How Sounds Australia Is Paving Global Paths for Australian Artists

Courtney Barnett
Josh Brasted/WireImage

Courtney Barnett performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 14, 2019 in Manchester.

In October 2013, a little-known Australian singer-songwriter with a mop of slightly unruly hair stepped up to a microphone in front of hundreds of college radio DJs and music directors. As the room’s audience wandered the room during a break between hourlong industry panels, she played just two solo renditions of her sardonic rock songs, but managed to grab the attention of many in attendance.

That CMJ College Day showcase was one of Courtney Barnett’s first international performances. Now, six years later, Barnett is all but synonymous with indie rock’s ruling class. Without the assistance of Australian music export agency Sounds Australia, Barnett might never have played College Day and the agency's signature Aussie BBQ event, both of which introduced her to enough people in college radio that her 2015 album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, would go on to top the now-defunct CMJ Top 200 college radio airplay chart for four consecutive weeks. Sometimes I Sit..., her first release for indie label Mom + Pop, peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and earned her a Grammy nomination for best new artist.

Now approaching its 10th year, Sounds Australia has hosted nearly 1,600 Australian artists at 74 events in 66 cities across 23 countries, including acts such as Flume, Nick Murphy, Vance Joy and San Cisco. These days, the agency’s Aussie BBQs and luncheons are seen less as just “cool places to be” at SXSW, The Great Escape and other key conferences, and more as “if you weren’t there, you missed the most important event of your week.”

In 2003, six years before Sounds Australia’s launch, Glenn Dickie hosted the first Aussie BBQ at SXSW, that year’s sole Australia-focused event, for which he recruited nine Australian artists to perform. Fifteen years later at SXSW 2018, as one of Sounds Australia’s four staff members, Dickie helped set up the inaugural Australia House showcase of 53 Australian artists that spanned six days, via a partnership with the country’s G’Day USA diplomacy program.

“We've gone from one or two labels having an Australian artist to one or two labels that don't have an Australian artist at all,” Dickie says. Although he and Aussie BBQ co-founder Mary Mihelakos launched the event before Sounds Australia was conceived, its success paved the way for the agency, which hired Dickie in 2013 as export music producer. “The Aussie BBQ became such a big brand within SXSW and in the U.K.,” Dickie says, “that people actually thought that we were an export office.”

Along the line, the Australia Council, which helps fund the country’s arts programs, began realizing it might actually need to establish such an export office. “As more artists were being invited to SXSW and other showcase events, the Australia Council recognized pretty quickly that, at SXSW, a number of countries were already providing support for their artists and that we could gain more benefit from helping the artists once they land,” Sounds Australia executive producer Millie Millgate says. After the Australian government conducted a year of focus groups and roundtables with music industry organizations, state governments and trade bodies, the Australian music rights organization APRA AMCOS took custodianship of a two-year music export office pilot program. In 2009, that program became Sounds Australia, with Millgate as its founding -- and, for years, sole -- employee.

Thanks to extensive experience at New South Wales’ state music office, Millgate realized that starting Sounds Australia’s operations from scratch could be disastrous, so she looked to what was already working -- namely, the Aussie BBQ. “Creating our own showcase wasn’t logical to me,” Millgate explains. The Aussie BBQ, she says, was already “on the map at SXSW. It didn't make sense not to incorporate it. Sounds Australia had more infrastructure around what Glenn and Mary had set up, and we could take a really fun party and put a sophisticated spin on it, with networking and B2B components, while keeping the essence of what they had.”

Dickie was grateful for the support. “When Millie came in, we were just some punk rock kids,” he says. “She had a budget. We had a brand.” In 2010, the agency partnered with Dickie and Mihelakos to present the Aussie BBQ. In 2013, Sounds Australia began licensing the Aussie BBQ and expanding it from SXSW to The Great Escape, the U.K. and other international showcasing events. In 2017, Sounds Australia took full ownership of the showcase.

Now, Sounds Australia oversees the country’s most vital music networking opportunities at international music conferences, though there’s a limit to its abilities. “We can help put opportunities in front of artists and managers,” says Dickie, “but it’s up to them to do the legwork and get that success.” Millgate emphasizes that the artists, not Sounds Australia, are responsible for applying to -- and accepting invitations from -- conferences, but that “having Sounds Australia on the ground at events with an organized presence” does lead to artists meeting industry figures “at a luncheon or a speed networking event and then, not long after, they're working together.”

Others have observed similarly strong outcomes for Australian artists. “I have no doubt that the massive increase in the presence and export success of Australian artists overseas correlates perfectly with the advent of Sounds Australia,” says Nick O’Byrne, who manages Barnett, among other artists. “The fact that I’ve been able to tap into functions, networking events, showcases and advice at every single stage of my artists’ growth speaks to the breadth of Sounds Australia’s capacity to facilitate outcomes for Australian music businesses of all shapes and sizes. I believe Sounds Australia is one of the most important industry initiatives we have.”

Sounds Australia creative producer Esti Zilber is quick to note that export, though an inherently international effort, starts domestically. “I don't think it can ever be understated how big a role BIGSOUND,” which is essentially Australia’s version of SXSW, “plays in export despite the fact that it happens in Australia,” Zilber says. “Your best export is primed at home.” O’Byrne, who programmed BIGSOUND from 2013-2016, agrees: “Every single time I went to a Sounds Australia networking event while I worked as a programmer, I met someone whom I invited to BIGSOUND, and that person then played an important role in the export of Australian artists.”

Of course, export by definition involves international events, and perhaps no event is more symbolic of Sounds Australia’s global presence than the Aussie BBQ. It only makes sense, then, that Sounds Australia is celebrating its 10-year anniversary with an Aussie BBQ in New York. The June 22 showcase at Central Park SummerStage will feature Australian artists San Cisco, Hermitude, The Teskey Brothers, WAAX, Tkay Maidza and indigenous artist A.B. Original.

The New York Aussie BBQ will take place two days after A2IM’s Indie Week, at which Sounds Australia connects many Australian labels with potential future international partners. This timing is intentional, reflecting Sounds Australia’s commitment to building environments best suited for forging Australian connections. “[Indie Week] is beyond valuable for a label to learn best practices, educate themselves and build and develop networks with key DSPs and supervisors, so the minute you offer a label to put one of their artists on a show, they all put their artists first, they all say yes,” Millgate says.

“It's always been an aspirational goal to do an event at Central Park SummerStage,” says Millgate. “Hitting that 10-year milestone and looking at what Australian artists are doing, if we were ever gonna give it a shot, this was the year to do it.