Conference Round Up: AWME – Arts Centre Melbourne (13-16.11.14)

The 7th Australasian Worldwide Music Expo – featuring 58 groups performing over 4 days alongside a two day conference – kicked off with an opening party early on Thursday evening with Pete Murray, Benny Walker and a Welcome to Country ceremony.

Benny Walker impressed at the opening night event, performing solo on the guitar – with a good dose of Harmonica thrown in for good measure, such as in the phenomenal track “Ticket For A Train”. An Indigenous artist, Walker brings a unique take to the Americana genre, helping him sit comfortably alongside artists like Zac Brown, Ray Lamontagne and Counting Crows – while putting forth a sound that is uniquely Australian and very much his own.

Later in the evening, the soulful Ms Murphy served as a highlight of the many showcases that were taking place throughout the city. Headlining a packed out Toff in Town, her incredible vocals shined as she covered tracks like “Love is the Answer” by Aloe Blacc and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” with a four piece band.

The following two days were filled with fascinating conferences that focused on World Music, with particular attention to Indigenous arts, music and culture. In Friday’s opening panel, “APRA Inbound”, industry representatives talked about their inclusion in APRA’s program that sends the industry into remote festivals in the Northern Territory, produced in partnership with Seed. With some 37 remote regional festivals happening annually in the NT, the program only tackles a few of them, but this includes Desert Harmony Festival, which has been running for some 25 year, plus the Barunga Festival – celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015, 70kms south-east of Katherine on Central Arnhem Rd – as well as Bush Bands Business & Bash in Alice Springs.

The group pointed to the importance of music in these communities, with a proven link to wellness when their music is appreciated and performed. They also pointed to their own experiences, which included Rob Scott, who first led a triple j broadcast team to Burunga 25 years ago. He reflected on being among only “6 or 7 white fellas there” and how he’s seen the artistic communities of the region grow in the last 25 years, pointing to the benefits of collaboration (through events like Bush Bands Business) and development funding, alongside the overbearing importance of music in telling stories. This wasn’t about being “discovered”, they just wanted to play for their communities.

Following this panel, Ash Grunwald, Nahko Bear and Nicky Bomba reflected on their experiences as world-travelling musicians with Sarah Howells from triple j. Notable discussion points from the panel included Ash talking about his career and some words of wisdom from Nahko and Nicky:

“I oscillate between being completely happy with where my career is at and being jolted “no, I need to be doing better!” You need to be happy as a person, living in the now not the future. It’s easy to spend your whole time planning instead of just enjoying the moment. It’s a fine line. You have to be a little bit not content in order to aspire for different things, but you still have to enjoy the moments…” – Ash Grunwald

“Gather your allies, find a group of people you can trust to work with”. – Nahko Bear

“Collaborations are vital and can encourage healthy competiton…” – Nicky Bomba

“All successful musicians work hard, if you want a career you need to be savvy and work incredibly hard at it… Try doing everything yourself first so you know what’s hard and what’s not, you’re less likely to have people take advantage of you.” – Ash Grunwald

“Genius is 1% inspiration 99% perspiration…” – Nicky Bomba

During the lunchtime showcase at Shebeen, we enjoyed a showcase of Indigenous artists including the phenomenal Tjintu Desert Band – a five piece with spectacular harmonies.

An all-star panel of Festival Directors and Bookers helped answer the question “What Makes a Great Festival”, as everyone from Bluesfest’s Peter Noble to Meredith’s Woody McDonald and Glastonbury’s Malcolm Haynes detailed how they book, how their festivals have grown and reflected on some highlights from the years. Richard Moffat, the booker for Falls and Groovin’ The Moo summed up things nicely when he was asked about their application process. His reply: “Don’t write shit songs”. Meanwhile, Haynes made the rest of the panel feel a bit smaller with numbers like “157,000 tickets in 26 minutes” in reference to how quickly Glastonbury sold out of tickets this year.

Interestingly, in the “Shift in the Media Landscape” panel happening at the same time, there wasn’t a representative for World Music media e.g. Rhythms, nor a representative for the digital space. Though Beat had online editor Tyson Wray as a Moderator, alongside magazine editor Cara Williams, the conclusion seemed to be that their model was still best represented in print. Si Jay Gould backed this up with comments about how while it was important to support print and radio financially, the same feelings weren’t felt for digital, though he acknowledged that “Grassroots will keep you alive” and that if you don’t look after the people who support you on the way up, they won’t be there when you’re on the way down. He also pointed to the vast amount of media outlets out there now, remarking that “trusted media sources are more relevant than ever before”.

So the question for me is, that if things are changing in the media world, was the panel trying to impress that not much had at all? Sure, social media was part of the conversation, but this was merely a footnote. Maybe PBS’ Adrian Basso summed it up best, “In my experience things don’t die quickly if at all… people want niche, it’s the Channel Tens that are struggling. We’re not dwindling (at PBS), there are changes things will come and things will go. But we’ve been crowdfunding in community radio in 30 years.”

So in many ways, though online is an important part of the business models of everyone on the stage, it’s still in the ways that have been operating for the last 30 years that priority and importance is held? Running my own digital platform I have my own things to say about that, but I might save that for another day… still, it does seem to reflect a certain viewpoint in the community.

The second day of AWME kicked off with the Australia Council For The Arts announcing details of their New Grants Model, which you can read about HERE. Though one thing I will mention about the panel here is that they reminded us all that with grants, “It’s ok to say what you don’t know. Remember that your peers are the ones who make the decisions.”

As we moved through the day we talked about being export ready, about touring internationally and we put the focus on Glastonbury in the day’s final session, ahead of a spectacular night of music. None more so than Haitus Kaiyote, who have had a pretty incredible year or two touring the world.

Two quotes of note I took from the International touring panel: “Smaller conferences give you better opportunities. More likelihood to have the right people see you.” and “Build your story domestically. Be export ready.”

Though AWME is very much about world music, in terms of the performances on display and the topics in discussion, as you can see, there is broader relevance to all Australian musicians here. There were some healthy debates and the unique take on some of the topics in particular regards to Indigenous musicians was fascinating to witness and hear.

Now in its 7th year, AWME has set itself as one of the country’s most important conferences. It was a pleasure to immerse myself in it all – albeit for an all too short period of the event, as I wasn’t able to stick around for the fourth and final day of festivities on the Sunday! But by all accounts, it went off with a bang…

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.