Tina Arena delivers her keynote at Bigsound 2017

Tina Arena delivers her keynote at Bigsound 2017

Photo by Savannah van der Niet

This year’s Bigsound summit and showcase event was, well, bigger than ever with more than 150 performers and upwards of 120 speakers plugged in as the 2017 edition expanded to four days. 

The likes of Merlin CEO Charles Caldas, WIN CEO Alison Wenham, award-winning artists Tina Arena and Archie Roach, Triple J music director Nick Findlay and PIAS co-founder Kenny Gates were spotted in the corridors or on stage at the Judith Wright Centre or jamming at panels and parties across Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

Billboard was in the thick of it all. Here’s five key takeaways from the 2017 edition. 

The indies are flexing their muscles. The results are in: it’s a pretty good time to be an indie right now. The independent music community convened on the opening day for the snappily titled Air-Con (organized  by Australia’s AIR trade body), and the vibe was an upbeat one. AIR presented the results of a research project which found independent record labels now represent 30% of a total market worth of almost AUS$400 million ($318 million). This just after Merlin reported digital distributions to its members had topped $1 billion. They’re largely in good shape, they’re better organized and the money is coming in. “It’s an excellent time to be an independent,” notes Alison Wenham. 

When Tina Arena talks, better listen. The ARIA Hall of Famer came out swinging during her Sept. 7 keynote, with the commercial broadcasters and their apparently relaxed attitude to domestic content quotas taking a flurry of jabs. "What changes moving forward can strengthen the music biz? The radio quotas is so obvious,” she said. Contemporary commercial radio stations are bound to play a minimum of 25% Australian content as a licensing requirement, though data presented during the Air-Con (and seen by Billboard) reveals the main broadcasters consistently fail to hit their targets. Drawing on her own experience living in France, where a 50% quota has supported a “lively cultural landscape,” Arena called for a public, voluntary commitment from commercial broadcasters to program 50% local content. And she urged TV and streaming playlists to fall in line. “Radio is still an important media and it's not too much to think commercial radio could do more,” she said. “Music directors are in a position of power and with that power comes responsibility.”

Timing isn’t everything in pop music, but it sure does help. Whether by design or a gift of the gods of timing, Simon Napier-Bell, the author, executive and artist manager who guided the careers of Wham, Sinead O’Connor and so many others was on stage just hours after the first posthumous release from George Michael, an artist whose career he guided for many years. The British raconteur opened his goldmine of stories for the audience. Michael, we learned, sued his own label Sony Music after he overheard a key executive refer to him as a “limey fag”. And on Michael’s embarrassing Beverly Hills toilet bust in 1998, he had this to say, “It wasn't a great way to come out, but he wanted to come out. It was deliberate...you know when you want to break up with someone but don't have the courage, you create a row. He created a row. He revelled in solving a problem. America was totally homophobic at the time. He didn't make money out of America again."

Mike Sniper chats as Lars Brandle looks on during the "Role of the Label" panel at Bigsound 2017

Mike Sniper chats as Lars Brandle looks on during the "Role of the Label" panel at Bigsound 2017Photo by Jess Gleeson

Streaming isn’t the answer. It’s one of the answers. Analysts from Goldman Sachs recently forecast global revenues will grow to US$41 billion in 2030 with streaming generating US$28 billion, a 16% rise on its previous estimates. But alas, it’s still 2017. And streaming last year accounted for around US$4 billion, up 60.4 percent year on year, according to the IFPI. There’s still some ways to go. "If we want to get back to revenues pre-piracy in the early 2000s, we will need to see that revenue doubling," said ARIA CEO Dan Rosen said on a “state of the industry” panel. Streaming, explained APRA AMCOS CEO Brett Cottle, “definitely is working for the big content owners in industry. But at the individual artist level...the return is nowhere near what CDs brought. And that's an issue for the industry." Streaming has enabled indies to connect with their audiences around the globe, explained Wenham. Markets in South America are opening up, she noted, offering Peru as one example. The Latin country has generated $1 million in streaming revenue. "That's completely new money,” Wenham said. "Steaming has been very enabling for independents."

The Saints go marching on. An almighty blast from the past rung out on the opening day of Bigsound as word got out that the legendary Queensland punk rock band The Saints, would be immortalised through a large-scale inner-city Brisbane memorial. The announcement was made by Premier and Arts Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk and timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Saints’ debut album. The project was developed by musician and academic Dr John Willsteed, himself a member of another influential Brisbane band, The Go-Betweens. Considered one of the first and most influential punk groups, the Saints have been described by Bob Geldof as one of the three bands which changed the 1970s, the others being the Sex Pistols and the Ramones