The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

Another musical interlude this week.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Hall, one of the best venues for live music, thanks to its acoustic design and sonic ambience. I have seen a number of events there – chamber music, jazz, vocal, electronic, avant garde and contemporary classical – and the sound quality is invariably superb. Not all the programming works (a few of the support acts I have seen feel like they are trying too hard – maybe the sense of occasion has overwhelmed them?), but it’s a valuable addition to Melbourne’s cultural landscape. In recent months, I have seen a number of singularly powerful concerts, but each of them very different.

First was Julia Holter, who for me is one of the most interesting and more compelling singer-songwriters of the current era. I had seen her on her previous Australian tour (at a club venue), but I was still unprepared for her latest performance at the Recital Centre. Although she composes and writes all her own songs, Holter relies on the interplay between her close-knit band of backing musicians to give dynamic life to her music, as she leads and plays keyboards from the front. Her singing voice is a particularly striking instrument, and unlike many of her contemporaries she doesn’t “over sing”. She avoids the annoying habits of histrionics and over emoting, or resorting to vocal gymnastics and sterile vocalisations that many singers deploy to compensate for a lack of depth, warmth or soul. Rather she lets her natural and sometimes low-key voice stand in its own right, and when unleashed in the space of the Recital Centre, it really fell like she was “playing” the venue, as an extension of herself. At one point, just as the band launched into another song, Holter stopped abruptly – turned to the double-bass player and asked, “Wait, was that really the F?” because she thought he had come in on the wrong note. Despite being a seasoned performer, it seemed that she had never really “heard” her own music that way. It was clear that this experience inspired her to go even further, but there was nothing forced, contrived or artificial about her performance.

Next came Grouper, probably the most introverted live performer I have ever seen. As a solo artist, Grouper clearly does not fully relish being the centre of attention. The stage was already very dimly lit as she come out to perform, but she immediately asked for the lights to be dimmed even further. Using piano, guitar, electronics and effects Grouper proceeded to play a continuous series of mainly instrumental pieces, with no audience interaction or between-song patter. This was live music as pure performance. It was also incredibly soporific – OK, so I was a bit jet-lagged, but it was like listening to music designed to put you to sleep, and I’m sure I was not alone in the audience in drifting off. There was a palpable stillness in the auditorium that we rarely experience in our “always on” and digitally intermediated world. It was also (ironic?) confirmation that we need these sorts of experiences to recharge our own batteries.

Finally, Hauschka played a non-stop sequence of pieces for prepared piano and electronics – for around 80 minutes, despite suffering his own jet-lag, he mesmerised with the intense but fluid dynamics of his playing style, complemented by some simple but highly effective lighting design. In complete contrast to Grouper, he prefaced his performance with a 10-minute spoken introduction, where he commented on the ways he deals with life on the road as a musician (including the jet-lag), the context for his recent work, and his gratitude that on a previous visit to Melbourne, he made a chance encounter that changed his life for ever, as it launched his career as a soundtrack composer – and in that regard, putting him on a par with Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But what is also appealing about his performance is that, notwithstanding its impact, it is modest, understated, and above all authentic – with none of the faux-authenticity that many folk, rock and soul performers have to seem to resort to.

The Melbourne Recital Centre has the ability to reveal the “true” performer, while giving rise to a type of performance that only succeeds when it is natural, honest and not contrived, forced or inauthentic.

Next week: My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Startup Victoria: supporting successful founders

I’ve been attending Startup Victoria’s meetups for more than 5 years, and have been a paid-up member for most of that time. The event formats and the key personalities have changed over the years, but the mission has always been to help create more founders and better founders, and to support the broader startup ecosystem. At last month’s AGM and panel discussion, the Board announced that the focus has now shifted to “helping founders to succeed”. A subtle change, but an indication that the local startup scene is finally maturing.

As part of this renewed focus, Startup Vic wants more corporates to engage with local startups – as suppliers, strategic partners and potential target acquisitions. Given the challenges startups face in meeting enterprise procurement processes (especially in the public sector…), this will not be easy. The path to engagement with startups has to be considerably de-risked before purchasing managers will get the sign-off to onboard new vendors.

That challenge aside, another observation from the panel discussion of founders and advisors was that Startup Vic needs to connect newer founders with more experienced founders, those who have already taken a startup to scale up to exit. Plus, as a leadership organisation, Startup Vic recognises that more needs to be done to highlight local success stories. That doesn’t just mean the startup community celebrating itself – it means spreading the word publicly and getting more media airtime for businesses that are building sustainable growth in the new economy.

One of the panelists asserted that “some of our politicians would rather have their photo taken with the winner of the Melbourne Cup, than be seen with the founders of Atlassian”. A bit harsh, perhaps – but I know that they mean. Aligning themselves with sporting heroes probably does more for their public profile, compared to hanging out with our key tech entrepreneurs in order to learn what government could do to foster more startup success.

To be fair to the Victorian Government, it has been trying to implement an innovation strategy that brings participants together – founders, investors, incubators, accelerators, etc. This has resulted in: the Victorian Innovation Hub (plus a number of sector-specific tech centres); LaunchVic (to provide grants to projects designed to foster the startup community); and engagement with overseas VC funds and offshore tech companies (to position Victoria as an investment destination, and as a national, regional or even global HQ).

Meanwhile, the panel also debated whether too many local founders are more interested in building a “lifestyle business” for themselves, rather than creating say, a $250m company. This apparent lack of ambition was seen as something of a local phenomena, partly linked to Melbourne’s status as one of the world’s most livable cities, partly linked to a generally benign Australian economy (but with a growing number of stress points), and the usual cultural factors such as the tall poppy syndrome. There are also some structural challenges in the economy (restrictive trade practices, a lack of competition in highly concentrated markets, continued economic uncertainty post-mining boom, delays in rolling out the NBN, a potential credit squeeze…), plus a growing distrust of public institutions and major corporations. This disenchantment and disengagement is not helped by a lack of strong leadership in government and in business – so why would anyone with any sense want to get involved, and hence the desire to take care of one’s own needs first.

Finally, emphasizing the need to re-think the founder mindset and to provide a better foundation for building the businesses of the future, Startup Vic is also committed to both the professional and personal development of founders.

Next week: Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

 

 

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators