Australian indie sector needs AIR. Here’s why.

August-November is always music awards season in Australia. The NIMAs (Indigenous music) took place in August. The NLMAs (live music) are scheduled for 20 October. And November is reserved for the ARIAs (the Aussie Grammys).

But if there’s one ceremony I was looking forward to this year, it’s the AIR Awards, dedicated to the independent recording sector Down Under. It went down virtually on 1 October 2020 and provided a glimpse into the current state of things in the indie sector.

PART 53 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Before talking about the awards, let’s look at a few facts and numbers. It turns out independent music in Australia has over 30% of the market share and is worth $183 million (revenue from the 2018/19) – a force to be reckoned with, in my humble blogger’s opinion. It’s a pretty diverse and fast-growing industry for employment, too. If you’re interested in more related stats, check out this report prepared by Deloitte.

Despite the current circumstances (the pandemic, strict lockdowns, doom of live performances and all), the Aussie indie sector seems to be doing pretty okay.

Musos keep recording and engaging their fans in new, virtual ways (think IG lives). Record labels keep supporting artists and finding new opportunities for them (like drive-in gigs). Distributors keep coming up with innovative ways of getting the music out into the world (i.e. TikTok). It ain’t easy for nobody. But perseverance is the one characteristic that has always (steadily) moved Australian independent music forward.

That’s partially thanks to AIR – the Australian Independent Record Labels Association and their annual awards ceremony, fondly called Aus Indies.

A few words about AIR are in order. It is both non-profit and non-governmental – the two aspects that make an institution or organisation autonomous. But also the two things that make it harder to advocate and secure substantial funding for the members.

AIR’s mission is pretty straightforward: “to foster an increasing marketplace for Australian independent music and assist in the long-term development, growth and success of Australia’s independent recording industry.”

If you’re an indie artist, distributor or label, there’s an array of benefits you enjoy as AIR’s member, i.e. business development opportunities or help with access to international markets (since it’s a part of WIN – Worldwide Independent Network).

It also pays off to be in good company. And that means, for instance, Chugg Music – one of the most successful local music companies whose rep, Andrew Stone, is on the board. Or Bandcamp – an online music platform that participates in “Friends of AIR“. Or Virgin Australia – the local branch of Richard Branson’s airline that gives musos special baggage allowance when touring.

As any other association of its kind, AIR supports the indie sector through a variety of initiatives, workshops and competitions as well. This year’s virtual Indie Con focused on current challenges and forward-thinking solutions, like releasing music in lockdown, live-streaming or music as part of developing gaming and technology.

Funnily enough, of all independent Aussie artists out there, Kylie Minogue’s two recently released songs from the upcoming album top the AIR singles chart (as of 2 October 2020). But you’ll see heaps of less famous names on there, too (amongst them The Lastlings or Mia Wray).

One of the most important events throughout the year is the AIR Awards ceremony, though. This year was no different (although the virtual format called for slight modifications to the format). As the evening’s MC, Dylan Lewis, mentioned in his opening lines, it was a necessary “boost to the morale” for all those who “have soldiered on throughout this year”.

The 2020 show was (fairly) short and (mostly) to the point. Considering that most winners needed to have been notified in advance (so they could record their reactions), there was no need for it to go on forever. I would have spared the viewers some of Lewis’ jokes (like having no pants on for the “Zoom call”). But the guy is in strict lockdown in Melbourne and probably losing it already, so he’s forgiven, conditionally.

Jessica Braithwaite hosted the actual ceremony in Adelaide’s Lion Arts Factory because “we’re in the land of the free where we’re allowed to gather as long as no one’s dancing” (the whole Melbourne be like: jealous!).

There was an official “Welcome to Country” and short yidaki (didgeridoo) showcase by Isaac Haanam. Then the ceremony went on its way, The Teskey Brothers kicked off the performance bit, and I took to Twitter to live-report on it.

There were a few highlights for me on the night:

  • Women represented a significant percentage of the winners and nominees.
  • Politicians (shocking, I know) spoke about the support for the industry in concrete terms. Hon Paul Fletcher MP – the Minister for Communications and Arts – had a short pre-recorded speech. And SA’s own Hon David Pisoni MP – the Minister for Industry and Skills – was present at the ceremony. Both mentioned independent music as one of the pillars for development.
  • The winners brought attention to their teams’ behind-the-scene contribution to their success. This is something uplifting to see in the pandemic times because the music industry generally is much more than just the artists on stage.
  • Angie McMahon won the Best Independent Rock Album – what she described as a “humbling experience and huge honour”. And she was in the running against Nick Cave himself, so respect indeed.
  • Emily Ulman, who created the virtual Isol-Aid Festival, was awarded Outstanding Achievement – a well-deserved recognition. And her reply that she couldn’t “wait to hang out with everyone again” was basically what everyone had on their mind but was afraid to say out loud.

Some other things took me by surprise, though.

I’m not sure I would have classified Stella Donnelly as a pop artist, but she took home the Best Independent Pop Album gong. To Stella’s defence, she graciously mentioned that “the other nominees’ music has been the soundtrack to my COVID”, so I guess she can get a free pass this time round.

On a similar note, since Tones And I exploded on the Aussie and international scene in 2019 (a fact that I don’t dispute or undermine, to be crystal clear), there have been other successful emerging artists. Maybe not on that same scale but definitely making waves, in Oz at least. So I was hoping that honour, along with the Song of the Year award, would go to somebody else for a change (Carla Geneve in the first case or Sampa The Great in the latter maybe?).

When it comes to the Best Independent Label, my money was on I Oh You. Their roster includes some of my favourites: Jack River, DMA’S, Violent Soho or DZ Deathrays. But huge congrats to ABC Music for having taken this award, nevertheless. They have an impressive selection of top Aussie artists under their wings, too (like Mo’Ju, Dan Sultan, Jimmy Barnes or All Our Exes Live in Texas).

Julia Jacklin sent through a bizarre but hilarious acceptance speech for her Best Independent Blues & Roots Album, saying “There were lots of really great hero people in this category… yeah, weird… thanks for giving that to me”. At the same time, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP mentioned, quite seriously, “Thanks to Australia’s indie musos – you mean so much to us.”

And this is what AIR is all about. Humble artists and heaps of music potential. So somebody has to ensure that Aussie indie music keeps on thriving.


For the full list of winners, visit AIR’s website:

And you can watch the entire show here: