Missed Mardi Caught’s showstopping BIGSOUND keynote? We have the full transcript
As the dust settles on BIGSOUND 2018 the stories start rolling out about what was the most showstopping moment of an already electric festival. One of the moments that has been on everyone’s lips for the last week was the keynote speech from The Annex founder Mardi Caught.
Caught used the lesser-known story of The Beatles rocky rise to fame to frame a conversation around failure, success, gender double standards in the music industry and the community as a whole.
It’s a speech that hit so powerfully that to distil it to soundbites would do it an injustice, please enjoy the entire transcript of Mardi Caught’s BIGSOUND keynote address.
Before They Were The Beatles
Once upon a time, there were a group of boys called John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete. They grew up in a place called Liverpool and loved playing musical instruments. They had met through friends, a church fete – just the normal way kids put together a band in a small town. They quickly outgrew Liverpool though, and decided to call themselves The Silver Beetles and try international touring – heading off to Hamburg to take up a residency. There – they discovered recreational drugs and Stuart discovered Astrid – a budding photographer – she took this photo.
When the rest of the band decided to go home to get a record deal Stuart stayed behind. They did some demos for Decca but were rejected. Their new manager Brian Epstein had to then negotiate the return of them so he could approach other labels. Most of which said no. Finally, one of EMI’s subsidiaries – Parlophone – agreed to sign The Beatles.
So why am I standing here giving you a brief history of the Fab four. Well, because when we think of them now – and don’t worry I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of people in this room who have no idea what I’m talking about unless they like Rae Sremmurd – we talk about how big they were. Their number one records, the classic melodies and the massive success. The fact they had to stop touring because they couldn’t hear themselves play above screaming fans. All of their success. Very rarely do we talk about their failures.
We may talk about how they fell apart at the end – but we don’t talk about how hard those early formative years were and how they fuelled the band’s ambition. How their failure helped shaped their success. How many of you knew that Decca Records said no, and the interesting thing about Parlophone is that it was regarded by EMI as a label for “insignificant” releases. When they finally got a deal – it was with a label that released classical and comedy records. Fortunately, the man that ran Parlophone was a guy called George Martin. Today I would like to explain how failure and success should be considered as one of the greatest musical partnerships since Lennon and McCartney.
I have always had a great affinity with The Beatles – they were my gateway drug into music. Primarily it was the love of their tunes and their lyrics that drove me – the moment I heard Sgt Peppers on my Walkman (yep I’m that old) for the first time was sheer magic. I know I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with the Fab Four, so I’d like to tell you a story about what was happening on the other side of the world as the Beatles rose to fame.
Like Mother, like daughter
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far – yeah nah, but I’ve always wanted to say that on a microphone… okay so in a town far far away called Adelaide there lived a girl called Denise Backhurst. She had caught beatlemania bad. So much so she and her two best mates, Stuart and Trevor, formed the South Australian Beatles fan club. The boys were made president and treasurer – while Denise was appointed Secretary. When they found out that the Beatles were going to skip Adelaide on their Australian tour – they became incensed and organised a petition to bring them to the state. The band and their team acquiesced and the amount of people that gathered to see them at the town hall made history – it was the largest crowd in the southern hemisphere to see the Beatles.
People always tell me that I look like my dad, and my sister is a dead spit for my mum. I like to think I have her cheekbones – you can all be the judge of that. Denise is my mum and when she revealed to me that she had been involved in organizing this amazing thing it was in her usual humble, quietly spoken way. Just casually dropped into conversation that she had helped but she never talked about actually meeting the band. When I starting preparing this speech it was bugging me so I finally asked her if she did –
“No – I didn’t, numbers were limited so the boys decided to included themselves and not me – but that’s what it was like back then,” was the response.
That’s what it was like back then.
If anyone remembers anything from this speech today I’d really like it to be that I’m the last woman that ever says that sentence in a Big Sound Keynote. I’d like to think that the women who come after us will never have to live an era of acceptance and will continue to move forward. And I’d like to think – that ALL we are going to do now IS move forward.
Often it feels like we’re still looking inward at how much we haven’t achieved as women that we sometimes forget to acknowledge what we have done. When I came into the industry, I had a wonderful mentor named Fifa Riccobono who was the MD of Alberts and was there from the start with AC/DC – she was the kinda kick-arse trailblazer I wanted to be. Guys dealt with her on her terms and when she talked about music her eyes lit up.
Passion and respect – two words that are wonderful traits to have as a leader – no matter your gender. But Fifa was pretty the only one. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when a magazine publisher asked me which women I looked up to, I realised I had been looking side to side since her retirement, rather than up. But is that a bad thing? It makes me proud to stand here and know the next generation can look at people like Jess Ducrou – MD of the Secret Sounds Group, Susan Heymann MD of Chugg Entertainment, Cath O’Connor CEO of Nova, Jane Huxley MD of Spotify, Rachel Newman Director of Australia for Apple as just few of the examples of how the world is changing.
And then you have those people like Nina – who like me – came to a point in her career where she had to make some decisions. Often career choices appear as a fork in the road – but I think both Nina and I can attest that occasionally you need to go all Back To The Future and act like Doc Brown because sometimes “where we’re going we don’t need roads.” As Nina has shown by starting up NLV Records – every now and again you may need to act like a boss – and simply make yourself the boss.
Like the Beatles, there have been points in my life where failure has played an integral part in my success. I have been tested and questioned and I’ve been just downright wrong sometimes. But on every single one of those occasions, it’s been up to me to work out how I react and learn from those moments. It’s not up to anyone else. Even when I have people around me, guiding me to find the way – it’s still my choice as to whether I listen to them or not.
Along Came George
Which brings me to my next favourite thing in our magical mystery tour. George Martin.
So, when they showcased for Parlophone and he sat the Beatles down to discuss the deal he asked “is there anything you don’t like” – a phrase I’ve said to many a band when we’ve chatted about their future. Apparently, George Harrison responded, “Your tie for a start” before the rest of the band joined in and gently started “trolling” Mr Martin to his face. Could have been disastrous – but as we now know – not so much.
On paper – it’s a strange relationship. A very posh classical music producer working with four long-haired kids – but in reality, it was a magical one. They developed an undeniable respect for each other as they started working together. They argued, they disagreed but ultimately, they both learnt from each other. They were open to every idea no matter where it came from.
I would like to think this is something I’ve tried to hold true to in the 20 plus years I’ve been doing this – but I fear not – as initially, I was the young upstart with big ideas and no tact, and now I’m an adult who grudgingly has to admit that youth isn’t necessarily always wasted on the young. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone if you are open enough to receive them.
Experience is relative
As I’ve started my new adventure in “start-up” land I’ve been reminded again and again that the one thing that I know is – that I know nothing. Probably not the best marketing tactic, standing in an auditorium of my peers saying yep – I have no idea what I’m doing – but I think if someone tells you they know how music works these days they’re lying. I do have experience on my side though, although it may not actually be my ally. I can sometimes tell people that something’s not going to work out for them because guess what – I may have just fucked up the same thing 10 years ago.
The kicker about experience is you can’t always predict an outcome primarily because of the variables of human nature. Ultimately you have to internally balance your sense of failure against the possibility of killing success. As much as failure and success are bedfellows, they are strange lovers.
I will always advocate for failure when it teaches you how to be better, but not when it helps you shutdown ideas, particularly if they are not your own. I cannot argue enough that creativity and ideation in terms of teams and workplaces need to bear the title of a safe space. The Beatles and George Martin respected each other but they also experimented, failed, rebooted, tweaked and took the best possible music out into the world as a result. In terms of running successful campaigns and also an ideal workplace – the Beatles studio mentality should be viewed as best practice. It was always a free space to create and the results are undeniably strong because of it.
As previously determined – I’m not only old enough to have owned a Walkman but also to have worked vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, downloads, streams and vinyl again. It was only a couple of years ago at another BIGSOUND event where I had an epiphany about the unique relationship between experience and learning. The moderator kept asking us about decline and how the industry would survive with fewer and fewer CD sales.
