Hot Seat: Tim Pittman – Feel Presents
Tim Pittman is one of the unsung champions of Australia’s music industry. An artist manager, promoter and label chief, Pitmann has overseen Australian tours by the likes of Lou Reed, The Violent Femmes, the Buzzcocks and Rollins Band through his company, Feel Presents. But it’s his input on the local indie scene that requires serious attention. In March 2003, Feel shifted gears with the release of what proved to be an important double disc, Tales From the Australian Underground: Singles 1976-1989, a compilation that explored those homegrown artists whose profiles never quite matched their influence. A second volumes examined music from the years 1977-1990. Pittman has helped guide the careers of The Eastern Dark, the Hard Ons, and Kim Salmon, and played a role in the resurrection of the Sunnyboys, who he continues to manage alongside the Mark of Cain. Feel Presents is behind the Dig It Up! national concert series, which starts April 18 at Brisbane’s Tivoli with a bill featuring the Hoodoo Gurus, Flamin’ Groovies, Blue Oyster Cult, Buzzcocks, Peter Case Band and The Stems.
How did the Dig It Up! concept come about?
We had a concept ready to go and an act — The Gurus — that wanted to do it. I sent the concept back to them and they thought it was great. I’d anticipated it was going to be for Sydney-only, but they said, “can we now take it around the country?” Sydney is the perfect concept or template — we don’t have a street like Enmore Road in every city of the country, which has four venues of different sizes within 100 meters of one another. In Melbourne, we’ve kept the concept intact. In every city we’ve managed to put on really strong bills.
You could bring the Gurus back every year until they’ve exhausted their classic albums. Is that a possibility?
I don’t think we’ll go forever with them as the hosts, so to speak. There’s probably one or two more in there. We’ve talked about different concepts. I love the idea of having them do it, one because we mutually-formed the idea and two, because their taste is great. They encompass what they’re trying to present more than any other act in the country, so I’m keen to leave them there for as long as I can. Equally, you have to be mindful of the audience getting older and the need to get new people into it. We didn’t look to change anything this year. Why change the formula? The idea of mixing the older stuff that has influenced the Gurus with the stuff that has been inspired by them, it’s all there.
Are we at saturation point in the live scene, or are there niches not been catered to?
At this point in time, it’s over-saturated. It’s ridiculous. The summer months are our busiest time anyway but this year it’s the busiest that busy period has ever been. Unsurprisingly, not everything is working. Everyone wants to be a promoter, everyone wants to put on some sort of event. It’s come to some sort of a head at the moment. We recently had six major headline shows on one night in Sydney. The Americans we tour said, “you’d never has this much entertainment going on in any of our cities on any given night.” Down here we do pay quite a bit of money to see a show. And I think agents believe it’s easy money and they’re taking the piss, really. And the people down here, the promoters, feel like if they don’t take (an act) someone else will. And there you get this saturated market where not everyone can win.
What kind of person do you have to be to be a promoter?
A fool. The job title is “professional gambler,” that’s all you are really. It’s hugely stressful and financially risky, and you do it in the hope that you’ll make some money to keep moving on for the next few months of the year. There’s no guarantee, not in anything.
You don’t personally take the spotlight. Is that by design?
Yes. How am I meant to take the spotlight, what am I supposed to do?
Michael Chugg and Michael Gudinski are pretty good at it.
It’s not in my personality or nature to do that. It’s not inherently part of me. When I’m not doing this, I’d rather be surfing, playing with the kid or watching football. I don’t want to be hanging out with other people in the business and shoot the shit about the biz. I can’t think of anything more boring.
Tales of the Australian Underground is quite legendary. How does it feel looking back at it now?
Catharsis, a purging. I just had to get it out. At the time, I felt there was an injustice being done to an era, an age, of Australian music that created the platform for what exists now. Yet it was given no credence whatsoever. It’s just like it was wiped out as being old. That music had to happen for now to exist. It was really about trying to give the people involved a way to be heard and a way for people to understand that this doesn’t happen overnight. It really takes quite a while to generate and develop. Those releases are chronological. And its builds to the tipping point, where the Died Pretties and Beasts of Bourbon tipped to the other side. The underground broke. It was a year or two before Nirvana, and Australia was breaking that sort of stuff prior to the rest of the world. But there’s never any recognition of that. People just think Nirvana changed everything. Well, OK, they did, but just before that there was a tipping point in Australian music. When I was putting the first one together, I had no idea if it would sell; as with most everything I do I never really think of the making-money part. I mean, who puts out a two-CD compilation of 40 obscure artists with the hope of making money? I just put it together to get it out with the idea that they’d get recognition and I hoped I’d cover my costs. As I was moving forward with the idea of a second CD, I was also thinking it could be a one-shot chance. If I had my time again, I definitely would have changed the track-listing ever so slightly, so I could then make a third one a little more easily. Right now, I think a third would be too hard to make.
Did they make money?
To be honest, I never looked at the back account to see what it meant (financially) because it’s a continual rolling account that does other releases. As long as it doesn’t go into zero, I don’t care. We keep putting stuff out. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad it exists. I hope it’s in music libraries and radio stations all over as some sort of reference point.
Feel Presents has an Asia leg? How active is your company up there?
Not terribly. We’ve put Cat Power and Dinosaur Jr into Asia for a handful of shows. We had a whole run of shows lined-up for Cat Power but in the end her production proved too expensive for the market, really. I find it quite difficult (dealing with Asia) and we just ran out of time. American and European agents want Asia as well. I’m happy for them to have it and not give us deal the stress of having to deal with it, to be honest.
You’ve been a tireless supporter of Australian bands of a certain era. What do you think of the current crop?
For the last 5 years or so it’s been great. Prior to that there wasn’t much going on for me, it was a bit tedious. Now, there’s so much good stuff out there. It’s great doing Dig it Up because I get to find even more. FBi is a real joy to listen to.
Is the term “heritage” a bad word? Everything needs to have a category, right?
That’s just the way it is. It’s something to help understand what it is. Heritage for me feels more like the Delltones. Dig it Up, a Day on the Green, no-one would have seen this stuff coming 20 years ago. I can remember in the ‘80s when a band like the Troggs toured, and the idea of seeing the Troggs in the ‘80s seemed absurd. But then they’d been playing around probably just 15 years prior. And yet someone like the Gurus, it’s been 30 years since they were doing their thing. It should be doubly absurd, but it seems perfectly normal. It’s just the way the whole industry has expanded. Once you’re in rock ‘n’ roll, you can’t get out. It’s good the industry has understood itself and it’s grown within itself to find platforms for these artists to have an outlet. A Day on the Green in particular has been great. For the longest time I thought Australia was a place where when you hit 30, you’re put on the shelf and told to go away. Whereas in England, in particular, the likes of Paul Weller and Billy Bragg always get respect. America has always had that middle-market for older acts. Australia had nothing. I’m glad those platforms exist now. It’s still pretty ageist in terms of radio, but at least there’s a live market for it.