Mark Seymour is one of Australia’s most gifted and respected musicians. Leading Hunters & Collectors (1981–1998), he delivered rock classics that immediately etched their way into our national consciousness, including ‘Talking To A Stranger’, ‘Holy Grail,’ ’Say Goodbye,’ ‘When The River Runs Dry,’ ‘Do You See What I See’ and many more. As an ARIA Award-winning solo artist, Mark earned even further praise from fans and critics across nine albums, including King Without A Clue (1997), Westgate (2007) and most recently Mayday (2015). Over his career, he’s amassed 21 ARIA Award nominations, 2 ARIA wins and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame with Hunters & Collectors in 2005.
2016 marks the 30 year anniversary of Hunters & Collectors’ 2x Platinum album Human Frailty, which spawned the seminal single ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me.’
Who was your first musical inspiration and why?
My mum and sister had a lot of these old 12″ folk records, and there was this Irish singing group, The Clancy Brothers. They probably the biggest impact on me. When I was about twelve years old, I listened to their 1968 record, In Person at Carnegie Hall. And it led me to start playing with an acoustic guitar, trying to learn one or two songs. I also learned piano, but it didn’t exactly interest me. Listening to those Clancy Brothers songs affected me, and something about learning guitar autonomously was really rewarding. It was important to me, and I liked not having someone breathing down my neck.
It didn’t dawn on me, then, how significant that all was until I went to uni. Picking the guitar up again during uni days, I realised that I knew about chords; I knew how to do this. Kids can often absorb things and grasp difficult information in a way adults don’t. I think you learn a lot better when you have a genuine interest in the subject, rather than treating your formal education as just a path to get a job.
How did you get started in music and did you ever even think you’d get this far?
It had a lot to do with the relationships around me. And self-belief. I was really intense and singleminded. I actually trained to be a schoolteacher and practiced that for a little bit when I was about 22. I had a brief taste of that when I left uni. I didn’t exactly hate it but I definitely saw myself differently in that environment.
You have to have a lot of self belief. There was no question in my mind that ‘this is how it’s going to roll’. I had made it clear to my band and the people around me that I was not gonna do anything else. I think it influenced the people around me. Getting started in music, there’s a whole load you need to learn on the job.
One of the most important things I’ve learned was that you’ve got to set a price on your own worth. It might take some talking to your peers to figure it out, you might have to have some insider knowledge on what the going rate is for getting paid. Definitely don’t isolate yourself – musicians are generally very community-minded. There’s nothing more rewarding than getting cash. Don’t play for nothing.
There are lots of moments early on where you’ve gotta stand up to people. Make sure you tell them what you think. If someone offers you $300 for a show, hold them to that. People can be excruciatingly polite. You’ve gotta make up your mind that you’re going to be respected. I see some kids these days with no experience with money. It can be hard when you’re getting paid an irregular income.
What has been one of your most defining moments in your career?
There was a gig at The Crystal Ball Room in Melbourne around 22 years ago – that was a really critical moment for me. It was the first time I really stood up for myself as far as finances go. Basically, I spit the dummy at a promoter who offered me $300 for a show and then tried to back out because not enough people came through the door. As I said before, I learned that you have to be tough when it comes to income. If you treat music like a professional job, people will learn to respect you. If it’s not just a hobby for you, then you’re a sole trader. You’re self employed. You have to put start slow, but your pay is a benchmark of what you’re worth. Ticket prices are an abstract concept – why do some acts get better pay than others? Because they put value on what they do.
Gig-wise, it would have to be the Sound Relief benefit (in 2009) at the MCG. The band had retired and we got asked to play this benefit for those terrible bush fires in Victoria. It was such an intense show – 80,000 people – the impact of that night was enormous; the feeling was special.
How has your music practice changed over time?
My whole career is built around playing songs. That’s the main part. Process-wise – what has changed is that I don’t rely on machines. I use my intuition and trust myself more these days. Usually, I just record ideas on my iPhone – I sing and play acoustic guitar to get ideas down, and then I email them to the guys. It’s very immediate, and I keep it very spontaneous.
But I don’t isolate myself too much – it’s so important (at the start of your career, especially) to get out there and be with people and not rely so much on technology. I think rock is a public thing. It’s live. It’s not a fixed thing – and that’s the way you endure, as a musician. It’s a ‘real’ thing.
My top business tip for new artists is…
You have to be creative and subversive. Use all the tools you can find out there. Yes, there are lots of other muso’s out there, but there ARE ways of getting through the noise.
Massively talented musicians are emerging lately, and you hear independent bands being played on platforms they may not have been able to access before, thanks to the internet.
My biggest career mistake has been…
Mistake…you can argue that there are no mistakes! It’s like that Dylan song…
But I suppose my biggest professional ‘mistake’ would be that in 1981 or ’82, the band went to England for about five months. It completely changed my view of Australia and the Australian music scene.
I had the elitism knocked out of me, that’s for sure. We pretty much starved. We used to live on croissants and jam. And nothing really happened for the band over there. So at the time it was a mistake, but then looking at it now, maybe it was good that I went through that.
In my opinion, the most important issue facing the music industry is…
I don’t really think there are any great issues! A while back, there was massive controversy over free downloads, but I think the industry is rolling with that now. Popular music is the biggest form of free enterprise there is – it’s constantly changing. I guess the downside is, you cant make money from recordings anymore (unless you’re massive, in the vein of Taylor Swift).
Budgets have changed. I’ve watched my records become cheaper and cheaper. But that’s the beauty of digital recording. Massive bands tend to be on the way out – the costs it takes to put those bands on the road is enormous. For example, a band like U2. People forget the massive costs, it takes millions and millions to get them on tour. The money is simply not there except for a small few. That used to be the driving thing of the industry, it was built around big budgets.
So, I don’t know how much financial success young bands have, but they’re certainly getting around. Making syncs deals and so on – I see a lot of indie bands played on television ads and so on now.
My view globally is that there’s some much more diverse and complex music coming out. In the past there were, I remember, less bands to look to. There were only a few major checkpoints in popular music that you could evaluate yourself against, and that’s now been blown wide open.
I always look to America – I think they have an incredibly dynamic industry there. Some massively talented muso’s have emerged over the last decade who are staying independent, and now they’re making their own business models and relationships, and you hear independent bands being played on television all the time. I mean, I don’t know how much financial success they’re having, but they’re certainly getting around!
I’d be really reticent to make any judgement though – I don’t feel negative about the industry at all!