Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Interview: Martine Cotton of musicindustryinsideout.com.au

A few weeks ago, Australian musicians (actually, all musicians) were given access to an amazing new resource: a website called Music Industry Inside Out, developed and run by Brisbane resident Martine Cotton. It was great to have the opportunity to interview Martine about this fantastic initiative - and she'd especially love to see some country music folks accessing her site. 

First of all, I wanted to say the site looks fantastic.  It is so well organised; the navigation is perfect.  So I don’t know if you’ve done it or whoever’s done it, it looks fantastic.
Thank you so much.  Yeah, I did it all.  It’s been full-on.

Just out of curiosity, is it a Wordpress site?
It is Wordpress, yes.  So I’m using Wordpress and I’m using the Genesis Framework – it’s the first time I’ve used that, and it’s been incredible, and I think I’ll never go back.

Well, congratulations, because I can only imagine how much work this has been for you.  But I’ll start off with the idea of it.  So I was wondering when the idea first came to you not just for the website, obviously, but for the whole project?
I was working at QMusic, and we were touring around regional Queensland presenting workshops, tutorials and seminars, and mentoring a lot of regional emerging artists and midlevel artists.  And they were so grateful for our help and support, so I knew that there was a need there.  And then when Arts Queensland did all their funding cuts across the board last year, unfortunately the QMusic program was one of the things that was slashed, and I was made redundant.  And I guess coming out of that, I was so devastated that the government didn’t think that the work was important enough, and I just knew that there was a whole world of people out there desperate for information.  So I’ve got quite a strong background in digital stuff as well, and I just thought, well, stuff ’em.  If they won’t support this, then I’ll just go out and do it myself.  I was made redundant in December, and the idea started germinating in January, and the ball started rolling – I got accepted in to the NEIS program, which is the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which is fantastic.  I did that in April, and bam, I haven’t really looked back.  It’s been great.

And is that a federal or a state scheme?
I’m pretty sure it’s federal.

As bad as it’s been to have those cuts to Arts Queensland, that previous funding for years I think actually created something special in Queensland, and I actually wonder whether you would have even come up with this idea if you lived in another state, if that makes sense.  Just that culture of what’s been happening in the arts in Queensland has been really exciting, and here’s you basically having this sense of mission, about something that I haven’t seen it in New South Wales, let’s put it that way.
Okay.  Oh, that’s interesting.  I did have a chat to one of my Arts Queensland contacts, who was actually away on maternity leave at the time that all the slashing happened.  She was horrified by what went down, but then when I told her about my plans she was like, “Oh my God.  Get in touch with us.  This is exactly the sort of thing we want to help fund.” 

It’s a huge thing to do because it comes of out of that sense of service, I guess, to the industry, because regardless of whether or not you got into the New Enterprise Scheme, you had to be willing to put a huge amount of your own energy into it. 
Yes.  I’ve been working more than full yime now on this whole project since – well, pretty much since April, and, yes, strong sense of purpose.

Do you know of anything like it in the world?  I can’t think of anything.
Well, nothing this genre specific.  There’s a heap of really great educational sites like lynda.com and creativelive all in the [United] States.  And it’s not where I got the idea from, but I’ve used both of those sites a lot, ’cause I lived in Japan for a long time, and I found that in Japan it was really hard for self-improvement, to do classes and learn new things.  So I ended up doing these online courses, which is basically why I know how to code sites and I was a professional photographer for a while too, and that was all through creativelive and lynda.com.  Or they helped me with business ideas as well as learning software.

But I think the genre specificity is really important, because there are things that apply to music that don’t apply to books, for example.

Yes.  Absolutely.

Or don’t apply to dance.  And I think there are things that apply to solo performers that don’t apply to bands, and vice versa.
Absolutely.  So as far as I know there is nothing like it in the world.

Well, good on you, Martine [laughter].
Thank you.

