Interview: I OH YOU’s Johann Ponniah on nurturing careers with Headline Acts and The Release Cycle

Musically minded wine brand Headline Acts have created a new industry rewards program called Headline Access. In partnership with Muso, the idea is to nurture the careers of Independent Australian artists.

The Release Cycle is the first iteration of this, giving one budding artist the opportunity to learn from industry names including Johann Ponniah (I OH YOU Records), Johnny Took (DMA’s) and Sose Fuamoli (music journalist). We caught up with Johann just as he was heading to Glastonbury music festival to learn a little about his personal journey in the music industry.

What made you get into music in the first place?

I was always around music growing up. My dad, he’s very musical, more musical than I am to be honest, so there was always music being played in the house. My cousins from an early age started introducing me to like hip hop and R&B. At that time, it wasn’t getting played on commercial radio stations. It would’ve been popular in the US, and I guess word of mouth but that wasn’t getting played on commercial radio, so from an early age I picked up this knack of liking music that my peers didn’t.

I think that I found something in that you outgrow those things after a while when you realise that everyone could just love everything. In the formative years of your life, it’s nice to have something that feels like your own. When I was thirteen one of my friends at school took me to see his brothers band play a show. They were like a punk band basically and I was just hooked. That really kicked off a lot of live music, going to shows and wanting to play the guitar. Figuring out that I was not musically gifted but realising that I was very passionate about this thing. More so than other people around me. To the point where I’m not just interested in the music, but I became very interested in the people behind the music. I liked one of these logos on the back of CDs – who are these people? I did some digging into that and realised that three 16-year-olds basically ran my favourite label.

There was a label called Below Par Records that listed artists like Kisschasy and Something With Numbers and stuff like that. I began to realise that there are people behind the scenes who shared a similar love of music. I became very interested in that and started doing a bit of research and that kicked off a desire to go to work in music. I think I was probably one of the lucky ones when you look back at it. I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was about 13 or 14 and then it was just a matter of trying to make that happen. A lot of other young people quite understandably don’t figure that stuff out until they’re forced to make a decision. They’ve got to choose a Uni course, or they finish high school, and they have to figure out what to do.

What was your first job in music?

It was basically street-teaming for that label Below Par Records, so it wasn’t it wasn’t a paid job, but I’d like to think I was paid in stickers and occasional postcard or something like that. That was a gateway into music and developing connections and stuff like that. I grew up in a place called Campbelltown which is about an hour out of Sydney southwest. Now it has this great music community but back then it didn’t feel like there were many inroads. You weren’t surrounded by other people; you weren’t just bumping into people that worked in the music industry. So that was a way of me making connections and stuff like that. From there I picked up an internship with the same management company that used to manage Kisschasy. That was in Melbourne, and I moved down to Melbourne three days after I finished high school to pursue that.

How old were you when you set up I OH YOU?

I was 20 when we when we started I OH YOU. I moved down when I was 18 and had been interning at a management company. I started managing some bands. One band Howl back in the day won this competition but we couldn’t really get people to come on board, so we just sort of decided to do it ourselves. We put it under this banner of I OH YOU which was also the name of some house parties that we were throwing at the time.

What kind of obstacles did you face setting up something like that?

Look, there’s a lot of obstacles but perhaps at the time I didn’t really realise that. When you’re right in the thick of things you just sort of like going with it. For me the biggest obstacle was that where I grew up was very disconnected from the music industry. There weren’t many live shows, maybe like four shows a year. There certainly wasn’t any music industry connections and stuff like that. That has changed. People unlike myself who moved away, there are people there that stayed have really developed a great a great music community. I hold those people in very high regard for what they have done and achieved. For me it was the distance sort of thing and needing to try and find my way in.

There are other obstacles. When I moved to Melbourne to do that internship, I was working five days a week but making $150 a week. Couch surfing a lot. People had me on their couch for like 2 weeks at a time and let me just like bounce around. Eventually you get put on a little bit more money until you can eventually get a rental. An obstacle has to be in the eye of the person trying to tackle it. I was just I was just psyched on the fact that someone wanted to give me $150 a week to work in music. Looking back on it in hindsight that’s probably a challenge. That will stop a lot of people from taking the first step and I should say I don’t advocate for people getting paid $150 a week. I’m just saying that that’s what happened to me but as I said I’m very grateful for people that gave me that first step in.

