|Gudinski (Photo: Kate Ballis)|
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Michael Gudinski, Chairman, The Mushroom Group.
Michael Gudinski’s life has been big.
However, the black sheep son of Russian émigré parents--unquestionably the most powerful and influential figure in Australian music for decades--doesn’t relish footnoting his history.
At the start of a conversation, you can sense his “cut-to-the-chase, mate” personality as he prepares for the type of cut-and-thrust jugular dialogue that he thrives on.
Based in Melbourne, Gudinski heads The Mushroom Group, a 360-degree-styled family-oriented collective of 20 companies across the full spectrum of entertainment activity: Booking agencies, publishing, recording, touring, merchandising, and film & TV production.
The cornerstone of Gudinski’s personal world remains his cherished Frontier Touring Company which over a colorful 35 year past has continually set new standards in the marketing, production and the presentation of international and domestic acts in Australia, often with massive national tours.
Frontier first started to gain traction in the late ‘70s by bringing in new music exploding out of England to Australia, including such bands as the Police and Squeeze; and later with Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Elton John, and the Eagles.
Pending in coming months are dates with David Guetta, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Bryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Albert Hammond Jr., James Bay and others.
Despite Gudinski’s primary focus on touring today, The Mushroom Group has a number of viable independent labels, including Liberation, Liberator Music, i Oh You, Ivy League and Illusive, and Gudinski still goes to gigs.
As founder of Mushroom Records, Australia's most successful independent label ever until is was sold in 1999, Gudinski and his then tight-knit staff nurtured the careers of such regional and international successes as Skyhooks, Split Enz, Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Barnes, Paul Kelly, Tim Finn, Peter Andre, Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, Hunters & Collectors, Mental As Anything, and MacKenzie Theory. More recently there’s been the Temper Trap, and Vance Joy via his Liberation imprint; and Bliss N Eso on Illusive run by his son Matt.
In the early '90s, Gudinski was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Assn. Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, the Australian Performing Rights Assn. gave him the Ted Albert Award for outstanding services to Australian music.
In 2006, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Gudinski received a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia medal for his service to the entertainment industry.
The man who helped usher in a golden era for Australian music in the ‘70s, and who continues to tour some of the biggest acts in the world in Australia, is profiled in Stuart Coupe new book “Gudinski: The Godfather Of Australian Rock ‘N’ Roll” (Hachette).
You must be justly proud of the Frontier Touring Company being 35.
I am. It’s got down to just me, and one other (original) partner, Frank Stivala (the two have friends since they were 16). Look, it’s a very risky business as we know. It is a very very crowded market here. The other thing that you have to deal with here is that we are not big financiers. I didn’t finish high school. I have had tours that have sold out when the (Australian) dollar crashed, and I lost a lot of money. You can’t predict. Sometimes the dollar changes. It can change by 10 cents. The big crash I think it was the second last Billy Joel tour (in 2008). The Australian dollar is 71 cents today (the lowest in 6 years). You work it out. On a tour that you pay $10 million (US), and there’s a 40 cent turnaround, you just can’t deal with that. People will say, “Oh well, you can go and hedge at the bank,” but really is that our job?
[Most Australian promoters pay international talent in U.S. dollars. Any decline in the value of the Australian dollar burns them. In 2008 the Aussie dollar plummeted from a 25-year high of $0.98 (U.S.) in July to about $0.62 three months later, stinging promoters who had booked international acts during the currency's ascent.]
It was 2008 when you toured Billy Joel.
He helped me out, but everybody was doing tours at the time. Look, that has never ever happened before where there was such a crash in the dollar. The thing that was interesting was when the global financial crisis happened, Australia was one of the few countries that was minimally affected. So all of sudden, when the dollar was strong (2010-2011) Australia became over toured. Acts would come here too often. It’s okay to come here a lot when you are a baby act, and if you are building. It’s alright to play festivals a lot, but people like the Foo Fighters know that at a certain point, you’ve got to headline. You can stand alone, and you can do big events. Festivals are fantastic to get artists going, but they are more social events. There’s been a big change in the festival market here. That doesn’t mean that festivals will go away. It’s just that the old-fashioned thing of doing side shows because you have to use the weekends to go across this country may be more available. People don’t realize Australia is as big of a place as is the United States.
There’s an overabundance of music promoters in Australia including Live Nation Australia, AEG Live, Chugg Entertainment, Adrian Bohm Presents, and the Dainty Group. Australia has always had too many promoters and too much activity.
Whoa whoa whoa. AEG doesn’t promote here. They co-promote with me when they do anything. But you are absolutely on the money with what you are saying. There’s an overabundance of A grade promoters, and a ridiculous amount of C and D grade promoters. A typical example of that is if you look at (the cancellation) of SoulFest 2015. It’s (the overabundance has) been obvious for a long time. You would think that the big agencies, particularly, would know better than to deal with all of the C and D promoters. What happens is that it makes it much harder for the A grade promoters, which there are too many of in such a small market. It’s a market where we don’t co-promote hardly at all. It’s not like England where everybody splits (shows), and there’s so much co-promoting. We have co-promoted a few times. Live Nation will co-promote, obviously. But it’s a tough market because there are too many promoters. It’s a tough market because there are too many festivals.
[Australia’s live music sector last year pumped $11.5 billion US of value back into the wider community, according to the study, entitled “The Economic and Cultural Value of Live Music in Australia 2014.”
Perhaps, a sign of the Wild West style of Australia’s live music scene is that Australian concert promoter Andrew McManus of One World Entertainment was taken into custody in Melbourne on Sept. 10, 2015 along with four others who are accused of hatching a plot to import 300 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico to Australia, via the United States. In the past McManus had overseen Australian tours by Whitney Houston, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss and Mötley Crüe.]
You recently canceled the annual multi-city Future Music festival which focused on electronic dance music after its ticket sales had underperformed for two years. Also Big Day Out, Harvest, and Peat's Ridge have all been scrapped.
Look, the festival scene could still be healthy here. The only traveling festival that still seems to make sense is Laneway (Festival), which is the festival for upcoming and alternative acts. It’s continuing on. Also there’s Groovin the Moo that goes into provincial areas which is quite unique.
Do you regret shutting down the Alternative Nation travelling festival in 1995 after Frontier, working with Michael Coppel Presents (who is now president and CEO of Live Nation Australia) lost $1.8 million after a shocking run of bad weather over three days, and the cancellation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as headliners?
Looking back at that lineup, it was unbelievable. It was ahead of its time. It was a partnership with Michael Coppel in the days that he was independent. I still get on with him.
Now he’s your competitor. Back then you two teamed up to wipe Big Day Out off the face of the earth.
Look it’s tough. It’s a bit hard now that’s he’s at Live Nation. But Chuggi (Michael Chugg) was with me too, and Chuggi wanted to continue on, and I don’t think that the other partners did. But that lineup, it was amazing. I remember on the second festival that I said, “There’s no way that it’s going to rain in Melbourne for the third one.” It was torrential. The shows went on. I will never forget that Faith No More onstage in Brisbane with rain not pouring on them, but at them. But look it’s something that you try to explain to the other partners involved, including even Coppel, may agree that we should have kept on, but that’s the game at the moment.
One of your longest business relationships is with Michael Chugg, dating back to his working at the Consolidated Rock Agency which you operated with Michael Browning. Then he worked at Premier Harbour Agency, and was an original partner and GM of The Frontier Touring Company until leaving to launch Michael Chugg Entertainment in 2000.
I was just on the phone with him for a half hour. It was a bit competitive between us for the few years or so, but I love Michael Chugg.
Talking about losing money on a tour, let’s discuss the difference between a “postponement,” and a “cancellation” in terms of the Rolling Stones
(Laughing) Your assignment of it is better than mine. The old show business adage is that, “The show must go on.” The simple difference is.....
Absolutely everything is in place for a national tour of Australia in March 2014 being co-promoted by you and AEG Live with a potential $52 million gate when news comes that Mick Jagger’s long-term fashion designer partner L’Wren Scott has committed suicide. The day after her death, Jagger issues a statement saying he was "still struggling to understand how my lover and best friend could end her life in this tragic way.” Meanwhile, the tour is on the verge of being canceled. You can never ever let an act cancel.
I’m getting goose bumps. If there ever was a time that I impressed AEG it was in those five minutes of a telephone call in Perth because truly the difference is obvious. Once you cancel you have to refund all of the money, and if you reschedule it’s hard, and you have to go and double ticket, but really all I was doing at the time was...Looking back I have a lot of credit just for common sense. I’ve been through this too many times. My number one girl Kylie (Minogue) was so emotionally drained and so worried when she got breast cancer (in 2008). We were on the eve of starting a tour, and we postponed that one. God forbid that had she not got better we would have refunded the (tour) money later. But really the difference is simple. It just costs so much money to (cancel). You never know if you are ever going to get the act back. I just said to (AEG Live), “Let’s just take a breath here for a minute here. It’s been terrible circumstances. I want you to think really rationally. Let’s just wait for a few weeks and see.”
You telephoned Paul Gongaware, co-CEO of AEG Live, and told him that the Stones needed to announce a postponement to allow time for dates to be rescheduled?
I did. He was fantastic. He agreed. All we did was make it easier (for everyone). Had the tour not been rescheduled, everybody would have got their money back. In Australia, unless you are going through some dodgy little ticketing agency and some dodgy venue, money from your ticket is safe. Years ago (in 1978) some guy named Harry Miller went to jail. He was a nice enough bloke, but it was over ticketing monies. (Miller had started the ticketing company Computicket which went into receivership within 6 months). In Australia, I can’t get hold of the ticket monies on official arena venues and with so many promoters around, and with so many C and D grade promoters, I think that it’s a good thing, otherwise fans would start getting ripped off.
It was unlikely insurance would cover the losses of a cancelled Stones tour under the circumstances. Costs that would cover a large entourage, including expenses for the group’s staff of 117 people as well as salaries for hundreds of workmen employed in each city.
I can’t speak for the Stones, but from what I gathered they had the same problem. Certainly, we got nothing back from insurance. We got through the tour, but we still lost one gig (at Victoria’s Hanging Rock due to Mick Jagger’s faltering voice). But we made money out of that tour, and I will give the Stones absolute credit for their professionalism. They came back and stayed in Adelaide, which is not my favorite city in Australia by any means. We opened the Adelaide Oval and we got the biggest crowd in Adelaide that I have ever had in my life because it was an event. That date was a critical date. We had less than the time between their time away to prepare, and we had less than 1,000 refunds out of 52,000. So people had to wait. To the Stones’ credit, they came to Adelaide, and they rehearsed for 12 days straight (in a local film studio).
