Graham Ashton discusses BIGSOUND, the biggest music conference in the southern hemisphere.

September is an interesting time for Brisbane. In the space of maybe a week, bridging August to September, the weather changes from the confusing anomaly that is the Queensland winter to the too-perfect-to-be-true temperatures of spring. Before the summer rains and the smoky back-burnings of Brisbane’s outer hills begin, there is that brief period of time where everything seems to happen.

All of a sudden things are going on and this town turns into the bustling metropolis it has been promising to be for a few years now. Brisbane Festival takes over, music festival season begins, and BIGSOUND takes place. For a few weeks it seems like Brisbane is the centre of the universe and for one particular industry this may very well be true, as BIGSOUND has become a key date on the calendar of the Australian music industry.

Now in its eleventh year, the BIGSOUND music conference has established itself as a taste-making and style-defining hub of the Australian music collective. Touted as the largest music conference in the Southern Hemisphere, BIGSOUND draws attention from overseas press and international industry members and brings them, and a collection of hand-picked bands, to Brisbane.  Showcase bands gain the benefit of playing in front of industry members who could conceivably help them along their path to success while these industry people are on the hunt for the next big thing. Every year, a few partnerships are made and a few bands may be lucky enough to come away with some important connections. Like other music conferences like SXSW and The Great Escape, exposure is the biggest thing on offer here.

Graham Ashton is the kind of guy whose eye you’d hope to catch at BIGSOUND. As head of Warner Music’s indie label imprint, Footstomp, Graham (or Asho as he prefers to be called) has a bit of clout in the Australian music industry. Not only is he the head of his own label, he has also been the Executive Programmer of BIGSOUND for the past three years. Since his commencement as BIGSOUND exec, the live aspect of BIGSOUND has doubled in size and the global recognition of the conference has risen.

For someone with this much cred, he is very down to earth and personable, traits that could be traced back to his surf-lifestyle upbringing on the Sunshine Coast. After an introduction to some seminal hardcore punk rock acts, Asho immersed himself in the business side of music.

“(A mate of mine had) been immersing himself in the punk rock communities,” says Asho. “He gave me this compilation cassette of American hardcore bands like Husker Du, The Minutemen, Black Flag, and Bad Brains – all those kinds of bands. Within a day my life had changed; all the surfing posters came down off the wall, all the hardcore punk posters went up on the wall. I started a band, I started a label, I started a fanzine. I’ve been following the same obsession ever since, in all different ways.”

After hopping around at several different labels for a few years – starting with the sales desk Polygram Records and then onward to impressive positions in Sydney and London – Asho decided to try his hand at starting something of his own after his latest stint in Sydney ended.

“I’d been there for ten years and originally I didn’t really want to go, my job kind of forced me to go,” admits Asho. “It was one of those situations where if you wanted go get promoted you had to go to Sydney. I did enjoy it, but I came back here to have a family. As soon as I got back I felt welcomed back into the community of Brisbane music that started me off – like I hadn’t been away at all.”

“There were bands that were really good at the time, one in particular was Yves Klein Blue, which I gravitated towards and ended up managing them for a short while, it was that band that I thought we could build on, and we could build anything around that band. They were the ones that stood out for me at the time.”

At the same time Asho was setting up Footstomp, QMusic was looking for a new Executive Programmer. QMusic’s Executive Officer, Denise Foley, reached out to Asho and suggested he apply, after Asho attended previous BIGSOUND conferences through his prior position at Dew Process. His successful application and the subsequent fortuitous pairing ensured the early success of Footstomp, which managed to obtain the BIGSOUND contract at the beginning of their existence.

Since Asho took the reins, the BIGSOUND conference has expanded and enhanced its reputation among the globally recognised music conferences. For Asho and the panel of professionals responsible for picking artists, they have the hard task of selecting from hundreds of band applications each year. Only a small portion of said applicants are successful, even though the number of live acts showcased has increased each year; indicating how desired a spot at the live event is.

As the head honcho of a record label and as the man with the final say on BIGSOUND applicants, Graham Ashton must have some sense of what it takes to be a recognisable and successful band. This doesn’t make the choices any easier for him, but gives him a clear picture of where to draw the line in most cases. The characteristics needed for label attention and conference success differs, while initially a surprise to me, it makes sense to differentiate personal tastes (as it relates to label choices) from conference applicants.

“For Footstomp it’s about artists or songwriters who want to be important, who don’t want to just be cool,” says Asho. “I’m not interested in working with artists who just want to be cool, that just comes and goes so quickly. I’m only interested in artists that aspire to be important. BIGSOUND is a little bit different, because that process was 800 applications to get down to 120 spots. In my first two years on the job it was almost ‘pick the 60 or 80 best artists’, but this year it has grown so much that we’re also very genre focused, so I had to balance the program based on that as well. We’re really proud, in my opinion; my 120th favourite band on the bill is still really good.”

So, what makes a BIGSOUND Live applicant a successful one? Recent conferences have included bands that have achieved a large amount of success since performing (Last Dinosaurs, The Medics, Emma Louise, DZ Deathrays etc.), yet I can’t say for sure if their success is a result of their performances at BIGSOUND or not. I know for a fact that a few of those bands managed to make connections that helped them along, but what I think is important to note is that each band had some form of momentum going into the showcase, which made them a desired act to see perform. Momentum in this sense means that a lot of hard work has been put in by the band already to get a certain amount of notoriety.

Brisbane bands performing this year like The Jungle Giants, Velociraptor, Millions and Gung Ho have all spent the past year building that momentum, which shows that they may be ready to take the next step. If BIGSOUND will supply that opportunity only time will tell, but I am pretty sure Asho agrees with me on some level.

