I OH YOU’s Johann Ponniah on Indie Labels, the power of community and taking calculated risks
If there is one thing Australia’s music industry has going for it, among many other things, it’s the ever-evolving, consistently brilliant forces that are our indie labels. From CHAPTER MUSIC to FUTURE CLASSIC, MILK! RECORDS to BEDROOM SUCK and so many more, these labels have carved out their own spaces not just on a local scene, but on a global level with some artists holding their own against the heavy hitters of the world (FLUME, CHET FAKER and COURTNEY BARNETT among others). But, with the power of this, are indie labels making such big moves that they might actually be claiming some stake against the major labels of the music world as well?
For this year’s Electronic Music Conference (EMC), one particular conference is focussing on this exact question. Titled “Indie Labels: Taking The Power Back?”, the panel aims to discuss the role of both indie and major labels in electronic music, what major labels are doing to adapt to the shifting landscape, and how the big indie business models are continuing to evolve and grow. The panel, moderated by Inertia‘s Eva Trifonas, will feature guests Aden Mullens from etcetc (PNAU, Paces), Anna Burns from Future Classic (Flume, Chet Faker), and Johann Ponniah from I OH YOU (DZ Deathrays, DMAs, Violent Soho).
To further shed some light on the way indie labels operate in Australia, we chatted to Ponniah ahead of EMC. Starting out in the early days by distributing stickers for a stress press team in Campbelltown, Ponniah worked his way up the ranks, getting involved in music in any way he could. Having worked in clubs such as our very own Purple Sneakers down in Melbourne years back to eventually starting I OH YOU, his ethos is all about calculated risks, knowing good music and being genuine in what you’re about to make it through. Check out our interview with him below, or catch the panel on Thursday, November 30 as part of EMC‘s two-day program at Giant Dwarf. Tickets are on sale now HERE for EMC, or HERE for “Indie Labels: Taking The Power Back?”
From your perspective, what is the role of the label?
I don’t know if there’s a typical role for a label as such, it would differ for each label. For us, the idea of our label was always to be a support system for the artist that we love. Basically, we’re here to support them in whatever ways we can, whether it’s feedback on songs, at an A&R level, marketing ideas, or even just helping with funds to get people going and putting them in the studio with the right producers and the producers they want to work with. Perhaps it’s assisting them getting overseas if that’s of interest to them, or just bringing teams together of publicists and what not from around the world to make sure that we are distributing their music to the masses- not even the masses, but their target audiences and helping them find their voice in whatever way they want to.
There’s been an undeniable shift in the way that major labels operate, and also in what indie labels can achieve over the last decade or so. Independent artists have seen great success on a huge scale like Chet Faker, Flume, Violent Soho, even Adele who is technically an independent artist in the UK being on XL Recordings. Do you think this change has somewhat levelled out the playing field?
It’s interesting because I OH YOU wasn’t around in a time when major labels “ruled” the musical landscape. So for me, personally I’ve always lived in a world where I’ve been inspired by indie labels and indie artists and I always looked at them as being quite empowered. My favourite labels growing up were always indie labels, so I don’t think I ever really sat back and thought, “You have to be on a major to make things work.” Not saying there’s anything wrong with being on a major label, but I guess the playing field in general is if you’re writing good music and you know who you are as an artist, I think there’s fantastic opportunity for everyone out there. Artists like Flume, Courtney Barnett, Violent Soho, these are all acts that are proving to the world that if you’re an indie artist and you’re on an indie label, but you have a good team around you with good ideas and you have the ambition, there’s certainly nothing to hold you back.
In your experience, do you think an indie label is given more leeway to take risks as opposed to a major label?
That’s difficult because I’ve never had the experience of working in a major label. I do know, just from talking to people and whatnot, perhaps sometimes because they’re bigger machines, when they get working for you it can do great things, but the more stages in a machine make it slower to get from A to B, maybe. With the way that our label is structured, we have a great deal of flexibility and that’s something that we really value and we see as an advantage for us and our artists.
Do you think that at the start, you had less time to fine-tune an artist or focus on artist development, so you had to be more selective with who you were signing?