[The Rolling Stones hadn’t been to Adelaide or Perth since they were touring “Voodoo Lounge” in 1995.]
Certainly, Mick and Keith care about their legacy. For true and blue Roiling Stones’ fans, it was one of the better tours that they had done over their last few tours. They took it really seriously. The shows were great. For me, it had a special bit of touch to it because the first band that I had signed to Mushroom, Madder Lake, supported the Rolling Stones in 1973 (The Pacific Tour) on the three Melbourne shows. I was a young kid then, and if you would have said to me that, “One day you will be promoting the Rolling Stones” I would have told you that you were dreaming.
The first band you saw were the Loved Ones at a lunchtime concert in Berk Street in Melbourne.
The Loved Ones were the first band that I saw; Madder Lake (which had Australian Top 10 success with "12 Pound Toothbrush") was the first band that I signed (at Mushroom Records).
Look we have had an amazing run with the Rolling Stones.
Any others in that category?
The act that I have always wanted to get, and we did three tours in a 12 month period was the greatest live act that I’ve ever worked with, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Just phenomenal people. You do your job on that tour, and they just are just professionals. If you watch that documentary which I thought was brilliant, “Springsteen & I” (2013), with that guy, it’s all about the fans. He really is obsessed. One of the reasons that we got to work with Springsteen was that (his manager) Jon Landau knew that I would go out of my way to try to stop any of this ticketing hanky-panky . The only way around it, and the technology is not that far off let’s face it, is that the person who buys the ticket goes to the show. That will stop the secondary market in a big way. The person buys the ticket is the one that gets into the concert.
Is secondary ticketing as much of a problem in Australia as in North America and Europe?
It’s becoming much more of an issue. There are laws against it in certain states. But no one will police the laws, and police departments have more important things to do than worrying about it. It is definitely happening more here. Australia is still pretty much more old-fashioned like a lot of places in America. That’s why these green fields (events) that I run here are very important. In most venues here there’s one exclusive ticketing agency, Ticketek, which is much stronger here than Ticketmaster. It‘s not like in America. Ticketek has almost every major venue in the country. I can’t even get tickets and use them for sponsorship or use them for whatever. In England, they have broken that down to where there are multiple ticketers. It (secondary ticketing) is something that is going to go on. I think that with technology it’s only a matter of time where we can knock all of them out of action by people having photo IDs when they buy their tickets.
It may be impossible to fully stamp out.
I don’t think that you will stamp it out, but I reckon that there’s a lot more that can be done, and I am happy to keep trying. We have had people turn up for shows with tickets that have just been photocopied. People fall for this, and you feel sorry when the family has flown over from Tasmania or Melbourne and they have their young kids to see Justin Bieber and they bought their tickets from operators that are dodgy. Let’s face it, they take a risk.
Despite setbacks music festivals are still flourishing in Australia.
In a lot of markets festivals are becoming destination events. We are working on a very exciting venue called Hanging Rock (in Victoria). We have had some amazing acts perform there. We’ve had Bruce Springsteen perform there for two nights. We’ve had the Eagles. We have had Leonard Cohen and Rod Stewart play there. It’s an amazing site. It’s got quite a legend to it because the (1975 mystery drama) movie, “Picnic At Hanging Rock” was famous with a still famous director, Peter Weir. It was the first movie he made (actually, it’s was Weir’s 2nd full-length feature film following “The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974), a low-budget black comedy). There’s quite a myth around the rock. It’s something that I haven’t talked about a lot. I have a house quite close by at Mount Macedon where there’s a very creative spot (community) where Temper Trap wrote their famous “A Sweet Disposition” and half of their album (“Conditions” 2009). I’m kind of a local resident. It’s within an hour of Melbourne.
[Situated between Victoria’s Woodend, and Mount Macedon, picturesque Hanging Rock features a natural amphitheater that is said to be one of the best examples in the world of a volcanic formation known as a mamelon. The rare volcanic formation attracts plenty of tourists. Leonard Cohen christened the site in 2011 playing to a crowd of 12,000. Cohen, a fan of both Joan Lindsay’s 1967 historical novel, “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” and the Weir film, reportedly jumped at the opportunity to play there. The reserve is also famous for the Hanging Rock Cup and races.]
You are still focusing on such events as A Day On The Green, the boutique music festival Sugar Mountain, as well as the under 18 music event, Good Life?
A Day On The Green (with approx. 30 concerts per season) is a joint venture with two people who used to be in Europe with me, Michael and Anthea Newton (Roundhouse Entertainment). These are one-day festivals in wineries. There’s, a lot of wineries here, and some are quite big. The biggest show we bought from Live Nation on the Paul Simon/Sting tour (2014), we had 18,000 people on the surf coast just outside Melbourne.
The wineries gave us, and still give us, a bit of an edge.
We are now in the process of launching a younger brand called Rolling Green which was originally going to be launched with the Black Keys but they postponed because the drummer (Patrick Carney) had an injury. With the (A Day On The Green) brand where we are doing shows, the audience is getting older. I think that by creating another brand, you can do a lot of the younger acts, and I think that you can also do destination festivals. It’s no different than say America years ago with Lollapalooza. It was successful for a couple of years. It has now become a massive festival in Chicago that they are now taking to a number of different places.
