Chapter Music
Chapter Music's Guy Blackman and Ben O'Connor in 1995

Chapter Music Turns 30 – Ten Things That Define the Melbourne Indie Label

Guy Blackman founded Chapter Music as a 17-year-old living in Perth in 1992. 30 years later, the now Melbourne-based operation is one of Australia’s most distinguished and longest-serving indie labels. Blackman and his partner in music and life, Ben O’Connor, will be celebrating Chapter Music’s 30th birthday with a big party at Melbourne’s Northcote Theatre on Saturday, 5th November, part of the Victorian Government’s ALWAYS LIVE initiative.

The lineup features various Chapter artists past and present, including Laura Jean, Essendon Airport, Teether & Kuya Neil and Gregor. Ahead of the event Guy and Ben run through ten things that have defined the label’s three-decade history.

Ten Things That Have Defined Chapter Music

Every artist we’ve ever released (1992-2022)

Ben and Guy: Chapter Music has been around for 30 years, so it’s impossible for us to single out any particular artist as defining for the label. We just did a quick count and we’ve released something like 225 artists across 185 releases, mostly from Australia but also from Japan, Sweden, the USA, Canada and UK. Our label is defined by all the music and the artists we work with, and we love everything and everyone we’ve ever put out.

The cassette years (1992-1995)

Ben and Guy: Chapter was started by Guy in Perth in 1992 as a very humble DIY label (not much has changed). He was still a month or so away from his 18th birthday and wanted to put out a compilation of Perth bands to accompany his Syd Barrett-obsessed fanzine Chapter 24.

It was the era of grunge and shoegaze and Madchester, and the beginning of a lo-fi home-taping revolution, so all of that was represented on the comp. He made about 100 cassettes with photocopied covers and hand-typed labels and called it Bright Lights, Small City (apparently in 1962 everyone in Perth turned their lights on when an astronaut was passing by and the city was visible from space).

Over the next few years, Guy put out seven or eight more tapes, including a Sonic Youth tribute tape, before picking up and moving to Melbourne in 1995. That’s where he and Ben met, fell in love, and started working on the label as a team.

Minimum Chips / Molasses split single (1995)

Ben and Guy: Chapter’s mid-’90s Melbourne era was dominated by what we called The Love Triangle: bands from Perth and Brisbane coming together in Melbourne to collaborate, make new connections and have a lot of fun. Chapter had started making links with Brisbane music a couple of years earlier, when Brisbanite Richard Forster moved to Perth and helped out with Chapter for a while, switching Guy onto the Brisbane DIY pop scene including bands like Clag, Small World Experience and Minimum Chips.

The first vinyl release we ever did was a split 7″ single between Perth sunshine pop band Molasses and Brisbane space age beatniks Minimum Chips, so this was a key statement of the time. This was also the first record pressed by new Melbourne pressing plant Corduroy Records, and after some badgering, Guy ended up working there for six years, pressing all of Chapter’s early vinyl releases on their clunky old 1960s manual machines.

Can’t Stop It! (2000)

Ben and Guy: Chapter has always been fascinated by neglected music history and we started putting out reissues alongside our new releases back in 1999 with a comp of Brisbane legend Andrew Wilson’s 80s bands Four Gods and Frontier Scouts. But 2000’s Can’t Stop It! really grabbed people’s attention, a compilation of late-’70s and early-’80s Australian post-punk featuring The Moodists, The Apartments and Essendon Airport.

This was probably the first Chapter release to get serious international attention and distro, reviewed in The Wire magazine and stocked by the legendary Other Music store in New York. It also helped Australian people realise that we had as much amazing music being made in that era as anywhere else in the world.

Australia has always been crap at valuing its own music history and Can’t Stop It! hopefully did a little bit to redress that cultural amnesia. We put out a second volume in 2007 and are working on fancy double-LP reissues of both comps for 2023.

Japan (2002-2004)

Ben and Guy: In 2002 Chapter had been going for ten years and we decided to pack it all in and go and live in Japan for a while. We’d been getting a bit obsessed with Japanese music, so we wrapped up the label and taught English in Tokyo for a year and a half. It was a pretty idyllic existence in hindsight, working four hours a day and spending the rest of the time exploring Tokyo and seeing bands almost every night of the week.

We stumbled across a pretty magical scene based around psychedelic folk bands like Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Tenniscoats, where each band seemed to have a different lineup, different set list and different instrumentation at every gig. Music was spontaneous and free and we fell pretty head over heels.

Of course we decided we had to restart the label as soon as we got back to Melbourne and put out a bunch of Japanese releases, including the Songs For Nao comp and records by Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz. We even did a reissue of a beautiful early-’70s folk rock album by Sachiko Kanenobu, which later got re-reissued by Light In the Attic.

The early blog era (2006-2010)

Ben and Guy: Something started happening around the mid 2000s, when our releases began to get written up on these websites that we didn’t know much about at the time, like Pitchfork, The FADER and Brooklyn Vegan.

