Dream Small, Act Big: How To Make It In The Music Industry

Pete Murray 1 (1)

PETE MURRAY (Solo artist)


Can you give us a brief summary of how your career has progressed since the day you decided to start making music professionally?

I was a very late starter.

I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 22, and I recorded my first independent album at 30, which is pretty old for the music industry. I think that was kinda why my story’s kind of well known, cos of my age when I first started. So I was late twenties when I started wanting to get into writing music and doing that, and I was actually managing an independent band at that stage, and learning all about how to manage bands.

I was going to QMusic, sitting in on a lot of the workshops and forums they had there with management, so I got to understand how the business worked a little bit. Then that all fell through with the band, and I decided to start doing my own music. Having that little bit of understanding of how the industry worked helped me to make things happen.

So, I recorded my first independent album, and I moved.

I was in Brisbane, and in the independent scene I’d got to a level where I’d probably gone as far as I could. And I felt like I really needed help – I wasn’t get any airplay or anything, I had to move to Melbourne to try and make that happen, just to get to know a lot more people, cos that was really, y’know, the music scene down there was really strong – this was back, probably, in 2000.

So I moved down there, and that was probably the hardest year of my life, just moving away from friends and really trying to get established, trying to get gigs, trying to get known – just trying to talk to anyone that could actually help me out.

That was a really tough year of doing the groundwork, making the connections with people that could give me the gigs and exposure that I needed. I got to the point towards the end of the year, I thought that things weren’t going to work. I’d already started studying Natural Medicine, so I thought, ‘Maybe I need to go back and finish off this course so at least I’ve got something to go back to’.

I was probably 31 or something, so I was at that age where a lot of my other friends had good jobs and were having families, and I had nothing, I couldn’t even afford to buy myself lunch some days. It was a really tough time. But there was something wouldn’t let me give up on it, even though I kind of thought, ‘Look, I still need to have a Plan B in place if it doesn’t work’, and that’s when I decided to enrol in – back then it was called the College of Natural Medicine, I’m not sure what it’s called now – in Fortitude Valley, to finish off the course.

And then, I had a publicist who was doing some work for the independent album, Chrissy Vincent, who’s still my publicist today. And Chrissy had sent the album off to a lot of media, and there was a girl from The Australian who wrote this really good review on the independent album, and it just got a lot of interest from media. And someone at the record label at Sony, [the album] got their attention as well. So there was a little bit of hope for me, I thought.

I was still really staunch[ly] independent, I didn’t want to have a major label involved, but at that stage I started to think, ‘Jeez, I don’t think I can keep doing this too much longer’, cos I didn’t have any money and it was really hard. But then that fell through, they weren’t interested again, so I just kept plugging along and eventually things worked out and I ended up signing a deal with Sony towards the end of that year I think, or the next year, and everything kind of fell into place. But even with the record label coming on board, it wasn’t like it was a massive big push for me, because my music wasn’t really mainstream pop or anything like that. The guy who signed me, Stu McCullough – [he] later became my manager as well – Stu was really into the kind of rootsy style of music, and he liked it. I don’t think anyone at Sony thought it was going to be a big hit, it surprised everyone when it took off.

What was your dream in pursuing music as a career – where did you ultimately envision yourself? How realistic do you think that dream was, looking back now?

Well, in my early twenties and teenage years it was all about sport. I was studying Natural Medicine, I was working in a health club, I was being athletic, playing rugby, so for me music wasn’t even on the horizon. It was something that I just stumbled upon through another friend of mine. It’s funny, people you meet along the way, I guess you’re kind of meant to meet them, and I was meant to meet this guy. We knew each other for a couple of years, and sadly he had an aneurism and passed away. But he came into my room one day and said, “You know what, I’m gonna get some guitar lessons, I’ve always wanted to play and I’ve just never done it,” and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve never had any intentions of playing the guitar but that sounds like a pretty cool thing to do’. So I actually got some lessons – and he didn’t. That’s how I got started. Without him, I wouldn’t have started music.

So [at first], all my dreams were sport-focused and music was just a fun thing to do.  Then I had a knee injury, and I kind of knew the sport thing wasn’t going to happen. It took a few years of just mucking around with guitar, then I went overseas and that’s when I got really influenced by other music and other musicians that I met, when I was just backpacking around the world.

I started to really enjoy music, and when I came back from that trip I felt like I really wanted to write music. It took a little bit of time, still just writing slowly in my own home and playing with a few friends, and they encouraged me to get out and play. Then, I guess, all the dreams and goals that I had on the sporting field, I carried across to music. I was fairly determined in sports, and I became determined in music.

