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‘More Innovation and Less Gatekeeping’: How Independent Music Can Survive in Australia

Two prominent label figures discuss the past, present, and future of independent music in this country ahead of Melbourne's Independent Music Exchange

Sydney had a big cultural moment last week when the inaugural SXSW Sydney came into town, but attention has now swung back to Melbourne – as it so often does culturally – thanks to The Eighty-Six.

The new festival is being held at venues along the 86 tram line this week, with venues along the High Street showcasing the city’s wonderful music community.

One of the highlights of The Eighty-Six program is the Independent Music Exchange: the weekend-long indie record label market is the first of its kind in Australia, free, all-ages event that welcomes and celebrates this country’s diverse independent record labels.

The Independent Music Exchange is the place for labels to connect directly with one another, as well as with the fervent music fans that regularly peruse their racks.

The idea was conceived by DIY label owners and indie music devotees Michael Kucyk (Efficient Space), Maryos Syawish (Butter Sessions/Research Records) and Corey Kikos (Butter Sessions), who all know just how much time and effort goes into running a small record label.

Because a lot of hard work is involved, mostly behind the scenes, which is why the Independent Music Exchange aims to provide a much-needed space for label representatives to foster a community, encouraging the sharing of ideas, support, and experience. The music industry might be struggling as a whole, but Australia has so many people who care, truly care, about keeping independent music alive and well.

Ahead of this weekend’s Independent Music Exchange, Rolling Stone AU/NZ got two prominent label figures – Sarah Thompson of Poison City and Julia Wilson of Rice Is Nice and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s label, KGLW – together for an illuminating conversation about the past, present, and future of independent music, which you can read below.

More information about the Independent Music Exchange can be found here.

Julia Wilson: Hello, Tommo. All right, I’m gonna ask you the first question, you ready? Okay. Tell me about your first memory of music or being interested or intrigued by music.

Sarah Thompson: I actually thought about this really recently with the Kylie resurgence because it was Kylie. And then I thought about how that’s probably the thing I’ve been a fan of for the longest time of anything in my life. I got a Kylie Minogue cassette for Christmas 1989. It was the one they’re actually just repressing now or they’re just about to do. That combined my two interests of soaps and Kylie. I loved Neighbours.

I thought you meant like actual soaps!

The telly shows. I think that sort of started me collecting cassettes back then. And then it would be like, once you get your first present it’s like, ‘Okay, next birthday I want a tape.’ What’s next? Smash Hits 89? And then you find out about those songs and then you see Video Hits or Rage or whatever. And then I guess it just goes on like that, doesn’t it? Is that sort of the same thing as you? Did you do that? 

I remember I went to a garage sale. I wasn’t gonna say this, but I got a Wreckx-n-Effect “Rumpshaker” Cd single. Do you know that? I don’t know why I got it, but it would have been late 80s, early 90s. And then from that, I reckon I kind of discovered MC Hammer, like I really loved MC Hammer. I remember roller skating to MC Hammer.

This is kind of funny to say just as you were saying Smash Hits and those compilations. Do you remember Jive Bunny? 

Yeah, I have the seven inch. 

Right, yeah. I remember listening to that a lot riding my bike and then discovering a lot of older tracks, vintage stuff. I come across those songs today and still love it. And that kind of music exploration, I reckon that came from Jive Bunny and then all those compilations like Smash Hits. That kind of music research came from those comps which were really of that time, right?

I think it’s all a knock-on effect, isn’t it? After I got that Smash Hits 89 or 90, and it had like Alice Cooper on it, and then it’s like, okay, I guess I like Alice Cooper. It leads you to the next thing. I was a kid in the 90s, I loved Ninja Turtles. And there was Scott Ian from Anthrax on TV with a Ninja Turtles guitar, so then I started listening to metal. And then it’s like, ‘Okay, what’s after that that’s also loud?’ Let’s listen to Nirvana. And then that gets you into the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. 

Julia Wilson in her office

How did you get your start in the music industry?

How did I get my start in music? Do you remember Skinny’s Music in Brisbane?


I started working there when I was like 18 or 19. Didn’t make much money there.

I’m not surprised.

But yeah, I guess I just worked there for a few years. The other people who worked there were more into like Pavement and Billy Bragg – stuff like that. I guess they wanted somebody who was into like punk and metal to look after that sort of stuff. So that’s what I did. I realised that I just wasn’t making any money and I was traveling back and forth because I was living on the Gold Coast at the time. 

