Michael Gudinski: Thirty Year Frontier
After 30 years in the business, The Frontier Touring Company has emerged as the leading touring company in the country. Michael Gudinski took time out of his hectic schedule to catch up with Lars Brandle, to discuss the trials and successes that come with 30 years in such a tumultuous industry.
Back in January 1980, one of Britain’s freshest exponents of the new wave movement, UK Squeeze, embarked on their first tour to these shores, closely followed by global smash act The Police. Three decades have passed, and the hits have all but dried up for UK Squeeze. To the casual fan, they are best remembered for their upbeat smash Cool For Cats and for keyboardist Jools Holland, who has since gone on to bigger things. The promoter of that early national run has also gone on to bigger things. Much bigger things.
The UK Squeeze trek was the first presentation for The Frontier Touring Company, an upstart promoting company helmed by Michael Gudinski, then a 27-year-old music entrepreneur. “I was a workaholic who had a dream,” says Gudinski. “But it wasn’t work to me, I just lived it and loved it. Eventually, the dream came to fruition.” Fast forward to 2010, and Frontier has grown into a touring powerhouse. The biggest names in the game have toured Australia under the Frontier Touring banner – Bob Dylan, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Guns ‘N Roses, Eagles and Elton John among them. And the shows keep on coming.
This year Frontier celebrates its 30th year in the business, and the promoter is fast closing-in on its 500th tour. Gudinski, whose penchant for a party is the stuff of industry legend, has a cast- iron excuse to celebrate. The new decade is but a month old, but Gudinski is already clocking up the air miles, catching up with contacts on the other side of the planet. Looking out for the next big thing. And spreading the gospel on his next big thing, The Temper Trap (released in Australia and New Zealand through the Mushroom Group label Liberation Music). “Everywhere I go, people are talking about The Temper Trap,” he enthuses. “It’s really given me renewed excitement that perhaps the big American success will come after all. The next few months will tell. Warren Costello is one of the most underestimated managing directors in the Australian Record industry and we work very well together. Our work style compliments each other and the success of The Temper Trap can be attributed to this”.
The Music Network caught up with Gudinski in the aftermath of a whirlwind trip to Europe and the US, a visit which took in MIDEM and the Grammy Awards, a show he attended with his “mates” Kings Of Leon. The band were big winners on the night, and the festivities continued well into the next day. The veteran impresario also delivered a keynote Q&A as part of the MIDEM music conference in Cannes, the first Australian in 43 years bestowed with the honour. Fittingly, he spoke during MIDEM’s Indies Summit, on what was Australia Day, January 26th.
Gudinski gave the MIDEM audience an inside look at the machinery of the Mushroom Group, and a few tasty soundbites. Forget the 360-degree deal, he told delegates. Between himself, Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell and Chrysalis Group chairman Chris Wright, the indie label legends “came up with the 365-degree deal, because we worked every day and we worked fucking hard.”
Business was always in Gudinski’s blood, but live music was his first obsession. As a teenager, the music fan honed his music business acumen on Melbourne’s dancefloor circuit. At 16, Gudinski was promoting dances. “They became quite a success and we expanded them all around Melbourne,” he recalls. Gudinski found a mentor in music exec Bill Joseph, and the young entrepreneur left the family home to follow his calling. Gudinski found a place to stay in his beloved St Kilda and dabbled with band management, taking on the New Zealand group Freshwater.
Admittedly, the band never became successful. But the experience did give Gudinski a taste of the harsh and unpredictable nature of the music industry. In a band-meeting, one of the members disagreed with the young music man and broke his nose – one of two times it has happened in his life. “If the guy is still alive, he must be just torturing himself,” muses Gudinski. Later, Gudinski would manage Skyhooks, a band who would be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1992. Few would now dare take a swing at the executive.
In the late ‘60s, Gudinski had found a willing ally in Ray Evans. The pair established Mushroom Records in 1972, and launched the Evans Gudinski touring business as a vehicle to promote its acts. The touring company had a lively start, promoting British and American blues bands beginning with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, thenMuddy Waters and Willie Dixon, plus dates for Manfred Mann and Jethro Tull, and even national tours for a rising new band calledAC/DC. Gudinski was preparing to take on the world.
But it wouldn’t be with Evans Gudinski, which crashed out with financial problems. Gudinski pushed on, confident he’d hit upon the right formula. And with a team comprising the likes of Michael Chugg, Evans, Frank Stivala and Philip Jacobsen, Gudinski had found the right chemistry. By November 1979, The Frontier Touring Company was born. “We were the young guys on the street,” he recalls. “We went after a genre of music that a lot of other people didn’t understand. Because of the record company, I’d already spent a bit of time in England, (so I knew to chase) bands like Squeeze and The Police. We were prepared to do a lot of new acts, and it started to snowball quickly.” New talent would prove be a constant theme in the protocol of Frontier Touring.
As time moved on, Frontier’s executive decks would reshuffle, with various partners going their own way, while Chugg became one of the faces of the business. Frontier had a two-pronged attack.
Gudinski ran the show from Melbourne, Chugg would be the Sydney counterpart, the “king of the road” with all the tours at his fingertips. Together, they felt they had the place all wrapped up. At the turn of the millennium, the lethal duo had a seismic bust up. Chugg established his own, rival business Michael Chugg Entertainment. Slowly, but surely, Frontier fought back and took control of the situation.
Gudinski assures the pair have buried the hatchet. “It’s very competitive between us. When it’s all said and done, we’re good friends,” says the Frontier Touring chief. “Chuggi’s proven he’s a great promoter. And so he should, he was taught by the best,” Gudinski laughs. “He’s doing well in his own right, and I’m proud of him.”
Looking ahead, Frontier Touring is keeping one eye on the talent, and another on new tools to bring the goods to market. Frontier’s Web presence underwent a major overhaul last year, directed by Reegan Stark (Frontier’s publicist for 7 years) and emerged as a sophisticated direct- marketing engine with a database of roughly 400,000 music fans. Dates on David Gray’s October 2009 tour sold out without a dollar spent on advertising.
At 57, Gudinski still enjoys a party, and he’s still very much the boss at Frontier Touring. But there is a clear succession plan in place for the business. Phillip Jacobson (an original partner) continues to act as an invaluable consultant on financial matters, and Frank Stivala, who is the only remaining partner in The Frontier Touring Company still heads up The Premier Harbour Agency. There are significant roles for Sydney-based Michael Harrison, an 18-year veteran who rose through the ranks at the affiliated Harbour Agency, and Melbourne-based Gerard Schlaghecke, a 27-year company veteran who also learnt the ropes on the agency side of the business with Premier Artists. Another key exec is Gudinski’s son Matt, managing director of Mushroom Group-affiliated Illusive Music.
Gudinski senior also pays tribute to chief financial officer Carl Nicholas, a 26-year company veteran and a red wine connoisseur par excellence and Mary Bainbridge who has been an integral part of Frontier for 26 years.
Gudinski admits chatter on a sale of part, or all, of Frontier Touring will inevitably crop up in the years to come. “We’ve still got a lot to offer. Are we desperate for a sale? Are we running around hunting for it? No. But we have had different offers, and you’ve got to look at the options that come up.” Don’t anticipate Gudinski to cash in his chips just yet. And unlike his old adversary Chugg, there are no plans for a tell-all book.
Michael Gudinski’s MIDEM keynote Q&A can be streamed atmidem.com