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


KATIE NOONAN (Solo artist, Elixir, George)


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

Okay, well to be honest I don’t think there was a day I decided to start making music professionally, I just had this series of happy accidents whereby the universe would say “Maybe you should do this”.

I always thought I would be an investigative journalist, and that was kind of my goal. So I thought I’d be a hard-hitting human rights journalist, but you know, george (Katie’s first band) started just after school, and it kind of just snowballed in a really positive, but organic, meant-to-be way.

But then, once we realised we did want to do it, we did take learning the business side of things very seriously – we considered that an integral part of the gig. We made sure our posters looked great, sent out the press releases… all the bits and bobs that go into putting on a gig as a self promoting artist was certainly a team effort. We all sort of worked the various jobs that went into putting on a gig.

But it was just a series of happy accidents and basically learning via throwing ourselves into it just happening. And it was at that time that Martine (Founder/director of Music Industry Inside Out at that time manager of The Zoo), and Joccy (founder / owner / manager of The Zoo) and a lot of other awesome women that just helped teach me a lot. And it kind of went on from there.

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

I guess the thing is it’s always been an integral part of my life, so I’ve never really considered it separate to me. I grew up in a big musical family, my mum is an opera singer and taught music from home, and my dad was a journalist but played jazz, that crooning style of stuff. So music was permanently in my life. So once I realised it would be my career, I made a conscious decision to make music that had a positive message overall. I realised that there were certain responsibilities that comes with being a musician if you’re lucky enough to be someone that people listen to.

And I guess I realised that because early up in my career I had my song Special Ones, which ended up being a song for women who were in abusive relationships whether it be physical, verbal or emotional. It was kind of about that for me – but not to the extent that these other women had.

I realised that there was a responsibility that comes with this job. So I made a conscious effort to make music with integrity that wasn’t overly positive or sappy, but offered a resolution of some sort. Whether that be posing another question or whatever, but some sort of resolution that wasn’t unhopeful, I guess.

Also, just having seen that the industry was full of a lot of wankers and unethical people that sort of don’t play by the rules – because there aren’t any rules. There’s nothing like a union for pop artists, it looks after people on salaries of people in orchestras and such.

So I guess that I made a decision that my business would be ethical and my decision making would be ethical and with integrity in an industry that’s often pretty grey with the kind of ethical stuff. Definitely not black and white, usually a bit of bullying and it’s still unfortunately in the upper echelons of the industry anyway, it’s certainly a grey spot. So I chose to be a strong women and to just be ethical.

It definitely was quite a battle, one thing that I found [hard] in particular was to be a working mother with a young baby in the industry. I remember so many times having to say “Look, I’m yours all day, but I have to take a breastfeeding break every two to three hours.” And no matter how many times I said it they’d always try and reschedule. Most promo people are young women, early twenties and not family oriented, and I found that really tricky. I thought “Surely I’m not the first one to do this”, but I thought about it, and not a lot of women with kids would go back into the industry with young babies.  I worked on the first of my solo records while breastfeeding a very young baby. I ended up having to speak to my record company and say “You’ve got to be more understanding of women,” and men of course, but obviously the physical the needs of a breastfeeding mother. That was real battle. I remember talking about it to Clare Bowditch – we both have kids. And she said, “Yeah such common sense, but not in this industry.” In a way it’s awesome, because you can take your kids with you, and you can be your own boss. But when dealing with promo people, journalists and things… I’ve had interviews with my baby’s mouth on my boob. Just because that’s how it has to be.

I remember a journalist ringing me in the hospital after I’ve just given birth. I was like, “I’m not doing this not now, at least give me a week.” Fucking hell. That was a bit tricky. I hope I’ve helped a bit for women coming through to work, working women while being young mums as well.

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

I have an amazing team around me, an amazing husband and amazing kids.

I think the hardest time was when we were lucky enough that george had a very large amount of success that definitely wasn’t expected by the band. And suddenly there were a lot of people that had an opinion on what we were doing. We’d always sailed our own ship in terms of our vision of what we wanted to do, and suddenly there were a lot of ideas that were contrary to that. It was really hard to do – when you’re young, you’re always questioning yourself and thinking “Oh shit, maybe they’re right”, and then you go “No no, we know what we want to do.”

It was particularly difficult for my brother and I, because were were two kids in a band and a lot of people didn’t know how to handle that, so it circled more on me because I was a girl so that was an easier story to sell. It got really quite gross for my brother and I, and that’s part of the reason why I left after the second album.