My goal was to become one of the bigger artists in the Australian music scene – there were lots of smaller goals before that one, but my end goal was to be the most well-known, or the best, biggest, whatever you want to call it artists in the country. Touring around, player bigger shows, having your music being heard by a lot of people, and that’s kind of, I guess, what happened!

I’m a big believer in setting goals for yourself, and even writing stuff down, thinking about what you need to do to make that happen. It doesn’t just happen for you, you need to have a bit of a plan in place. My plan was, I knew I had to have an album done, a publicist… there’s a few things that you need, you can’t just jump in and record an album out, put it out there and go, “Yep, I’m gonna be successful!” It’s really a matter of getting out, meeting people, playing and building things up – back then, anyway. The internet wasn’t as big, you really had to get in front of people and make an impression live. Then people would talk about you and word would spread.

These days it’s a little easier if you can get something happening on YouTube, but it can also be a bit short-lived as well. There’s so many people having their 15 minutes of fame, and they’re here today, gone tomorrow.

I still believe that with music, you need to be great live. You need people to want to come and see you again, and then you’ll have a career for a long time.

What do you feel was the lowest point in your career? When did you feel the closest to giving up?

I went down to Tasmania to do some shows, and I remember driving back and I got pulled over by the police – and my car was unregistered, I hadn’t realised. I had about $400 in the bank, and the fee for the car being unregistered was something like $400. Then they said, “You’ve gotta go to the next town and get this registered and it’s gonna cost $200.”

I didn’t have the money, so I had to convince the police to lower the fine somehow to $200 so I could pay for a mechanic to give me a once-over on the car and get it approved. I hardly had enough money to get home. I was just thinking, ‘This is bullshit. This sucks. I’m over it, I can’t do this anymore.’ I remember getting some money out and my bank balance was negative-something. I didn’t know that was possible!

How did you cope with this? How did you move past that feeling?

I had to just keep believing that it was gonna work, which was really difficult, but I had to just keep playing on. I was very determined not to have it fail. For me I knew I needed to get some money, I needed to get some gigs – I slowly started to get some gigs together and get some money back in the account to keep me going.

But it was definitely a really hard time. I remember going to play a game of soccer with some friends, and I was struggling to breathe, I thought I was going to have a heart attack – my dad died of a heart attack at 47. So I was 30, 31, thinking ‘I’m having a heart attack’, but really, I think I was suffering a bit of depression and anxiety. I used to hate going to sleep tonight. I’d stay up as late as I could trying to sleep all the way till morning, cos I’d always wake up at 3 in the morning, just drenched in sweat with anxiety. I didn’t realise I had that, but I hated that feeling. For months and months, I’d try and stay up till after 12 o’clock at night, playing the guitar, watching TV, something just to keep myself awake cos I was so tired. But it didn’t matter. 3 o’clock in the morning, I’d wake up – I was sleeping on a little futon mattress and it would just be drenched. It was, without a doubt, the hardest year of my life.

I remember thinking – even getting signed to Sony, there was no guarantee that it was going to work. And that first album, Feeler, that I did – I remember thinking, ‘If this doesn’t work, I don’t think I can keep doing this any longer’. I didn’t like that album. I thought it was going to bomb, I thought it was all over when it came out and I was really disappointed. I went into a bit of the post-album blues. So I was really stunned when we were getting all this amazing feedback, and the radio loved it, and it was getting good reviews.

I was so used to things not working that I’d almost given up hope – then it all kicked into gear.

How long did it take you to get to the point where your income from music was sustaining you?

Once I got signed in 2003 there was probably six months of preproduction and getting ready to record the album. Then when the album was done, it was really quick success. I remember doing an interview with Robbie Buck from triple j, and he was saying “Mate, I’ve never seen anyone have this success so quickly before, ever in the Australian music scene.”

I was stunned, because it was just such a whirlwind.

What had happened was triple j started playing the first song, which wasn’t really even a single, it was just meant to be for triple j. What happened was triple j started playing it, and then a week later the commercial stations started calling the label saying “We want it!” Then I think Triple M got it, and Nova started calling, going “How come Triple M’s got it? We want it! We want it!” And it just went from there.

That first song was called Feeler, it was really only meant for triple j, but within a month or so we had pretty much national radio exposure. We did a tour, I think in about October where we played The Bridge Hotel in Sydney, which I think holds maybe 300 people, I don’t know how many where there – maybe 200. It was okay.

