Being an independent promoter in Australia is not an easy gig. The shifting sands of the music business are constantly moving, often in inscrutable ways, conglomerates like Live Nation are hovering around, wildfires threaten the country and government rules stamp out good events. UNTITLED is an event company that may only be three years old, but it has already put its stamp on the market. It produces a series of festivals, tours and events like Beyond The Valley, Pitch, Grapevine, For The Love, the charity event Ability Fest and Wildlands Festival. They produce individual shows and tours for the likes of Solomun, Wu-Tang Clan, Green Velvet and others. UNTITLED also just launched a management arm and label to become a more holistic music company.
We decided to catch up for an Industry Insider with one of the five co-founders and partners Nicholas Greco to get a better sense of their business and how they are growing so quickly. We get into the advantages and struggles of the Australian market (it is far from Europe and the US), gender in bookings and much more.
Does having your seasons flipped from the Northern Hemisphere help your business?
Definitely, let's say it was the opposite and our seasons were aligned and we were trying to put on festivals in our summer when it was Northern Hemisphere summer, we would face extreme competition from much bigger markets and most likely get squashed out with no talent - it's hard enough to get artists to make the 20 hour journey to Australia at the best of times. This means our summertime has an abundance of festivals (as it's Northern Hemisphere winter), a recent weekend saw three festivals in Melbourne alone, which is not uncommon for every weekend over the summer months. This also means our winter is pretty quiet as all the artists are overseas on the Northern Hemisphere summer circuit.
How does gender figure into your booking strategies?
Gender has been such an important discussion amongst our booking strategies, a couple years ago we actually signed the international Keychange agreement for gender parity at our music festivals by 2022 and we are very much on track to achieving that target. As festival promoters we are in a very unique position to create change as we have direct access to a captive audience who are the next generation of decision-makers. Something like our festivals taking a stand and providing equal opportunity to female/non-binary artists can really be a catalyst for other areas of society. I also find that booking a more representative lineup instills a culture at our events that encourages better behavior from the punters which means a better experience all round.
What are you guys doing to lower your environmental footprint?
This is definitely something that is high on our radar at this moment - this year at Beyond the Valley we are implementing a site-wide ban on the sale of plastic water bottles as the first step in our phase out of single-use plastics. We also have a car pass system whereby patrons purchase a car pass and if they arrive with 4 or more people in the car they receive a refund on the cost of the car pass, we have composting bins onsite as well as compostable serve ware and cups. We've also just signed the Party with the Planet pledge to encourage our patrons to help us do better. Festivals have an important role to play in the bigger issue of climate change, hopefully, our patrons take home some of the awareness we are trying to create and implement it in their day to day lives.
How have recent government comments and potential regulations for festivals and events (NSW especially) impacted your business?
It's been a pretty tense time to be a festival promoter in Australia recently! It really feels like the people in power just do not understand our industry and they are really trying to deflect on the real issues by making festivals the bad guy. We currently only run one festival in NSW, we've consciously avoiding investing in that market when it is currently so volatile. This has become a common theme for Australian promoters and the NSW live scene is suffering horribly. The effects of the NSW government have been pretty far-reaching and it has meant all our festivals in other states are facing increased scrutiny and increased costs.
Who are some of your favorite Australians you have booked that haven’t quite broken out to the world?
These three acts are all definitely in the stages of breaking out into the world in a big way so had to give them a special mention. I'm a huge fan of Cub Sport, an indie-pop group from Brisbane who has had an extremely important story and message to spread -- they've started to break overseas and are killing it at home and I feel it's only a matter of time until they're one of the biggest groups in the world.
I'm obsessed with CC:Disco!'s sets -- she always delivers such killer track selection and is such a great human. She's had a huge couple of years in Australia and is doing massive things overseas and that's only going to continue, she's another one with a very important message “less chin stroking, more dancing.” Special mention to a good mate of Untitled Dom Dolla who in the last 12 months has broken out into the world and deserves every bit of that success - it's a special thing to be part of an artist's journey from the early days and watch them grow and develop.