[The Black Keys canceled Australian dates earlier this year after drummer Patrick Carney sustained a serious injury in a body-surfing accident. He dislocated and broke his shoulder after a wave slammed him into the ocean floor on Jan. 3, 2015. He then developed adhesive capsulitis, also known as frozen shoulder which delayed the healing process and led to the cancellation of dates in Australia.]
You continue, of course, to do Good Life.
Yes, we have Good Life. Good Life is one of the biggest under 18 events. The drinking age here is 18; not 21. Paul Barbaro who runs Good Life is a very good operator and kids now are getting music a lot younger. It’s a safe environment. In Sydney we have had over 20,000 people attending and that will be going ahead in February
Sugar Mountain, again, is a one-off event. It’s a big festival that they don’t let me get near. Thank you. Which is fine. Gerard Schlaghecke, who is a long-time Frontier (Touring) person, my son Matt, and the original people that ran Sugar Mountain, operate it.
Let’s talk about some other acts that have toured Australia for you. Let’s start with the Eagles.
Look, the Eagles are just magnificent. They always deliver. They have brilliant management. Irving Azoff has some of the greatest acts in the music business of all time. You want to be either the first or the last (working with his acts). He’s protected the Eagles. We have done open-air (shows) a couple of times. They don’t like playing open-air anymore. I talked them into doing it in New Zealand this time. They hadn’t been to New Zealand in a long time, and we did two shows in (Smart Stadium in March 14 & 15, 2015) in Auckland. I could not believe it. We only guaranteed one show, and we ended up with 78,000 people. I have had an amazing relationship with Irving over a long period of time. A lot of people haven’t, but I think I’m a bit of a novelty. It may be because I’m so far away, and that he trusts me. Whether he’s here or not he knows that Don Henley, Glenn Frey and the boys will be looked after. No different than with any of his other acts. We have done (Christina) Aguilera, and Steely Dan as well.
You hadn’t been a big fan of Leonard Cohen, but Rob Hallet, then president of international touring, AEG Live talked you into booking him in 2009, and he did very well for you.
There’s always three sides to a story. I went to see Leonard Cohen, and when I saw him I was absolutely enthralled. He came to Australia 20 years before for Paul Dainty. He played for 4,000 people in Melbourne. So I was aware of him. Look this guy could almost have been Vincent Van Gogh. We have done three tours with him now. Hallet did a magnificent job of putting that (Cohen’s career) back together. I have to give him full credit. Leonard came to Melbourne. We did two wineries, 4,000 people, in his first incarnation, and then we did 38,000 people. The fact that he disappeared from the music all those years, and his music lived on shows you something about over and under exposure. It (the reaction) was pretty extreme. We all know the reasons why he came back. I know that he was so gratified, and so blown by how his songs had grown in strength, and the (younger) audience for him had grown over that gap period. It was unbelievable.
Madonna didn’t come to Australia for many years. Not until the “Girlie Show” world tour of 1993. She returns after 23 years for three dates in 2016 with “The Rebel Heart Tour” for Live Nation, and ticket prices range from $203.80 to $509.65 Aus.
It was the biggest tour that we ever did. To see her coming back to Australia with such ticket pricing, and such a weird way of promoting, is unbelievable. It’s even more expensive than the Stones. It’s a fucking joke. At least the Stones would do a couple of key interviews, and things like that. I will be glad to say that I had the biggest Madonna tour that ever happened in Australia.
Look these Live Nation global tours can work for artists financially, but I think that there are some people that are now realizing that there are a lot of compromises involved by doing them. I think the fact that she doesn’t do a “best of” show just shows arrogance to her audience. I’m a bit outspoken and I might get a bit of flack about this but I really don’t care. As Dave Grohl, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift have said, “Your most important people--no matter what--are your fans.” Artists control ticket prices. Once they get into these worldwide things, they lose a lot of control. I have lost a lot of acts to Live Nation Global Touring, and I will probably continue to. I’ve have caught a couple back. But there’s nothing that you can do about it. They want to rule the world. I believe that they will rule the world. But I think that there will always be strong independents. If independents like myself are forced out of the market because of it (Live Nation dominating live music), it would be an absolute travesty for the music business. Not that it will affect me personally. I’m not talking on personal greed or personal level I’m just saying.....
But American independent music promoters have survived despite Live Nation. Companies like Jam Productions, The Bowery Presents, Frank Productions, Another Planet Entertainment, and Beaver Productions.
They have, and we have. But there have been a lot that haven’t. There are a lot that are having trouble. I can tell you one thing the practice of doing two-for-one ticketing out here is just wrong. I don’t know if they do it elsewhere. To me, the first 5,000 tickets are the most important. People don’t care who is bringing an act out to Australia. I don’t have that big of an ego to tell you that Frontier is going to sell tickets today. People don’t care who brings acts to Australia. If people want to go and see an act, they will. They know the reputable promoters, but I will tell you one thing, they definitely know the promoters who do the last minute, two-for-one ticketing, and I hate it. We have brought in new ticketing price categories but you will never see us doing that sort of thing. What’s that doing is making the market wary of buying upfront which is what our business needs. I love the way the Grateful Dead was done in America (by direct mail). It might have been old school but it was just so good to see someone doing something differently. I think that it was fantastic to be in the position where you sending people back their money. Good luck to them. Really well done. I have to say that looking from the outside that there aren’t many acts that you could doing something like that with. I am a big, big advocate of (homogenized) ticket prices. We can learn a lot from Dave Grohl, I will tell you that.
