Q&A with Music Entrepreneur Zac Abroms

An ‘incidental’ entry into the music industry saw entrepreneurial Zac Abroms go from running London-inspired music nights in Melbourne, to founding his own boutique artist management and publicity company, Viceroyalty. Zac was kind enough to sit through a Q&A to divulge the realities of working in the music industry, share some tips for budding young music managers and to tell us what record he hopes never gets stolen from his collection.

Was your entry into the music industry a slow, hard slog or pretty simple?

Truthfully, my entry into the music industry was somewhat incidental. As a kid I aspired to be a rockstar but despite years of guitar lessons the pinnacle of my musical achievements comprised of a ‘runner-up’ badge at a high-school battle-of-the-bands. I determined that in my case musicianship was perhaps best reserved as a hobby. Post high school I commenced a Bachelor Of Arts at Swinburne University where I studied a broad mix of media, marketing and philosophy. Though I excelled and thoroughly enjoyed all, upon graduating I was no closer to choosing a career path. Instead I worked retail full time in order to fund a European summer getaway, the bulk of which I spent in London living with a childhood friend who ran in hip musical circles. There I was granted a backstage pass to London’s vibrant live music scene, which was at the time ruled by the likes of The Kooks, The Maccabees, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, Jamie T, Lightspeed Champion, Kate Nash and other NME darlings whom I had the pleasure of witnessing up close on their path to commercial success and artistic recognition. I pinpointed London’s DIY live music scene at venues such as The Troubadour, Notting Hill Arts Club, Proud Galleries and KOKO as the catalyst for the city’s burgeoning pool of talent and returned home determined to replicate that energy in Melbourne for the benefit of my musical peers.

One night while holding court on a milk crate at St Jerome’s (R.I.P.) a longneck of Cooper’s Pale in my hand, I boasted to friends that I was going to found a local live music club night to rival those I’d frequented in London. My claim was met with a resounding chorus of “Yeah, yeah, sure you will”. Partially out of a stubborn desire not to give them the satisfaction of being right, in 2007 I founded Clean Young Mess (the name lifted from a Jamie T lyric) a series of monthly live indie-rock events that showcased emerging local bands of my choosing. From our sold-out opening night the series resonated with Melbourne’s uni-aged music community and ran for almost two years. Though primarily still a hobby, I put a lot of work into Clean Young Mess and via hosting shows by bands such as Oh Mercy, Howl (now Hunting Grounds), The Basics (feat. Gotye), The Frowning Clouds, Lions At Your Door (later Bloods), Villains of Wilhelm (later Dune Rats) the series gained a reputation for breaking talent. My aptitude for sourcing great artists at a grass roots level did not go unnoticed by savvy members of the Melbourne music industry and when former UK record label boss Mark Richardson (ex-Sony UK, ex-Independiente Records) relocated to Melbourne with designs on starting a combined management and label called Forum 5 my name was put forth as a talent scout candidate. I met Richardson for a coffee and we spent the majority of the meeting discussing our mutual appreciation for Queens Of The Stone Age. What began as a weekly catch-up to compare notes on local bands became a part-time role scouting and assisting with the day-to-day operations of the business and eventually grew into a full-time position as assistant to the director with responsibilities relating to the management, A&R and marketing of Forum 5’s roster including Bertie Blackman and Kimbra.

My life in the music industry is …

In a word, charmed. Don’t get me wrong. I work extraordinarily long hours, the majority of which occur in front of a laptop screen surrounded by discarded cups of coffee as opposed to being in the studio or backstage at a festival. Working in music is often a case of feast or famine. One day I might be riding high on a swag of successful activities and the very next nothing will go to plan. The highs are dizzyingly high and the lows are utterly heart-wrenching. It’s no mean feat earning a living in music. I’ve had to hustle for every dollar and even after seven years in the industry I’m still constantly scheming on how I can further monetize the business of music. But all in all, on a daily basis I get to work intimately with some of the most talented musicians on the planet and share in their artistic and career successes of which the flow on effects have the potential to impact world culture and touch millions of people. To receive communication from strangers informing me that they walked down the aisle to one of my artist’s songs or named their child after one of my artists (true story) is an unparalleled feeling. To stand side of stage at a festival with Kimbra and hear thousands of punters belting out the lyrics to songs I can recall her penning years ago as an unknown teenager has at times left me feeling choked up. Any job has its trials and tribulations and any within the creative industries is uniquely challenging, but at the end of the day I have to pinch myself, how many people can say they earn a living thinking and talking about pop music 24/7?

