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Thoughts on Music Promotion and Production in Brisbane: or Why Can’t Brisbane Get a Leg-Up?

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An interview with Nick Smethurst, one of Brisbane’s young musicians and promoters

by Carmen Juarez

Nick currently plays in the band Epithets, sometimes lends his bass-playing abilities to Little Scout, and is “getting something else underway” with Daniel van Zutphen of Paper & The Plane fame. He also promotes shows as In Finland and has been active within the Brisbane music scene since late 2004. He describes himself as, “a general thorn in the side of Brisbane’s established musical community, proudly so”.

He has recently put his promotional duties on the back-burner since devoting more time to his own musical projects, having just recorded an album which will be mastered later this month by “the guy who masters for Arcade Fire, Silver Mt Zion, Wolf Parade etc”. So what does he have to say on where things are at in Brisbane and where he’s at, creatively?

“I’m very selective about my projects. The last big thing I did was the Why? show at the end of 2009 and I’m fucking proud of that, that stands as one of my favourite things that I’ve ever done so, I’m ok with that. Eventually you have to make a choice between infrastructural stuff overall or working to the benefit of your own creative projects, and I picked the latter eventually and it’s going OK … Here and there I organise gigs still. I’m working on a festival [for] the end of the year. It’s called Endless Somerset, it’s going to be in my backyard – I live in Somerset Street.”

So when you’re working as In Finland, is that a solo project?

“[In Finland] is just me. I like it just being me and I’ve gone through phases of trying to be really professional which have all failed hideously and the basic reason for that is I don’t want it to be. Like I felt that it needs to be at times and it’s gone really poorly. I’ve kind of given up on that approach – it is what it is when it needs to be what it is. At various points I’ve managed venues, booked festivals, organised my own gigs and tours, brought bands to Australia, [In Finland] has been a record label, anything really.

“I turn to people for help when need be, like over time my friends have offered their services and assistance and it’s always done really well for me. I have a lot of time for Nick Kaiser – who did the Jens Lekman shows last year. He’s one of the best people going. And I’m glad to be able to turn to him for help when I need it.”

What prompted you to start all of these projects?

“When you look around, everything is wrong [laughs] and it shouldn’t be wrong and I burnt all of my fuel very quickly. Which is why there’s been a lot of quietness in recent times. Because I did work myself to the bone. I collapsed doing events a number of times just from sheer exhaustion. Because I’m an idiot, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I do tend to think I care beyond the point of reason. I’ll keep working at something beyond the point at which it’s healthy or sane to do so and after a while you get tired of screaming into the void, but you still do it. I haven’t given up yet and that’s saying something. I mean I was 17 when I started all of this and I’m 24 now – so I mean you like to think you’ve learnt something? But I mean I’m still learning and I will always be learning.”

Why Brisbane?

“I guess because I like it here. My roots are here and my family’s here. I believe in the untapped potential. I don’t know, it’s the frustrating reality of seeing the potential energy in something and not being quite sure how to tap it. And I’m definitely still not sure. And I definitely haven’t ever succeeded in any long-term and meaningful way. For a little while it’s worked, at times I seem to have captured the zeitgeist and people have really gotten behind it. But memories are short, attitudes are fickle. As soon as everything winds down people just leave. The next generation of people pack up and move to Melbourne.”

There are a lot more things happening in other places, why stay here?

“Don’t you like a challenge? I just like it more than most people. I just haven’t figured out how to make it work yet.”

Why not try things out in Sydney or Melbourne?

“They’ve got what they need. Every place comes with its own frustrations and [things they’re lacking in]. It’s just that Brisbane happens to lack almost everything.