How do you try and break the artists you have on your management roster to the world?
Through our events, we've created some pretty big platforms to expose our artists to new audiences and we definitely utilize this to create momentum. The same unique marketing techniques and platforms we utilize for our festivals and events we use to sell out our artists’ tours and get their music out to the world. We're also in constant communication with agents and record labels from around the world, which helps us to leverage opportunities for the artists we work with. We're also really big on collaboration within our business and our events and it's something that flows through to our artists. For example, Owl Eyes who I manage is currently touring as a guest for Flight Facilities (who we've had perform at a few of our festivals) and they're performing at our winery festival series across the country Grapevine Gathering - one big happy family!
How did you get into the industry?
It all started for me by attending Pyramid Rock festival for NYE when I had just turned 19, it was the first camping festival I had ever been to and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences for me. It was torrential storms for 3 days, the toilets were dirty, our tent blew away on the first night, we didn't bring nearly enough food/alcohol and it was the most amazing weekend of live music with my closest friends. On one of the afternoons, I could hear a rap group in the distance and I followed the sound, stumbled into the tent wide-eyed and mesmerized as to what I saw in front of me, it was Yo! Majesty, a Christian, lesbian rap group from Tampa, Florida and it totally changed the path I was on (I was studying accounting/finance at the time, in the middle of my first horribly boring internship and looking for a way out). I ended up going to the group's sideshow a couple days later and then started chatting with one of the rappers Shunda K after spending the whole of their set jumping around to all the songs I'd just learned over the past few days.
The group broke up about 3 weeks after and I continued to chat to Shunda K on MySpace, which then led to her asking me to tour her solo project into Australia the following summer. I had no music industry experience and definitely had no touring experience but I said sure, thinking how hard could it be. During the lunch breaks of my second horrible accounting internship I would go down the street and pick up all the street press magazines (Beat, Inpress, etc) and I would scour the posters and news sections researching companies and people I thought could help me. I spent the next 6 months calling up and meeting with anyone and everyone who would answer my calls/emails to try and get this tour together.
Somehow (after a shitload of rejection) it worked, I booked Shunda K 15 shows around the country including supporting Peaches during the Big Day Out (they'd been friends and collaborators) and also booked a series of festival and headline shows all around the country, some of which I promoted myself with zero promoting experience. When summer came around I was into my third accounting internship but basically now working full time on this tour, which was the most stressful and mentally exhausting thing I had ever done. I'd never been backstage at a festival before and I had backstage passes to Big Day Out because Shunda K was also jumping up during Peaches set - the festival blew my mind. Backstage Lily Allen threw a lamington at me, Peaches licked my ear, I was on stage with Dizzee Rascal just before he jumped on to his set in front of tens of thousands of people and I looked out and literally thought I want to do this for the rest of my life. The wrap up of the tour was great, it was chaotic and challenging but it was profitable, and the artist walked away having a great experience and I ended up becoming her manager for a period of time.
I finished my degree that year and decided I would spend the next months trying to make something of myself in the music industry, I was 21 and decided the way to do that would be to experience America and go to SXSW and see what's out there, but I had no money. So I decided I should start promoting nightclubs to pay for my trip. I created a now infamous midweek club brand called Oasis which would play cheesy fun party tunes, serve drinks in buckets and hand out McDonald's cheeseburgers at night and it worked. The first night we did 600 people and that continued for all of the summer. Then, I went to America and had an amazing 40 days but realized there was really nothing I could do to learn there at that point and I thought I was pretty good at putting on club nights so I came back and made that my thing for the next 12 months whilst having a couple of failed attempts at running a second club night along the way.
