Today’s guest is the Founder and partner of Australasia’s largest boutique entertainment law firm, Media Arts Lawyers, with offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland. A long-standing volunteer and member of the Arts Law pro bono panel, active volunteer for AIR, the PPCA, ARIA and MIFF.
Owner of seminal record label Rubber Records and 3RRR announcer for over 10 years. He’s also the publisher of comics, David Vodicka, welcome to the show.
Thank you, thanks for having me.
You’ve been actively involved in the entertainment industry since the late 1980s and accomplished some amazing things.
What attracted the young David Vodicka into the world of music and what do you think’s changed since the great days of the 1990s?
Great days? It’s all relative. I think the interest was just the fact that I love music and I love … I realised that I wasn’t a creator but I basically liked being involved in the processes.
Whether it was putting out fanzines or comics or releasing records and ultimately that led into doing more and more of that stuff. But also, at the same time, studying law and basically getting a grounding in that and practically multitasking.
As time went on, focusing on different things, whether it was the music business in terms of as a lawyer or as a record label. Obviously over the years it became more and more as a lawyer and less and less as a label, until we reached where we are today.
Your father, Peter Vodicka was a respected and well-known lawyer. Was studying law a choice or an expectation for you?
Well he was a commercial lawyer and he basically delayed his practising certificate until recently, and yeah, there was a degree of expectation.
It was a bit of a combination of getting in and doing a degree, I guess to give you a foundation and then choosing after that. I did initially work with my father, but I sort of decided that wasn’t really for me which is why I established the firm to do what it is that we actually do.
In other words we practice in media and the arts. So we’re lawyers, so therefore that’s the name of the firm. To me it made a lot more sense than calling it after somebody’s name because ultimately if that person isn’t there anymore, then people question why they’re not there and “who is that guy” and all that kind of stuff.
And it just didn’t make a lot of sense, particularly after working in a family practice where I was guy who wasn’t my father, if you know what I mean.
Absolutely, did you find there was, when you were moving into the world of entertainment, was your father a little bit hesitant about that? Was he trying to pull you back from that? Was it like “get a real job”?
I think just sort of perused that path irrespective of what else was going on. I had to juggle things that I got given at the time in those early days at the firm.
Which tended to be a lot of commercial stuff and things like that, which ultimately gave me some sort of grounding and experience in terms of dealing with clients, dealing with people, dealing with commercial matters.
And ultimately the music industry is in one sense quite different and in another sense quite the same as most other forms of business. In other words, you have to know how to relate to people and to understand what their problems are so you can hopefully help them and solve those problems.
That’s pretty much what lawyers should be doing, which is problem solving.
Are you a second or third generation lawyer then? Is that something that’s come down through the Vodicka family, or is it just a more of a recent thing ?
Right. So was it a conscious decision to grow Media Arts Lawyers into the behemoth it’s become, or was it just a natural evolution?
It was always something where I think that while it hasn’t been like “we wanna make it into a massive corporate firm.” You sort of end up with natural growth just by encouraging people to grow their practices and grow the areas that they’re in. So we’re in a number of different areas, not just music now.
There’s also those things too where in a lot a ways music is a younger person’s game, and what I mean by that is those entrepreneurial, putting out lots of records, and all that kind of stuff, fly by the seat of your pants – it’s pretty good until a certain point in your life when you maybe need a little bit more ability because of family because of other things like that.
I think, at that point, there was a bit of a swap over to go, “Righto, if I can’t have a super successful record label then I’m just going to try and focus my attentions on building a great practice.”
But you still dabble don’t you with the label and kept that going as more of a hobby-style thing now?
Yeah, we’ve got a catalogue of things that have come out over the last 25 years.
I have Kelly who works on the label, who basically handles all the stuff that we do moving forward, and ultimately, the things that we are doing at the moment are a combination of working with the, you might call ‘heritage acts’ like that Underground Lovers or The Casanovas, who we’ve worked with for a long time.
And also it’s also going through a process of doing some reissues of older titles, so we’re reissuing next year the Icecream Hands, ‘Sweeter Than The Radio’ album.
Things like that which I think I enjoy and also go to preserve the heritage of those acts who I think, at the time, in the 90s put out some great records and deserve to not disappear beneath the waves of the onslaught of the gazillions of records that come out.
It’s sort of just a combination of trying to keep those things and the brand of the label going. We don’t really do a lot of new stuff, per se, I mean the new stuff that we do, the couple of records we do, tend to be from artists we’ve worked with a long time, or that we have relationships with.
And you see, become a heritage label.
Well it’s kind of like you try to preserve the heritage of both the artists. There’s a bit of an element where music is kind of funny in the sense that it has a faster and faster cycle. And the big labels are okay at preserving things that make enough money, but anything that’s under a certain level has sort of fallen away.
A lot of bands that I like from past years who, once they disband, if no one’s really looking after that material, basically no one pays attention.
And even on the streaming services you can find stuff but often stuff isn’t there. And that’s often a combination of rights issues and people just can’t be bothered spending the time or the effort to put those things up. I mean, there’s quite a few classic Melbourne labels who don’t have anything online.
The only new project we’ve worked on for a while, which will finally come out next year is an act that put out their records about 10 years ago, called The Swedish Magazines, and they’d never had anything online, which is kind of a bit bizarre to me.
Bit weird yeah.
Because the records are great, but it’s basically one of those things where we thought, “Well, okay. Let’s spend the time and effort and try and put this out properly and reissue it so people can hear it.”
Death of the album
So is the album dead? Did it die with the CD?
No, I think as long as people want to make a body of work that basically is to be considered a body of work, that will continue to get released. Also, I think there’s different things going on. I think that pop music tends to focus on tracks rather than albums.
I think that, culturally, the shift hasn’t happened yet though. Certain listeners will never care about albums, they just wanna hear the songs.
But I think music fans who want a deeper engagement probably want a little bit more than just one or two tracks because you get sick of that fairly quickly. And if you want to engage with a live act, you’re generally going to see at least an album with some material, however that’s carved up. So, I think it’s just like anything that is disrupted by technology.
It’s a period of transition that people basically will adjust to what they want. And some people just listen to songs, and some people will continue to pursue a bit more engagement via albums if that’s what artists choose to make.
The last couple of bands that have released music, it seemed to me that the backstory was more important than ever. Do you think an artist should let the truth get in the way of a good backstory nowadays?
I think, in terms of the backstory or even the overall what it is you’re trying to do as an artist, is fairly important. Because what has happened is that there’s probably a transition to the way you sort of present and in one sense market or sell yourself as an artist and that’s become more important in terms of younger people, I guess, discovering those things.
And when you are in a very fast-moving world, then unless something catches your attention, it’s not going to stick.
So I think that “stickiness” that people look for – ultimately it comes down to whether the songs are good, but I think there’s also the initial thing of trying to get your attention to listen to the song in the first place.
I think the biggest problem is sometimes when younger acts don’t have a clear idea of what it is they want to do, or how they want to be presented. I think the stuff that I see being most successful tends to be people who’ve got a very clear idea of how they want to present their work.
Yep. I just assumed the last couple of publicists I’ve worked with, were like, “We need a story, we need a great story, I don’t care if there’s a bit of BS in there, just make it” and you find yourself just kind of backed into a corner creating a story.
Do people really care about how much of it’s fictional or not?
I think that that might be slightly lazy, in the sense that ultimately, if you sell something on the basis of an untruth, then eventually, if you get a serious connection —
You’re in trouble.
Yeah. Then the story might become the fact that there was a fundamental untruth in your story, which generally doesn’t bode well for an artist.
You’re known for getting in early on bands such as Jet. What’s the theory behind signing a band like them for one release and then moving them off to a major label?
Well, that’s kind a funny thing. Jet was just simply an amazing band that I saw because Tommy from The Casanovas told me, “You’d like this band.”
And I went and saw them and thought they were incredible. And so basically, I wanted to release their records as a label.