I think, if anything, we’ve become more selective with who we sign. We’ve always been relatively selective. I sort of touched on it before saying that the labels that I grew up following and still do follow – whether it’s XL or Matador or Warp – I always look at those labels as being labels that never wanted to sign too many artists, but more focus in on the ones they have. I guess they sign minimally, but invest as much time and effort into breaking those artists as they can, and that’s something we try to focus on at I OH YOU as well. Back in the day when we started, in terms of artist development, there probably wasn’t as much input on songs or the right studios or things like that. Some of the first EPs we released, the band would go and record it themselves and give them to us, and our role was more of a marketing role. Looping back to the question, there’s the same level of selectiveness if not more now than when we started.
Do you think that, with the way the industry is heading, it’s turning into more of an artist-friendly business? There’s not so many exclusive, 5-album deals anymore!
I definitely think so. It’s an over-used saying, but I think it’s a true one in that artists really do hold the power at the moment. There are a lot of artists that I think are fantastic and who have made very successful careers without any label. I like to think we play a role for all of our acts, but whether or not every artist needs a label is to be debated. There’s a lot of power with artists at the moment in terms of the way they can get their music out through Spotify or Apple Music or different streaming services or even social media. It definitely puts the power back in the artists’ hands.
Across your career, it seems like there’s an “all or nothing” attitude that’s been there since the start. That’s a strategy that’s working for you, such as signing DMA’s before they’ve ever played a show. Back to taking risks, has there ever been a time where you’ve thought, “Wait, this might be too much of a risk”?
Not really. The “all or nothing” that people hear about are only about the ones we actually went through with. There have been instances where we decided that perhaps the risk was too much, not so much on the label side but maybe the other aspects of the business, and we decided to hold back momentarily. Not holding back completely, because we’ll still push forward to make those things happen, but it’s about making calculated risks. The DMA’s thing, when we made that decision, it didn’t ever feel like a risk to me because I thought the songs were brilliant and I’d met the guys. They’re incredibly infectious people and I was well aware they’d played in bands before, and I’d seen them play, so I was aware they were more than capable in a live format even though I hadn’t seen them as DMA’s. There’s certainly been times where this “all or nothing” attitude, which I’m not even sure I relate to that much but I guess I’ll take it as a compliment… Either that or people just think I’m fucking nuts! We’ve sometimes had to say, “Hang on, let’s put the brakes on for a minute and come back to this when we’re absolutely ready for it.” We don’t have the luxury of sitting on a tonne of cash, so I think it would be wrong of us to just go around acting like we do and then find ourselves short on other projects.
On the flipside then, a lot of the time these things pay of majorly, such as DMA’s with that instant connection and instant success. What’s it like putting yourself out there and it paying off like that? I imagine a sigh of relief might not cut it?
It’s good! As I said, I never thought of DMA’s as being a risk because whenever I heard the music I just thought it made sense. It’s the same when we signed Violent Soho. At the time, not a lot of people were really interested in that band because they’d been around for a long time, but I heard the songs and it just didn’t feel like a risk to me. I was quite surprised other people weren’t that interested in it. For me, it definitely feels validating and I’m happy for the bands when they have that happen. It’s always nice when we have success, but it’s not something we take for granted either. We just need to keep focussing on what’s next rather than think too much about the things that are going well for us.
You’ve had the backing of the Mushroom Group for a while as well, which would have made things a bit more comfortable than back in the early days. Do you think when you made the decision to join Mushroom, was that a time to regroup and look to the future and think about how you wanted to continue operating I OH YOU?
Well, it just allowed us to operate I OH YOU in the way I always wanted to in the first place. For the first time, we could actually invest money into our artists and invest time and allow them to go and make records the way they wanted to rather than the way they could afford to. It was a fantastic move for us and it continues to be a relationship that we feel very grateful to be a part of. It’s really been fucking brilliant.
One part of I OH YOU that’s always been really prominent is the brand. It’s such a significant and recognisable brand in Australian music. Recently, Forbes wrote this article about indie labels, and they spoke about this new brand-driven nature of labels. How important has that focus on the brand of I OH YOU been for you over the years?
