Michael McMartin: ‘Labels Are Not The Enemy, But They're Not Our Friends’

10 May 2023 | 3:14 pm | Staff Writer

"I'm sorry if I offend some people here..."

Pic by Jess Gleeson

Pic by Jess Gleeson

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Michael McMartin of Melody Management was presented with the Legacy Award by Frontier Touring at the Association of Artist Managers (AAM) Awards last month.

Not only is McMartin one of the founders of the AAM, but since 1985, he has managed the careers of Hoodoo Gurus, Charles Fischer and Wayne Connelly, as well as founding independent record company Trafalgar Records in 1971. 

His work in the Australian music industry has made him a beloved, influential figure, and when he won the Legacy Award, McMartin used his platform to make a powerful speech about record labels and the state of the music industry today, which you can read in its entirety below.


After that introduction I totally forgot everything I was going to say, and I have this awful feeling that before I've finished you will have wished that I was doing it by video like the others. I feel a little strange taking this award. I mean, it's wonderful. But there's so many people here in the audience that are equally if not more deserving. And I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to accept it on their behalf. And I'm not going to share it because it's got my name on it! But most of them will get it as it goes down the line for sure, when they reach their dotage. 

Managing. What a career path! I doubt if many of us have had the conversation of "No Mom, no, Dad, I'm not going to be a rocket scientist, I'm going to be a manager in the music business". You know, we tend to evolve into this rather than look at it as a career path. What I also love is that when you go to a party or a meeting, and someone says "So Michael, you manage bands, exactly what is it you do?" 42 years managing and I still can't simply answer that. It's just part of who you are. One of the things I want to mention is that obviously it's such a rewarding job, you know, when you see your artist on stage, with people enjoying it, as passionate about them as you are, when you hear their music being played on radio or somewhere, it just doesn't get a heck of a lot better than that. It's not a paycheck worth, maybe not a lot more. But it's definitely worth a lot. Part of the choice of management is that it helps if you have a life partner who understands your passion, and understands as well that the disruptions that it brings to your life on a daily basis. It's also a huge help if they have a full time really secure well paying job! 

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When we started the managers’ first association, we had two main goals. One was getting managers to talk between themselves. You guys do it so much better than we did. Our old boys club ego wouldn't let us let everyone else know we had no idea what we were doing. And so you do it really, really well. And, it's been mentioned tonight, that you are still doing it. And I just beseech you to do it more with a loud, consolidated voice, because that's so much of what the managers forum is. The greatest resource you have is the experience of your fellow managers. To call them and say, look, I've got a problem, I have an issue, I have a question. You know, you're not going to call me and say, "Hey, Michael, I need help skewing the algorithms on Spotify". You may well call and say hey, "There's a problem within the band, there's an issue, or how do I get the band to Brazil," whatever it is. I don't know a manager who won't take a phone call from someone else to give advice. Giving advice is part of our DNA. So just keep it up. Really well done.

The other aspect that we really wanted to push when we started was advocacy for our artists. There's no managers' rights, only artists' rights. And no one was looking after the artists. It was our association that did it. Here's just a couple of quick examples. When PPCA started, it was the government-mandated royalty - similar to APRA but for the performers. And ARIA was given the opportunity to set up the collection organisation. Of course, the managing directors of the record companies were also then on the board of PPCA. And for the first couple of years, someone forgot to tell them that this money should be passed on to the creators. So it just sat there. I think one or two artists may have received it. We had a meeting of our Managers Association and a couple of people said we should sue them, we should take them to court for breach of fiduciary responsibility. And that's a hard path to take - you're screwed if you lose, and it's very expensive. So we said, why don't we talk to them? 

So, an artist and myself organised a meeting with two of the CEOs of the major record companies who were also heading up PPCA. And it was such an enlightened, convivial conversation. We said that we have 400 members, and we represent over 1000 artists. And it's not going to be a good look for the newspapers or for government if we sue you. Nobody wins by that. Within 90 days, there was an artist member on the PPCA board, there was a manager member on the PPCA board who was nominated by the managers forum, and the next royalty turnaround, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing through to artists. And that still happens today. A single manager would not have been able to do that. They might have got it for their artist, but because we had this voice, because we worked together for the artists' rights, it happened. And that was a major achievement. 