As well, all business remains about securing and maintaining relationships.
We are very much a relationship company. I have noticed that there is a bit more loyalty coming into the business again, but it’s a bit sad that loyalty isn’t such a strong thing in this business. I mean there’s a lot of playing around with the big agencies who all have agendas. It’s very interesting that William Morris (Endeavour) recently bought out my son Matt’s company Artist Voice. It was quite a good financial deal. It wasn’t something that I was anxious to sell, but (co-founder) Brett Murrihy said that he wanted to be the biggest and best agent that Australia has ever seen. He really wanted to become part of William Morris. I think that it’s a testament to the new breed of Australian artists, and testament to Australians to market that William Morris is the first international to come in here. I’m sure that they won’t be the last on an agency level.
[Artist Voice was co-founded in 2010 by Matt Gudinski, and Brett Murrihy, a former senior booking agent with Michael Gudinski's Sydney-based Premier Harbour Agency, through a joint venture with the Mushroom Group. Artist Voice was acquired by William Morris Endeavour earlier this year with Murrihy coming on board as an agent at William Morris Endeavour.]
While your main businesses now focuses on touring, you have business interests throughout the entertainment industry
You’ve got to. I think that I have had an advantage because I’ve been much more than a promoter in a small market. I’m into all sides of the business. I am very interested in TV.
Your children have now joined the family firm, ensuring the company will survive you.
Yes. My daughter (Kate Alexa Gudinski) is involved in Mushroom Pictures. We have reactivated that. I’ve had a couple very successful television documentaries (including “Such Is Life: The Troubled Times of the Ben Cousins”). We are currently doing a movie with the upcoming next big director from Australia, Nicholas Verso, called “Boys in the Trees” I haven’t done any movies since I did “Chopper” (2000).
An underrated gem of a film.
It was. Again with a first time film director (Andrew Dominik). There’s no point someone like me trying to compete with the big studios in America. We are making low-budget films. He used to make videos for me. It should have been a much bigger movie than it was. It certainly was a cult classic. It was very big in England. I didn’t really know what I was doing in America. However, with “Wolf Creek,” which I also produced, we got it right, and it was a legitimate Top 10 movie in the U.S. Ironically, I was working with two guys that I had met many years ago in Buffalo, the famous Weinstein brothers. But look television, only because I’m older I guess, I notice that in America that there big stars doing television. I love that (HBO) program “The News Room,” and there are a number of well-known actors in it.
A decade ago your daughter was a pop star, and toured with the Backstreet Boys, and with Cyndi Lauper.
She had a couple of (Australian) hits as a singer. She’s a good songwriter. I never managed her. She’d always ask me. She had a couple of hits, and she wrote all of the music for a very successful Australian series “H2O: Just Add Water” that you might have seen where there are mermaids underwater. It was all over the world. I was proud of her. She never really trained. She had a couple of good tours, but it really wasn’t her thing. She’s now involved with film and the distribution of film and TV stuff. She’s due to make me a grandfather in January. Her role here is fantastic, but my son is the major part of the company. He is obviously the heir apparent.
As executive dir. of the Mushroom Group, Matt has his own label illusive, and tours artists under the Frontier umbrella. He was the one who championed tours for Bruno Mars and Drake in Australia.
The biggest thing is that he’s wanted to do things his own way. He has been managing Bliss N Eso (a trio that has had two #1 platinum albums to date) which is the biggest hip hop act in Australia. He’s promoting, and he’s got his own label (Illusive with Bliss N Eso, and Lurch & Chief). He was so keen on Drake for years. I was happy to bring him in. The bigger acts go through Frontier and Illusive together. Matt is working on a couple more tours.
What business advice have you offered him?
The biggest thing that I said to him when he really came into the Mushroom Group—he was always involved in a way--but when he really came in, I said, “I need you to find six kids under 25 years old to work here.” He has brought in four that have absolutely kicked ass. One of them is Johann (Ponniah,) who runs i Oh You Records (home to DZ Deathrays, Violent Soho, Snakadaktal, Bleeding Knees Club, and City Calm Down) one of our joint venture imprints that has the DMA’s that are signed to Infectious which is the label that I kept in my involvement with Korda (Marshall) that was sold to BMG (in 2014), but Korda is still running it (as Infectious Music Ltd.). The Temper Trap (on Infectious outside Australia, and signed to Liberation Records in Australia) has given people the real feeling of relief that the Mushroom name will continue on long past me. Let’s face it we all have to go sooner or later.
You surely are not talking about retirement.
No no (laughing). There’s a great line in a song, “We’ve all got to go sooner or later.” I hope that it’s later for me.” People who know me know that I will never retire from entertainment. I have no intention. It’s my lifeblood. I’m hoping with what’s going on now that I can work on projects that I really want to work on. With the label side of things for the last few years I haven’t had to go to any meetings whatsoever. I still have certain acts that I am involved with on the label, but Matt, Warren Costello, Nick Dunshea, Dean McLachlan, and the head A&R guy Damian Slevison, they really cull the record label. I have always loved the touring side. Always. I have always loved “Hello” when they (artists) arrive at the airport, and “Goodbye” when they leave. It’s a defined period of time.
