UNFD’s GM Maya Janeska talks gender, genre & creating communities
Since rising from the underground in 2011 in a haze of anti-establishment and post-hardcore buddy-dom, UNFD has become one of the most coveted heavy music representatives in the world.
Founded by Jaddan Comerford and grown by Luke Logemann, the label under UNIFIED Music Group’s outstretched umbrella has a new leader: Maya Janeska.
After almost four years at the Group, Maya Janeska officially moved up from her role as Label Manager to become UNFD’s General Manager in July – but she’s been helping Logemann and Comerford steer the ship for some time.
In 2015, Janeska guided Northlane from a band who had just lost their frontman, to a band who nine months later had let their fans choose their new lead and had the #1 record in the country. The record, Node, went on to win Northlane (and UNFD) their first ARIA Award. This year Northlane dropped a surprise LP Mesmer, and despite being released in the first weeks of Ed Sheeran’s monolithic Divide entrance, hit #3 on the ARIA chart.
Incredibly, the label with a modest roster of artists who fall under genre categories like ‘metalcore’ and ‘post-hardcore’ has achieved three Top 5 ARIA placings this year alone: Mesmer (#3), Ocean Grove’s debut The Rhapsody Tapes (#5) and In Hearts Wake’s Ark (#3).
Granted, the aforementioned bands are frenzied forces to be reckoned with, but commercial success is usually reserved for commercial sounds. So that’s where Janeska comes in.
“I have a lot of friends that work in the industry and I see them working their campaigns in a totally different way to me,” she says, over the phone from her office in Melbourne.
“I can’t rely on radio to break an artist or a track. Often the radio plot for our artists is really simple because there’s just not as many options when it comes to heavy music.”
While some album campaigns involve blockbuster collaborations, TV commercials and big brand partnerships, UNFD is forced to think outside the box. Environmental activists In Hearts Wake got their fans together to plant over 1,500 trees in Western Australia as part of their Earthwalker album campaign in 2014. Then as part of their campaign for Ark earlier this year, the band partnered with marine health charity Tangaroa Blue to lead waterway clean-ups at beaches in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and their hometown of their Byron.
“I’m not saying that I work harder than anyone else, but I have to think a lot harder about how to position our artists, how to continually evolve,” she says. “Luckily for me, everyone [on our roster] wants to evolve.”
Janeska says one accidental part of her role has been educating music media outlets on just how valuable UNFD artists – and more importantly, their audiences – are for their own brands.
“Often [media will] do a story on one of our artists and they’ll say, ‘wow, this is like, the story that’s had the most hits this month or this year’ or something like that; which is really cool. It’s really nice to hear that sort of stuff. I’m like, ‘yeah, I know!’”
Perhaps what’s so charming about the work that Janeska does at UNFD is its contribution to the local heavy music community. In fact, judging by the sea of UNFD t-shirts at local shows, the four sold-out Unify The Gathering festivals, and the mailing list that’s quadrupled in size in just three years, the label may very well be Australia’s heavy music community.
It’s this community that has seen UNFD acts compete at the same level as major label artists whose sound is primed for commercial radio.
The Opera Oblivia Australian tour was one of the greatest and most exciting challenges for us as performers and as a band. We are still on a high from how incredible it was, the energy you guys gave back was beyond our wildest expectations. THANK YOU from all of us. We’re announcing a new tour very soon with some very good friends from across the pond… stay tuned! ❤️? (Video by @jaredleibowitz)
“I think people sort of tend to discount the music based on genre and based on the sound. I mean, there’s a term that I use which sounds very dramatic and maybe a little silly, but I always say that there’s a little bit of ‘genre discrimination’ every now and then.”
Naturally, this ‘discrimination’ can leave Janeska frustrated come Awards season, when labels nominate artists in categories they haven’t previously aligned themselves with, all due to a few instrumental similarities.
“[…] They shouldn’t be there at all,” she says. “But they push themselves into your world and they sort of take all the focus I guess, off those artists. I just think that’s really sad.”
While Janeska believes it’s up to the artists’ teams to decide whether it is right or wrong to operate in a space they’d ignored prior to filling out the nomination form, she says it sends a negative message about heavy music, and its fans.
“Basically what you’re saying is that [heavy acts’] music is so niche or it means so little, that anyone, like people who are not your peers, can win awards in a category that you spend your life working within.”
These may seem like austere words from the soft-spoken GM, but Janeska has had over a decade of experience in the label sector. Following an internship at Roadrunner Records during her first year at university, she worked with some of the biggest names in music at Remote Control, where album campaigns were dreamt up for acts like Radiohead and Adele. Following that, she looked after all the international heavy music acts at what was the biggest indie label at the time, Shock Records.
“When I started [at UNIFIED], I’d already had experience, and I just kept taking on more and more because I was capable and I could do it,” she says with affable conviction. “[…] Until eventually there was nothing else to take on, I was pretty much doing all of it.”
Janeska’s new role as General Manager makes her one of just a few female indie label executives – an epithet she knows carries a weight of responsibility.
“We all have a duty to help other women where we can, and I try and do that as much as possible every day.
“[…] I’ve worked with a number of really incredible women in my time that I’ve loved working with, but when it came to the heavy music industry there wasn’t really that many that I could talk to or that were there to help me up – that’s not saying that they weren’t helpful, they’re not there.“
The team at UNIFIED Music Group is an anomaly in itself; it may have a male founder and CEO, but its team is predominantly female. Janeska is a perfect example of the self-made, strong females who are helming our current age. But while she’s now leading a team of over six people at UNFD and a roster of 22 acts, she hasn’t been immune to workplace sexism in the past.
“I’ve been left out of meetings for major decisions on things that affect me and what I’m working on. I’ve been mansplained to many, many times, over on things that I’m very experienced in,” she lists. “Previously I’ve wasted time just going back and forth trying to get something across the line that I think someone else would have got across the line quicker; I just think about the time that I’ve had to waste to basically do my job.”
Despite these experiences, or perhaps because of them, Janeska is determined to see and create change. Her work at UNFD as much about creating careers for her bands as it is creating pathways and opening door for her female successors.
“It’s pretty well documented how male dominated the music industry is and I think we all have a duty to help other women where we can so that they can have the same opportunities made available to them that their male peers in the industry are currently afforded.
“I try and do that as much as possible every day,” she adds. “The women I work with are all immensely talented, intelligent and creative and I work to nurture that and support them to move forward. I’m very lucky to work with the women I do now and the women I’ve worked with in the past.
“There’s a lot of inherent sexism that we all need to move past, it’s a frustrating situation but I take it one day at a time and I think the discussions happening around the issue are really positive. I’m confident we’ll start to see real change in the future.”
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.