Vale Michael Gudinski: “The acts that look after their fans will be the ones that last”

It’s impossible to work in the music industry and not feel the weight of the loss of Michael Gudinski this morning – the iconic founder of the Mushroom Group who passed away overnight at the age of 68.

Myself, and the whole The AU Review team sends our love to the Gudinski family, all his friends, and of course everyone at the Mushroom Group. 

You didn’t have to look far to be impacted by MG in some way. What is an award show in Australia without Gudinski up on stage heralding the never ending rise of independent Australian music? And what would the touring scene here be without the weight of Frontier Touring? Hell, during the pandemic it’s felt like he was single handedly responsible for getting Australian music back onto our TV screens with The Sound.

I remember seeing him in Singapore, where he ran through the Music Matters conference like a freight train one year, either on his way to, or on his way back from Japan, where he was trying to convince Paul McCartney to tour Australia. While those shows ended up being cancelled and the trip was a bust, he still managed to make that tour happen eventually – and what a tour that was.

I remember attending one of his company’s annual bowling soirees – where they kindly invited media every year – and him telling me, with a grin, that he’d finally gotten Springsteen to tour Australia again – in what would be the first of a couple of successive tours with the E Street Band. His last tour with Tool, even garnered him an award at the National Live Music Awards in October (which I founded), which he kindly accepted.

And he would hold that same fervor when he was talking about the next big Australian act – be it the wonderful Emma Louise, as she performed in an intimate gallery in Sydney for invited guests, or acts like Violent Soho and DZ Deathrays, who he celebrated as saving rock and roll in our country.

Indeed, he was one of the industry’s biggest advocates of local music, and that voice will be surely missed.

Ten years ago, our first proper meeting was over the phone, as we spoke about the release of Frontier Touring & Mushroom’s coffee table book Every Poster Tells A Story, which looked back at 30 years of touring with Frontier.

In the lengthy interview, we spoke about Chuggi, Gudinski himself and of course the new book. Though in the interview, he told me why he’ll never write a book – and indeed he didn’t – the explosion of festivals in Australia, who they missed in the book and what the future may hold. It’s amazing how relevant his views would hold for the decade that followed.

As the interview started, however, he wasn’t interested in talking about the book at all – he just wanted to talk about music. Since this interview was no longer published on the site, I thought I’d dig it out and share it with you today.

Gudinski, how are you mate?

I’m pretty good mate, are you in Melbourne or Sydney?

I’m up in Sydney

It’s a rare beautiful, sunny day down here, its absolutely incredible.

That’s good to hear

I just got back from Port Douglas and its heaven up there – so what’s new today mate?

I’m here to talk to you about the book you have just released…

Nah, what other news is there?

The only thing that’s come across my desk so far is that the Pyramid Rock Festival was announced today, Scissor Sisters surprisingly was one act announced… from my point of view this is not an impressive line up but still early days yet.

Yeah look, there are too many festivals and it’s getting more expensive. If you pay too much for the acts then you charge too much. My biggest thing, I dunno if you read The Music Network article I did, well, ticket prices are so critical. I think Splendour found that out and acts like Foo Fighters call their own ticket prices. It’s all about the fans and the acts that look after the fans will be the ones that last.

Yes, that is definitely right, you look at Splendour which didn’t sell out and some of the biggest festivals in the world don’t sell out. That hadn’t been a problem in the past, but ticket prices and the cost of getting to Woodford they have to be able to put that into account.

Definitely, anyway we’re here to talk about 30 years which I’d like to think is the first 30, and I can guarantee you that we will remain an independent company. We have been approached by a number of American companies, Live Nation included and I think it’s very important that independence lasts.

There will always be room for us because my son (Matt Gudinski) is, in his own ways, is making a mark in the business, he manages Bliss and Eso and he co-promoted Bruno Mars, and it’s given me a new drive in the company and a long future.

You have had such long relationships with the artists you tour, too. 

Well look, Frontier started in the pioneer days when a lot of promoters weren’t watching what was going on and we came in on the alternative punk music wave and the first two tours we did was The Squeeze and The Police.

The Squeeze never became as big as they should have, but we still see (past member) Jools Holland on his fantastic TV show. And Sting and I were talking a few months ago and we have realised we have known each other for more than half our lives, it’s been an amazing relationship. I class his family and my family as friends, we had some amazing times and it was always a fun job.

When running the record labels there is real pressure but with a tour it’s very high risk, a lot of promoters have gone broke all around the world, at different times when you get involved in bidding wars the only person who wins out is the act and the people who lose out is the promoter and the fans as the tickets prices get stupid.

But the idea is you say hello at the airport when they arrive, and goodbye when they leave – so there is a sort of start and finish point to it and yes we have toured a number of our acts alone, and have been like a lot of other promoters and will take acts and do small acts into rooms that fill 200, 500 to Guns N Roses and Madonna in stadiums.

We are a very varied company and if you look through the book there is an amazing variation and styles of music, it’s a very interesting book because I used to have a saying with Mushroom Records ‘Our artists are our strength’, and it’s the same thing applies here (the book) and the posters cover real art, there are people who collect them like previous generations collect stamps and in a way I regret we never used to sell limited editions as they are more valuable and special. But when they are assembled in one book, it’s a great coffee table book, where I’d be very surprised if there is anyone who has even only been to a few concerts that hasn’t been to one of our concerts.

I think some of the guys have got older, that were the support acts on some of the big tours we did, and they can be proud to show their kids the book. And the interesting thing is the variety of the posters and how street posters have changed over the years and you gotta remember street posters were around way before street graffiti.