“It’s such a difficult thing with music,” says Asho. “After the BIGSOUND announcement there are about 680 applicants who didn’t make the cut, and each year I call that ‘hate-mail week’ because I get a lot of disgruntled artists and managers disappointed about not making the cut. I completely understand. I’m an optimist; I like to think that at least they care, that they want to be part of it. It is such an intangible thing.”

“For me it has to be about having great songs and a great live show, it’s also about having some momentum, it’s very hard to go and pick a brand new band with one song and no fans just because I think they are cool against a band who is three albums deep, who are working on a career, who have a team, who have got something substantial to contribute to the event as well. It is really difficult, there are no criteria. The other people on the selection panel and myself are very experienced and we are trying to look at it as fairly as we can on the artists that are most deserving that year. I think there was close to 200 rejection letters sent to artists that were almost selected, there are some that aren’t quite ready yet – we keep an eye on them for next year, but there are 400 bands that were absolutely worthy and trying to make that fit into the puzzle is hard.”

Every year, BIGSOUND is hailed as a resounding success from some and criticised for being a waste of time by others. Detractors claim the event is too commercially focused and does not cater for the independent bands, supporters point at the global attention given to Australian bands in general as the biggest positive of the showcase and its overarching aim.

Many music forum dwellers deride the showcase for their lack of ‘independent’ acts on the bill, others point out the over commercialisation of the whole shebang. While it is true that you might not see many ‘vinyl and cassette’ indie bands on the showcase, effort has been made to diversify the line-up in recent years. For a showcase like BIGSOUND, a band still releasing limited edition 7” singles might not actually stand to gain much. Showcases like Sound Summit cater for those tastes better, so it’s not as if BIGSOUND is the only avenue available in terms of Australian music conferences.

From my perspective BIGSOUND tries to promote Australian talent that have achieved some level of recognition in their own country, thereby giving them a chance to promote themselves to internationally based personnel and I think that is a good thing. What I think needs to be recognised is the fact that BIGSOUND is a nationally and internationally focused event; the speakers and topics discussed might be more relevant to a band or a manager looking at making the jump to foreign shores.

Last year’s main Keynote Speaker, Alan McGee, initially claimed to enjoy his experience at the showcase, before doing a 180 degree turn in April and labelled BIGSOUND as second rate. Size wise, BIGSOUND is smaller than SXSW and others in the northern hemisphere, but feedback has shown that the relevancy of the conference and live showcase has indeed gotten better over the past three years. So, what exactly should a lucky showcase band look to gain from performing this year?

“I would say it’s to add one or two key members to your team,” says Asho. “So whatever level the band is at, whether it’s internationally known or locally, if they need a publisher or a booking agent or a label internationally – they are all here. All of the Australian music community is here now, it is so important to the Australian music community now, it is the one gathering of the tribes. Everyone is there so it is an opportunity for bands to find those people and their team – and there is a really good cross section of international people too. I think that is what you stand to gain, and also for the managers or the people who are throwing themselves into it, it’s about building up your networks, getting to know those people you have been emailing – it’s crucial.”

To remain relevant (which, for a conference with so many critics, is a loaded term) what needs to happen? Aside from picking decent bands, the conference topics need to be topical of course. For Asho and his successor, AIR General Manager Nick O’Byrne, who is taking over in 2014, the conference aspect must still contain interesting topics but need to be presented in an engaging way, by people in touch with the industry. Again, the critics point out the lack of youthful or new perspectives being shared over the past few years, something that looks to change this year with some legitimately young professionals attending this year. What are the criteria for a good speaker and engaging topics?

“My approach to the conference is a little different,” confesses Asho. “I choose the speakers based on who is interesting and relevant, and then I have a loose idea in my head of what kind of topics and what kind of theme I want it to go in. It’s not until I have about two thirds of the speakers locked in that I will really sit down and really work on the conference. “

“I try and encourage BIGSOUND to be a bit different, and to focus a bit more on the creative process – to be a bit more entertaining and irreverent. What I always want to come out of BIGSOUND, more than anything, is for people to walk away inspired. That’s the core of it, more about inspiration than education, you’re hoping to encourage people to commit their life to music, that’s not necessarily an easy life but it’s obviously a rewarding one as well.”

What about for BIGSOUND in general?

“I think needs to be about consolidated growth,” says Asho. “We’ve doubled in size over the past two years from 60 to 120 bands. One of the real positives for BIGSOUND is the geography of it so that the venues are so close. I like the idea of 150 bands and 15 stages, whether it is next year or the year after, it’s about getting this year right.”

BIGSOUND 2012 has sold more tickets than previous years, so it is an indicator of success in that regard. The feedback is also positive, so it seems that the majority of the music industry sees some worth in the conference. Asho and the team at QMusic have been doing their jobs well, if these indicators tell us anything. There will always be critical elements pointing out flaws, though overall, I can’t deny the impressive gains made by BIGSOUND in bringing attention to Australian bands. I asked Asho what he would consider his personal statement or legacy to be that will be remembered when it comes to BIGSOUND.

“I don’t know if I have a personal statement,” admits Asho.  “I’m part of a great team of people. I guess the focus change for me has always been about the live festival instead of the conference. It is less to do with me and more to do with the natural progression of the event. When I started it was more a conference with a small showcase and now I’m trying to get the balance to tip the other way a bit. I’ve just always believed if we get the music right the rest will fall into place, that we will attract all of the great people.”

“I’m really proud of what is coming out of Brisbane. It is clearly the biggest and most relevant conference in the Southern Hemisphere, streets ahead of our competitors, and we’re growing.”

With any luck, this BIGSOUND will continue its favourable ascent.