Women in Music 2016

Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett Launches Australia's Bigsound Conference

Photo by Elleni Toumpas
Peter Garrett delivers the keynote speech at Bigsound 2015

Peter Garrett, the former frontman with Midnight Oil, activist and frontline politician, opened Australia's Bigsound conference Wednesday with a keynote which covered a lot of ground, but tactfully dodged policy issues and had some in the room questioning whether he’d lost some of his legendary power and passion.

At the heart of Garrett’s message was a call to inspire artists and professionals competing in the "sprinting marathon" that is a career in music, and to connect the dots woven through the fabric of the music community.

If the packed house at Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre wanted the Garrett of years past -- a combative, frenetic, edgy performer -- they’d have left disappointed.  The Garrett on show Wednesday was balanced and erudite (he even read a poem from the late Judith Wright), though the former federal minister dwelled little on his golden years with Midnight Oil and there was little of the fight which he brimmed with in his earlier rock ‘n’ roll years.

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Garrett reflected on where music fits into the whole picture. “Humans,” he observed, “were born to sing, dance, create, to tell stories and provoke, stimulate and challenge and to entertain one another. This act of creative expression is at the very heart of the human experience."

Garrett's Oils are Australian rock royalty. The band won 11 ARIA Awards and were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006. Their No. 1 album Diesel and Dust from 1987 was declared the country’s top album in the 2010 tome, The 100 Best Australian Albums. "Power and the Passion" and "Beds Are Burning" were listed by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) in the Top 30 Best Australian songs of all time, and the latter song was included as one of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".

Midnight Oil officially disbanded in December 2002 when Garrett announced his desire to pursue a career in politics (he went on to serve as Minister for the Environment and the Arts, and Minister for Education). They’ve been encouraged out of retirement on a handful of occasions, including a performance at the Melbourne leg of the 2009 bushfire benefit concerts. 

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Garrett, who spent 18 months writing his memoirs, Big Blue Sky, which will be published in October, used his keynote to touch on -- but not drill into -- some big issues. He mentioned the cap which dictates the royalties Australian commercial radio pays to play records music, content quotes on radio, the paltry sums artists receive for music streams, and suggested the current government was disconnected with the arts. And he sought to deflect criticism of his own failure to personally take on music industry issues while in office, a decision he says he made to avoid the perception of “a conflict of interest”.

Addressing the audience, he said, “You can make a difference. Two out of three Australians are tuning into music every day. This group, focused as it is on the music industry, can make a difference.” With a glint of optimism, he said people will pay for their tunes. “We know people love to listen, in the comfort of their own homes, out and about, in the car, and they love to go out. And they’ll pay for it too. They always have and they always will. Even if they take advantage of not having to pay for recorded music and thinking that that’s normal.”

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Garrett also called on local councils to play a greater role in developing a strong culture of venues and, using the example of the Netherlands, encouraging young people to enjoy the delights of live music. 

Bigsound's daytime conference element continues through Friday and counts more than 100 speakers, including William Morris Endeavour’s head of music/board member Marc Geiger, BMI’s Brandon Haas and Beggars Group’s head of live Ruth Barlow. The evening showcase program features more that 150 acts including Stonefield, Muscles, Gang of Youths, Holy Holy, Katy Steele, Tired Lion, Cosmic Psychos and The John Steel Singers.