I’ve kept my hands off the book in the sense that I would never write a book like my ex partner Michael Chugg, I figure what goes on the road stays on the road.

I couldn’t do it, we’ve had five journalists, one from New Zealand and one from Germany write about each five year period and I’ve kept the layout of posters, I didn’t want the lay out to be getting bigger or smaller (the shows) and so it’s not laid out like the biggest tours are the biggest posters.

There are some amazing posters like Jeff Buckley which was such a sad death when it happened, such talent, but what is interesting is how some of the styles have come back and how different posters were in the early days to now, because now they are more generic, being such a big business – the live business – most international acts supply you with the artwork and you just put the local details on it. Where as back then, we could design our own artwork and get local artists involved and obviously get the artist improvement and give it a bit of an Australian slant.

 

When it comes to the posters, do you have a favourite ones, on your walls?

I guess my favourite poster isn’t the greatest artwork, but is the most emotional and one of my greatest moments was the Sound Relief concert at the MCG, which was the biggest paying concert in Australian history. And to put all those acts together in such a short period of time and for such a massive, massive disaster in Queensland and my hometown Victoria was emotional.

Just to get the Hunters and Collectors who swore they’d never play together again to reform with bands like Midnight Oil and Kings of Leon and Coldplay, it was just the most amazing day and ironically not one fight and the parents, kids, three generations and the police had no trouble and they commented to me they wish it was like that at the football and cricket as it was entertainment with young breaking acts like Liam Finn and Bliss and Eso and that itself was amazing.

Another poster I like is Madonna, of course being the only time she has ever been here, at the MCG shows, that was, I think, a step up into massive productions and staging of shows and she’s a hard and demanding and very professional. She did everything she agreed to and she delivered three MCG shows which is a massive accomplishment.


That is absolutely incredible and you brought Steely Dan back out in 2007 and they are coming back out now, are they going to be doing the hits do you think?

That is such a good question, they did a couple of more events on the American dates and I think they’ve had so much flack I think they will, to be honest with you.

I’m a lifetime fan of Steve Winwood, I interviewed him for a TV show about 30 years ago and I can’t wait to see him and I think Steely are great musicians and I think they will mostly play a couple of hits, they only missed a few hits, but Winwood to me is why I’m going to the show as he was a hit before I even started in the music business with the Spencer Davis Group and the supergroup Blind Faith. He was in a band called Traffic on the label I modelled Mushroom on called Ivy records, and he went on to make some of the most amazing solo records and I just love him so, we are trying more of these double bills.

The Blondie/Pretenders bill was massive for Day On The Green and I think it’s about giving fans back value for money. Ticket prices are out of control in Australia, and I think acts really can control their ticket prices if they want to. Foo Fighters could have charged $50 more for their tickets but there was no way they’d do that to their fans and if someone had offered them a massive amount more money than me and the ticket price was doubled then the Foo Fighters would not have jumped as the Foo Fighters are loyal to their fans and I think that is what it’s all about.

My first experience was the Foo Fighters in the early 2000’s when they did free show for Channel V for an hour and half was amazing as we thought it was going to be short set.

Dave Grohl’s work ethics, with what he’s come through with Nirvana, he’s seen how things can go wrong. He so cares, and this time the show is going to be two and half hours long, he’s just an amazing man, he really is, he came out for the Brisbane and NZ concerts and is an absolute pleasure to work with.

We’ve done a number of tours with them and they are an absolutely fun, great band and there will be fun between Tenacious D and The Foo’s. But look, concerts, when I started, the record cost more than the concert ticket and it’s amazing how the live experience has gone the other way.

I think that festivals are one thing to see acts, but acts that headline themselves with their own production on that level, nothing beats it – and also to see some of those great acts starting off in clubs. I’ve seen The Police when they first played in clubs on their first tour, and then to go to stadiums was an amazing journey – and there is such a variety of posters in there and anyone who loves concerts then this is a book for the table. And through the Frontier site you can buy it for half price, so it’s not a money making venture, it’s a venture to celebrate 30 years and this book is sitting in the reception area of William Morris or CAA agencies overseas and it will blow people’s minds.

I’ve had a note from the biggest touring promoters in America, saying they’ve never seen anything of this kind from any company anywhere in the world. And we didn’t think like that, we just wanted to archive the stuff. I’m just very very proud of the people who put such hard work into it.

It’s looking great on the AU coffee table, remarkable achievement and congratulations on 30 years.

I started it when I was 10, so I’ve still got a bit left in me. The question that I’m embarrassed about – and I’ll ask this question – “Did we leave any posters out of the book”? And it’s not a book done by a publisher so we didn’t really have anyone outside checking it and it’s my greatest embarrassment because out of all my acts, the closet act to me from a label point of view, from a touring point of view is one of my great friends Kylie Minogue.

Of course her manager who used to work for me before we worked for Kylie, and when I gave him the book within 5 minutes he came running into my office and said you’re not going to believe this but you left one of Kylie’s tour out and boy was I embarrassed. Of all the acts we had to leave out and we only missed two – one Kylie tour and one Halls and Oates tour so I think we did pretty well.

…not a bad achievement at all

Now it’s up to the next 30 years and like I said there are more and more amazing posters being designed and I think there are a lot of younger kids that weren’t around in the first ten years and they’ll get such a shock at the variety of posters from the early days, it was just amazing.

Mr Gudinski, thank you for your time.

Staple it to your coffee table because someone will knock it off, it’s a limited edition and it’ll go very quickly and we’ll have to do a soft cover version next. Thank you for supporting local acts.

Learn more about the book here: http://www.frontiertouring.com/everyposter

Photo by Brian Purnell.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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