So you’ve mentioned a few different things in your background, but what specifically in the music industry have you done that’s given you this passion and drive for it?
I used to be a band manager.  I’ve managed a lot of bands.  I ran The Zoo, which is quite an iconic live music venue [in Brisbane].  I booked and managed that for about five years and worked there for about three years before I became the manager.  And ran a music services business after I left The Zoo, as a booking agent and on-ground support for international promoters.  And so I’ve seen it all, and most of my oldest and dearest friends are tied up in the music industry in some way.  And it just flummoxes me that I went away for 10 years and came back, and nothing has changed.  People still don’t have a clue [laughter].  It’s just people still getting paid $300 to play a three-hour – they’re lucky if they’re getting $300 to play three-hour sets, gruelling three-hour sets in clubs.  And it’s just – why hasn’t that changed?  Nothing’s changed. So something’s got to give, you know, in the live scene anyway.

I was thinking about the sorts of things that this project can do for people, and obviously to be successful, artists need talent and they also need to work hard, and that’s a combination that is required.  But your website now makes it possible for them to learn how to be more professional, and I think that professionalism is often an element that is missing in terms of attracting an audience as well.  I think if audiences know that they can rely on a professional product, then they’re probably more likely to show up.  How big a role do you think professionalism plays in a successful career?
I think it’s essential.  If people don’t grasp how the industry works and the expectations on you as an artist to deliver the goods, whether you’re playing live gigs, or recording, or doing interviews, your commitments to the venues, if you can’t manage all of that then just get out now, because there’s no point.

This is possibly a tricky question to answer, so you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to, but I was wondering what percentage of acts you’ve seen – just, say, while you were working at The Zoo – who were professional compared to those who weren’t?
Well, look, I think in the music industry professionalism does come as you grow.  So at The Zoo we would have maybe two nights a week would be emerging band nights – and don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone has very good intentions.  They just don’t understand how it works.  So I wouldn’t want to put a percentage figure on it because it depends on how many emerging bands are coming through, and if they won’t – well, hopefully my site will help them learn, but it’s a growing process. It’s the same as any young person entering the professional workforce.

The fact the site exists probably now, just in and of itself, its existence means that there is now a measure of how high the bar is that new performers or existing performers might be expected to reach, and that can only be a good thing for everyone involved.
I agree.  But that’s totally why I’m doing it, because the whole industry will grow together.

This is a very big mission, and I really applaud you because as I said, you have to invest a lot of energy of your own in it. And it must be wonderful to see it come to fruition, but I certainly hope you can book in a holiday some time soon.

Yeah, me too.  I’ve actually booked in a whole lot of extra work on festivals over the summer season, and I was just realising last night I really – I haven’t given myself a break.

Well, perhaps that’s your next order of business, to plan one.
I agree.

But just back to the website – given that you have a background in digital, did you just start off thinking, okay, well, here are my content areas, here are all these things I need to think about – because it’s a really beautifully refined navigation, and it can take quite a while to get the structure of any site right.  So how did you begin to plan that structure?
I made some mind maps.  I made a list – I prioritised the things that I thought any kind of mentor site like this would need.  So they were the video courses, the specific educational articles, the forums, the list of music resources.  So they were the main things. I’ve got a couple of amazing interns who’ve been helping me on the process, and they work in the music industry themselves, they’re young emerging artists.  And they came up with some really great ideas as well.  For example, the Savvy Seven section – we sent out a list of seven questions to a bunch of really great young emerging artists.  Well, they’re more than emerging.  They’re doing it.  They’re out there, they’re touring nationally.  And we asked them seven questions basically about their careers.  And designed to help other young touring artists.  Questions like, ‘What are the best venues in your home town?’  So we made sure we’ve got a selection of artists that are coming through across every state, and all different regions.  So we actually hear it from the horse’s mouth what the best venues are in their area.  Things like touring pit stops – best places to get food when you’re on the road.  Just general career advice – you know, career mistake, worst career mistakes, advice for emerging artists, that kind of thing.  It’s a really nice read.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting all the responses back and having a look through them, because they’re all quite diverse.