That probably what first sort of marked the transition point for me to say, “Okay, what am I focussing my energy on?”
And I think we put out the first Jet EP which graciously the band actually – it was them band who actually asked me to do that because I’d been involved in what became the frenzy of that early Jet period, you know, when they got signed.
So when the first release came out on the label and we actually never held on to the band after that, we didn’t have the rights beyond that. So the first album we put out on vinyl, which, at the time, no one cared about.
That was just me being a bit of smartarse and going “Okay, well we’re not going to keep the rights, how about we just do the vinyl on the album,” which actually did fine.
But I think that that was just of the time and I think that that was a time that’s already what tends to stay in the past.
In terms of the jumps these days, in that short space of time, the industry, at that point, it was probably just like doing indie releases a little bit of credibility right at the start, but ultimately go out with a major label debut.
Because they were a band who ultimately could and did sell millions of records. They’re a great band and a very successful band.
But I think that these days what I see is quite a different way that artists can develop and all of a sudden appear to, with a few things breaking in their favour across the streaming services, generating big numbers, getting interest and getting some fans and that sort of early engagement.
And to me, the choice now for labels is very much about what you’re trying to make your ultimate return. Where you think you sit. The deals that you have to do are very much based on, to me, at the end of the day, what you want to get out of everything.
So if you’re in a fortunate position where you’ve got a hot act, then the hot act really have to decide if this is a major label thing, is it a big indie thing, who do you wanna partner with, do you wanna do it yourself, do you wanna look at different ways of doing it?
Do you just wanna upload it off TuneCore and just put it out? You know what I mean? It’s sort of a question, and the question is “What do you think you need to make your success, or amplify your success? And do you want that to happen?”
Because the other side of these things too is that you quickly go from nowhere to a media celebrity. It’s maybe not everyone’s cup of tea.
I think the artists just have to be aware of what it is they’re trying to do and where they want to get to. Sometimes it’s a bit like that old thing of like, “I just wanna get signed”, strikes me as a little bit naïve.
And ultimately, if people are prepared to compromise their art for the sake of doing a deal, then you sometimes question their longevity, that they might be.
But that said, if you’re a pop artist, then that might not be in the equation anyway. Because ultimately, if you’re a pop artist who has to get through a couple of albums of pop music that’s potentially, at very best, co-written by you, maybe the tracks are written by successful songwriters internationally.
Then you have pop songs that sort of break, then maybe it’s a different kind of equation. But if you’re trying to be a credible artist, then it is a bit difficult to … You know what I mean?
You go, “I’ll do whatever.” You know what I mean?
I’m not sure, from what you’re telling me, that you actually haven’t keep an eye on what’s happening now in terms of young bands and getting noticed by David Vodicka.
If you were, would you be screening online metrics? Or is it more word of mouth or bums on seats, for you nowadays? How does that kind of play out in this current climate?
For me, it tends to be, and I do work with a bunch of new artists, but it tends to be based on any of those things. It’s sort of based on what’s going on, if the artist, to be frank, just looks … You can tell pretty easily through seeing an artist if there’s something going on. I think it can be any number of different things.
The younger acts I’ve worked with in the last year, range dramatically in terms of … You know I work on a band called Amyl and The Sniffers, who are a phenomenal live band, very in-your-face rock ‘n roll, but if you look at the metrics on the streamers, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a big thing.
But if you see the live show then you see that that’s connected, in a way, with young people who are super into the band. Amy’s a phenomenal front person, you know, totally have the vibe. So that was something that, in working with management, was easy enough for us to set up internationally with the right labels.
Whereas, on the other side of things, is a bunch of other acts that everyone that I work with liked, there’s a young kid called Ruel who, again, phenomenal talent, incredible singer. Sits a bit in the credible young Triple J start thing, but clearly has a bit of a pop edge to it to go somewhere else in a bigger range.