I’ve read that you are a fan of the Australian version of TV reality talent show “The Voice.”
Not much. I was offered quite a bit of money to be a judge. A, It was not enough pay; and B, I would never treat artists in that manner. Now on the other hand, “The Voice,” “X-Factor” I will give them full credit. With both of them, particularly “The X Factor,” and “Australian Idol,” which was a version of “Pop Idol” in England, and became “American Idol,” what I found is that you will never find a Bob Dylan or a Neil Young on those shows, but what I did find was that at the time a lot of people around the ages of 16 to 18—which was the age of my son when they started—had never even been to a concert before. Hadn’t been to live events, and computer games seemed to be taking over with the youth. The big thing that did come out of “Idol,” and that has continued with “The X Factor” and “The Voice” was getting kids interested in music. Whether they go to the left and become artists or whether they go to the right and become one-hit wonders, that’s in their own fate. Generally, these were shows that families could watch together. They really boosted the interest in music, in general, which means from a business point of view it was part of the reason why concerts have again become popular.
Australia's appreciation for homegrown music is renowned but four years ago there was a lull in Australia’s talent wave. Not a single Australian act appeared in the Top 10 airplay charts, according to broadcast monitoring firm AirCheck. Today, there’s not only Gotye but there’s been the emergence of such solid acts as Temper Trap, Sheppard, the Rubens, Lime Cordiale, Bliss N Eso, Gypsy and the Cats, Husky, the Griswolds, and Dan Sultan.
Oh, there’s more, and some of which we are involved with. There’s a lot more than that. There’s Vance Joy that is just smashing it. You have (electronica musician) Chet Faker that is doing so well. Courtney Barnett, she’s very true. I’ve been very envious over the years seeing how supportive the Canadian government has been. Canada’s laws about airplay and the (radio content) point system is something that I am horrified that Australia hasn’t followed in Canada’s footsteps. It’s getting better now but as a Canadian you should be really proud the way that music has been supported for the past 25 years.
You've long been a vocal supporter of tax breaks for music industry investors, outside of the touring business.
Look it’s an interesting thing because you’ve got a situation which is national and state. Many years ago there was a prime minister for the Labour Party (1991-1996), Paul Keating who used to manage a band in the ‘60s called the Ramrods, believe it or not. Keating was famous for his cultural paper (the establishment of the Creative Nation scheme which significantly increased funding for the arts). Keating really turned it around, and he understood. He was very helpful. That was around the time of Midnight Oil, and INXS.
In general Keating was a big supporter (of the music industry). Then a lot of that was thrown away with the Liberal government.
At the moment we have state offices (for the arts). There’s Millie Milligate (Export Music Producer, Sounds Australia), and Patrick Donovan (CEO, Music Victoria). There’s a number of people. I know the local party here, and it’s coming on. People don’t talk politics, but I’m not ashamed. But I am a strong Labour Party man. Labour got elected in Victoria and they made a number of commitments to music which is a very positive thing. The Liberal Party is federal. They caused a storm in the arts because they really slashed—not just music but high arts as well—they slashed so much that there was almost a revolution. The former arts minister, George Brandis, was also attorney general. He was removed by the new Liberal Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull). There’s a new minister for the arts (Michael Fifield) out of Victoria. I haven’t met him yet. I will in a couple of weeks. I am hoping that he initially starts out well. You can only expect so much from government, and they really want private sector to be involved and to commit. Obviously I’m an independent, and I am prepared to do that. I have been always very envious of the way that Canada is for many, many years with government support. I think that’s one of the reasons why there were so many successful Canadian artists.
For the first time in the history of the Billboard singles chart, the top four slots recently were occupied by Canadian artists, the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Shawn Mendes.
That just proves exactly what I am saying. It’s so frustrating. The amount of money that the (Canadian) province of Ontario puts up (for the music industry) is more than all of Australia puts up.
Why Mushroom Records in 1972? Why an Australian label at that time? Were other Australian labels not signing domestic acts?
Half of the majors weren’t signing Australian acts. Most of the independents were dodgy. I was managing two acts that broke up within four weeks of each other, Healing Force, and Chain (regarded then as one of the best acts in Australia). I was disillusioned. Back in those days you were told what your album cover was going to be; who was going to produce you; and what songs you were going to record. I didn’t play music, but I realized that with the people that I was working with that the whole thing was about creativity, and being original. Being a leader, and not being a follower. That’s my big thing. These companies, the ones that were signing Australian artists, weren’t treating artists with any sort of respect.
People say, “It was a great business decision to start Mushroom.” It turned out to be a good decision, but it was purely a decision to have artists have creative strength. I was very fortunate that I had a vision because Australia is such a small market; it’s so far away that, particularly because of distance, it made it very difficult. There had been a lot of flop labels in Australia, and a lot of big labels, major labels, that were not even signing local artists. So I worked out that the label was a necessity.
You weren’t a musician because you had hated piano lessons.
(Laughing). You are one of the people I like talking to. You know what you are talking about.
Mushroom Records became Australia's most successful independent label, claiming an unprecedented 10% market share in 1987.
