Reflecting on three years of Untitled Group, the people behind Beyond The Valley and Pitch Music and Arts
In the past couple of weeks, Untitled Group celebrated their third birthday. While not being able to celebrate it in the physical space like they probably would have wanted to, the collective organisation is one of Australia’s pioneers in live music and have recently diversified to becoming a holistic home for artists of all kinds. The brainstrust of Untitled Group initially started 7 years ago with their debut boutique camping festival foray, Beyond The Valley. The festival has turned into one of the biggest events of the Australian summer, with their last event hosting artists such as Tyler, The Creator, RÜFÜS DU SOL, CC:DISCO!, Honey Dijon and a heap more.
In 2018 they officially launched the Untitled Group collective, hosting Solomun at Melbourne’s Wool Store. It’s this day that solidified them as a brand. Since then, they’ve put on festivals including, Beyond The Valley, Pitch Music & Arts, Wildlands, Grapevine Gathering, For The Love, Ability Fest, Xe54 club nights and Sun Cycle. Despite 2021s COVID chaos the group has still seen Grapevine Gathering expand to 3 cities with a national sell out of over 50,000 tickets. They’ve also hosted a string of sell-out shows at The Timber Yard in Melbourne featuring the likes of Skin On Skin, Dj Boring, Hayden James & more which has seen more than 15,000 patrons come through.
Internally they also host record label Daily Nightly, breaking artists such as IJALE and Big Words. They also host Proxy Booking Agency led by Steel Hanf, taking care of artists such as What So Not, Lastlings & Cosmo’s Midnight.
To reflect on their incredible track record as a business and also to achieving an incredible milestone, we chat to founder and director of Untitled Group, Michael Christidis.
Congratulations on three years operating as Untitled Group. Has it felt like three years?
To be honest it’s felt longer. The Untitled name and brand is such a strong part of our brand and identity but it only really started as the umbrella group because we were doing Beyond The Valley, Pitch, Wildlands etc, and we needed something to define us as a group. People would ask us what we wanted to be called and we didn’t have a title, so that’s why we came up with Untitled.
The party we launched the name with was a Solomun Woolstore party and its probably one of our proudest parties to date. It took so much effort, hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital works into an old warehouse and sold 5000-6000 tickets to see Solomun. We build a big wooden cutout of the Untitled Logo and put it on the back of the warehouse. Nobody knew what it was, and now it’s such a strong part of our identity. It feels like it’s been with us the whole way, but 6 or 7 years ago when we started Beyond The Valley we had no idea what we were doing, we were just club promoters.
Hopping all the way back to know. Expansion has been occurring in the Untitled umbrella at the moment, launching both Proxy (agency) and Daily Nightly (label). How important is it going forward that Untitled is a genuine home for artists rather than just a promoter?
I think diversification within the music industry is such a big part of it for us. We come across so many artists that are talented that we want to work with but we can’t book every artist or sign every artist. I think becoming a wholistic company is really important, from managing the likes of Lastlings, Boo Seeka, Cassettes For Kids, Jordan Brando and heaps more, to Proxy and the label. Looking at any way we can get involved in music that we love and propelling artists careers.
Reflection is a big part of COVID19. What’s it like having a hallmark birthday during COVID? Does it make it more emotional or does it numb it a bit?
Definitely more emotional. This has been a great time for us to take stock as a company of what are the real important things for us as a company and also what we want to do moving forward. We looked at our flagship events like BTV and assessed what our goals and focus is on events like that. It was gutting not bringing in the new year with 25 000 people last year. We aren’t just missing dancefloors but we are missing the culture associated with a lot of these events. We got so used to bringing in the New Years with old and new friends but also watching incredible artists. From The Presets to new cutting edge talent. While its been a pause for now, we are thinking what does 10-20 years down the track look like for us? After that period of time it’ll be weird to reflect on battling through COVID.
Pitch last year happened the weekend before Australia went into lockdown. What was it like throwing what felt like the last big major festival on Earth?
Nobody knew what was coming. When COVID started in 2019 there was no real sense of risk. We are so blessed we got that in. The day after Pitch Melbourne went into lockdown. We’ve seen how devastating events cancelling can be, so if you change the date to one week later it may very well have been the end of Pitch Festival as we know it. That feeling of the last hoorah definitely, but I’m grateful more on the business side so that Pitch can continue to be what it is. Lots of investment goes into the stage designs and getting in talent, so if COVID shut us down it would have been devastating for the festival.
