Co-founding Aussie indie label Shock Records along with Frank Falvo and Andrew McGee back in 1988, David Roy Williams is a true veteran of the Australian music industry. Running the company for over 20 years before leaving for greener pastures, Williams’ knowledge is extensive and his experience in the industry is invaluable. So it’s hardly surprising that since leaving Shock back in 2011 he has established a number of successful business in everything from touring to merchandise and of course music publishing.
He has so many different ventures on the go, in fact, that for the sake of clarity and name recognition he is bringing them all together under one name; his. David Roy Williams Entertainment is a broadly focused, one-stop-shop music entity offering touring, merchandising and music publishing services. This has them expertly positioned to profit from the changing landscape of the music industry that has seen greater and greater importance placed on live performance and merch revenue.
More than just a shrewd move into a growing field, though, Williams and the company understand that to stay ahead in the industry today, you have to try and do things differently. Working with a diverse range of established and emerging artists, DRWM is defined by their innovative approach to each project. From one-off releases tied into tours to rediscovering hidden treasures from the past, the company is never afraid to challenge the status quo and try something new, and Williams himself will tell you.
Music Feeds: So exciting times, you’ve got the new company, can you tell us what brought you to this stage in your career?
David Roy Williams: My history is that I was one of the founders and owners of Shock for 22 years. Over that period we had a lot of success and we released well over a thousand albums by Australian artists in that time, as well as international acts. So basically we got to a point with that business where it just grew and grew and grew and I exited the business at the end of 2011, having had another company take over the business in 2010.
So I was out looking for new opportunities after having run Shock for the last 20 years and the one area we had never really done any work in was touring. And for me, that was something that was interesting, and I’d always wanted to be involved in the touring business. So I initially started off with the idea to get a touring company going, but at the same time running these other areas and working in music publishing and with some labels. But the touring was the business that really took off first and so for a couple of years we were just really focused on the touring. We did put a couple of things out on the label such The Kingswood mini album Change Of Heart and a Vans EP and a few things that were associated with tours, but most of the effort was going into the touring.
MF: So where did the re-brand come in?
DRW: So the business was going well and we named it Tombowler, but what we found was that people from the office would be going to conferences and no one would know the name. It was only when they’d say it’s David Williams’ new company that people would recognise who we were and so this rebrand we’re doing at the moment is really about using the fact that there are people in the industry who know who I am and what I’ve done in the past and embedding that in our branding. At the same time we are doing more work with the labels and with the merchandising and just expanding the business in general, and so re-branding is another way of saying we’re here, this is what we do and this is what we’re doing and letting people see how broad our services are.
MF: Broad is the right word for it, there are several different industries the business has its fingers in and even more companies within that. How to juggle all the different projects?
DRW: To an extent you are dealing with a lot of things at the same time. I just ran through some finances on tours we’ve got running before speaking to you, and we’ve also got two international acts coming out soon that we are still in the planning stages of and kind of working out how we’re going to announce and all that exciting stuff. Then we’ve got the labels as well, so I’ve been talking to people about how to get the best social media reach on announcing a new signing, which is a power pop band called The Innocents who are best known for their single Sooner Or Later from the early 80s. Plus we’ve got The Monkees and Catatonia touring, so there is a lot to keep track of.
MF: Indeed, and it sounds like you are still very much involved in making all of this happen rather than sitting back and letting your employees handle everything?
DRW: Yeah, all of us sit here in the office almost in a circle so that we’re all in speaking range of each other so we’re not all sitting in separate offices scheduling meeting with each other to discuss these things. It’s very much face to face. So things are just like “what happened to this?” or “we need this now” and we just all throw ourselves into it and get it delivered.
As you said before though, there is a number of different elements to what the business is working on. Primarily the main arm would be the touring, and we’ve got the labels which we are starting to do a little bit more with now, and we’ve also got a merchandise company. So there is plenty of work to go around.
MF: Do you think that having this kind of broad approach is necessary in today’s music industry?
DRW: I think that whilst we don’t insist that if someone is working with us in one area they have to work with us in the others, if we are touring an artist, the ability to provide the merchandise services makes us very competitive as we are essentially a one-stop-shop. That way they know who they are working with for all of it, so when it comes down to the important thing for international agents and managers, i.e. where’s the money, they know who they are talking to and that they’ll get a quick response and get their account settled with no hassle. So being able to provide all those services is certainly helpful to the artists that we’re working with.
MF: Definitely. It’s also very helpful to your bottom line as well I’m sure, as it does seem like touring and merchandising is where the money is these days rather than selling albums.
DRW: I’d hate to think that it has gotten to the point where the only way that musicians can make money is to become troubadours and be out on the road all the time. However, the other side to it is that with touring and merch the money that comes through is there straight away. So if you go and play a show, you will get paid reasonably quickly. If you sell a t-shirt you’re going to get the money reasonably quickly.
If you put a record out, it might be a year or two until you start seeing any royalties from it. And now even more so, as artists are increasingly relying more on their streaming revenues where it’s lots of tiny little pieces of money adding at. Quite honestly, trying to make sense of a royalty statement is near impossible. So with this side of the business, with touring and merch you have a kind instant measure of what you’ve achieved.
MF: And I think that kind of reflects the way people engage with music these days, where they want to support the artist but already have access to the music online so they buy a t-shirt or go see them live instead of buying an album.
DRW: I think there are some music fans out there who think they are supporting the artist by just playing a song on YouTube, but then again there are those who do want to support an artist by buying a t-shirt, or maybe they’re buying the vinyl and maybe they’re buying it at a show. And don’t get me wrong there are still a lot of people out there buying CDs. Also with the ability for an artist to reach out directly to fans via social media these days and say hey, we’ve got a new song up on Spotify, or we’ve got a new EP or album out, that is long way from back in the day when you’d have to read a review or hear a song on the radio to know about it.