I moved to Brisbane for a bit. I didn’t really love it though. So I was traveling and I was like, this doesn’t even make financial sense. And so then after that, I got a job as a buyer for JB Hi-Fi. I was there for seven years or so. And then I went from there to Shock and then from Shock to here. So I’ve always just been doing the same rough thing, I’ve never done a different job, have I? I’ve always been in physical product, and that’s probably why I despise streaming.

Anybody who’s ever met me in my life knows this. Not despise streaming, actually. I just think that the financials weren’t thought about very well at the start of streaming, were they? 

No, totally. But I think it was dictated by a lot of the majors. So I feel like the music industry made its bed very badly. I don’t really know, but I mean, music is forever undervalued. It’s our constant battle. And that’s really what our job is, to be flying that flag or keeping the bar at a certain level when it comes to music and its value.

I kind of remember thinking even back when I was at Shock and iTunes was the first real digital thing. I think the Black Keys did that song on the ad. Was it the car ad? Something like that. And I sat near the digital person and when the iTunes sales came through after the ad they were crazy and. And then when it switched to streaming, in being able to see the difference, we were all just like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’ 

I remember back then just thinking we are training everyone to not pay for music. It’s generational – the age bracket above us are like, ‘We know how much stuff costs, so we’ll stream something and then we’ll buy a record.’ Whereas we’ve trained the generations below that streaming is just how you consume music. So they aren’t really willing to pay for it in the same way. I think that was always the problem for me.

You were able to see the direct impact of sales, pre and post streaming, 

Yeah, it wasn’t really justified. Even an iTunes song, wasn’t it like $1.60 or something like that? Where did you kick off? 

I wanted to be a music photographer, so I studied photography. Actually prior to that, I did an internship in a little metal store in Frankston called Plato’s. I was like 15 when I started. I went and did work experience for a week. And then I just got a job there and I think I worked there till I was 18 or something. I can’t remember, I was there for a few years, but that was amazing and was really instrumental. There was a lot of metal like Cradle of Filth and Burzum and heaps of stuff that had warnings on it too.

People would come in and wanna listen to it, and we actually didn’t have a CD player where you could put headphones on at that earlier time. I would have to just put it onto the store’s speakers and I remember I’d put my fingers in my ears. The warnings on the CDs would say, ‘Do not listen to this. This is satanic and you’ll get possessed.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not getting possessed for Plato’s. I’m not getting possessed for no one.’

Maybe the wrong store to be working in?

Maybe that’s why I’m so into all of that stuff now though. They also had like Red Dwarf and all those characters/figurines – I think Plato’s went more into the toys. So it was kind of a weird and wonderful place to work. Then I moved to the big city Melbourne and got a job at Mushroom. I worked for Liberation and Ivy League. 

Ah, the Alicia Kish connection comes in. 

Yeah! I met her when I moved to Sydney and she came on board at Ivy league. So I was in Melbourne working for them for a while. And I do always say this, more to my friends and stuff, but I feel like working there set me on a really good path.

There were a few people who were really supportive and instrumental on helping put me on the good music industry path, because being in it for so long now and knowing so many other people, there are bad ass paths and some people have just had the worst experiences.


I’ve been really, really, really lucky. I kind of put that down to this guy Chris Maund and a few others in my life who, like Warwick Brown from Greville Records (GURU), I just feel like they all really helped me understand what it can be like, what it should be like, what I can do. Keep only good people around you.

This is the kind of environment you should build – I think about that often too. It could have gone so horribly wrong. Not that it’s perfect now, I mean, you’re always gonna have to deal with some people.

I think same as you. I’ve had it pretty good comparatively to some of the nightmare scenarios that you hear about other people going through.

Totally, it’s quite shocking. 

Like we’ve created our own little networks and bubbles and they work and they exist and it’s fine. You don’t need to kind of go outside of that. And then when you do, it’s like, ooh noooooo.

People are wild. 

Get me out of this place. Get me back into the bubble please!

Totally, totally. Then I moved to Sydney. Met Kish, she’s a legend, met so many good people, then I quit and worked for Pop Frenzy. I don’t know if you know Chris Wu, but he is amazing and we did Pop Frenzy Records and Pop Frenzy Presents. He would tour all of these amazing artists, predominantly international artists bringing them to Australia. He was/is so ahead of his time. Such an incredible ear.

And that gave me a really good look into running a DIY label and also the land of touring. I’ve always found touring quite stressful. I’m happy to be in my lane and do records. That’s what I wanna do – touring and festivals and all that stuff is quite stressful to me. 