“There’s no infrastructure here at all. We now have no venues, we’ve got very few bands – and people can rant and rail and say “there’s some bands all the time” but I mean they’re derivative – they’re not going to make any meaningful impact. What does it say about a place when the cultural capital you’re producing is fucking I Heart Hiroshima. That’s unacceptable. It’s five years behind the times and it’s only meaningful because people are late to the table anyways. They had something for a moment but then broad spectrum accessibility in a local context seems to be more important to a lot of people than making meaningful art – and that’s something that a lot of people will roll their eyes at – but fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em twice. It is art that we are in the business of. Unless it’s not. Unless you can consciously say you’re in it for the money. Or you’re in it for the ‘scene points’ or something.”

Brisbane certainly has people that could go places, but they can’t figure out what to do either. They might be stuck in your bind as well?

“Exactly right. I’m stuck at the moment with having the choice between focussing on my own stuff or helping other people, and selfishly I’ve chosen to do my own thing, by and large, because the other work is thankless. I learnt that over time. You do things to help people and you get shit on, you know? Which is not to say it’s always that way, but it is a lot of the time. And self-interest has to come into it eventually, you know. But being the idiot that I am I will continue to do things for other people as well when need be. Because I want it all to work. There is no infrastructure, no venues no bands. There’s no record labels. And that really fucks me up. We live in the third largest city in the country, and the only record label based here doesn’t really sign local artists – that’s Dew Process.

“There are other big players on the very low levels, but I mean, let’s be perfectly fucking honest here – noise music is its own niche – experimental – whatever you’d like to call it – whatever the politically correct association is. I feel like I can speak about it with some authority, having participated in that scene for a long time. And it’s as clique-y and as prejudiced as any other small community is, without the added bonus that, unlike pop music, no one is every going to get into it if they’re not already into it. There’s not going to be some pioneering noise record that changes your mind about whether noise is music or not. Nobody banging on a paint-can any one way or another way is really going to change your mind. Either it gets to you or it doesn’t. And it gets to me, so I can understand. But I mean, I digress, the point is there are record labels doing that, that’s because you make 50 copies, you sell 50 copies, you never try to be anything more than that. If it gets picked up overseas somebody else in Germany or Slovakia or whatever releases another 50 copies – it’s a fixed, tied community. You’re not winning any hearts.

“If you read [articles] written about fetishistic art product through noise, that’s fascinating to me, and it’s true. You’re not buying it to listen to it – you’re buying it to partake of the art. But the one thing that does have to say is, that’s the direction we all have to go into if there’s going to be any longevity in what we do at all – as cultural creators. The incredible record label in the [United] States – Enemies List – that to me is – they’re doing so much more to move forward than they might even realise themselves. They only sign bands that record at home – so there’s no money spent on the recording process other than the cost of purchasing the gear – that’s self-sustaining art. Then they release it for free online, and once word of mouth is built they do limited runs of vinyl. And they sell them all out.

“The band Have A Nice Life which is the guy who runs the label’s band as well as the biggest act that they’ve got – every time they do a pressing of 400 vinyl it sells out. Because they’ve spread word of mouth because they’re not arseholes about it. And that idea of fostering how an artist and why an artist makes art as well as putting the art out to make profit for yourself – I mean that’s really inspiring to me. That stands so at odds with Brisbane. Because Dew Process is the only label and their attitude is so far behind the eight-ball. It’s frankly kind of sad.

Maybe we need people who have been successful elsewhere to bring something back to us?

“People do do that but you can learn by listening, not just by doing. A lot of the experience that people bring back from other places when they do invariably move back here can’t apply to here because of the lack of basic infrastructure.”

So how do you fix that?