Do you find that booking and curating a festival like Pitch is more difficult given its focus on overall vibe and atmosphere beyond just the music. Or is that wholistic approach to festival making omnipresent in every event you throw?
We have a lot of focus on creating a culture around the brand identity of Untitled. The reason being, events need to be looked at as a full 360 experience. What stage an artist is on, how the stages interact, what crowd they’re performing to, how is the artist being presented, what are the food and beverage options? Everything contributes to the event experience. Artists and the lineup are obviously a big part of that, but the more that you get everything else right, the more chance you give an artist to succeed on stage. If people are heading to a festival like Pitch because you know the vibe is great, then they’ll see incredible emerging talent and give them the light of day and discover new artists. Pitch year 1 people come for the headliners and then become blown away by new DJs. When you get the vibe right, you get people in the mindset to explore, not just on the musical front but also on the communal. We want people to make friends at these festivals, we’ve had people telling us they’ve met their husbands at our festivals.
From a branding perspective, is it difficult to balance going from club nights and underground dance heroes to massive headliners?
Beyond The Valley started because we felt there was a gap in the market where nobody was doing the camping and boutique event. If you look at Future Music Festival, Big Day Out, Stereosonic, Soundwave, all of them crashed and there was a rise of boutique music and camping events. While psytrance communities had been doing the bush doof forever, nobody was really casting that for the wide range of the electronic spectrum. For BTV we thought, “Who is leading Australian electronic music at the moment?” and how diverse can we make it. So we set out for RUFUS DU SOL, Kaytranada, Claptone, Pleasure Craft, Peking Duk and Golden Features. It started as covering all bases of electronic music and integrating more mainstream stuff too. I think as the festival has grown, the best thing about balancing it is that the vibe isn’t going to be polarising. You can have 25 000 people singing to the Veronicas on the mainstage and just across Honey Dijon and Denis Sulta are playing. We don’t find mushc high brow attitude, its lovers of all types of music coming together and celebrating. While we do definitely embrace lots of underground electronic acts, we equally embrace that we are growing as a big festival with acts that are played on commercial radio and Triple J. It’s about embracing it all and not losing sight of the roots.
How do you reflect on the diverse amount of incredible camping festivals happening across Australia at the moment?
Post-Covid, we and I think everyone else will definitely look at it not as, how can we get a bigger piece of the pie, but how can we make the overall pie bigger. That’s the mentality. It’s evident by people sharing artists on their lineups.
The booking of Tyler, The Creator was monumental for Australian music. What was it like booking him, did that booking stand out for you?
Probably one of the most interesting things about that booking was that we had an artist of that caliber being on the album cycle for IGOR meant we were competing with the world to book him for that summer/new years period. We really needed to have the weight of offers and the run of shows all aligned. For a while Australia didn’t have the facility to cater for artists of that caliber. We realised there was no major festival facet in Brisbane, so we actually started Wildlands Festival as a way to get an offer like Tyler’s over the line. It was really special because his first show in the country was at Wildlands. It made me realise this is a new chapter, both because of the special performance and establishing a new festival. It sets a standard now that artists of that caliber can come here for that New Years run and play those big shows. There’s a special culture around New Years in Australia, we see it as such a special celebration. COVID has put a damper on international travel, but I’m hearing a rumour that potentially from this year there are some big international talent that will hit our shores.
How do you measure success? What impact do you want to make on someone that engages with UNTITLED?
This is something we’ve been thinking about as an organisation a lot through COVID. We’ve been looking back at our mission statement and reflecting on what we aim to achieve for our events. We touched a lot on culture. I think our goal, especially with BTV, is to be the most influential music festival across Australasia. That doesn’t mean the biggest or the best, we want to be the most influential. When you look at influence you look at impact. So we gauge success of being impactful across all facets of the music industry. That includes having an amazing experience at one of our festivals for our fans, providing an amazing experience for artists on stage that will change their careers and in doing that we will become influential across a whole array of the industry. How do we gauge that success? We won’t know until we know, chatting 10 years down the track.
Image via Mackenzie Sweetnam
Words by PARRY TRITSINIOTIS