, there’s antitrust laws so you can’t be both, but in England and Australia you can – so we used to manage and book Billy Thorpe and the Chain. We called ourselves Consolidated Rock, and that’s really when I wanted to start Mushroom, but we got sidetracked because Michael wanted to start a magazine – which ended up causing us to split up and we nearly went broke – called Daily Planet [1971-2].
The other mentor I had was when I started Mushroom a year or two later was a guy that ran Festival Records [formed in 1952, it became distributor for Mushroom], who’s dead now: Alan Hely. He worked for Rupert Murdoch for years and used to come stay and with me, and he really gave me a lot of background. It was really hard and it took a long time, because even though we had success that kept us going in Australia, there were a few highs and lows. We were very lucky in the sense that every time [there was a low], in the nick of time a hero arose. Kylie came at a time when we really needed it; ironic at a rock label. We’d done pop, but it was ironic that out of all the great music I took to England… I’m not knocking Kylie, but it took pop stuff to really crack through.
That’s what it was like: when the record company was tough, the touring company was good – there was always something to keep it going. I always used to call the label my day job and it was the touring I enjoyed more because you’d say hello at the airport when the act arrived and goodbye when they leave. It was a great job, because you’d go out on the road with these acts and it was the days of more decadence. The industry’s really matured and the footballers have taken over [that rock star role]. The days of artists throwing shit out of rooms and really being stupid… you know, it’s grown up. People are doing breakfast TV; people are doing two-and-a-half hour shows. [Partying is] the sort of thing you can do when you’re working up to it, but when you get your chance in the spotlight, you’ve got to grab it.
I realised that at the time in Melbourne in the ’70s, it was really weird in Australia. Everything was a foreign import, be it cars, clothes, movies… imported music shops were the rage. You’d pay more money to get the imported disc, but there was very much a cultural cringe. I’d like to think that some of the acts that Mushroom launched helped change that.
It was the same with movies, but movies, it’s another world within itself. I’ve done a few myself, but I don’t like it. I mean, it takes so long that it can be such a frustrating process. I’m renowned for not having that much patience. But we’ve rejuvenated Mushroom Pictures with Chopper  produced by Michelle Bennett and we’ve done a couple of other good things, but I much prefer TV. I did a Ben Cousins documentary which was a massive success and we’ve got a couple of TV ideas now – because I think TV done the right way could be massive exposure and a good turnaround. I’ve reactivated Mushroom Pictures with a guy called Mark Morrissey [formerly of Morrissey Management] and John Molloy, because everyone in the film industry seems to have to go overseas and there’s fuck-all Australian films.
Do you think there’s ever likely to be a need for a program like Countdown again?
I think it would have to be updated. I’m surprised a show like The Project – which I quite like even though it’s gone to an hour – doesn’t feature more about artists and touring and new music, even a little bit, I think things like Later With Jools Holland and MAX TV’s Great Music Cities of the World are fantastic. But they’re really for real fans and you preach to the converted – you don’t just put something on there and then the next day see the result. That was the great thing about Countdown. You’d never create that again, but I think it’d be good, if not on one of the main channels, on one of the HD channels that everyone can get. Rage is fantastic, but it’s late at night.
One thing that we’re missing that America does well is all those late-night talk shows. No one gives a stuff about late-night TV here, but there you’ve got Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman, Conon O’Brien, Ellen… there’s about ten of these shows that might only have one act on. Letterman, for a mainstream show that he’s had some pretty cool acts on and live TV can be really good now. I think Australia could handle a show like Jools Hooland’s on ABC 1 or 2. Frontier did Squeeze’s very first tour over here, and Jools was always a funny sort of act, and because he’s a muso [it’s a meaningful show].
You cut your school life short, but had your parents had a very different career path mapped out for you?