“Unfortunately, and this is the depressing realisation I’ve come across, is that it doesn’t start with the music. We can’t have shows that run late because there are no venues, but it’s not profitable for venues to open because they can’t stay open late and they can’t stay open late because – for a number of reasons – but the big one, the really kicking one that I’ve come to realise, is that there’s no public transport. The complete lack of portability. If we are going to be as backward as we are in this town and have everything based out of [a] one/two street district – which by and large we still do. I’d like to see West End progress more, but who knows, right? There’s no mid-level anywhere now that we’ve lost the Troubadour. No public transport makes it really tricky because how can you get home at two in the morning? You can’t. Who wants to [wait an hour for Nightlink] when you’re wasted and you’ve been to a fun gig – what more of a buzz-kill is there? The whole experience is paramount. Not just the bands you see or where you see them – every step of it. And I don’t like going to the [Fortitude] Valley. And never mind for people who aren’t six foot tall and fairly foolhardy – anyone with an ounce of personal caution would think twice about going there and that’s terrible. That’s just sad.

You can hear more from Nick at Brisbane’s UnConvention in June.

Photography: Pecha Kucha

12 Responses to Thoughts on Music Promotion and Production in Brisbane: or Why Can’t Brisbane Get a Leg-Up?

  1. Darragh May 13, 2011 at 10:52 am

    This is a very interesting interview and I think Nick makes a lot of good points.

    I’m not sure though about his point about labels, it might need clarification (perhaps from Nick himself). There are lots of good local labels (eg. Bedroom Suck and LoFly) releasing interesting music, but I imagine that the market for their music is small. There are lots of interesting bands in the music scene that cry out for attention as well.

    The problem, which Nick touches on, is the local public. Outside of a small music clique, it seems ordinary joe-blow Brisbanite are not all that interested in supporting arts and culture. They’d rather have tunnels and tax breaks and citycycle rather than helping out the arts.

    I do disagree with the whole ‘shows are not allowed to run late’ – I think that works against getting people out. For example, Woodland seem to have the bright idea that starting headliners at 11.30pm at night on a weekdays and weekends (sometimes later). Perhaps people who don’t work full time will go, but I know I certainly won’t. Put the damn shows on earlier for god’s sake and increase the incentive for working people to go support local music.

  2. Cam May 13, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I like this interview, although I think that Nick is selling labels like Mere Noise, Room40/Someone Good, Lofly etc a little bit short. Sure, they’re not Mistletone or whatever, let alone Matador or Merge, but they get their stuff out there into whatever musical communities they’re active in for the most part.

    There’s no lack of things to do in Brisbane, there’s just a lack of support and visibility for the things that are happening.

  3. Everett True May 13, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Put the damn shows on earlier for god’s sake and increase the incentive for working people to go support local music.

    Damn straight. And anyone who isn’t a student/unemployed/doesn’t like drinking.

  4. Nils May 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    The problem with support and visibility is that it requires concerted effort from all sides; government, venues, promoters, artists & punters (perhaps even in that order of importance) – which is what makes fixing the situation such a daunting prospect. With no local/state government support it’s destined for failure, I see the over-arching question here as “How do you convince The Decisionmakers that this issue is important?”

    Having said that, if you want a truly demoralising experience, come and join me in Australia’s 6th-largest city one hour south…

  5. ed May 13, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I’ve drafted a “Six Steps to Improve Woodland” blog that will probably go up early next week where once again I’m talking about the lateness of shows.

    Brisbane needs to get over this stupid notion that no one will take it seriously if bands can’t play at 1am in the morning. Even if it had the transport infrastructure in place it’s still stupid and a huge turn-off for getting people out to see live gigs.

    The fact that the train to the international airport stops running at 7:30pm and I can’t get a bus back from the city to Teneriffe (an inner city suburb probably only about 4km from the CBD) on a week night after 11:30pm tells you all you need to know about Brisbane progress to becoming the major international city it seems to want to be and thinks it can be.

