A gonzo music memoir

Dreams in the age of independence

SO YOU GET an urge. Something bristling within you that can only get out through something else. Maybe it was because you didn’t fit in; maybe it was because you fitted in too well.

You’ve heard stories of that uncle from up north who practised for hours in his shed with his other band mates after they left school. Slugged it out for years in sweat- and beer-soaked venues before gaining the attention of a local rep of a major international record label. They signed a deal, unlocked some cash from the advance and cut a record in a slick Sydney recording studio. Radio didn’t go near the first singles though, and the band fell apart.

As a junior-school kid you may have picked up a Kellogg’s Nutri Grain ‘Making Music’ CD-ROM promotion. You install it on your computer and the world explodes. A memory flickers of when your dad would ramble on about how Bruce Springsteen said the first snare hit of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ blew open the door to his mind.

Remix. Upload. Flip.


You read online about those festivals your cool older cousin went to, enshrined on battered old posters Blu-tacked to his bedroom wall. Homebake. Big Day Out. Future Music. Stereosonic. All gone broke. Left the scene. Former business partners spatting it out on Twitter and Facebook.

The record store you used to eagerly visit in the local shopping centre has shut down. You wonder what happened to that scruffy, portly dude who worked there and would recommend Wolf Parade, A Tribe Called Quest and early PJ Harvey.

For most punters, an algorithm has replaced his job.

Music on local TV is nearly non-existent. Sure, Rage is still on; but Recovery, Rove Live and Video Hits are all dead. You read about the recent demise of Channel V in one browser while listening to a bunch of tracks on YouTube that your mate sent you links to in another.


AFTER GATHERING UP all the bedroom-studio courage you can muster, you decide you are ready to share some of your stuff.

You load up your SoundCloud account with some new tracks and the world shrinks in front of your eyes. By spooling through the country-by-country data provided you find out people in Rio, Uganda and Stockholm are listening to your stuff.

You go online and set up your own website. Social media channels follow.

You go online again and within minutes have sorted yourself with an Australian Business Number.

Emails start flooding into your Gmail account from polite strangers at management companies keen to catch up and hear the next moves for the project.

You’ve seen documentaries on national broadcasters about classic Australian albums – not classic British albums, not classic American albums, but classic Australian albums. The Go-Betweens, Nick Cave, the Triffids, the Saints. The ‘striped sunlight sound’ gets mentioned. You discover the Saints made their first fiery recordings in a tiny advertising-jingle studio in Brisbane at the same time Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols were plotting to turn pop music on its head. The colonial outpost could surely never cringe in the same way again.

So you add their most-played tracks on Spotify to a newly curated play-list entitled ‘Screams of the Antipodean Beast’.

While you doubt there is such a thing as one unifying Australian sound, you have noticed with a rising excitement that the zeitgeist-making festivals around the world are littered with Australian artists. Bands you used to see for free on a mid-week evening at bars filled with backpackers and surfers are now sitting snugly atop the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival line-up, the current high-water mark of any music career – Australian or otherwise.

You realise most of these exports don’t sound anything like each other.


Tame Impala.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.


Courtney Barnett.

The Preatures.

Jagwar Ma.

Summer has come around and you cram in the car with your mates to head to a boutique festival a short drive from the city. This festival doesn’t resemble the behemoth events your cousin used to rave about after family dinners. This is smaller, relaxed and diverse. The four-piece rock band is not the only option. Hip-hop. Scuzzy garage punk. Folk. Soul revivalists. Trap. You sip contraband booze from a battered plastic bottle and soak it all in.

You upload your tracks to that new music colossus Triple J Unearthed. The fortress doors creak open. Your life starts to pivot and you are a few months away from leaving your casual job.

Your new booking agent locks in a run of shows up and down the coast. You could take a band of mates or two USB sticks.

Your inbox fills with missives from like-minded souls dreaming of long-distance salvation.

You hear about a boutique record label based in Melbourne set up by the duo Big Scary and their savvy manager. They answer to nothing but their own instincts and help birth the new music of other local artists they love. Bellbird Studios is their self-built creative wonderland.


YOU CHECK IN to your Bandcamp account every couple of days to see if any sales have come through. If they have, you package up your vinyl or T-shirts in a postage bag or anything that’s around. You tape it all up, leave a nice note scrawled in highlighter to the person who NetBanked you the money.

You arrive at a rehearsal studio snugly placed in a nondescript light-industrial area outside of Byron Bay. The annual winter shindig Splendour in the Grass is up next on the to-do list. After introductions and welcomes are delivered, you get stuck into rehearsing the tracks you have co-written with your collaborators – despite the fact that you have never met in the flesh until this moment. In the previous months musical ideas have been shared, dismantled and built into fully fledged songs online via email, Facebook messages and Dropbox links.

The oft-told dinner-table stories of your uncle sweating it out for years in garages and pubs seem a world away.

The next day, everyone sits in an air-conditioned demountable, sinking beer and cider and nervously laughing and charging phones. A van drives you from the backstage compound to the stage tent. Within minutes you are performing with your collaborators to thousands of supercharged kids the same age as you.

In the muggy van ride afterwards it hits you that you live in the age of independence. It’s not so much ‘DIY or die’ anymore – rather, ‘DIY is king’. You can mainline straight into your audience.

Courtney Barnett set up her own label, her scrawled drawings becoming its logo. You hit a link at your work computer while your manager isn’t watching and there she is with her three-piece – the CB3 – taking the inner north of Melbourne to the world, collecting blistering performances on national US chat shows like footy cards.

If you care enough about your craft that you spend enough time honing it, chances are these days you can find an audience out there somewhere in the world. And with the tools that were once out of reach for most now at your disposal, all is there for the taking.

These things may fall into place and one day you have become one of the gatekeepers, one of the ordained holy people. You still remember that kid with that desire, that need, to get something out into the world.

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