An industry veteran and someone you might call a marketing guru (at least until she laughed at your cliché, declaring "No one knows how to crack this thing."), talks launching new stars and remaking the scene, then offers a surprising defence of an industry body mired in controversy.
MARDI CAUGHT HAS SOME VIEWS on my criticisms of ARIA, impatient with my impatience.
In one of the darkest times for the Australian music industry, this independent adviser at her own firm, The Annex, with more than two decades in the industry – most of them at major labels; many of them as one of the few women at the senior table - she sees cause for more optimism. Hope even.
Really? No, really? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s start though at what may be more immediately important for people whose livelihoods are on the line after two years of few-to-no-gigs, rejigged releases and a government whose intentions aren’t good.
So Ms Caught, you have a new client to your firm, The Annex, thinking about releasing music at this time of the year as Adele and Ed Sheeran, and already Coldplay, look like sucking up all the oxygen in the room before we even start talking about another Bublé Christmas. What’s your advice?
“It would be actually to lean into it,” she says. “You’ve got to think that when those artists are releasing music there’s got to be more people on the platform. So, in the same way that people talked about footfall back in the day of retail, it’s no different: people still behave the same. If there in market there is an opportunity there.”
So now it’s earfall? Make sense. Maybe if you know how to present yourself, how to position yourself in the spaces between the giants, that is the key.
“[American music executive] Lyor Cohen says something really interesting. Don’t forget, Adele wasn’t on streaming services for a very long time, and he brought up the fact that in the interest of music, she was probably the one person that could bring people into the marketplace,” Caught says. “As an industry, it’s important for those artists be on those platforms and generating that kind of engagement. People still don’t know. I mean, post-pandemic, people have more of an idea, but there is still a huge learning curve [about accessing music].”
Is that point of having someone like Caught in your corner: knowing the obvious, the sensible, the stuff that everybody “knows”, but not necessarily buying it after years driving major marketing for the likes of EMI, Sony and Warner.
“The joy that I have in my job now is that I am completely agnostic and I can take a broader view and say, these are the options, and these are your options – nobody else’s but yours – and it’s an advantage we have to play in the marketplace: answering your question from the perspective of the artist and not from agendas.
“Which is quite nice and freeing,” says a woman who has just announced a doubling of her staff and the imminent opening of a Melbourne office to complement the Sydney base. “But no one knows. No one knows how to crack this thing. Because if we did, [she laughs] we’d be fucking millionaires.”
Given nobody in the room is a fucking millionaire, what does The Annex, which opened in 2018 after Caught left Warner Music Australia (shortly after being overlooked for the top job in favour of an anonymous man shipped in from Finland, and shipped out again a few years later) do?
Caught likes to describe herself as not just a bespoke agency with access to outside specialists, but something like a GP or a PI. That is, coming in to identify a problem or a need and directing attention from inside and outside the artist team and her office. Is that what happened with her biggest successful partnership so far, the six times-ARIA-nominated Genesis Owusu?
As well as associations with Passenger, Lime Cordiale and others, she refers to the thrilling Canberra-based R&B artist, whose real name is Kofi Owusu-Ansah, as “the one”, the artist who elevates all your practical business decisions to meaningful and inspirational ones.
“And that’s how I think of [the duo of Owusu-Ansah and producer Andrew Klippel]. They were at the start and took a risk on me, and then the hardest thing was remembering that we were in artist development mode, and that it wouldn’t happen overnight, and it would take us two years to get here. But we’ve got here,” Caught says.
“Sometimes people get misguided and forget that it’s a long-term path, not an overnight success. It’s not one thing, it’s a combination of things, but it starts with Kofi and he is just an amazing person to work with and the most important thing is to give him space to be heard. He is a disruptor, both lyrically and creatively.”
One lesson learned? It’s important to understand that “you don’t have to shape everything and control it as a marketing person”. Which brings us neatly to Australian music’s topic de jour. What does she make of the shaping and controlling, or lack thereof, of this year’s hottest issue – institutionalised abuse within the industry – by the major labels and their representative body, ARIA?
As someone whose major label experience included a brief stint at the most notorious of them, Sony, was she surprised that this broke this year?
“Surprised would be the wrong word because the thing for me is more that it feels like things are starting to change. Which is more rewarding than anything else,” she says, adding that more people now see it as a common problem not somebody else’s fight. “The one thing I would say this for the first time in the decades that I’ve worked in the industry there are people in positions of power that can make changes. Some of them are women, but the discourse about what women are doing to address the problem needs to be altered slightly to what are we – men, women, everyone – doing to alter it?”
Caught emphasises that it is still early days for this response, that decades of systemic and endemic behaviour can’t be changed in a year. But “we need to build change and push that change through with buy-in from the whole industry, united around one goal. Obviously I am part of some of those discussions, but we don’t want to rush it for the sake of rushing it: to get it done rather than get it right would be problematic, and we’ve seen this approach fail before.”
As someone who has been involved in some of the internal discussions, Caught strongly disagrees with my perception of inaction, or at best funereal-paced action, on the part of ARIA CEO, Annabelle Herd, and chair, Natalie Waller.
“Come on we’re talking about someone has been in the job eight months and another one who’s been in the job two or three months. I think is slightly unfair that you’re asking them to fix decades of what’s happened in that period of time,” she says. “I understand what you’re saying that they haven’t spoken out about it, but that goes to my point that it is a contentious issue, it is something that needs continued conversation and shouldn’t be a series of statements that get commented.”
Citing a small industry gathering that Herd organised mid-year to canvass views on what might be done next, an upbeat Caught says “that’s never happened before. Ever.”
“You’ve gotta have a bit of faith and a bit of willingness to change and think that this is the start of something, rather than kinda create armageddon and blow it up and not actually get a resolution,” she says. “Because that’s what’s happened previously.”
That might be one of the many criticisms which could be addressed to the previous ARIA administration, I venture. But the experienced Caught isn’t buying into that discussion thank you, rather pointing to an industry that is rife with issues in this area, beyond the major labels, and no one is asking representative bodies elsewhere in the industry to speak up and take action she says.
We agree to disagree at this point as I say that as the biggest and the one most often putting itself forward as industry representative, ARIA has both a heightened position and responsibility. But she does see hope also in the reaction recently to a Sydney band whose lyrics laced with what many saw as aggressive misogyny, and the continuing triple J support for this band, attracted strong reaction across the industry. (Though, it should be noted not at ARIA or triple j.)
“There has been that kind of calling out of lyrics and what they mean. I don’t think the world is ready yet to go quiet on this. So yes I do think there will be change because I think there’s a whole generation of us that need it to happen. I have confidence,” says Caught, before throwing in a final characteristic quip.
“Until I watch Handmaid’s Tale again, and then I’ll get depressed.”