  6. Michelle May 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Hey Nick

    This sentence doesn’t really make sense to me;
    ‘What does it say about a place when the cultural capital you’re producing is fucking I Heart Hiroshima. That’s unacceptable. It’s five years behind the times and it’s only meaningful because people are late to the table anyways. They had something for a moment but then broad spectrum accessibility in a local context seems to be more important to a lot of people than making meaningful art’

    Are you trying to say that IHH were behind the times and that they changed their music to be palatable to a wider public? Cause I think that’s complete bullshit. That band (and yes i may have a conflict of interest but I still have an opinion) have always stayed true to their own ideas of what music they want to produce and not cow toed to what the public or the ‘hipsters’ of Brisbane want, they make the ‘art’ they want to make. Luckily for them the public liked what they were doing, unlucky for them some of Brisbane’s other musos felt/feel they themselves are more deserving of the relatively small fame (and no fortune that’s for sure heh). People would rather deride the bands for the level of success than admit maybe their own art just isn’t going to resound with anyone.

    Personally I’ve always held the greatest respect for IHH, it may have never really been the music I myself would have gotten into without public exposure, however, fuck I’m glad in their time together they didn’t decide to say to each other ‘oh we better keep up with what’s going on in music to be cool in 5 years time, we’d better change our direction to be swamp, garage or folk’.

    Maybe I have it wrong in what you were trying to get across but that’s how it read to me.
    I don’t argue your right to an opinion on any band, but I do argue that I don’t think it is necessary to identify one band in particular to make a point about a ‘scene’? Cause to me you’re perpetuating the problems that have always been wrong with our scene ie; tall poppy & big egos.

    I have to listen and deal with many a band every day, i think most of their music sucks the balls of a thousand dogs but good on everyone in Brisbane that’s picked up a musical instrument (or not even) and least given it a go.

    You say ‘there is no infrastructure, no venues no bands. There’s no record labels.’ but all this is false, maybe there’s just none that you yourself identify with? And I have no problem with that as I often feel the same way. So yeah i guess the point to this post is to mention that people should keep in mind personal taste doesn’t keep an industry alive and you need to separate your own ideals to grow something stronger.

    michelle

  7. craigs May 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    No labels? Really? There’s 19 listed here – http://www.soundslikebrisbane.com – and plenty more out there.

  8. Nick Smethurst May 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I’ve been called out already on some pretty weak points I made. I made them thoughtlessly – I had no idea this was going to get published – and have done good people and entities a disservice. I’m at work at the moment but will respond to those very good points later this evening. Sorry that 95% of this interview is poorly considered rot. – Nick

  9. Everett True May 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I’ve written a ‘response’ over here.

  10. Michelle May 13, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Yeah an i disagree with you on lot of things ET (well in my head anyway heh), i personally thought the first EP was way too indie pop for my liking and their first album Tuff Teeth was a progressing to a more distinct sound, their second album The Rip was the most i had enjoyed their songwriting as the sound had matured while still holding their originality close to the chest.

    if we all liked the same music what a dull world this would be :)

    If there’s a review of an act then basically that comes with the disclaimer that your music may be shat on, however if you’re having a discussion about a city and it’s music scene then does it really help in anyway to target particular acts? I just don’t think it’s helping anyone’s case.

    ‘Why is it that folk continually complain that Brisbane receives no coverage – and then, when it starts to receive international coverage, complain that it’s the ‘wrong’ sort?’

    Ditto. This is the gist of my whole spiel really.

    It frustrates me everyday that I put so much time and energy into trying to improve one of Brisbane’s historic independent media orgs and have for the last couple of years but still always come up against brick walls. Mainly cause we’re still not cool enough, or too cool or whatever bullocks people spout to remain ignorant that things won’t change if you don’t get in and get your hands dirty, heaven for bid at no financial gain for yourself.

  11. CJ May 16, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Err, Nick – I think that at least you should have the guts to stand by what you said. You did know this would be published because a) You gave a knowingly recorded interview for the sole purpose of publication on the first blog on which this interview was published; and b) Your permission was sought (and given) for re-publication on this website.

    Saying otherwise is dishonest and hypocritical.

  12. Edward Guglielmino May 16, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    I thought I had the corner on the market for musicians who caused online riots.

    Some well considered points, some less well considered points. But in the end the mans entitled to his opinions isn’t he?

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