Features September 8, 2016

Jaddan Comerford: Unified’s global influencer

Former Editor

Unified’s leader on why thinking ’global’ will save the music industry, how Vance Joy buoyed his move to New York and why money isn’t everything.

 

Unified, and its past iteration Boomtown, has been synonymous with unlikely achievements for local music for more than a decade. Its unusual successes include a #1 hardcore album, developing the Amity Affliction from a small bar to arena show act, and creating a community of brand champions whose trust in the collective spans genres.

Much of that good repute is owed to Jaddan Comerford, Unified’s Founder and CEO. When Comerford sits down with TMN at Conservatory Bar in Sydney, he prefaces the interview with: “I don’t do a lot of interviews…”

There is a deep humility in Comerford. In fact, his pride in his work and team is about the only thing to eclipse it.

“I take what we do so seriously,” he affirms. “People say [about music], ‘It’s not like we’re curing cancer’, or ‘It’s not rocket science’. It’s not; but we’re still dealing with people’s lives.

“[…] To add to that, we’re dealing with culture, which to me in 2016 couldn’t be more important, with how much negativity and hate there is in the world right now.”

Comerford, who now bases himself in New York, is in Australia for Splendour In The Grass. He’s here to support Unified-managed acts Violent Soho, Remi and Illy, but his jam-packed schedule has him up at 6am and taking late-night dinner meetings.

Illy, Comerford and Unified Head of Artist Management Nick Yates

Next month, he’ll give a keynote at Brisbane conference and showcase event BigSound, where he’ll offer insights on how a teenage punk found success in every arena he entered, from recorded and live music, to merchandise and management.

“We exist within a global environment,” Comerford says, commenting on how he sees the current music market. “We were at Spotify today going through priorities of tracks and the conversation isn’t just about Australia, it’s a global thing.

“It’s not like the iTunes Store where you click to get to the different country,” he notes. “Apple Music and Spotify are now global things. I just want to give our artists the best chance to win.”

In 2001, while most 17-year-old Australians were still pirating music from Napster and choosing their Top 8 friends on MySpace, Jaddan Comerford was working on his own label out of his bedroom.

Living with his parents in Melbourne’s upper-middle-class suburb of Eaglemont – coincidentally next door to screen composer David Hirschfelder and across the road from music and film writer Christie Eliezer – Boomtown Records was inspired by California indie-punk label Epitaph Records. Comerford locked in to the work of Epitaph at age 10 via Smash by The Offspring. The discovery later sparked life-long love affairs with many of its bands, including NOFX and Bad Religion.

“I loved that idea that a brand could communicate to me what I should be listening to,” he smiles. “I was like ‘I want to do that’.”

Comerford undoubtedly created the Australian Epitaph when Boomtown and his Staple MGMT formed Unified in 2011. Just six years later, Unified is a global player when it comes to management, recording, publishing, merchandise, festivals and touring. With eight Top 5 ARIA Albums and 17 in the Top 20 – all in the last two-and-a-half years alone – Unified may have spawned from a scene of misfits, but it’s now more renowned than some of its signings.

It could be said that local metalcore trailblazers I Killed The Prom Queen kicked off the chronicling of Australia’s love for heavy music on its charts. Before Parkway Drive hit #6 with Horizons (2007) and before Earthwalker by In Hearts Wake hit #5 (2014) IKTPQ’s 2006 LP Music For The Recently Deceased charted at #27; sandwiched between She Will Have Her Way – The Songs of Neil and Tim Finn and Fatboy Slim’s Greatest Hits.

“I remember emailing Graham [Nixon, head of Resist Records] saying ‘This is so great’. Now, if we had a record chart at #27 we’d be like ‘This is terrible’,” he laughs. “It’s a different age now,” he clarifies. “Sales are so different and streaming is changing the industry in a really great way.”

Comerford would like to think that some of his success has been serendipitous, that he was in the right place at the right time. Like in 2004, when Behind Crimson Eyes ran out of t-shirts whilst on tour with I Killed The Prom Queen in Perth and a 20-year-old Comerford had some printed at the last minute.

“I flew over with this box of t-shirts and that’s basically how I became a manager,” he laughs.

However, it behoves readers to know Comerford has a Bachelor of Music Business from Victoria University. It should also be noted that when he received his first cheque for over $100,000 from MGM for Behind Crimson Eyes’ debut EP Pavour Nocturnus (2005), he injected it straight back into Boomtown Records. That money helped fund The Getaway Plan’s ARIA #14 debut Other Voices, Other Rooms, which came in at #50 in ARIA’s End Of Year Australian Albums chart in 2008.

Interestingly, it was shortly after the release of Pavour Nocturnus when Comerford convinced right-hand man Luke Logemann to move into his parents’ house with him. 

Comerford and Luke Logemann and Unify

Logemann was running his Set Fire To My Home Records from Sydney at the time and working in I.T. Now, as the head of the label and touring, as well as being an artist manager and festival promoter, he’s the face of the company in Australia and the linchpin behind the company’s touring and festival arm. Logemann celebrated his 10-year anniversary with Unified and its past iteration in April.

Despite plans to launch Unified offices in Los Angeles and Europe, Comerford is insistent its portrayal remains homegrown.