Claire from Bossy and Nathan from Future Classic were both on the panel and responded in the most brilliant way possible. In essence, they both said, “well, we can’t really talk about that because we’ve only ever worked in the digital age.” Simple right? They had never known decline like I had – they had only ever seen metrics that lived in growth. And for me it was like “mind blown” as I had totally bought into the idea that we were failing as a business because we weren’t selling CDs anymore. I had lived through a decade of redundancies and I was so anchored to that loss and the industry of the past that I couldn’t see the opportunity or the upside or even acknowledge there could be a way forward. And that actually it was a pretty good one.
I realised at that point – I was no George Martin.
The power of the Mother
I have come to the understanding that the only way to progress is to always think you’re in year 1. Which is kinda good, because at the moment I am actually in year 1. I may have a shit tonne of experience, a good amount of learning and may have made many mistakes but if I view everything as year 1 – then I can mould that inherent knowledge to guide the people I work with to the best path forward.
I can’t tell them what the future looks like, but I can help them make decisions and choices they are happy with. And most importantly I can understand that year 1 is full of learnings and fuck ups – it’s not meant to be perfect, or easy – but if I can allow myself to understand that – I might just survive.
I think you’ll all agree most of the time the harshest critics tend to be ourselves. It’s our ambition and goal setting that can be both drivers for success and yet at the same time, inhibitors to happiness. A few years back I was trying to get a band to come around to our way of thinking as a label – we had a difference of opinion over artwork and in the midst of all the discussions someone asked me why I mothered them so much.
I mumbled something in response and went onto the next point feeling that I had failed. I automatically took the mothering comment as a criticism – it was a genuine question but I interpreted it as questioning my style. And I felt guilty, and weak. Later that night as I was helping my little one with the oh so joyous task of toilet training, I started to laugh at the definition of mothering I had applied earlier that day.
Mothering is literally cleaning up someone’s mess. It’s teaching them. It’s watching them make mistakes because that’s the only way they’ll learn. It’s hugging them when they need support. Celebrating in their success. It’s sometimes scolding them so they understand there are boundaries and acknowledging it when they respect that. Often, it’s shouting just to get heard.
Why would I choose to deem all those things a criticism, yet I willingly applaud someone for being a great Father Figure.
Those gentle words that discriminate are still propagated by society not just me, but I was actively buying in. I would watch all the Dads leave the office bang on 5 when they were doing the school run, while I consistently would be there till 8 o’clock or run out the door 30 mins after I was meant to leave. I was so determined as a woman to show everyone I could do everything, I was failing myself. And my family. And furthermore, I was failing other women.
It’s okay not to cope, and it’s okay to just get through – as long as you feel that you are doing the best you can. Not some souped-up image of perfection, but simply a human who is trying to achieve at work while at the same time enjoy a balanced life. Not some person who works all hours of the day and gives off this air that they are coping, when in reality they forgot to order their kid’s lunch some days because of US conference calls.
There is still a long way to go in how parenting and the music industry can co-exist but there are also people that can help you through. It was my boss who pointed out that phones and the internet work at home when I got one of those many calls from day-care and I was freaking out about a budget we had to nail. We need to not only support each other in the workplace and know that tech allows freedom that it didn’t before, but first and foremost we have to support ourselves as individuals.
Don’t put up or shut up
When I first got promoted to head up a team at Virgin Records in London, I decided my leadership style would be one where I would not only lead from the trenches but also by example. Somewhere along the way I lost that notion. Again, it’s this institutionalized acceptance of “well that’s what it’s like so if you want to play just suck it up.” If I am accepting of a bad work situation as a member of the management team then aren’t I just as complacent in not forcing change by demanding it rather than simply indulging it? If I do want to end this era of acceptance, then surely the first person to lead from the trenches has to be me.
Cardi B’s recent acknowledgement of how your personal expectations may not necessarily sit with the reality of life is such a step change for our insta perfect society rules. It is hard to find a way through sometimes and that’s the moment you should be able to put your hand up and ask for help. It is not a failing to admit your human – it is a failing however, if you’re inhuman when someone does.
You define success
When I first started on this music path, I had many goals … work for Rolling Stone, marry George Michael and maybe work for a record company. So yeah one out three of ain’t bad. My definition of my personal success now is very different from the 21-year-old me that, like my mum, started out as a secretary.
My definition of success this year, is incredibly different to the one I had 18 months ago as well. But that’s okay. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to – George never wrote back for example – but by re-defining what success looks like we can continually evolve in our careers – Just in the same way that success looks different to every person in this room. Some of you might be working with artists that want a Top 10 record – others a highly grossing tour or merch income. And while for some it’s just getting an idea into work or being heard.
The only person that can truly define that success is the individual – not your peers, not the industry and certainly not the internet. There are people that are obviously going to help you deliver your version of success, but they don’t need to define it. And if those people are part your team – your MVPS – then in the same way The Beatles and George Martin deferred to each other with the utmost respect in the studio environment, the same rules should apply in any workplace.
It may be as simple as removing the “asst” from someone’s email, and letting them operate in your business under their own name, or understanding the perspective of why someone is not supporting your music in terms of their own business. Changing the question from “why won’t they play me” to “how is this music relevant to your audience” might be the breakthrough you need. We are all part of this wonderous, exciting, weird ecosystem called the music industry and if we actually take a step back now and accept that we’re all playing in the one team we could just become that one thing we all aspire to – a community.
And all good teams need a club anthem right – well I think I found it.
Safety in numbers
I’ve always thought With A Little Help From My Friends was one of the more twee Beatles songs in truth, and not one that I had on repeat. It wasn’t until the Joe Cocker version that I truly understood the frankness of the lyric. What do you see when you turn out the light? Well, I can tell you throughout my career it’s been a mix of many things but anxious thoughts or contentment seem to be two of the most consistent themes.
When I think of why I’m standing here, talking to you now I know it’s because of all the people that I’ve connected with along the way. Alongside those that have helped me get here, there have also been those that have hindered me – and trust me, you’re as much as an inspiration as every mentor I’ve ever had. Those words up there on the screen now describe everything from adoration to insecurity, the loneliness of touring, the feeling of inadequacies, the joys of being “Iit AF” – all of this from a song 51 years old. Sometimes revisiting the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing, don’t be anchored to it as I’ve pointed out, but we can still learn from it. The vulnerability the Beatles threw out there lyrically in a 3-minute pop song is breathtaking but the application of support is up to all of us in this room.
Failure is not the end
The Beatles were in no way perfect – and that’s the beauty of it – one of the most successful bands on the planet was full of flaws. They failed in their friendships, they failed in business having sold off their publishing – ultimately, they proved they were human, not gods. As they moved throughout their career they changed their goals – albums became more important than touring, the studio their safe space. And when it didn’t work anymore they ended it. Sometimes walking away is one of the toughest choices you have to make even though it may be the only one. But they were in control of that decision and owned it. My mum was not only smart enough to help organize a moment in their history, she also taught me a very wise practice:
If you’ll regret it, don’t do it, and if you do it, don’t regret it.
That simple sentence has helped me embrace my mistakes and guide me towards success. Success – as I know it today – who knows what that will look like for me in another decade.
My tales of The Beatles have hopefully shown that history is a wonderful editor. So, if you are a band member or a manager remember things worked out pretty well for our fab four. Not getting a label deal doesn’t mean the end of the world – it means recalibrate, learn and get back in amongst it. The one person I haven’t mentioned is the dude that worked at Decca – imagine being known as the A&R guy who didn’t sign the Beatles – his name was Dick as well which is pretty awesome. There’s that Dick that didn’t sign the Beatles. Anyway – he went on to sign the Rolling Stones, so things worked out for him too. It wasn’t the road they thought they would be all on – but you know Doc Brown is a smart bugger and also a time traveller and obviously got it right about not always needing roads.
Nobody owes you a career, you are not entitled to it. You have to earn it. And life is not an Instagram story – it’s hopefully long, meandering and a little confusing at times.
Don’t get me wrong – it should always be full of likes but those moments should last longer than a five second double tap. Now when I hashtag my career I don’t consider the phrase Epic Fail as an option which I would have done a year ago because now I know that some fails can be gloriously epic.