Then we came back to do another tour in January, so by the time we went to the first gig up in Albury it was kind of a bigger vibe. I’d played Albury before to about 50 people, but this was a few hundred, so it was pretty good. Then the first Sydney show was at Broadway, which held about 400 people. I mean, they’re not big rooms – but we came for the show that night, and there was a massive lineup going all the way around the hotel, right down the road – thousands of people, it was massive. And I remember thinking, “Shit, someone else is playing nearby and they’re gonna take all the people, we’ll have no-one at our show.” I went in the car with the band, just going, “That’s it, there’s gonna be no-one here. Who’s playing? There must be someone else playing.”

Anyway, we rocked up to the show – and everyone was there. They’d turned away thousands of people. I came onstage with the first song of the night, and everyone sang back the lyrics to me. It was really amazing.

So in that three month period, things had changed so much. That whole tour was insane, we just kept adding shows and adding shows. It was pretty huge. We’d booked a lot of smaller shows at the start of the tour, so we were doubling up. I remember in Adelaide we ended up doing a matinee show and then one that night, and the next day we did the same thing again, so we did four shows in two days. Just seeing the crowds of people that would come in for those early shows, they’d kick them out within an hour and we’d be back onstage doing the next show, was really insane.

Has it been all uphill from that point, or are there still days where you feel a little down on the music industry?

There are always ups and downs with it, that’s just music.

Not everything’s going to work, some things work better than others, and you just don’t know how it’s going to pan out. Sometimes when you think things aren’t going to work, they work; sometimes when you think things will work, they won’t.

Here in Australia, it’s pretty good, I can’t really complain about anything too much. Probably the lack of support I’ve had overseas has been disappointing for me in my career, from the label. But that’s what it is, not much I can do about it.

Really it’s been pretty good, there’s been a great fan base and everyone’s still very supportive considering it’s a pretty fickle industry. I feel pretty lucky. In my time, I’ve seen heaps of bands come in that’ve had success on the first album and it’s been really big, and they just disappear. They don’t get their success back, they don’t get the airplay, and it’s a hard thing.

I think that’s probably something that triple j is a bit guilty for: support one band on their first album. Then the band crosses over… they’ll say “You’re too commercial now.” If the band doesn’t cross over, then they drop them, and if they don’t get that commercial airplay then they’re screwed. In Australia, it’s not a big enough scene. I’ve had lots of friends who haven’t had that support, and now they’re not around anymore.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about expectations, goal-setting and how to approach your career in general, what would you say?

It’s easy to sit here now and say those things, but I would’ve missed the whole journey and I wouldn’t have learnt what I’ve learnt.

Knowing the industry is probably the best advice that I can give any artist. You can’t go into this and not know how the industry works. How people make their money off you, how record labels work – you need to have a good understanding of it, otherwise you will end up as one of those artists that don’t last. QMusic was really good for [learning] that, all about the industry and how it all works.

Do you feel that you’re happy with where you are now in your career? Is there anything more you want to set out to achieve?

I’m working on another album now, and for me this is an album that I really want to look back at and just love. I’ve kind of enjoyed a lot of my work, but sometimes you feel like you’re a bit rushed to do things. You look back and go, “I wish I’d done that differently.” So this last one I’m really taking my time.

With Feeler, we did an independent album first, we only released that album for a little while and then the label came in and we re-recorded five songs off it, then they were on Feeler. But I guess Feeler had the time, because of the album before it. Maybe that’s why that album was a bit more successful. I’m really trying to do that with this one now, just do it in small steps until I’m happy with it.

I mean, I’m happy. There’s always stuff you do that you think you shouldn’t have done, or think you could’ve done better. That’s what a career is. You’re going to do things you’ll be disappointed with, and thing you’ll be extremely happy with. That’s just a career. The good thing is I’ve got a career. Some people can go, “Hey, I was really happy with that first album, and then we didn’t do anything else after that.”

Anyone who’s got a career in anything is going to make mistakes. But you’ve gotta learn from those mistakes.

In today’s climate, what do you think would be a realistic goal for new artists to achieve by the end of one year actively pursuing a career in music like yours?

It’s unlimited, I think, with the internet.

I met the guys from The Rumjacks the other day at Bluesfest – they’re a band that have been playing for a long time, trying to do a lot of things. They’ve got a song that’s out there now and it’s got 14 million hits. Instantly they’ve just gone really big. Things have changed – where it’s at now, with the internet, things are unlimited for you.

But once again, it’s important that you’re really great live, and you need the experience of playing live – don’t just expect to have all this success from one song on the internet.

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