We had an amazing ride but I think for the sake of my relationship with my brother I decided not to do it anymore. And that was probably the hardest moment. Suddenly there were some great reviews, but when you get well known there are some very nasty and yucky reviews as well.

It’s hard to not care about those things. And I was really young. You’re still finding out who the fuck you are, let alone everyone else having a go. It was a double edged sword. It led to these very lengthy internal discussions among the band.

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

I guess the hardest thing was going from a band that had not only my brother but three people that were like my brothers, so I could trust them and I loved them, then going to this solo thing. That was really difficult. Finding the right band, musicians, the right people to work with. That was a really tricky transition and I learnt so much about record making. The things that happened in that solo album, I would never do again. There was a fair bit of bullying from the producers and all that.

But I held my ground, and I had an amazing young family to look after, to protect. And when you have that in your life, you realise that’s the most important thing at the end of the day. Because it ultimately makes the greatest lesson – to stop thinking about yourself. Your whole life evolves around your family now – you have someone to look after and nourish. That kind of puts it all in perspective. My family had been with me through  my whole career. They have a great way of bringing you back down to earth.

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

I remember this one moment clearly, because george was somewhere around Victoria, because we knew where every Centrelink office was in every town in Australia, because we were all on the dole. I was on and off study, we were all either on the dole or Austudy.working full time and working really hard, getting $200 a fortnight, that was what we lived on. Once we became a company we were able to pay ourselves the equivalent of the dole, and that was a huge achievement for us. We were able to put aside $50k per year to pay ourselves that. I’m not exactly sure when that was, but then we stopped going to dole offices.

I’ve done café gigs and I’ve been a barista and all those things, but I’d always been able to make a living from either Austudy or Elixir. My trio and I used to do four set gigs in Jazzy Cat in West End and at the Press Club, and we’d get $30 – $60 each, and that would pay for food for the week. I was lucky enough to always make my living from that. And, thankfully, not having to do covers.

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

The most dangerous thing to do as an artist is to compare yourself to other artists.

I’ve always just wanted to do my own thing and not compare myself and say “Oh they’re playing this thing, and that cover looks better than mine.” That’s not a healthy thing, and it’s never gonna make you feel good.

There’ll always be someone who’s more successful than you, unless you’re Katy Perry or Ed Sheeran.

But I get to go home to a husband and kids, and so many artists don’t get to have that because they’ve focused so much on their career.

I’ve never actually been ambitious in my career, I’ve been ambitious in the music I want to make, but I’v never been one to say “Okay, this time in two years I want to sell out to this venue, or have a top 20 album.” I leave that worrying to other people whose job it is to worry about.

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?

I’d say to focus on your musical goals and don’t worry about the rest of it, the rest will fall into place, and that’s pretty much what I did anyway.

As long as you make music that you’re proud of, you are a success.

John Watson did a keynote speech once, and he said “Build it and they will come.” It might have been for an app or something. It only matters what you build in the world of music, and the rest of it will come if it’s meant to.

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?

Oh, I’m so happy, I just got the masters for my new record, I’m so f*cking happy, very very very  happy. I did this record with Pledge crowdfunding, which was pretty hectic to do but a pretty beautiful experience to do. I’ve involved my pledgers, and got my audience in the process. [It’s been] overwhelmingly positive. I’m amazingly happy with the record, and for me I feel so lucky, I can say “Maybe I should get THAT amazing musician to come on this song,” and they’ll say “Yeah sure ,I’ll come into the studio.” So it’s incredible to be able to handpick my favourite musicians to come and play on my songs. It’s great, they’re nice people.

You tend to reassess your life when you have kids. But, I remember there were a few people that I was working with, and they actually weren’t very nice people – and I thought, “You know what? Life’s too short. I don’t need to be around that.”

But now, with this new album, I’m with beautiful people, phenomenal musicians , and the whole experience has been just lovely, no negativity at all. And now, I probably shouldn’t say who, but I asked one of my favourite living Australian painters to do my album cover, and he said yes straight away, it’s all just awesome, I’ve been very lucky.

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?

I guess creating a song that you’re proud of, and releasing it in some form, whether it be on Soundcloud, or releasing it on radio or whatever. A year is not that long to come up with a song, or a sound, or a concept for your sound that you’re proud of.

I guess one bit of advice is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so if you feel you have to wait, I would wait – make something that you’re extremely proud of, give it your everything. I’d say that’s a realistic goal.

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