You have quite an extensive list of mentors and industry professionals on the site already.  How easy or difficult was it to involve other people in the project?
Look, it’s been really easy.  Most people want to give as much as they can.  I did get a loan, and I have actually offered money.  I’ve been offering to pay these speakers, and easily over half of them refused payment. Because they’re just as committed as I am.  Well, maybe not as committed as I am, but they’ve got a genuine interest in bettering the industry.  We all do.  It can only lead to better things.  So basically I think I can count on one hand the number of people that said no, and most of them were because they’re just too busy, and a couple of them just because they don’t like that kind of role or attention, they don’t like to be in front of the camera.

Will you continue to add professionals?
Absolutely.  I’ve got a session booked next week, so we’ve got six sessions next week, including Harmony James and Katie Noonan, because they’re both very much – well, Harmony is amazing.  And I was worried I didn’t have enough country content, so I was quite delighted to see that you were a country blog, because the country world is probably the most in need. I went up to the Australian Institute of Country Music at Gympie and did a seminar up there, and the kids there were unbelievable.  They were so passionate and keen and sweet and polite and respectful, and I just want to help them [laughter].

The potential for the website, I guess, is that the content can infinitely grow. Do you envisage that you will at a certain point put a cap on it just for your own sake?
No.  I’m not going to stop, because the industry is constantly changing and fluxing, so I’ll keep the content up there, the existing content, but what I’ll do is introduce new modules that are relevant to the changing technologies and changing practices.  So, for example, I want to do an entire module, like, an intensive module of master classes on streaming, but I think it’s too early to do that because we still don’t really know what’s going on, like, how it’s going to pan out.  I’m actually yet to find someone who wants to talk about it, which is interesting.  Well, I want them to go directly to the source and go to Spotify and RDIO and Viva and those guys and see if they want to talk about it.

And can you envisage that the membership itself might take on its own life, by which I mean that there’s this community online that exists within the parameters of the site, and they’re talking to each other, and connections form.
That’s the dream.  That’s what the forums are for.  And I’ve also created a private Facebook page that you can get to from the forum page.  Between Facebook and the forums I really want to have a strong community of people sharing information.

And this is possibly a question out of order, but I have noted it down:  what do you think the biggest barriers to entry for new performers are?
Hmm.  Well, I think songwriting, but – well, it depends if we’re talking about the artist or music industry workers.

Sorry, the artists.  So the biggest barriers to entry for new artists, whether they’re singer-songwriters or performers.  But basically finding an audience.
I think it’s an understanding of the industry.  And managing expectations. 

Managing expectations is a big one.
A huge one.  Huge.  They have these ridiculous – well, working at The Zoo for years, we’d have these emerging nights, and these young bands [laughs] would come in and they’d say, “We’re going to tell all our friends about it.  They’re all going to come.  It’s going to be great.  We’re going to have 100 people here.”  And it’d be a Thursday night and there’d be 10 people there, and they’d be devastated.  And I’d say, “So, what did you do to get people here?”  “Oh, well, we – we just told people about it, and” – you know.  And I think a lot of the young people think that just because they’re putting an event on at a place like The Zoo that people will go, and that people go to The Zoo anyway. Like, no one goes to venues like that unless they’ve got a specific reason to do so.  It’s not a place you go to hang out – you’ve got to have a connection to whatever is going on there, be it friends or a band you love or, you know, whatever.  So these young people coming through, they get very disenchanted very quickly because they don’t understand how to market their show.

And for existing performers, do you see that issue as well?
To a degree, yes.  I think again, managing expectations, they think because they’re creating stuff that people will come.  I see that a lot.  And they just don’t understand how to market their music and their show.  I think also most young bands hook up with – well, either they stay DIY and they manage themselves, or they hook up with some young manager, and they just don’t get a grasp on strategy.  They’re just in such a rush to get everything done, like, they’ll write a song, and record it and put it out all in one week without really considering any kind of strategic kind of plan.  And you can’t do that.  It’s just a waste of everyone’s time and money if you can’t support a release with a really great strategy of distribution and marketing and how you’re going to write your press release – even that most basic of things, the press release, you know?

Q:        Yes.  All of which your website can help them with.

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