In an industry where reinvention is the only option for survival, we go behind the scenes at music label Future Classic to see how they have come from behind the pack, to lead it.
Touted as Australia’s premier electronic label – covering touring, events, publishing and artist management – the team of 12 has made a cramped, one-room office above a convenience store in Redfern, Sydney, their home. But the boxy, humble space has everything in common with the business itself.
With a heady atmosphere of determination, there is an unexpected seriousness to the rows of laptops and accompanying bent heads above them. It is 4pm on a Friday and there is still work to be done. There might be chairs stacked on top of bookshelves and multiple towers of loose paper, but it would be a mistake to overlook the achievements of this 10-year overnight success.
The self-professed “underdog” in an Australian music scene laden with big corporations, Future Classic brought an extra dimension to an industry in the throes of reinvention, turning attention to breakout artists such as Flight Facilities, George Maple, Panama and Flume who, dare we say it, are no longer simply classics of the future.
“At the end of the day it comes down to good songs and good artists performing them well, recording them well, producing them well and communicating them,” says co-founder Nathan McLay. His partner in business, Chad Gillard, agrees.
In 2013, Flume, AKA 22-year-old producer Harley Streten, catapulted Future Classic onto the international stage and into televisions across Australia when he took home Best Male Artist, Breakthrough Artist, Best Dance Album and Producer of the Year at the ARIA Awards. Regarded as a significant turning point for electronic music, the awards also shone light on the efforts of Future Classic who had been labouring away in the background of the local arts scene for nine years prior – touring international artists, throwing regular parties and diligently pumping out records.
Where It All Began
Nathan: Chad’s sister is my wife’s best friend. He was in a band who played a cover of DJ Food’s ‘The Crow’ and I really liked that song. It’s a great song and maybe 20 people in Sydney knew that song. I was doing events at the time with different musicians and DJs each Sunday and Chad was working in insurance and wanted to be a starving artist [laughs].
We didn’t really think about reasons not to start our own label to be honest. I was already working for Inertia [record label] and I had a pretty cushy job with them – running their digital department and setting up all their early iTunes downloads. It seemed like a natural progression.
Chad: I showed Nathan ‘The Crow’ cover on our four-track media recorder, which I thought was the coolest sh*t ever. I quit my job and told everyone I was going to work in music. I didn’t want to be a suit anymore, I was just bored of it.
The first full-length release that we put out was called ‘Future Classic Attractions’ and the subtext was ‘sophisticated dance floor sounds from Australia’ [laughs]. We regret that now, but whatever.
We had this small network of artists that were from Australia and there wasn’t anyone really working in that musical world at the time. It didn’t make any of us money, but it was fun. But then we started working with a lot more international artists – it was more prestigious back then to have an international artist – but it’s come full circle since Flume came along. It’s come back to the original idea of unlocking this local Australian space and working in that community.
Running the business
Nathan: We’re very DIY. We get our hands dirty. It’s good to see, not only us, but other independent companies giving those global corporations a bit of a run for their money and proving that it can be done.
It’s good being the underdog. When it comes to dealing with the artists, I think we’re pretty honest and blunt with them these days. I think ultimately it’s an important thing to be candid with artists because it doesn’t really help to sugarcoat things. And maybe what we say and what we think is definitely not always right, but you have to commit one way or another to a direction and someone can disagree.
We encourage our artists and our staff and our partners to disagree and have open debate. Our philosophy is that we always go with the best idea and it doesn’t matter if it’s mine or the intern’s idea, as long as it is the strongest contribution to the issue.
Chad: We’ve been very conscious not to burn any bridges. In that, it’s been 10 years and we have learned a lot along the way. I mean, I didn’t really know anything about this industry, I learned most of it from working with Nathan. You gather these contacts, you get a bit of experience, you screw things up sometimes, but you learn from it each time.
I remember the first time Harley [Flume] saw us disagree, he thought that we were having an argument, but it was just our normal process [laughs]. It’s a lot easier when you’re the underdog, because you get to surprise people.
Picking the music
Nathan: We never really do something because we think it’s going to be commercially good, without us thinking it’s good. I want [our sound] to be constantly evolving. I want it to change and every person in the office adds to that DNA. I’d like it to be something that isn’t represented by any one of us and I think that’s what makes it exciting and strong. I hope it is not as simple as any one sound or song.
We’re never really looking for something that’s exactly like something else, which is kind of the first turn-off I guess. It’s a little bit simplistic.
It’s like anything, if you go out to dinner, you don’t want to eat the same thing every night. It has also become more interesting to work with different types of artists [not just electronic acts] and going through a different sort of song writing process. I think we get bored doing the same thing.
Chad: Some of us do, some of us want to eat fried chicken every night [laughs]. In terms of selecting artists to sign, I used to say it’s about sincerity. It has to feel kind of authentic and like its own thing – it’s not trying to be something else.
Increasingly the roster is more and more diverse. The shape of [Future Classic] has changed a lot, especially in the last three to four years. I think part of it is that we are getting older. I remember three to four years ago the conversation was, ‘could I play this song DJing?’ But we don’t live in clubs anymore. Nathan had babies. We didn’t want to just put out house and techno 12-inches for the rest of time.
Where to next
Nathan: We are certainly only just starting to scratch the surface, really. And sometimes you don’t realise when the best ideas are actually the big ideas.
Chad: One of my favourite quotes is ‘the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’. That was on a desk calendar I had when I was 16 [laughs].
We only started managing artists about three years ago. Flume was the first artist we officially managed and that opened up this whole other world in that you can work across all facets [of an industry]. It’s exciting.