I didn’t do this because I was a genius. We were in such a small market that I had to create (a collective). I had a record company. I had a merchandising company. We used to print shirts in the building. I’d be sued if I did that now. We had T-shirts, merchandising, publishing, records. We had the whole 360, but we had companies to service it all. The reason why I did it was because the market was so small here that every time that I had financial trouble with one company one other company would be doing well. So we could work as a group. That was the way I had it set up and the way I still have it set up, as I’ve become independent again. That (strategy) is really advantageous. It gives you a fighting chance against the big guys.
A year after launching Mushroom Records releases a lavishly-packaged three-LP live set from the Sunbury rock festival that underscores the fact that this was an album label.
There’s a method to my madness here because there had been a lot of flog on independent labels and I wanted every (radio) station whether they be big, small, in country areas, college, provincial areas, wherever, to know that Mushroom was a serious label. If you have one of the original copies the triple album folds out to a photo of the audience, and there’s a guy there with his “old boy” hanging out. I swear to you.
And your name is spelt wrong in the credits. It ends in a “y.”
There you go. Anything is possible, man. This is the outback.
Mushroom took off with Skyhooks. Their albums "Living In The Seventies" (1974), and "Ego Is Not A Dirty Word" (1975) exploded.
Yeah, absolutely. No doubt. That was one “hero” that just came. The label had success, and it looked like it was doing okay, but we were in all sorts of trouble. I will never forget that six tracks were banned by Australian radio. I walked into our office in our small building with six people, and they were panicking. I went, “What’s wrong with you guys?” I’m remembering this like it was yesterday. “What’s wrong with you guys? When was the last time we had every track played by commercial radio? At least we have limited the choices.”
Mushroom’s biggest-selling albums previously had been in 30,000-40,000 unit range.
We sold well over a quarter million (of each of Skyhooks’) albums, which was absolutely unheard of. They were different to everybody else then. With make-up. If only we hadn’t taken so long (to tour internationally). They were a witty version of Kiss. By the time we came to America, like a lot of Australian bands at that time, we didn’t have the patience (to work the market), and Americans didn’t get the humor. They supported Kiss on one show in their make-up, and they were thrown off the show.
Among the successful Australian bands you failed to pick up were AC/DC, INXS, Little River Band, Air Supply, and Men at Work.
At least Men at Work, I tried to get. INXS and AC/DC were already signed. Look between my son, and a few things we have coming up, I think that elusive goal of an American #1 may be reached. I have had a #3 (Billboard hit) in America with Kylie Minogue “The Loco-Motion” (1988) but I’ve never had a #1. Splt Enz were gigantic in Canada, but we could never crack America. We were so close. As Australian artists are showing right now, it’s a worldwide music scene. I hope that we have one of those names you mentioned earlier carry up. I will leave that to my son and the great people at our labels.
In selling off your remaining shares in Mushroom Records in 1999 did you have a sense of relief that you were in control of your destiny again?
Yeah, I did.
When you concluded the final part of that deal your bank manager wrote on the bottom of the bank statement, “Well done Michael.”
Yeah that’s a true story. Look, I’ve gotten nothing against Rupert Murdoch whatsoever. He’s a man of his word. Originally....
But Michael, you are one of the few people to ever take advantage of Rupert Murdoch in a business deal. Meanwhile, the earlier partnership part of the deal had funded the setting up of your U.K. operation. operations.
To be honest with you, I don’t think I took advantage of him. I went and offered them a radio network (the Tripe-M network) that would have made them 150 million bucks at least, and which would have given me a whole third of a platform that would have been unbelievable. But because I went directly to him (Rupert Murdoch) the local people here just chopped me up. So the reason that I feel that I didn’t take advantage of him was because we got the label going in England. I had really given up. Then we had three #1 albums in a row (with Garbage, Peter Andre, and Ash). But I realized that you’re dealing with News Corporation with Rupert Murdoch here.
In 1995, two years following Mushroom partnership with News Corporation, the label’s domestic market share plunged from 10% to about 3%, which was blamed on label’s distributor of 25 years, Festival Records, citing an out-of-date stock-control and delivery system, and lack of in-store merchandising clout.
It was James Murdoch (then VP for music and new media for News Corp. in New York) was the one who really screwed it up as far as I am concerned. I went through 18 months of knowing that I was selling the company one day, and not being able to talk to my own people about it. He procrastinated. He wanted to revamp Festival Records Australia, and call it Mushroom. He just went completely against me, and it dragged on for almost 18 months. It was just a very awkward thing. Then he made it Festival Mushroom Records.
In the end, as an employee of Mushroom Records, you were dismissed but you later rebounded with Liberation Music.
James was arrogant. He was young. I’ve got nothing against Lachlan (the eldest Murdoch sibling) who was also involved in the partnership deal. If people think I got the better of Rupert Murdoch, I would be one of the few people in the world, and I would take that as a compliment. It wasn’t a matter of trying to get the better of anyone. It was a matter of trying to take Mushroom globally and James had a different vision.
[In 1995, Rupert Murdoch's younger son, James, 23, was appointed as Festival Record's chairman despite having no significant business experience. James had a reputation as the family rebel. He had dropped out of Harvard University to set up the American hip hop label, Rawkus Records. Under James’ management, Festival bought out Gudinski's controlling 51% share of Mushroom Records in 1999. The two companies were merged as Festival Mushroom Records with some 25 staffers losing their jobs. In 2005 Festival Mushroom Records folded, and the bulk of its assets were sold to the Australian division of the Warner Music Group. Festival Music Publishing was sold to The Mushroom Group.]