Yeah, it’s stressful on every level, isn’t it? 

Yeah, but some people are built for it. Some people just love it. 

It’s funny, I can do it and I have done it. But if I don’t have to, I’m happy not to. It’s in my skillset, but if I got to choose not to do it, then that’s also great. 

I feel like you’d be really good though. You’d be super organised and you’d have worksheets…

It would get to the point where I’d say yes, just as a favour kind of thing, or for bands that I wanted to help. And then it would be like, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore.’ I’ll give you someone else to call because I’d rather just come to the show. 

Yeah, totally. 

Babysitting four grown adults.

Sarah Thompson in the Poison City store

And then what did I do? I started Rice Is Nice when I was at Pop Frenzy, which is my little label. And then from that, I kicked off Brain Drain, which is a label management and PR company. We could then do more with more people like KGLW! I feel like I’ve been lucky to have these smaller independent kind of things, much like yourself.

I’ve been lucky enough to do music supervision work as well with my rad colleague, Jen Taunton, and that’s been an incredible role. That’s been an amazing and valuable education for all aspects of music, you know, like how can artists make revenue from their copyright. I think that’s crucial and interesting….

Yeah, I think that’s it.

How did you start at Poison City? 

Poison City was one of my accounts at Shock. At the time, I think I was looking after JB Hi-Fi and the key Australian indie stores. I wasn’t doing all the leading edges and targets, that wasn’t my field.

I also lived around the corner from Poison City. I’d be popping past all the time. It was funny actually, when I had just had enough of Shock – Shock had been bought, as you remember – and I was just waiting and waiting for a redundancy as everyone got made redundant around me, but you can’t, ’cause if you’re the last one standing, they’re not gonna get rid of you ’cause you’re doing 13 people’s jobs, you know? I was like, ‘Great…how did I get myself here? I want to be out of here.’ I went past one day on my way home and said, ‘Andy [Hayden], I’m just gonna quit. I can’t deal with it anymore.’ And he was kind of just like, ‘Oh, okay. Are you gonna start working here, what’s the plan?’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah.’

That’s so good. 

It wasn’t those exact words, but it was very casual. I guess because I came from JB – selling to JB and buying for JB – it might’ve been the point where Andy was wanting a bit more insight into that, which I guess is what I was mainly brought on board for at the time. Poison City was getting bigger and I guess the releases that he was doing at the time were needing to be in JB and needing to be a bit more widely distributed. So that’s kind of where I came from, I suppose. 

Poison City is different, it’s a unique setup where it’s a label, a record store, but also its own distribution, right? You don’t have a distributor and I think that’s awesome, and I’ve always talked to you guys about how impressive that is and how much work that is too.

Yeah, we get pretty fast on the tape gun.

That’s probably why Poison City is so strong in all of those networks because of your experience and you had all these relationships. You can go between the record store and then being in a band and then selling the records and then also that distro side too. I don’t know anybody else that really does that

I think it kind of worked out well ’cause I think between me and Andy, we can cover the spectrum of what you would cover in a label that has distro, that deals with other people. As Andy would have probably told you, people have approached him for years about handing it over. It was kind of like, well, you could, but there’ll be a Camp Cope release or something, we’ve got shit everywhere, there’s no room in here for a month, we’re packing every day, then release week comes, you put it all out the door and then it’s like, ‘Oh cool, we’re done. It’s finished. We did it and it was fine and no one died and we can do it again. It’s fine.’

When you’re doing that, are you getting other people to come in and help out? Is the band coming into pack or is it just you and Andy?

It’s mostly just us. It kind of works easier. I’m a bit of a control freak with that sort of stuff. It’s kind of easier for me to have my method where I know where everything is and where I’m up to in the list. I think we’ve just gotten it down to a bit of a fine art. Andy will be doing the BandCamp orders, I’ll be doing the JB Hi-Fi orders and the indie orders. And then it’s just a big postage bill at the end of the month. 

Has Poison City ever had distro outside of itself? 

No, I’m pretty sure Andy just did it from his house for a while with CDs and stuff. And then he’d do it himself with Aaron, who was working in the shop as well. I was the third person to come along and help.

That’s so cool. How old is Poison City?

Probably 2007, but Andy used to use the name for putting on shows and a mail order thing around 2004. But yeah, the shop from 2007 or so. That’s when it was more full time, but the name Poison City goes back. Then I think I started working here in 2014, so next year will be 10 years. 

