How Indie Label-Turned-Musical Movement Future Classic Put Australia on the EDM Map
"It’s easier to break rules if the rules were never there.”
That, says Nathan McLay, is the defining ethos of Future Classic, the indie label that is at ground zero of Australia’s exploding, increasingly influential electronic music scene. With new stars like Flume, Chet Faker and Flight Facilities on its roster, Future Classic is topping charts, redefining the Down Under sound -- long exemplified by rock groups like AC/DC and INXS -- and putting Australia on the global electronic scene in a huge way.
“There’s no road map for this kind of music here,” founder McLay, 37, adds, sitting in a dimly lit room in a downtown Sydney office, the label’s temporary home while its headquarters in the funky Redfern area undergo renovations. “There’s such a deep history of electronic and dance in the U.K., Germany, New York or Detroit, and people often try to re-create that. But there’s a groundswell of new talent in Australia that isn’t confined by the history or the rules. We’re remixing the culture.”
Future Classic’s successes have piled up during the past few years. In 2013, producer Flume’s self-titled debut knocked Bruno Mars from the top of the Australian album chart and dominated the ARIAs, Australia’s Grammys; a year later, Faker matched both feats. The label is also making an impact in the States: Faker has performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; Flume’s 2014 U.S. tour exploded, with sold-out, multi-date runs in theaters in New York and other cities, and he has recorded with Skrillex and Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. But Future Classic’s latest coronation is back home: a festival on May 29 and 30 feting its 10th anniversary at the world’s most recognizable music venue, the Sydney Opera House. “Future Classic is absolutely a catalyst for broader activity here,” says Ben Marshall, the Opera House’s head of contemporary music and festival director of Vivid LIVE, which is overseeing the event. “Everything [they do] has significant ripple effects.”
Not bad for a label McLay started as a “passion project” focused on vinyl singles from obscure European EDM acts. But Future Classic was pushing boundaries even then: “The distributor in Berlin would say, ‘That 12-inch sold well. Give us something else like that,’ ” he says with a laugh. “Instead, we’d give them something completely different.”
In between day jobs (at indie distributors Inertia and Iota) and night jobs (as a busy DJ in Sydney), McLay slowly built Future Classic, expanding into tour promotion and employing friends for help: his now-wife and art director Jay Ryves and director of A&R Chad Gillard. He and Gillard quit their day jobs, but business wasn’t booming: Early records, from acts like Trickski, mostly appealed to niche audiences across Europe. “Australia is traditionally a rock country,” says Gillard, 31. “When we started, [radio] didn’t pay attention to electronic music.”
The label eventually faced a go-hard-or-go-home moment: the birth of McLay and Ryves’ daughter in 2011. “We’d spent years doing our thing, but it wasn’t enough to be financially rewarding,” says McLay. “I was considering getting a new job, or I was going to be at home with the little one. It was time to put the keys in the ignition.”
Soon after, Future Classic found its dream vehicle: Flume, a then-20-year-old from the Sydney exurbs who made choppy rap-meets-pop-meets-EDM beats when he wasn’t waiting tables at a local Hard Rock Cafe. He entered a Future Classic remix contest on a whim and came in second place, but he later won a bigger prize: a management/recording contract. “I’m very lucky to have started with them,” says Flume, born Harley Streten. “The stuff I was doing hadn’t been proven to work on a mainstream level. If I was with a major, they would’ve wanted me to change my music, and it would’ve turned into something much less exciting. Nathan and Chad just wanted me to be as creative as possible. It didn’t feel like a money-driven environment. It was a family.”
Fueled by electro-pop single “Sleepless,” remixes of hits by Lorde and Disclosure, and heavy touring, Flume became the face of Australian electronica, a sudden rise that culminated with him winning four ARIAs, including best male artist. Says Gillard: “Before that, we were like, ‘F--- the ARIAs. That shit’s wack.’ We felt like we didn’t engage with that world. But after it happened, we felt different,” he adds with a laugh. “My mom was like, ‘Oh, you might actually make money now -- that’s good.’ ”
Future Classic followed that success with Built on Glass, the debut LP by Faker (who’s signed to Downtown Records in America), which hit No. 1 and won the singer-producer two ARIAs. Future Classic and its stars had changed the face of pop in Australia: Today, the Down Under sound is more electronic and more eclectic than ever before. “The bands all have laptops onstage,” says McLay. “Meanwhile, the DJs are trying to be like Jimi Hendrix. It’s a post-everything world.”
Rising Future Classic acts like Ta-Ku and duo Flight Facilities, whose 2014 debut, Down to Earth, features Kylie Minogue and Reggie Watts, exemplify this sophisticated, melodic new wave of Australian electronica, with the latter planning a show in October with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “There’s no ‘We’re DJs’ or ‘We want to be a band,’ ” says Flight Facilities’ Jimmy Lyell. “We’re going to keep teetering over the edge.”
Now the world is turning to Future Classic, which has grown to some 12 full-time employees, as the ambassador for electronic music’s newest hub. In 2014, the label partnered with American indie Innovative Leisure and England’s Warp to release records by Los Angeles’ Classixx and Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat (Kanye West, Ariana Grande); this year it’s curating stages at U.S. festivals TomorrowWorld and Electric Forest.
“We were originally a label selling European music back to Europe,” says McLay. “But now it’s switched around -- we’re exporting Australian acts. It feels like there are no barriers.”
An edited version story originally appeared in the May 23 issue of Billboard.