Natalie Waller Talks ARIAs Backlash, Country and the ‘Complete Shock’ of Being Appointed ARIA Chairman
Great leaders, it is said by those who closely observe the machinery of business, don’t set out to lead.
Natalie Waller is a case study.
Waller, the head of ABC Music & Events for the past decade, was tapped as chair of ARIA in mid-2021, replacing the long-serving former Sony Music boss Denis Handlin.
Waller didn’t ask to lead the labels body, never applied for the gig.
“I had no idea I would even be an option,” Waller told The Brag Media’s Luke Girgis and Poppy Reid for the latest edition of Fear at the Top.
When the ARIA board made its decision, and the call came “it was a complete shock to me,” she recounts. “If I’m honest I would say I didn’t expect it at all.”
In addition to her ongoing role with the ABC, Waller is a member of the Country Music Association (CMA) board.
Waller expected, perhaps, to continue on ARIA’s board, for which she serves since 2019.
The top job was surely out of the picture because that’s the way “it’s always been.” Now, Waller is the first female chair of ARIA, and with CEO Annabelle Herd, forms the organisation’s first all-female leadership team.
Looking back, Waller was “overwhelmed, and overwhelmed with the response, the support from the industry.” After receiving “700 messages in various ways,” Waller realised “what a significant moment that was.”
The good times don’t roll on forever. When the nominations for the 2022 ARIA Awards dropped earlier this month, Mallrat called out the industry event for its male-domination, noting that just a fifth of this year’s shortlisted artists are non-male.
Waller and her colleagues felt the backlash.
“We care, we care about diversity, we care about inclusion and we want the most inclusive and diverse ARIAs, but,” she says, agreeing with Girgis, The Brag Media’s CEO, “it starts at the source.”
Pointing out that an industry academy, and in some categories, fans, choose the winners or nominations, what ARIA “we can do is make sure we’re including presenters and performances…that’s where can do a bit more.”
During a rare 40-minute interview, Waller admits she wasn’t raised into Australia’s country music scene, one that’s ranked top three in the world, after the United States and Canada.
“It’s a genre with a lot of potential. It’s going in the right direction,” she admits. “There could be more notice taken,” from radio, media and by way of label investment.
“We should be trying to propel our Aussies into the global market more,” she continues. “It’s an exciting time. But also I think we have a lot of work to do.”
Mistakes, we’ve all made a few. At the close, Waller shared a lesson learned. Earlier in her career, Waller admittedly didn’t speak up enough in the workplace. That all changed when a leader and mentor lent an ear.
“The more you’re listened to, the more you say. I want to make sure everyone in my team has a voice and is listened to. We can learn so much off each other. Just because there’s a hierarchy, it doesn’t mean people at the top know everything.”