It’s been important to us, to be honest. Being a kid growing up who basically worshipped indie labels, I grew up in the pop punk scene so I was always following Boomtown Records or Epitaph or Fuelled by Ramen, and these were all labels that were focussed around the community. I would go in and buy CDs from Sanity, based on not whether or not I’d heard the songs on a Spotify playlist, but I was buying labels based on the logo that was on the back. I’m not sure people necessarily buy into that purchasing behaviour anymore but it’s something I think is incredibly important and for us, as indie labels, that’s one of our major advantages. We are creating brands, whereas some of the majors might not have that luxury because they’re working on such a wide landscape of music. Whether it’s Future Classic, or Modular from back in the day, or Milk! Records who is doing a fantastic job right now, Bedroom Suck, Chapter– there’s so many great Australian brands out there in the indie music community that are really benefitting off their brands and I would like to think we’re one of those labels as well.
Definitely. Going back to the broad spectrum of music that major labels focus on, in a way, I OH YOU is the same because you’ve got artists like DZ Deathrays, DMA’s, Jack River and Montgomery. These are all very different artists but all live under the I OH YOU umbrella. How important is it for a label to keep their roster diverse but keep their community close?
That’s an interesting one. Our label was birthed out of indie club nights and parties, and very much the same way Purple Sneakers parties were, there was never one genre. What we began to realise was all these kids were relating to our brand, and were appreciating going to see DZ in someone’s backyard, but would also be able to relate to a Montgomery EP or a DMA’s record. I think what we began to realise was it was more of an ethos or a personality than a specific genre of music. For me, I listen to all kinds of music, and I feel like I would personally feel slightly tired if I was just working on the same type of music all the time. There’s a lot of great labels that I still buy all of their records, and they only release one genre of music, but every time it’s a fucking great record in that genre. I think the main thing people need to focus on is releasing great music, and whether or not they want to diversify their genres is completely up to them, but it always relates back to that community and whether or not that community is willing to expand into different genres as well.
Do you think there is still a place for major labels?
I think there’s definitely still room for major labels. They continue to have great success and a lot of my good friends work at majors in Australia and do a fantastic job. They just sometimes do it in a different way. There’s 100% a role for them. Perhaps back in the day, I’d look at majors and be like, “Fuck them, they’re the man. They don’t really care about music, they’re just looking at their Excel spreadsheets.” But, the more time you spend with these people, they’re just like indie label people, but perhaps on a better salary? I don’t know.
Things are obviously very different to when I OH YOU first started, but if you could give any advice to someone wanting to start their own indie label, what would it be?
The best advice I could give is to go and work in the industry beforehand. I was very lucky because the first job I had in the music industry certainly wasn’t just starting I OH YOU. I worked in management, and I worked in clubs – at Purple Sneakers actually – and I began to get a feeling of where I fit in the landscape and what I can actually bring to artists that would benefit them. There’s no point signing someone to your label if they don’t actually need you. The best thing you can do is immerse yourself in the industry and get a feel before diving in completely, because it’s fucking complicated. I’m still learning about labels eight years in. That’s the best advice I can really give. Go to shows and immerse yourself in the local music community and make sure you feel a part of it rather than just trying to dive in and pick bands off the internet. The reason why we got to diversify our genres but hopefully never losing our sense of community, is because all of the bands signed to our label come from friends of friends or we met them out partying. I think I met DZ under a stairwell at a Presets afterparty. There are all these sorts of weird interactions with it. We didn’t go out just searching for someone to throw a bunch of money at, it was more like if you’re part of our friends or you knew someone, then you were part of the community and we got to know each other that way and then after that, we decided to work together. It was never the other way around.
Electronic Music Conference 2017 visits Sydney’s Redfern for a two-day program seeing international music leaders and industry experts appear across an array of panels, talks, workshops, parties and masterclasses on November 29-30. Tickets are on sale now via electronicmusicconference.
Photo by Sarah Rugg
Interview by Emma Jones