After moving back from Japan in 2004 and reigniting the label, we started releasing classic Melbourne mid-to-late-’00s artists like Crayon Fields, Pikelet and Fabulous Diamonds. They were all visionary artists deserving of worldwide acclaim, but the rise of internet blog culture actually made that possible for Australian underground artists for the first time. You’d release a new record, send a single around as an MP3 to a few places, and if you were lucky it would be shared from site to site until it was posted on like 100 blogs around the world.

All of these Chapter bands got a kind of instant international hype from the early blogosphere and went on to tour the world, work with international labels and develop cult worldwide followings. That era lasted basically until streaming started to take over in the early 2010s, but it was an interesting and fun time.

Twerps and Dick Diver debut albums (October 14, 2011)

Ben and Guy: I’m not sure how much thought we really put into this, but we must have received New Start Again by Dick Diver and Twerps by Twerps around the same time, and decided it would be a cool idea to put them both out on the same day. Maybe we were marketing geniuses, or maybe both records were just amazing in their own right, but it did seem to kick off some kind of moment, an awareness that something special was happening in Melbourne around chiming guitars and bittersweet songwriting.

We’re still living with the ripples of this moment, after numerous attempts to fashion a scene or a genre via magazine think pieces or “Melbourne Jangle” Spotify playlists, as well as all the subsequent bands who tried to capture that elusive magic and succeeded or failed to various degrees.

Chapterfest 20 (2012)

Ben and Guy: We started doing Chapterfests in 2009 and at first we took over the Tote Hotel once a year, with bands running all day upstairs and downstairs and a big sausage sizzle in the beer garden. Things got a bit more ambitious when Melbourne Music Week started happening and we ended up doing Chapterfests in fancy locations like Birrarung Marr, Old Melbourne Gaol and our big 20th birthday celebration at North Melbourne Town Hall in 2012.

Looking back, the Chapterfest 20 lineup is all killer no filler, with Primitive Calculators, Beaches, Laura Jean, Twerps, Dick Diver, Pikelet, Crayon Fields, Clag and more. We also put out a very expensive coloured vinyl double-LP compilation, 20 Big Ones, which was meant to be a limited edition must-have collectors’ item for the devoted Chapter mega fan. I think we still have copies left 10 years later.

Turning 20 seemed like such a huge deal. It was hard to believe we had made it that far and were still going strong – even crazier that we’re still here another decade later.

Strong Love/Smokey (2012-2015)

Guy: Ben and I are a gay couple who run a record label together, and while we love and release music in all colours and stripes, it means a lot to us when we get to champion queer voices. The Strong Love compilation of openly gay songwriters from the 1970s was a huge labour of love for us, sparked when Ben brought home a record from the op shop by early-’70s queer music pioneer Michael Cohen.

That set us on a path exploring the history of openly queer music around the world, and made us realise there was a whole movement of post-Stonewall gay songwriting that was almost completely forgotten decades later. Funnily enough it was the gay men whose music was most neglected, with lesbian music in the ’70s quite widely celebrated and distributed.

In the process of compiling Strong Love, we discovered wild Los Angeles gay rocker Smokey, and in 2015 put out How Far Will You Go?, a comp of Smokey’s incredible 1970s recordings. When Strong Love first came out on CD in 2012 it seemed to get a pretty muted response, but the rest of the decade saw a pretty huge revolution in queer rights and visibility, so when we reissued Strong Love on vinyl in 2021, the response was fierce and enthusiastic.

We also made a 20 minute Strong Love mini-documentary if you wanna check out some of the original artists talking about their experiences as gay musical pioneers.

Chapterfest 30 (2022)

Ben and Guy: Luckily we were just teenaged babies when Chapter started 30 years ago, so we’re still kinda fresh-faced with the remnants of a spring in our step 30 years later. It’s pretty ridiculous to still be here after this long. We’re now one of the longest running Australian independent labels. Hats off to one of our original label inspirations, Half A Cow Records, for predating us and still going strong.

Our Chapterfest 30 party at Northcote Theatre on Saturday, 5th November has artists from pretty much the whole lifespan of the label. DIY pop icons The Cannanes formed in the mid-’80s and we first released them on Chapter in 1994. Essendon Airport have been doing it since 1979 and we started reissuing their amazing music in 2000. Hobart’s The Native Cats haven’t had a release on the label yet – watch this space – but we put out bassist Julian’s band The Frustrations in 1999 and a solo album by vocalist Chloe Alison Escott in 2020.

It’s wonderful to have NO ZU back after the passing of their incredible vocalist Daphne Camf in 2021. Laura Jean will be opening the show the day after the release of her sixth album, Amateurs. Gregor and Sweet Whirl had multiple shows together cancelled during the pandemic so it will be a real thrill to finally see them share a bill. Teether & Kuya Neil are one of our newest signings and an unmissable live act.

Further Reading

Chapter Music Announces Full Lineup For 30th Birthday Event This November

Essendon Airport Release First New Music In 40 Years, Feat. Anne Cessna

Laura Jean Releases New Single, ‘A Funny Thing Happened’

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