A record burglar breaks into your home and takes all your records but one. You have your fingers crossed that they’ve left behind …

The limited-edition, seven-inch that Japanese Wallpaper presented me of his debut single Breathe In ft. Wafia. Few people know that the original top line on this record’s b-side, Waves was originally performed by Vancouver Sleep Clinic. Fewer people own a recording of that version, pressed prior to Vancouver being subbed out in favour of Pepa Knight from Jinja Safari for Waves’ release as a single. Despite being an enormously sentimental record that marks the beginning of my working with one of Australia’s youngest and brightest musical prospects, it’s a true rarity and I have a feeling it may well be worth something one day.

What made you take the jump from working for Forum 5 to launching Viceroyalty? 

In part, redundancy! The global financial crisis caught up with Forum 5’s parent company who under increased pressure to reduce costs in Australasia terminated our funding. Despite having taken home the gong for ‘Best Independent Release’ with Bertie Blackman’s album Secrets And Lies at the 2009 ARIAs (our first-ever album) and having been deep into developing Kimbra’s debut album Vows, which went on to achieve platinum sales status and earn her back-to-back ARIAs for ‘Best Female Artist’ (2011/2012), Forum 5 was rather unceremoniously cut loose.

My then-boss and mentor Mark Richardson took me for lunch and somberly explained that there simply wasn’t the means to maintain my employment in light of the company’s new-found financial predicament. In the months leading up to the dissolution of Forum 5 I had been courting a band from Adelaide by the name of Fire! Santa Rosa, Fire! I sought Mark’s advice on whether he thought it wise for me to pursue their management in a solo capacity and to my delight he replied in the affirmative. I started Viceroyalty (a name I’d mindlessly scrawled in a notebook years prior) that very afternoon. Fire! Santa Rosa, Fire! became my first signing and underneath my management and A&R, their premiere single Panther Shrine was added to rotation on Triple J where it remained one of the most-played tracks on the station for weeks if not months. Though arguably minor in comparison to later, loftier victories, to this day that remains one of my proudest moments at Viceroyalty for the degree of self-belief in my abilities it inspired.

After founding Viceroyalty I began being contacted by other managers, labels and artists inquiring as to whether I would be willing to apply some of the online marketing techniques I had employed for Forum 5’s artists with their own in a freelance capacity. I annexed ‘Publicity’ to the description of Viceroyalty’s services and four years on I’ve provided freelance PR to all three major labels and more than 50 artists including Active Child, Asta, Chela, Client Liaison, Girl Talk, Japanese Wallpaper, Jessie Ware, Kimbra, Remi and more, in addition to providing management to a small stable of acts.

What PR/marketing tip would you giveaway as a freebie for musicians? 

The spreadsheet is your best friend. There are many aspects of music marketing and PR that are wonderfully creative but even the most brilliant of strategies will suffer at the hands of poor organisation. The maintenance of good spreadsheets is fundamental to executing a successful PR campaign. At Viceroyalty I use them to database media contacts from the world over, recording key information such as names, locations, musical persuasions, email addresses, whom I’ve serviced which artist to and when, what their responses were and where successful, a URL of the media achieved. I’m in frequent communication with more than 400 music websites internationally and though I do my best I can’t always recall whether The Wild Honey Pie in New York covers hip-hop or Le Discolab in Paris liked Yeo’s last single (they did). Without the spreadsheets I’d be at a severe disadvantage.

You can catch Zac Abroms at Face The Music conference on the 14th & 15th November, or follow him on Twitter.