Since we worked out, in the last year, it’s just been a huge year for him. Touring worldwide in between his schooling. And then you get other things that are those things that are working on. Like there’s an act at the moment called The Kid Laroi who was in the Triple J Unearthed High stuff, who again, it’s more of an urban, Sydney, inner-city city Sydney.
Again, young kid but pretty talented and it’s quite remarkable how quickly those things pop up all over the place from people all round different parts of the world who express interest in working with him.
That’s interesting because Andrew Parisi was talking about this when I interviewed him last year for an example, Amyl, have been getting this vibe going without any Triple J, which is kind of odd really, because they’ve generally been at the forefront of this stuff, do you think?
I think, like any of these things, as people change their listening habits in different ways.
Radio used to be an arbiter because it was a free way of newly discovering. Now you can go onto Spotify or Apple or what have you or YouTube and you can just listen to a whole bunch of stuff for free and you can discover a whole bunch of stuff for free.
And once you’re a consumer on those sites, particularly the paid sites, they have a lot of data about you and they’re quite good at putting up things that you might like based on your past listening history. As a consequence, you sort of end up in that scenario where radio is not the be all and end all of those things.
As to how something like Amyl works, obviously it works through word of mouth, but again, when my 17-year-old daughter’s asking me to go to the show, and I’m going, “How did you find out about this band?”
It’s clearly one of those things where you go, “Okay, social media, her friends, all those sort of things”, they all still play into people doing that. And kids will find out about things however they want.
I don’t think they’re wedded to anything a particular thing. I think there was a lot more codification 20 years ago where you would sit there as a kid and, if you were into music, you’d listen to Triple R for example or PDS, then Triple J, or whatever it was.
You can see it in their audiences too, in the sense that a lot of the stuff they put out on Rubber was Triple J stuff in the 90s and early 2000s. You know what I mean?
That was stuff that got on that network. And then you could see, it’s funny when you do these reissues, you can see the people who come out are obviously of that generation who listen to that stuff.
The other week we had Underground Lovers reissued an album of theirs called ‘Rushall Station’, and sold out the Evelyn, which is a reasonable venue, not massive, about 500 capacity. I was looking around going, “Oh yeah, this is kind of … this crowd.”
That brings me to the question of the lost band, the band in 2018, is that expected growth as there once was that would allow a band to get two or three albums out to find their feet. That’s clearly changed, yeah?
That was a 90s thing wasn’t it. They get their second or third album out, they’d start to find their stride.
To tell you the truth, I reckon that was more of a 70s thing. I think that the labels that signed artists and stuck with them for a longer term. I think big labels, I think that if the numbers aren’t there after a record or so, becomes very tough.
The churn of the big labels, the three majors, is pretty ruthless.
If things don’t really work, they don’t necessarily stick at things for a long time because ultimately, they’re driven by making sure these things hit. And pretty much, if it doesn’t hit off the first one, then you’ve kind of got a problem.
Because it’s creating something after the first record doesn’t work, it’s almost like you need to be dropped and reinvent yourself or go somewhere else.
The Powderfingers, and the You Am I’s and Regurgitator’s who had those sort of opportunities to grow, it’s not going to happen anymore then is it?
It can always happen. There’s always access to build things up. I was talking to an agent the other week and there’s a band called the Lime Cordiales, it’s got a couple of brothers in it, and they’ve sort of been kicking around for years, as far as I can work out.
But the funny thing is, the agent said to me, “They’re kind of grinding it out, they’re now actually doing good numbers and basically filling venues and so forth.”
And I noticed that maybe Triple J picked them up recently with a track. I mean, I could be talking totally out of school. But it struck me as “Oh, there you go”.
That’s one of those things where an act could still sort of slog away at it, make some records – I think they’re at least a couple of records in – but finally be making a dent. It’s a bit about, when you get the opportunity that you capitalise on it and try and grow it.
There’s been a lot of people talking about the formulaic approach to contemporary music. Do you think there’s been a homogenisation of contemporary songs that get fit into mainstream radio, or are we just getting old?
I think there’s a definite sameness to commercial radio. Commercial radio is pretty horrible generally. I don’t listen to it, and I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it.