You managed to retain the name “Mushroom” for your business activities.
I also was able to retain the publishing company which was very much of an achievement.
What music did you grow up with. I know you like the Doors, Roy Orbison and Elvis. What else?
Jimi Hendrix, Cream.
Did you collect records as a teenager?
Yes. I did listen to different things. The most successful people in the music business are people that were fans. Most of the great stuff I find now is from people here bringing it in. People in the office. I love Crosby Still Nash and Young, and the Cream. The first two records that I bought were Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and Elvis Presley. It was “Viva Las Vegas or something. I can’t remember. I never bought a single until I was 12. Because of half of these TV shows today, music has so widened. You have kids listening to music properly at the age of 2 and 3. Seriously. Thank God, I have the group of companies that I’ve got because when I was running the whole Mushroom Group a record cost way more than a concert. Luckily, there’s been a complete turnaround.
You were thrown out of your parents’ house at 16. In your final year of school, and while your parents were away on holidays, you went to work for Bill Joseph, who used to run all of the suburban dances around Melbourne.
That’s in the (Stuart Coupe) book. There are some things in it that I didn’t know. He had done his research. My parents came from a community that they never talked about like a lot of people who went through the Second World War. I think that there were 35,000 in the community, and only 500 survived. I never knew that until I read the book, honestly.
My mother was born in Moscow and my father was born in Lithuania. It was the old Russia. My old man if he walked in the door now I would give him the biggest hug. The best thing that he did was throwing me out of the house. It was a little shock to the system. My sister is a PhD who has been living in the UK for 40 years. My brother-in-law has been knighted; he’s (the Australian immunologist) Sir Marc Feldmann, one of the top arthritis doctors in the world. Marc’s a genius. So, obviously I was the black sheep in the family. I was an afterthought (Gudinski’s father was 45 when he was born in 1952), and happy to be born in Australia. I was okay at school, but I was already running dances. I don’t do a lot of talks. I’m not on the talk circuit. I don’t care if you are a plumber......
You were doing more than running dances. Your family home was a short distance from the Caulfield Racecourse in Melbourne's suburbs. You had a big backyard, and you worked out that 6 to 8 cars could park in the yard at two shillings a car.
Fair enough. The thing is whether you are a plumber or a carpenter if you are happy with your job you are going to be a happier person in life and you are going to do better at that job. What I worked out when I was young—I was a late bloomer believe me—was that I wanted to have a job where I woke up, and went, “Yes.” I am a very lucky man to have that. It sounds strange but i had a financial mishap early in my touring career with a company called Evans Gudinski.
[Evans Gudinski promoted shows by British and American blues bands including John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, plus Manfred Mann and Jethro Tull, and a national tour by a new Sydney band, AC/DC.]
No doubt confirming to your father that you were a bum.
Yes. It didn’t go bankrupt, but it went into liquidation. It went into receivership. I was a real hippie and I didn’t take all of it too seriously until I turned up with that. From that day onward, I realized one thing, and it’s an important thing that most promoters go through. The one thing I learned was that no matter how hip, groovy, independent -- whatever you are, if you can’t pay your bills, you are no good. I’m glad that it happened to me early in my career. I would hate for it to happen to me in my 50s or 60s. A number of people have had that happen to them.
We certainly did the right thing when Future Music was shut down. We didn’t avoid anything. The people that deal with me know that credibility is the most important thing with me. We have never been to court with an artist in publishing or recording in our history, and I’m very proud to say that.
In the early 1970s, you co-founded the Daily Planet magazine that also consistently lost money.
You bet. Started that with Michael Browning who took AC/DC to the world. Listen when you are not the premier, you do things for certain reasons. We did that for all the wrong reasons. To be honest with you I had a label that was already designed, Consolidated Rock and it was such a good name back then. Consolidated Rock Records. I already had the idea for a label, and came in a few years later with Mushroom.
You not only are seeking a #1 hit in America, but you want to win the Melbourne Cup, the premier horse race in Australia.
Yeah. I’ve had about 10 runners. It‘s a fun thing. I’m not into breeding. My closest friend outside of music business is Nick Williams who’s family has won four Melbourne Cups. More than anyone in history. I have had a third and a fifth. I have two horses running in this year’s Melbourne Cup, Amralah (the six-year-old Teofilo stallion is winner of six of his 16 career runs), and the United States. Promoting is a form of gambling. I’m not a big gambler. But I will have a good go with my horses. I will keep trying to win that Melbourne Cup. Perhaps, it’s in my blood because as you said, two bob in the car park. Believe it or not with Australia’s’ weather conditions, we are gambling mad. There are more race tracks in Austria than the United States. It’s a fact.
[On Nov. 3rd, 2015 Michelle Payne, riding New Zealand-bred Prince of Penzance became the first female jockey to win first place in the Melbourne Cup in the race’s 155-year history. The horse had been considered an outsider with odds of 100-1.]
Can we blame veteran breeder and Chrysalis Records co-founder Chris Wright for you being a racehorse owner?
You do. You do. In fact, he said to me, “Do you want a ‘leg?’ And Gudinski, if it doesn’t work out, here’s a quarter.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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