What do you reckon, for my big 10 year anniversary next year, do we just pass it all over to Universal? Just long service leave, give it to Sony. We’re done, going on a holiday!

Do it, no, don’t do it. 

We couldn’t!

Oh my god, no. 10 years though, that’s amazing.

Hopefully I’ll get a big plaque or something. Would you ever work for a major label? The answer is no, just because.

Yeah, my answer is much the same!

Can you expand on that? Well, have you ever seen anything to do with the music industry or live in the world? The answer is no!

There’s our answer.

I can’t remember what Kelly from Camp Cope used to say to me – she came from a childcare background and she used to say that I had, what is it? Oh, ODD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder.

Is that a thing?

Yeah, it’s a thing apparently. They have to use special ways of asking people to do things so it doesn’t sound like they’re being told what to do. And she reckons I have that. So that’s probably why I wouldn’t be able to do it anyway. 

Do you know Nick Warnock from Repressed and Rip Society?


He went to some awards or something and was heckling – when a nomination was called out about some “independent record label”, he kept yelling out, “Not independent! Not independent!” He was heckling every label that wasn’t actually independent. I think about that all the time.

I guess it’s how independent. I guess there’s a sliding scale, isn’t there? There’s getting the orders and packing them yourself. And then there’s sitting at a desk and sending everything to someone else. I guess there’s different definitions of the word. It can be grey sometimes. 

I think the reality of how much work is involved at a label is so misunderstood. It’s that kind of educational process with anything in music. It has a value, it has a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of factors that come into making music, production, releasing music, and everything involved. 

It’s funny, I was talking to a friend who is a comedian recently, and she’s like, ‘What do you ACTUALLY do?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to tell you that.’ She’s like, ‘But what happens day to day?’ And I’m like, ‘You know when you see a record in the shop? How it got there and how it was made, that’s what I do.’

That’s so true. Most people are like, ‘I don’t know what Jules does. It’s forever confusing to people. I guess that’s because music is that kind of thing that’s taken for granted. I’ve always been really interested in the people behind labels. I think that’s why I wanted to start my own label.

I’ve always been intrigued by the personalities of label owners and just them being fans. I realised, especially the level of production that we do for Gizzard, I was like, ‘I can’t believe how much I care about talking about vinyl production and I absolutely bore the shit out of everyone.’

13 colour variants for each pressing. 

That’s right, like a variant and what it should be and how it should look and the quality. I was talking to my friend Johnny who does the production in the States with me for Gizz, total hero, and he’s like, ‘his is how people see us, Jules,’ and he sent a GIF of all these nerds. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s all it is.’

I have friends pop in like Angie McMahon. She would come in and say, ‘Can you tell me all the differences between types of shrink wrap and card.’ And I’m just like, ‘I sound like such a loser,’ and she’s like, ‘This is actually very helpful and I will be taking this with me!

That’s so good. That’s awesome.

Label nerd stuff. 

You can do all this cool creative stuff with it too, which I really like, I like the tangible element of physical production. And having the support to do that too. KG want to do all this inventive work and Stu [Mackenzie] has really great ideas and is awesome to work with.

It’s a real kind of statement. 

Yeah, it’s a cool thing to get immersed in.

I think the structure of the way a traditional label works now and a traditional rollout of an album is just so far gone. Like it doesn’t work anymore. You’ve got to do things more creatively now.


Which King Gizzard seem really good at, coming up with new ways of doing things and trying stuff. It’s always cool to see stuff like that. When you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought of that. That’s cool.’

Yeah, totally. There’s a fearlessness with it. If it doesn’t work this time or that time or even if it does, it’s okay because it’s reflective of what that kind of creation or body of work is. It’s less kind of static, I guess, and that’s a really cool and privileged place to be. 

Kelly, when she was working in childcare again during lockdown, I think she used to look after one of King Gizzard’s kids. It was one of those things when you see people out of context.

And it was Lucas [Harwood] from the band and he was like, ‘We do know each other,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And he goes, ‘We’ve played shows together and stuff.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, okay, what band are you in?’ And he’s like, ‘King Gizzard.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. There’s so many of you!’

Adore Lucas, he’s amazing. I would say the best thing about running an indie label is that it’s small and DIY but that’s also the most challenging part – it’s small and you have to do everything yourself.


The best and the worst. 

The best thing is helping bands start and then watching that sort of growth. And then the worst thing is being like, ‘How can we make this happen while we’re doing so many things?’