But you’ve got kids though haven’t you?
Yes. But I mean —
I’ve got kids too and I hear it all the time.
Yeah, I actually don’t at all. I just don’t listen to it. No, I don’t think they listen to it either. But I think that it tends to be, because of the sort of free option, I guess, that people can kind of perceive free option, you get what you pay for.
You get advertisements, and then you get some personalities you might like, and I understand why you’d listen to it.
But I think those stations though are about trying to hit the widest, the largest target. It’s really one of those things where you go, “You’re trying to hit the biggest demographic you can. You’re trying to pretty much bland everything down.”
And occasionally some things of those pop songs are good and will cut through. Often it’s about personalities or, you know what I mean, like something that’s on TV or…
Again, as I said, I don’t like them, but the fact is, they serve a function and they serve as a method of discovering consumption for some people.
And the irony is, to me, is that with all the incredible options and opportunities that you can have to listen to music, and the incredibly cheap price for streaming.
You know what I mean? That wouldn’t have killed radio, but radio is still a billion-dollar industry in this market which makes it bigger than the recorded music sector. When I say that I just mean the record companies.
So when you look at the gross sales of the records companies, that’s not as much as radio makes in this country. And radio is owned by a couple of conglomerates. And they basically don’t take any risk, they will playlist based on people not turning off, rather than turning on.
They don’t break music, and they haven’t for decades. All they do is follow, and if they see that there’s a trend, then they will look at the metrics the same way and go, “Oh right, that seems to be working.” So that’s where those things will be added on.
Show Me The Money
Last time I spoke to you, you told me that there was plenty of money round the music industry now. Why is that? What’s changed do you think? Or nothing’s changed?
No, no, no, it has totally changed. What’s happened is that in the last couple of years, you’ve finally got the uptake where you’ve had a couple of graphs in one sense going up and down.
You’ve had the decline of physical sales, the decline of download sales, has been met on the upswing by the increase in streaming. And streaming is consistent, and if you’ve got a deeper catalogue, then basically it’s more available because people listen to things over and over again.
Crickey, before you called I was just listening to an old Rocket From The Crypt album. I’m paying a micro cent for that. Whereas, in years past I just would have bought it and that would have been the one sale that that would have had.
So that sort of thing where you apply that on bigger catalogues, the big labels, who’ve got massive catalogues, and it’s a great position for them because all those people who are subscribing, all get divvied up by what people listen to and they tend to have a proportionately large share of those things.
Particularly with classic rocks. All those classics, not just rock, but any genre. They’ve sort of bought up all of those things.
So the big companies are doing quite well. The smaller companies … There’s always opportunities for smaller companies and for indie labels or for people who self publish.
The tricky bit is, where it has hit a bit, I think, is those middle ranging acts who maybe would have sold 10,000 records. If you sell 10,000 albums as CDs you could make money out of that.
Whereas, in streaming, it doesn’t quite make sense because you sort of end up in this middle ground where you get some streams but they’re not big enough to make a dent in the global world.
Because when you look in Spotify, you see it tells you how many times things have been streamed.
And it’s human nature to look at it and go, “Oh, 30 million people have listened to that, that must be okay.” Whereas, that’s potentially that’s a worldwide figure across something that’s been played in a whole load of territories.
It’s like when you do sales figures, and you go, “A gold record in Australia is 35,000 albums still” even though that’s sort of adjusted to streams and everything else.
So if you think of a gold record worldwide, might be 30 million, whereas in Australia it might only be 300,000, but then you look at Spotify and you go, “Oh 300,000 streams, ah that’s pretty good.”
But that could be because that’s where the market for that act is.
Can you explain to the uninitiated what a 360 deal is?
All that means really is just a reference, usually to a record company, but ultimately an investor who wants to invest in an artist and they want to take. 360 just refers to the whole circle. So it’s parts out of the entire pie.
If you look where an artist makes money, it will be out of recordings, out of song writing if they’re a songwriter, and of live performance, and out of some level of image rights which is where it’s merchandise or sponsorship and endorsements.