Well look, I come from and old-school European family and I was the black sheep. They expect you to go to university and I had some inklings to be a lawyer, but I had a dream and I got on a wave at the right time. Just like there are some people that really embrace new technology. One of the big reasons Apple iTunes is there, one of the big reasons all the big labels fell apart, is because they had all these massive legal departments. If you went to them to try and get the rights to do anything, aside from the norm, they let legality interfere with new technology. You can’t hold that stuff back. I’ve invested a lot into new technology, although as you can see I don’t work on a computer myself. I’m embarrassed to say I tried to be a rebel, which was bullshit, but only recently, in the last year or two, have I taken up an iPad and iPhone. I don’t have people email me because I get 500 emails. I have it filtered out. I read the Steve Jobs book and you know, I guess anyone that’s got such a passion and is in something early has got a real chance if they follow their dream of being very successful and being a market changer and leader. Certainly reading that, he was a pretty interesting cat.
Wait… you don’t work on a laptop?
No. I’ve got an iPad.
What do you do on your iPad?
Well I get stuff sent to me because I’m working on the road, but with things like budgets and everything else, I prefer actually to make changes on paper. I just don’t want to become a slave to the technology. Some people I know in America, they spend a whole gig answering emails and then they get three times more again.
Is there any act that broke your heart?
Never sleep with the talent! It’s well known that I’ve knocked back better work a couple of times, but there are a few artists I would have loved to have toured. The things is, I was very competitive. When I was talking about going on the road, the other good thing about the road – particularly in the earlier years – was that you talk to people on radio and you talk to kids, punters, and you’d get a feel of what was going on. I just helped the Jezabels get on four Garbage shows in England, which is sensational for them.
There’s all these bullshit artists and managers who control what goes on. Everyone talks about extortionate ticket prices, particularly with hip hop and stuff like that where the production’s not as expensive, and it’s just a big grab-and-run, you know? It irritates me when promoters don’t look after fans. One thing I understand is it’s your first thousand fans that are the most important thousand. To get a gold album that sells… once you’ve got a gold album, it’s easier to get the platinum album. And all these promoters that are doing two-for-one ticket deals, it’s just not right to the fans that have actually bought early. The kids don’t care who presents a show, bu I do think they notice the promoters that do the discounting and they’re getting a bit smarter about it.
We’re doing Ed Sheeran’s first tour… he’s starting to break in America too. But in Australia he was in the Top 10 for about nine months. He could easily do a Rod Laver, but he’s doing one Palais Theatre show, so there’s a massive interest, everyone’s going nuts. Then we bring him back later in the year. I think artists that underplay and aren’t greedy have it right. When you add that extra show and then you only sell 1/3 of the tickets and you’re panicking, you’re better off just not doing that show.
You still get out to the sticky carpets, don’t you?
I still go to gigs all the time and it’s hard going from being the youngest guy there to the oldest now. I’ve got great people around me working for me now, but there’s still stuff like the Temper Trap which was my baby from day one. I knew it. When we first saw them there were 50 people at the gig. You’ve got to be a leader at times like that, because by the time you develop an act, the popular things on the radio will have changed anyway. Even when I first signed Split Endz, they had all these zany outfits and at one gig they got booed off stage. My staff said, “You can’t possibly sign this band,” and I said, “It’s better to get that reaction than none.” That’s very true. I’ve always had an eye for something that’s a bit quirky or different.
You’ve put out the Frontier Touring Company’s Every Poster Tells a Story book, but would you write a memoir?
I’ve been offered lots of money to be a judge on Idol, X Factor. A) I can’t play a note, B) I would never do something like that. I think The Voice has been refreshing in the sense that they’re using real voices and it’s not knocking talent. I know what I’m good at and as far as a book goes, I’ve never kept a diary, I don’t like to write properly, I don’t like tell-tale books, and I think what goes on the road should stay on the road.
1952 Born in Caulfield to Russian immigrants
1967 Starts promoting gigs, including the Aztecs and Chain, and is kicked out of home for his troubles
1970 Forms Consolidated Rock Agency. His music mag, Daily Planet, flops
1972 Launches Mushroom Records, followed by Premier Artists booking agency the next year
1975 Bags a $1.5m deal with Phonogram for Skyhooks – the biggest heard for an Australian band
1983 Marries Sue Smith, a radio promotions manager. They have two children, Matt and Kate Elexa, the latter a recording artist
1998 Sells Mushroom Records to News Ltd. Launches Liberation the following year