So it’s all just so instant these days and I think for artists it’s a really creative time because it doesn’t have to be about making the next big statement for the year by releasing an album, you can just release a song and make it available as a single, or if you’ve only got a couple of songs you can put them out as an EP, and it really comes down to what the artist wants to do and how they want their fans to engage with their music. So it’s a really exciting time from that perspective, but the only real concern is that the revenues from CD sales are down and the revenue from digital downloads will be down and so the industry is trying to find a way of generating revenue from streaming when the amounts being paid are so small.
Where once upon a time you would look at artists and it was all about putting an album out and touring to promote the album, because once they sell a million albums they’re going to make some money on it, but now it’s not like that. Now it’s all about how artists want to present themselves. They say these are the live shows I want to play and I want to release the music like this. In many ways the industry has been turned around whereby artists are putting out albums to promote their tours. I think everybody knows this though, they’ve seen the way that things are changing.
MF: Well it seems to have worked out pretty well for you I guess, considering you can cover all bases, label, touring and merch you are well positioned to be able to get the most out of how people engage with music these days.
DRW: I think so. There are artists who can be successful just by releasing a song and getting it played on the radio and then going and doing some shows. But then there are other artists who are finding other ways to approach it. I mean you’ve got bands like King Gizzard who put out so many albums it’s almost like “oh my god, another King Gizzard album?” But you know back in the’60s all the bands were putting out three albums a year. All they’ve done is come up with a creative way of releasing their music and keeping what they do interesting, which is awesome.
MF: Keeping it interesting is really the name of the game isn’t it. As while social media does allow artists to directly interact with their audiences, that also means there is a lot more noise for artists to cut through, so making sure what you do stays interesting and relevant is the most important factor to consider.
DRW: Artists today need to think about how to do things differently, and that extends to us in the industry as well. We have to try and think of new ways to do things instead of just doing them the same way we always have. As an example, one of the things were are doing with our label Capgun Kids is that we are touring The Monkees. Of course, it’s not that easy to get them on the phone to do interviews so we had to think of what we could do to create some interest in the tour. Well, they put out an album in the middle of the year where they had newer artists who wrote songs for it, so we thought, how about we release a dozen singles? So we got a number of newer Australian artists who have recorded new version of Monkees songs, in some cases quite different from the originals, and we released those, one by one, one every week for a twelve week period. So there are things you can do to spice things up and make things interesting now, and when you make things interesting people take notice.
MF: It seems to me too that the very act of releasing something and how you do that has become its own art form. For instance, you’re probably getting a lot more mileage out of releasing 12 singles than you would have by releasing them all at once as an album.
DRW: Exactly, and it’s different with every artist and tour. For instance, we finished a tour with Steven Wilson recently and I find what he does is very interesting. He has a concept behind many of his albums, and so he views those album as one unified piece of art. But he also has individual songs that he releases in between and he also has side projects that he works on with different musicians, and they’re all different. So he has his main thrust of solo work, but he also has all these other bits and pieces that keep it interesting. So if you are a follower of his work there is lots to delve into. I think that makes it really interesting to fans to be able to hear all these different sides to an artist.
MF: I know you recently wrote an op-ed on the changes to artist visa regulations and the ensuing media reaction. Can you tell us a bit about what you think about that?
DRW: The main problem I’ve had with how people have reacted to the changes is that the issue has been covered mainly from one perspective, which is the perspective of big festival operators. I understand that the additional costs imposed on them by the changes is something that they would want to avoid, the other side of the coin is that for the smaller promoters it’s actually going to be cheaper.
Now I know smaller promoters who are asking “What does this mean? Does it mean that we’ve been subsidising the big touring companies for the last few years?” Now I’m not too sure if that is necessarily the case, but there is certainly something to be said for supporting smaller promoters who are trying to tour newer artists who they are trying to introduce to a market such as Australia, that is a very expensive market to tour artists through. Under the old system then you’d have these smaller promoters paying relatively high fees compared to big tour operators who are applying for hundreds of visas all at once to bring out these big acts and their touring parties who are able to cap the number of people they’re actually paying for.
So from my perspective, there was only side of the story being presented and it is to an extent purposefully being presented in a way to paint the worst possible picture and to try and get music fans to support what is basically an attempt to keep costs down for big tour promoters. It was just very misleading in the way it was pitched, and you had a lot of music fans out there who bought it. You had people starting petitions about these outrageous 600% increases, and it’s really not the case for the industry, it’s maybe the case for one person. Meanwhile, smaller promoters can actually benefit from these changes.
MF: What a lot of people overlooked as well, and what you explained so well was that while these big festivals may now have to lose some international bands off the bottom of the bill, those slots are going to have to be filled by Australian bands.
DRW: Yeah well look if you’ve got three days you want to fill, there are great Australian artists that can fill those slots. Really if you look at quite a few of the festivals they are starting to favour Australian artists more anyway, which again is a good thing. But that also means that their costs are coming down in that they’re not having to pay for or contribute to international flights.
Ultimately though I think that for any promoters they’re going to make a judgement call on the what economics of touring a particular artist is, and they’re not going to be dissuaded from booking any sizeable international acts for the sake of saving an extra hundred dollars or so per person of the tour party. But like I said before, for the smaller artists it will make a big difference, and it might mean that a lot more of kind of niche artists will get a chance to tour here where before people may have been reluctant to bring them out.