I guess other obstacles is like you need to be willing to fuck up and be wrong at times. There will be stumbles. You will ask stupid questions. You will forget to ask stupid questions. You gotta make the mistakes and you just have to be up for that. That still happens today so if you’re trying to progress your career, you’re always going to be putting yourself in that in those sorts of situations. Once you get used to that I feel like people accelerate their progression pretty quickly.

Did you have a moment where you said yourself “I’ve made it”?

I do remember when we first released a record that actually made money that was a thing where I was like “OK, it’s not just like this cool idea or whatever. It’s now actually your business and I can see this long term has the potential to go.” That didn’t come for a long time. We were running the label for three or four years I think before we actually had that moment, but that was a nice feeling. It’s not just profit and losses that are always losses. You’re throwing parties to try and make up some more money and that kind of thing.

There’s been other things like DZ winning an Aria, Violent Soho coming in and doing all the things that they did was brilliant. Turning a profit isn’t like the thing that I’m most proud of but in answer to your question that was the moment where I was like this is an actual thing now, this is a potential job long term.

How did you get involved with Headline Access?

I think it’s a cool opportunity hopefully for us to help a new artist and help develop some of those networks that I was talking to you about. Give someone a bit of a kick start. Headline Acts as a brand have a music focus and I think they want to make an impact within the industry and so they came up with the concept. Then they came to me Johnny and Sose about being involved in this first campaign.

There’s three people who are very well respected and well known in the field so for the winner is going to be a great opportunity to see three different sides of the music industry.

Yeah, I hope so. I feel like it’s an encouraging mix so hopefully this person will be able to come in and get something out of it and make some connections that exist beyond just this campaign.

Have you got an idea in your head on what you be showing them or doing them or is that something that will evolve depending on the person?

I think that will develop depending on who wins. The way I’ve always approached music is not like a one size fits all, so depending on the person that wins or people that win we’ll figure out what they need and where we can assist best.

Is this a new thing for you to mentoring up and coming or if you had other ones in the past?

I’m just trying to think. Perhaps in more informal settings. Over the years, whether it’s people in the industry or musicians or friends and that sort of thing. The terms mentee and mentor are not something that I ever really use. If people want to bounce ideas around and that sort of thing then sweet, but I’ve never done it in this sort of formal capacity.

I’m sure at gigs you must have people coming up to you asking how to get into the industry and things like that or asking you questions about the process.

I wouldn’t say it’s like every gig or anything like that but it’s just like it’s nice to be around people that you know are passionate about music and wanting to make an impact in our industry. It’s humbling that someone would think of me to have a conversation with. As a 13- or 14-year-old kid I was doing that nonstop. Perhaps the age of the people that I’m leaning on has changed, but I don’t think it stops.

What’s the next step for I OH YOU?

I’m over in the UK and we’ve got DMA’s, Confidence Man and Rolling Blackouts all touring here now. One key reason I’m over here is because recently Mushroom have entered a deal with Virgin Music for our repertoire outside of Australia New Zealand. We’re sort of hoping that will help us set ourselves up as a global label in the longer term. Previously we worked with our artists on a world level, but we went out and licenced music and found the right partners and things like that. Now we’re going to take a crack at trying to do it ourselves. We’ve got some big releases coming up. There’s a DMA’s record coming which is organised to kick off soon. Really excited about that. There’s also new music from Jack River.

We have a new label signing – his name Hey! Astro. He’s a 19-year-old artist from the Central Coast, kind of genre hopping anywhere from cult R&B to hip-hop. He’s ridiculously prolific and quite frankly it’s intimidating how in-tune young people are with like culture and stuff these days. I look back at some of my some of my fashion decisions and I did stuff like that and I’m just like bloody hell when you compare it to young people like Hey! Astro it’s just a different world. We’re really excited about him. Then you know there’s going to be more parties and stuff. We’re trying to develop our management company Converge Management a bit more. More of the same but hopefully levelling up in a couple of different ways and as I said the international focus is a big thing for us. We’ve always been internationally focused and driven but now taking on the responsibility of releasing those artists ourselves – that’s a big thing.

Read more about Headline Acts HERE