And so, often, the big media labels these days, particularly if things aren’t competitive, tend to always ask for shares of all the different revenue streams.
So they’ll say, “we might be a records company, and we’re going to put all this money into marketing your records, we want a bit of your live, we might want a bit of your publishing and a bit of your image rights as well.”
That’s how that works and it tends to be the rationale 10 years ago and the directive of the industry really was, as a big record company, you can’t really afford to make the investment without having a return on your investment and you need to get it out of these different streams.
It may be a little bit different now, but still a lot of things have become a bit of the landscape of the deal marking, it sort of ends up becoming entrenched. So it’s definitely not what a deal is now.
Interesting. I reckon we’ve been getting force fed a lot of over-produced, computer-based music for years now. Are you sensing a change is coming? Do we need a change?
I think like any of those things, it’s not necessarily … You can argue and say change will come when the consumers want to make the change. And that’s a question of whether you think the people make the choices or they’re led to the choices.
In terms of when you say computer-based music, I think musical trends will continually change, and they change probably a bit quicker.
People ultimately look for things that give some sort of connection or speak to them. And that could be what you consider lightweight pop, but for some people, that works for them.
I think it’s really about once something becomes too known, once a trope is too known for a particular generation, then they’ll pass to something else. Do you know what I mean?
And it’s kind of one of those things that when you’re older, I guess you can see the cyclical nature of different trends that have hit.
But the other thing I do see is the barriers between the genres is not what it was. In the 90s, having a record label was a bit all over the shop in things that I liked. Originally, we would put out guitar pop bands and that was a lot of what I liked, but I ended up putting out some electronic stuff, some hip-hop.
The biggest record we had was 1200 Techniques and that was certainly not a guitar band. And again, just came because I saw them and thought they were amazing and no one knew who they were or cared.
But eventually they did because once the people got across it and like, “This is quite something when you give it chance.”
And we might see the guitar solo come back one day. Anything is possible.
I think it totally is. I think there’s interesting rock bands. Greta Van Fleet might sound a lot like Led Zeppelin, but I like the record and I’ve sold out for them.
Are you still publishing comics?
I haven’t for along time. I have been threatening to do so for seemingly a long time. As the firm, we do sponsor a number of things. We sponsor The Ledger Awards which is the awards for best Australian comics.
In fact, two weekends ago we were one of the sponsors of the Indie Comic Con which is a little self-published small press fest that goes on at Northcote Town Hall. So I do still maintain an interest. But I haven’t got round to publishing anything in a little while.
Do you ever get home to see your family, because you’ve got so much going on. Every time I talk to you, you’re in the US or here or there anywhere, you are a busy man.
Well, you know. I like to keep busy. It’s part of the joy of life, you know?
What will David Vodicka be doing in 10 years’ time?
That’s long-range planning, I haven’t really been doing that.
We’ll take each week as it comes at the moment.
Yeah, that’s right. Hopefully still doing stuff that I enjoy, that’s the main point.
That’s the shortest answer I’ve had to the question in a while. If you could speak to the 18-year-old David Vodicka, what the one thing you would tell him?
Women are trouble.
I think it was probably just, stick at it. Like any of those things, I think the only thing was … I certainly enjoy what I do, and I certainly enjoyed the path that I’ve had and where I am at the moment, but there’s certain sort of things that you know – maybe decisions that you make – based on certain things.
The music industry is ultimately what rewards your success. You have to make certain decisions to be successful. Whether it makes money, or not. Whether you make 50 bucks back out of that. It doesn’t matter if you lost a bunch of money if the project proceeds to be successful.
That’s often the currency of the industry. Probably the only thing I’d … That’s probably one of the only things I didn’t really get at the time. But such is the way.
David Vodicka, thanks for being on the show.
No problem, thanks for having me.
The next episode of Indie Confidential i’ll be getting into the release process. There’s a lot to be covered so it’ll be spread over 3 episodes. Let’s dig in and get those songs out there!
I’ll catch you soon.