Here's another quick example. We had an agreement with the Promoters Association. In those days overseas acts were coming up going, "Hey, it's cold up here in the Northern Hemisphere, we want to go to Australia for the summer, lots of money there. And we'll take it." And they weren't having supports. So we reached an agreement with the Promoters Association that every artist that came out from overseas had to have an Australian support appearing on the same stage as them with adequate production. And they had to be nominated and appear on all of the advertising the time that tickets went on sale because it's not so much that people come and see you play a support slot it's seeing you on the posters, on the ads, hearing your name on radio. 

Down the track, I got a call one day from a solo artist in Melbourne who said he was coming up to Sydney and he'd been taken on as the support for an English band that was coming out. And they asked him if he wouldn't mind playing in the foyer when people were coming in. What should he do? I said, just call me back in about half an hour. I called Richard Kingsmill at Triple J who were presenting the tour. He agreed this was so outside of the context of the agreement that had been reached. Within three days, there was a letter of apology from the band, because they didn't know anything about it and from the agency. He got to play on the stage just before the band. The artist had no management. He could scream all he wanted, but he still would have been playing in the foyer. But because we, as an association, had that voice, and we yelled a lot, things like that got done. 

The AAM today is just such an incredibly different organisation. As I said, you do so many things so well. You do communications well, you're working with government on all different levels. And the respect that you've gained is quite stunning. You work on helping managers find out that yes, you should look after your own company before you look after your artists, because that gives us a solid basis for doing it. You look after health, safety, workplace relations, inclusion, diversity, and all of those are works in progress, and they always will be. But I just commend you so much for doing that.

But here's the hard part. I've got a couple of little bugbears, things that bother me, and that I don't think they're going to go away unless AAM focuses on it because no one else is going to. There's the old one, which is maximising Australian content on radio and on streaming. That's a target. 

Record companies are not the enemy. But personally, I feel that any person or company that takes the money that's due to my clients, and decides how much they get by contract, it takes six months to pay it through. And then if you disagree with this, you've only got two years to challenge it or you lose your chance. Statute of limitations is only six years. Mistake is a mistake is a mistake. Theft is theft is theft, and you should have the legal time to go back through all of your statements. And say no, actually, we think you made a mistake. And that's really important. When was the last time you heard your record company scream about the dreadful royalties from Spotify? Not much, because they own 20% of it. They took 20% of Spotify in return for giving them access to all of our clients' copyrights. So there's cause for concerns. They are not the enemy, but they're not our friends to be trusted on a daily basis. 

And then to me, there's the big one. I'm sorry if I offend some people here because there are superb people in the live industry, who will fight and die for you. But the consolidation of the live industry to me is the biggest threat we have going. Where the agencies or the promoters own the venues, or are trying to take over the venues, the festivals, they have their hands on everything and are joining up. There's a perfect case in point in Western Australia. The country's biggest promoter has just taken over and gone in partnership with Western Australia's biggest event organiser, to form an agency. So the festival, the bands being represented by the agency and the promoter, it all ends up in one bank account. How can you possibly get the best deal for your artists under such a situation? 

If you're signed with that agency, who in that link is going to smash the fists down and go no, hold on, we should pay the artists more, or get them higher on the bill. It ain't going to happen. And if you're not signed with that agency, and there is a festival, good luck on beating out your contemporaries at that level to get on. I mean, it's a bit far-fetched, they will want acts and if you can make it happen, you go for it. But the more this happens in other states, I really believe the AAM has to make a lot of noise about it. Whether it's with the government, whether it's some of association, the ACCC, whatever. I mean, it's rather ironic that if we could go and talk to Allan Fels who was the reason that we had to form the Managers Association in the early days anyways, he'd have a thing or two to say about it. 

It's been such an honour to been part of this organisation, and to see how far you've come. I've enjoyed it. I've enjoyed working with everyone here. And the Legacy Award is really, really appreciated. Part of the enjoyment of it is I'll get to present the patrons gift to an emerging manager. One who the board deemed especially capable of enhancing their artists' career, their own company's career, and the views and the aims and the ethos of the AAM. So, thank you and I'd like to ask Greg Carey to come on and announce the winner of the Patron's Gift Award. Thanks very much.