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Why BIGSOUND Is So Important For Australian Music

Written by Augustus Welby on August 13, 2019

Is BIGSOUND Australia’s answer to SXSW? It’s not an inaccurate analogy. Now in its 18th year, the annual event is as much a conference as it is a music festival. The 2019 edition will see a heck load of speeches, panels and storytelling crammed into four absurdly active weekdays. More than 150 artists will perform across 18 venues all within a three-block radius in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

BIGSOUND upholds a future-focused, progressive attitude. It’s about development, critical thinking and celebrating creativity. The event has seen continual growth since its launch, both in terms of the size of the programme and the diverse identities of the featured artists and speakers.

Oh, and there’s an awful lot of music professionals networking and discovering their new favourite bands. So, yeah, it’s got a lot in common with SXSW. However, it’s centred on growth and sustainability for the Australian music industry. Nearly all of the performing artists are AU-based and there are no Lone Star tinnies to be seen.

BIGSOUND is an effective launch pad for Australian musicians

QMusic – the body dedicated to advancing all things Queensland music – founded BIGSOUND in 2002 with the aim of growing the Brisbane music industry. QMusic runs BIGSOUND to this day, but the parameters of the event quickly evolved to encompass the Australian music industry at large.

Since the early days, the festival component has fostered emerging talent. The 2006 edition featured Gold Coast quintet Operator Please ten months prior to releasing their international hit, ‘Just a Song About Ping Pong’. Since then, pretty much every rising indie, pop and alternative act has appeared at BIGSOUND on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

An album-less Temper Trap stopped by in 2008 to launch ‘Sweet Disposition’. 2010 alumni, Big Scary, Kimbra and the Delta Riggs, all went on to bigger things within a couple of short years. The 2012 lineup was similarly packed with nascent success stories: The Preatures, Rüfüs, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Courtney Barnett.

The same has been true of every subsequent edition. 2013 included Tkay Maidza, Thelma Plum and Bad//Dreems; 2014 had Banoffee, Crooked Colours, Eves Karydas and Marlon Williams; 2015 launched Skegss, Tash Sultana and Gordi; 2016 included Vera Blue, Sampa the Great, Rolling Blackouts and Mallrat; and in 2017, Amyl and the Sniffers, Stella Donnelly and Hatchie all made a major impression.

Why is it such an effective launchpad? Despite how crazed it gets behind the scenes, BIGSOUND puts artists in front of umpteen music executives, booking agents, talent promoters, marketing gurus, radio broadcasters, indie label managers, producers and engineers as well as a shit-ton of fellow songwriters and performers.

What’s the conference all about?

This year’s conference runs all day Wednesday and Thursday, from mid-morning until the music festival kicks off at around 8.00pm. Over a thousand delegates will converge in the Valley to listen to music industry professionals and affiliates engage in critical discussion on issues such as representation, equality, fair pay, mental health, technology and brand development.

The 2018 event featured a whopping 192 conference speakers including Lucy Pitkethly from London-based promoters Eat Your Own Ears, Esti Zilber of Sounds Australia, Chugg Entertainment’s Michael Chugg, Association of Artist Managers representative Leanne de Souza, Jerry Soer from Collab Asia and Brent Hedley from the AFL Players’ Association.

High profile keynote speakers from BIGSOUND’s past include Nick Cave, who in 2013 told Julia Zemiro (via video link) about his preference for collaboration, the origins of his famous work suits, his fear of artistic failure, and what distinguishes him from the Rolling Stones. 2017 brought Archie Roach and Tina Arena to the podium, while last year Paul Kelly took part in a retrospective interview and discussion of Australian Music in general.

The conference isn’t just a place for legends of music making to wax nostalgic, however. As executive programmer Maggie Collins told The Music, the aim is to keep the focus on storytellers rather than just big names: “Sometimes the best stories come from people that are still on their journey or are working behind the scenes.”

Who’s speaking at the 2019 BIGSOUND conference?

This year BIGSOUND will unveil a new festival hub, Cloudland, which is located in the heart of the Valley, just around the corner from staple venues the Woolly Mammoth, Black Bear Lodge and Empire Hotel.

Tom Larkin (of VVV Management and Shihad fame) developed the conference programme, which brings more than 150 speakers to the Valley. Starting on Wednesday at 10.15am, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino will deliver a keynote address centred on her career success, the highs and lows of the 2000s indie rock scene and how she’s dealt with public scrutiny of her private life.

Other keynotes include event producer Andy King, who achieved notoriety thanks to the can-do attitude he displayed in the Netflix doc, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. Frontier Touring’s Sahara Herald will speak to author and journalist Jenny Valentish about the challenges Australia’s large-scale touring environment faces and the lessons she’s learned over a multi-decade career. Mojo Juju will speak to the Fader’s Shaad D’Souza about her artistic journey and the themes that informed her breakthrough single, ‘Native Tongue’.

Of particular intrigue is the Under Occupation: Indigenous Perspectives On The Global Music Industry keynote panel, which brings together four First Nations artists and industry professionals to discuss working within settler-led music spaces. Yorta Yorta artist and broadcaster Neil Morris (who’s appearing on the panel on behalf of the Victorian Music Development Office) has previously voiced his scruples about the way festival culture has emerged and not had Indigeneity as a central pillar. Under Occupation gives Morris a chance to outline the sort of changes he supports for getting Indigeneity better represented within cultural environments.

Five artists not to miss at BIGSOUND 2019

Eurythmics, Womack & Womack, Goldfrapp – you can now add Cry Club to the list of innovative duos that meld pop smarts with a strong personality. Cry Club’s recordings aren’t limited by their two-person constitution; their latest single, ‘Two Hearts’, is a polished production that highlights how our defences crumble when pursuing an inadvisable crush.

Miiesha’s latest single, ‘Drowning’, starts with a sample of Tony Abbott. “It’s not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices,” says the ex-PM, an egregious comment made in regards to Indigenous people’s choice to live in small homeland communities. Miiesha’s decision to include it at the top of ‘Drowning’ gives you an idea of the unflinching confidence that underscores the Pitjantjatjara/Torres Strait Islander’s soul-R&B.

Melbourne songwriter Sophie Treloar – aka POPPONGENE – has been chipping away at her debut EP with producer Tim Harvey (who also produced the recent breakout debut LPs from Jade Imagine and Gena Rose Bruce). The set’s first single, ‘Not Wrong’, is a kosmische-influenced dream pop number that’d be perfect for a psilocybin trial.

Sydney’s Ross James is a musical polymath. Over the last few years he’s been an indispensable contributor to the live shows of Vera Blue, Wafia, Thelma Plum and Daniel Johns. Under the upsidedownhead alias, James makes tense, exactingly produced electronic music influenced by the likes of Weval, James Blake and Rival Consoles.

Mambali have been performing dreamtime music about country, culture and the Dhumbul Dance in Numbulwar on the Gulf Of Carpentaria since 2008. The septet reached a wider audience in early 2019 thanks to the single, ‘Yuwani’, which features Emily Wurramara. It’s predominantly sung in language, but that doesn’t dull its infectious quality. They’re currently readying a debut LP.

We could bang on about several dozen artists lined up for BIGSOUND 2019, but check the lineup for full details and see you in Brisbane from Tuesday September 3 until Friday September 6.

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