Feature: How UNFD proved heavy music can sell more than just tickets
Heavy music’s cyclic return to the upper reaches of the ARIA charts hit a new zenith this year, with local independent label UNFD leading the charge in Australia.
In the past 18 months Jaddan Comerford’s Boomtown Records mutation, with Head of Recorded Music Luke Logemann at the forefront, has achieved six Top 10 ARIA Albums, 15 Top 20, and 24 Top 50. 15 of those records were from Australian artists and in August, UNFD had six records in the Top 100 and four in the Top 50. What’s more, this month the label received four ARIA Award nominations with three of its acts up for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Album (Northlane, In Hearts Wake and Thy Art Is Murder).
“I find it actually almost confusing that there’s not a lot of people putting something together similar to what we’ve been able to do,” says Logemann, the irrefutable linchpin of UNFD, one of the five operations under Unified’s umbrella.
Whilst UNFD has quarterbacked the return of whiplash-inducing music since 2011, what the label is doing could never be dubbed wholly original. Shock Records, Epitaph Australia and Resist Records had the market tied up in the early 2000s – however heavy music’s popularity has never been so condensed as in 2015. International acts like Slayer, Bullet For My Valentine, Lamb of God, Iron Maiden and Bring Me The Horizon all charted within the Top 3 this year. Add to this local accolades from Northlane (#1), In Hearts Wake (#2), Thy Art Is Murder (#7) and Dead Letter Circus (#2) and you’ve got one monumental purple patch. In fact, the only non-UNFD local heavy music band to chart in the Top 3 this year is seasoned post-hardcore juggernaut Parkway Drive.
“When Jaddan [Comerford] and I were first starting record labels, Resist Records and Below Par Records were two of the major influences,” says Logemann. “The way those labels were branded was incredible, and they blazed the path for us to exist the way we do.”
Incredibly, Logemann, now just 33, will mark the 10th anniversary of his business partnership with Comerford next April.
“We’ve got this brief moment of great success and we’re really grateful for it,” he says. “But I’d be lying if I said we weren’t trying to create something that housed a lot of artists who could create a culture that would mean those artists would do well all at once. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Perhaps what personifies UNFD’s newer incarnation from its still thriving forerunners like Resist and Shock is that it has managed to tap into fans’ increasing reliance on social media with sharp precision.
When Northlane’s founding frontman Adrian Fitipaldes left the band in September last year Logemann was part of the discussion about the Sydney band’s next move. He fine-tuned the long-term social media campaign to find new frontman Marcus Bridge. In July, following a choose-your-own adventure Twitter campaign for single Ra and numerous fan-enlisted strategies, the band released their most successful record yet, the ARIA #1 Node.
Unified General Manager Matt Rogers says the way the band handled Fitipaldes’ exit worked because it wasn’t PR managed.
“It certainly wasn’t about how you manage it to media, it was about how you manage it to the fans,” says Rogers. “And that’s a big part of these bands, you live and die not by what the media says but by what fans think of your album.”
“In general I like to encourage our bands to be as open with their fans on social media as possible,” adds Logemann. “I think that’s what it’s about, it’s a privilege that artists are able to get across their opinion in such a direct way.”
UNFD Label Manager Maya Janeska is a major player in the new order of the music industry. Her work on Northlane’s 18-month campaign has helped the band gain more interaction on social media than ever before.
“The way that we’ve kept everything going is by finding that one thing about each campaign to focus on,” she says. “Something that’s special about that band.”
When Byron Bay four-piece In Hearts Wake met with the label to pitch an ambitious double album concept, the label set to work on a two-year strategy, which will take them well into 2016. UNFD had never had an 18-month lead time from recording to release before but with both records charting inside the Top 5 (Earthwalker peaked at #5 and Skydancer hit #2 and was a triple j Feature Album) UNFD’s business model has never been more effective.
Unified’s off-shoots for management (WAU Management), label (UNFD), merchandise (24Hundred) and publishing (WAU Publishing) all fold into one another to service this business model. Logemann says the launch of 24Hundred actually aids first-week sales: “Heading that up has enabled us to have all of our records go through the chart which is always really helpful. But it’s also given really simple solutions that have been effective to the fans who buy records because it’s a huge database.”
Essentially though, the label is a modest team of four: Logemann, Janeska, Digital Marketing Co-ordinator Aaron Smith and creative director/designer Patrick Galvin. But with Jaddan Comerford leading Unified’s management arm in New York, and ex-Rock Sound editor Ben Patashnik coordinating UNFD’s UK and European releases, the indie has been able to grow from an Australia-centric advocate for counter-culture to a major international player which has deals locked with Warner Music Australia, Fearless, Rise, Hopeless and ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance).
“We’ve built a team here at Unified which is young, smart, and understands the new order of the music industry,” says Matt Rogers.
While the Big Three majors will always have a piece of the heavy music pie – and consistently take club-fillers to stadium sell-outs year-on-year – Logemann says that while he has great respect for the major label system, sometimes the age-old trope of spending money to make money doesn’t necessarily work with the heavy music community.
“It’s about ideas,” he says. “You can’t just throw money at it, when something’s not working you’ve got to work it.
“I could take out billboards all along the Monash for the new Northlane record and it probably wouldn’t have as much affect as if we just gave out flyers at a Parkway Drive show,” he laughs.
Unified’s marketshare is still very small due to the major labels’ depth of catalogue, but in terms of taking new artists to market, indie labels are delivering artists which are out-selling the majors’ new Australian signings.
“The whole concept of people being engaged with the brand is a lot different than with a major label,” says Rogers. “It may have been the case with Island Records or Def Jam records, but it’s not really the case now.
“Someone doesn’t say ‘ooh [that artist] is signed to Sony I’m going to go and buy it’,” he jokes. “Modular used to have it and Future Classic have it, when they’re the brand that fans associate with, then they’re going to buy product and they’re going to be engaged in that scene.”
Unified even entered the festival market last year with the label agnostic Unify Gathering. The 3,000-capacity event sold out within three hours and pre-sale tickets for the now 5,000 capacity sophomore run next January have already sold out. Building on the label’s community interaction, Unified is readying its own social club where photographers attend every UNFD show and upload the pics to the UNFD Facebook page.
“That’s going to be one of the major goals,” says Logemann. “To really push the community side of things and make sure that it’s well developed and well nurtured.”
At the brink of cracking the mainstream, Logemann is playing Atlas well, but he’s aware that the label’s moves now have the power to sway the local heavy music community’s future.
“One of the great challenges I have in this role is being so passionate about heavy music and trying to conceive a way for something that’s meant to be kind of counter-culture…,” he muses. “To see how far we can push it into the mainstream without sacrificing any of the music qualities or changing anybody’s art.”
Top Image: Northlane performing to a sold-out crowd in London last week
Photo Credit: Neal Walters