“Rather than trying to change who we are, [instead of thinking] ‘We have to be an American company’, it’s not like that,” Comerford insists. “We’re a global company, from Melbourne Australia,” he says, satisfied. “It’s a thing I’m very proud of.”

Further placing Melbourne on the global music map, Unified is picked to bring heavy music festival juggernaut Download to Australia. It’s simply a rumour now, but the company’s recent partnership with Download promoter Live Nation, and the fact Unified’s staffers attended Download this year along with the team at Live Nation Australia, suggests otherwise.

Amity Affliction’s Joel Birch with Comerford at Download Festival

Unified are the apposite choice for a national touring heavy music event. Since inking the partnership with Live Nation in February, it’s locked in tours for Slipknot, Pierce The Veil, A Day To Remember, Enter Shikari and Bring Me The Horizon, among others. What’s more, its twice-sold-out Unify Festival in Melbourne has expanded its capacity to 7,500 for 2017, more than double the capacity of the first year in 2015. While Comerford states there are no plans to take Unify national, Unified is working towards hosting heavy music events in each State, with the recently announced Redfest in Perth a welcome sign of things to come.

Importantly though, a string of heavy music gatherings percolating Australia’s festival landscape would be met with no competition. When Soundwave Festival collapsed last December it left a hole in local fans’ calendars; and while a handful of events have tried to fill it, a national festival is yet to take the reins. 

Comerford at Download Festival

In December, trade publication Music Business Worldwide shortlisted Comerford for its Young Executive Award. The trophy was ultimately taken out by media and entertainment lawyer Laurence Abrahams (SSB Solicitors) but it reminded Comerford that owning his status is more important than the counter-culture mentality that created it.

“As much you want to be that punk kid, we’re dealing with people’s lives here,” he says. “I want to think about where Unified is going to be in 100 years time – which sounds fricken’ crazy but why not?”

Two years ago, Comerford took his biggest risk yet and relocated himself and colleague/wife Rachael to New York. Betting on himself meant trusting in Unified’s self-sufficient local operations, but it also meant the business would initially be funding his absence. While the move to the Big Apple had long been on the To-Do list, it was a Tweet to a SoundCloud link that would ultimately pave the road; and a little known indie-pop artist named Vance Joy would be the driver.

“I clicked it, and Riptide came out through my speakers. I flipped out. I fumbled for my phone and called my brother.”

Comerford is, for the first time (to media), telling the story of how he came to manage Melbourne artist Vance Joy. Coincidentally, Comerford’s younger brother and Vance Joy (aka James Keogh) went to school together. His brother sent the tweet to Comerford in May 2012 to stream Riptide. Comerford later streamed the track in an airport for his now-wife Rachael and the pair set to work, first taking down all online music tied to the then-unsigned artist.

Rachael and Jaddan

“It was the quickest I’ve ever signed an artist,” he attests. “The second I heard it I was like ‘I need to work with this guy’.”

Two years later Comerford was living in a modest apartment in New York and along with Rachael, was helping to make Vance Joy the global multi-Platinum-seller that he is today. They had to be persistent, and they had to hustle. They spent their formative months riding elevators to meet with radio, booking and label magnates, then at night they’d be on the phone to their team in Australia. At times, Comerford admits, their commitment to Unified has chewed into their own milestones.

“My 30th birthday, the day we moved to New York – I literally turned 30 on the plane – and last minute [Rachael] and Vance had to go up to Portland, Maine,” he remembers. “So I was going to be alone for my 30th; but he had a radio promotion pop up, which ended up being our first add at alternative radio in America.” 

Vance Joy’s list of accolades since signing a management deal with Unified is exhaustive. From multi-Platinum sales in Australia, Canada and the US, to a #1 ARIA album and ARIA Award for Best Male Artist (2015), to his worldwide support slot for Taylor Swift, Vance Joy is one of Australia’s most successful music exports.

Vance Joy, Rachael and Jaddan
Photo Credit: Max Fairclough

 

Successes like the aforementioned, whether Comerford attributes his work to any of them or not (he doesn’t), are what sparked his latest internal dialogue of self-assessment. Financially, Unified is in its best shape yet; but while it’s constantly engaging with the music fans who treat Unified the way Comerford treated Epitaph, there’s something missing.

“When we hit that point [of financial comfort], I almost went into a free fall,” Comerford offers. “I’d been working all my life to get the business to that point, and I got there and it was like, ‘This isn’t why I do this’.” 

Ben Ralph (Roadrunner/Warner), Caleb Williams (The Amity Affliction Manager), Tony Harlow (MD, WMA) and Comerford with certification plaques for The Amity Affliction

Unified aimed to be a three-way relationship between consumer, staff, and artist: “If all three can be in harmony then everyone wins because everything’s sustainable.” Now, Comerford is adding a fourth pillar; community.

Through social outreach initiatives, Unified will engage directly with its community to identify ways in which it can help. It’s already creating positive change for the local community at Unify site Tarwin Lower Recreation Reserve. After its first year of sponsoring the Tarwin Football Club, the club was able to run on solar power and purchase a courtesy bus to pick kids up for training.

“We do what we do because we want to have a sense of purpose,” says Comerford. “And while we’re at it, we might as well try and make the world a better place.”

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