That  kind of excitement but it’s measuring expectations. under promising, over delivering. I’ve always felt like that’s my thing because you’ve got to be realistic. And then when you do see other people outside of your immediate circle, you know, supporting your artists and stuff that’s an amazing element.

That’s why we do it. We’re releasing records we love and we think that they should get more kind of attention. So when that does start to happen… It’s hard though, I often feel like why isn’t this like kicking off? Like, come on!

Would that change if there was a million dollars behind it? Maybe not. Sometimes it’s time and place.

That’s true.

Then you think, would things be different? People have asked that about Camp Cope and stuff. No fucking major label would touch us. Are you kidding me? Wasn’t there a thing with Paramore, like they were signed to Atlantic or some massive, massive major, but when they first got signed the label wanted them to appear to be independent? So they made an imprint which didn’t have their name on it. It was this label that appeared out of nowhere, this punk label, and there was no word of the major on anything, on none of the records, none of the liner notes, nothing, just to appear like it was indie. That’s crazy. 

Did it work though?

It did, yeah. 

Is that why they got big?

I think that they were gonna be big. I think it was around the time of Avril Lavigne and stuff, and they’re like, ‘We don’t want them to be Avril Lavigne, we want them to be a punk band.’ I think it’s funny that wanted them to feel like they weren’t on their own label.

Yeah, that’s some huge marketing, that’s just marketing huh.

It’s basically like, ‘We don’t want anyone to know that we’re behind this!’ I thought that was quite weird.

That’s quite self-aware. There’s lots of that now, majors having lots of imprints. “Not independent!”

I love that. I would probably say the same thing from my seat!

I was gonna say, you guys are self-distributed, but I don’t know anybody else that does that. And I’ve always said to Andy like, open it up, let us in. But it is a small operation and it can be hard to find options out there for labels. Major or independent distro.

That’s half the battle without using external parties, every hand that touches it adds a couple of bucks. 

Absolutely, it’s admirable and interesting, how you guys do it. I think it’s amazing. 

Andy’s the secret CEO, he’s actually the big corp.

He’s Macca’s.

Too good.

Oh God, where do you see the music industry in 50 years time? oh, that question, it kills me. My answer is I will be dead.

Yeah, I think I’ll be dead too. I guess it depends on what happens now. I feel like unless people are trained to value music, it’s gonna stay the same. If we can train kids to wanna pay for music again, that’d be great. And maybe it’ll survive, I don’t know.

But I feel like the vinyl resurgence is happening. People buy vinyl, you would know more than anyone. There’s been a rise, it’s a boom or whatever, more so than before, because there is a kickback against streaming. So I wonder what that new kind of cycle will be. 

I guess it’d be interesting to know. I feel like it’s come back, but it’s like very genre-specific or band-specific. There’s a demographic out there. Camp Cope have always been a very physical band, which is really lucky for us. I certainly have friends who are producers, or make electronic music who out-stream us, but their audience aren’t record buyers. When people look at streaming numbers to try and gauge success, I don’t know if it’s always accurate. You can’t recoup very easily on streaming alone. 


It’d be good to get back to everybody buying stuff, but I just don’t really know how to train people to do it again while they keep making things cheaper. 

Yeah, the horse is bolted. 


You’ve got bands and they’re told they have to have the manager and the agent and whatever else. And it’s like, ‘You’re making so little money.’ Back in the day you would make it from touring and you’d make it from physical sales. That’s not really relevant anymore to an extent. I think that needs to be shaken up. Bands are taught so young that they need all this stuff. You have no money. We need more innovation and less gatekeeping. 

That’s very true, less gatekeeping. That’s a huge thing. 

It’s one of the most annoying things to me. Having young bands ask me a question, I answer, and they’re shocked because no one will actually tell them how anything works. It’s fucking stupid! Less gatekeeping in music! 

I think if there’s one thing that we could change, that is it. There’s so many people I talk to and they’re like, ‘Thanks for emailing me back, you’re the only person that’s ever emailed me back.’ I feel like people say that all the time. And then I wonder if it’s worldwide or just Australia where it is really kind of cagey.

I think it’s worldwide. Australia is its own beast, but it’s definitely worldwide. 

I kind of struggle with that though. I’m very transparent. I think education for younger people starting out is super important. Where they get that, I don’t know. Some people go to school and study this, which is a concern. 

Doesn’t really help, does it? Then you’ve got to be retaught once you start working.

Yeah, just get working in a record store. 

Do an internship at a metal shop.


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