I couldn't find that spark again on a second club night until I met 3 other guys in a similar position to me who also wanted to put on a weekly Saturday club night - Fil had been DJing for me (underage unbeknownst to me) for the past year, his best mate Mike had been there by his side every week harassing me for drink cards/free entry and Christian who was running a University night and also putting on formal afterparties in his parent's backyard. The four of us got along instantly and we created Treehouse, which would see thousands of people come to party with us every Saturday night. I was doing the headliner bookings and I quickly cut my teeth dealing with Australian agents on some of the country's best talent, which was a new thing for me. We ran that for 18 months and learned so much in the process. A
After that we got the call up to run a Saturday night at the legendary Palace Theatre, which had less than 12 months left on its lease. This was a building that was monstrously huge, needing at least double the numbers of our previous venture and much bigger artist bookings. We enlisted another promoter we knew who was looking for a new venture Tom Caw and 4 became 5. We opened the doors and it was mayhem, we had created so much hype around our new night called Anyway and booked such a big line up that the riot police came and shut us down which created the biggest talking point for us and saw us achieve weekly numbers of 3000-4000 consistently for the next year before we were forced to move venues because of the venue closure.
We moved that club night to a new venue and got that running consistently but in our year at the Palace Theatre we had really stepped up our operation - we had started to carve a name for ourselves in the industry and had built up the contacts and know-how (so we thought) to run bigger events. We felt there was a gap in the market in Australia over New Year's Eve as our regular club crowd wasn't satisfied with the artists and options on offer and so we decided in 2014 that we would create Beyond The Valley which was meant to be a small camping festival for a couple thousand people with local Australian talent.
This seriously snowballed into something so much bigger than we had planned. Agents started to hear about what we had planned and began to offer us top tier international talent. Our glamping experience really took off in the Australian media and we were looking at an event about 3 times more the size than what we had planned. We went on sale and BTV really took off, sales were great however us being so green in the festival landscape saw so many unexpected costs blow our budget up and we lost a really huge amount of money, but we managed to pull off an event that our punters loved - so we knew we had to run this event again, and we did. BTV is in its 6 year now, attracting the biggest artists in the world such as Rüfüs Du Sol and Tyler the Creator and we are now at the point where we are selling out the festival instantly with a waiting list double the size of our first year.
Since launching Beyond The Valley we created our parent company Untitled Group which outside of BTV now houses many other festival and event brands - Grapevine is our nationally touring music and wine festival pairing, Pitch, which is our second 4 day camping festival which focuses on electronic music and the arts, Wildlands, which takes place in Brisbane over New Years alongside BTV and For The Love which takes place in coastal locations and has a focus on fashion and lifestyle.
We have also established a reputation of putting on shows in unique spaces, we've recently had Solomun and Jamie Jones in an old school 1940s warehouse, Green Velvet in an inner-city park and Claptone in a circus park. We started our touring division two years ago when launching Untitled Group and we're responsible for close to 200 events per year now and last year saw the launch of our record label Daily Nightly and our management arm which sees myself and my partners each manage our own artists. I personally manage indie pop vocalist Owl Eyes, electronic producer London Topaz and rapper Ivan Ooze.
With entertainment oligopolies lurking to seemingly buy everyone, how do you compete with them or stave off a potential takeover?
Our company is constantly evolving in order to compete in a super aggressive worldwide marketplace. We feel in comparison to the global corporations our independence allows us to put on events that are all very unique, focusing on the experience just as much as the lineup - our creative budget for Beyond the Valley this year is easily over $1 million and this is because we believe in reinvesting back into our events for longevity. I have four other business partners and we are all equal partners across all our projects and we don't have to answer to anyone except our customers. Our customers are at the forefront of every decision we make; we don't have to answer to shareholders. We're also extremely careful in our business partnerships and whom we collaborate with. We have the freedom of choosing who runs our shows, who tickets our shows and which artists we put on our shows - this allows us to be agile in our business and I feel it's why our events have been so successful and grown so quickly.
What attributes and qualifications do you look for in potential employees?
Our company is a family. We are forced to spend a lot of time with each other outside of the regular 9-5 so this industry becomes a lifestyle and a big factor when hiring is do we think this person will fit into that environment. A hunger and drive to be a part of something and create something is very important - they have to have that hustle to succeed. Everyone who currently works at Untitled Group has a real spark and individuality about them and that's so important to us, everyone is so different and it helps with us wanting to create unique events.