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Why diversity is the real winner at The Age Music Victoria Awards

Music Victoria CEO Patrick Donovan likes to talk about the ‘ecosystem’ when he describes the eclectic network of artists, radio stations, venues, music press and promoters that compromise the Victorian music industry. 

“We’ve got these fantastic boutique record labels which are really thriving, independent promoters as well as the bigger promoters. We have record stores. We’ve got passionate fans,” Donovan says. “And it’s because we’ve got so many venues that you can have such diversity and so many niche genres in the local music scene.”

The diversity and spectrum of genres in Melbourne, and Victoria generally is reflected in the nominees for this year’s Age/Music Victoria awards. The expansion of the awards categories five years ago to include specific categories was an attempt to reflect and recognise the wealth of local musical talent that could be found outside of the notional mainstream pop and rock stream. With this year’s awards, so-called niche acts like AB Original (hip-hop) and Teskey Brothers (soul-blues) have been nominated in the general awards categories, as well as their home genre.

“I’m really thrilled that a lot of genre artists have been nominated in the main categories,” Donovan says. “Basically we knew that there was a lot of diversity and depth within that diversity. But what’s happening now, and I put a lot of this down to the single stage festivals and community radio, is that people are being exposed to all genres now. I think that the audience has been very much trained, especially at the regional festivals where they’ll have one stage and all types of music.  There’s a style of music for every hour of the day.”

The official post-awards event, conveniently titled The After Party, will feature a tribute to one of the genre artists nominated, alt-country band Big Smoke.  Tragically, Big Smoke frontman Adrian Slattery passed away shortly after the recording of Big Smoke’s debut album Time is Golden. As well as performances by Cable Ties, Gold Class and Harvey Sutherland and Bermuda, the After Party will feature a performance of Big Smoke songs by local artist Jim Lawrie, backed by the event’s house band. “Big Smoke’s album Time is Golden is such an incredible album,” Donovan says. “I think it’s such a beautiful album, and probably underrated. So hopefully a lot more people have been introduced to that album through this voting.”

Donovan points to the nomination of Ballarat musician Freya Josephine Hollick as evidence of the importance and impact of regional artists in Melbourne. Hollick has been nominated previously in the best country category; this year Hollick is one of the nominees in the best female category. And then there are the emerging artists such as garage-punk outfit Cable Ties and the subliminally brilliant songwriting of RVG, both of whom have been nominated in ‘primary’ categories. 

Each year Music Victoria and The Age inducted a local musical identity into The Age Music Victoria Hall of Fame. This year’s inductee is recording engineer and producer Tony Cohen, who died early this year. Stories of Cohen’s brilliance in the studio are only matched by tales of his eccentric antics and excessive behaviour. Like many in the music scene, Donovan has heard his quota of Tony Cohen stories. But Donovan’s favourite story is a far less salacious tale.  “Tony was living in Wonthaggi, and no-one there really knew who he was,” he says. “Tex Perkins played a show there, and Tony was in the audience. Tex kept name-checking Tony after each song and saying how Tony had made a particular song better when they were in the studio. It made Tony feel pretty special. I think everyone in the community realised then just how much of a legend Tony was.”

While he started out as an engineer recording mainstream artists, Cohen was a trailblazer in the Melbourne alternative music scene, recording albums by Models, Sacred Cowboys and Birthday Party. It was Cohen who gave bands licence to capture their own sound, not the sound a label wanted to give them. And it’s that defiant sense of musical identity that underpins the style of so many local artists.

But even as he casts his eye across the wealth of talent reflected on The Age Music Victoria awards list, and the After Party lineup, Donovan warns against complacency.

“We have a thriving ecosystem in Melbourne, but it is a fragile ecosystem,” Donovan says. “It was one stroke of the pen that led to government linking live music to violence, which led to the Slam Rally. We had our threat then, and we won’t be fooled again, as a great band once said.”

The Age Music Victoria Awards and The After Party goes down at 170 Russell on Wednesday November 22. More details here