It takes a lot of patience, persistence and talent to be a band manager but how about tour manager or a roadie, a producer, a music photographer, director, book publisher, or a record company and touring company owner? Well, each of those are demanding full-time jobs that are suitable for a handful of the workforce, but there are some, very few mind you, that are capable of merging all of the previously mentioned stress filled careers into one high speed life and not have any second thoughts about it.
Australia's Nathan Brenner is one of those strange beasts able to not just handle the gritty reality of a life in music but relish in the business with all the challenges attached.
I asked Nathan if he would one day retire and stop working to which he replied "I'll die in the saddle. A shark that stops swimming dies."
A fitting quote from a man in an industry where much like the ocean, the strong survive. The adaptable who are able to overcome the constant bombardment of obstacles and roll with the punches, most of the time figuratively and sometimes literally as I found out by asking Nathan about his worse experience with a venue promoter, which was being beaten up and robbed.
Not many can handle the highs of the music business and even fewer stick it out through the low points. The times when you have no money, no hope and the only thing you can rely on and trust is the process. The work itself.
Those who endure and suffer for their art aren't guaranteed success as that is just the price for the ride. The cost to take an honest shot in a dishonest world.
A life dedicated to the arts no matter from what angle, whether you're a musician, painter, producer or tour manager, if your existence is pledged to perfecting an art for the rest of the world to be impacted by, then simply put you must be an artist. One of those rare spirits unable to accept the status quo. Too stubborn to fall in line and too inspired to be average.
Nathan managed a number of groups starting in the 70's with feminist punk band Stiletto and then to Split Enz and Men At Work.
I wanted to know how someone could not just perform all of these jobs but achieve success in each venture and focus. How to start from the bottom to create a knowledgeable foundation and then push it as far as you can. I wanted to know what it takes to make it and make an impact in the art community, so I got in touch with Brenner and asked.
What nightclub did you manage in the 70's?
I started at Martinis, a 250 - 300 capacity single-story nightclub in Carlton Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, as a "Door Bitch" at a small table by the entrance with cash till and tickets on it.
I received $15 per night and free drinks and food. This helped subsidize my studies and life… I was studying at Uni, Art and Design, running the campus newspaper, the head of organizing activities and booking all the events, also the head of the Cinema Society and studying doing real-life photographic experience work with Henry Talbot and when in Australia Helmut Newton.
The Martinis crowd consisted of musicians, artists, writers, criminals, drug dealers, off duty police, prostitutes, actors, heroin addicts and the general public.
I also handled the band load-in and the production requirements accordingly.
In 1976 what was it about "Stiletto" that inspired you to take the leap into managing bands?
Stiletto was a local Carlton band that didn’t have a manager. I had booked them for campus shows, a residency at Martinis and I played as a (very poor) drummer in a band "The Rubber Band" with one of the members.
Stiletto had good commercial songs and some great alt. songs, especially in terms of "feminist punk."
They were great performers and friendly people. I had the opportunity of watching many bands, sound checks and how they ‘worked’.
I also worked during Semester breaks as a ‘bum boy’ (the lowest form of professional life) at a live booking agency, record company, publishing company, touring company doing all the worst jobs, cleaning the toilets, vacuuming, picking up packages, posters, any and all courier work, running errands, picking up suspicious packages, listening, observing, hanging out with musicians waiting for ‘work sheets’.
I also used my learned photographic skills to take promotional photos for bands, record companies, promoters, media papers and specialist Rock papers. I was also invited by International bands to tour with them when they were in AU, to take their tour pictures.
When did you know that you would dedicate your life to the arts?
The Art of Managing and the Arts probably started with my Aunty who worked in the theatre and my mother who was a concert pianist and my father who was a businessman, a manufacturer of Ladies Coats and suits. The Business of Fashion, music is also a fashion.
Do you play any musical instruments?
Yes, drums poorly, guitar and piano worse.
I sing in the shower and am in a few hidden backing vocals on Split Enz records, as I spend a great deal of time with the band when they record.
What is the best band in Australia right now that isn't known to us North Americans?
In your opinion what country has the most musical talent in it?
It varies from time to time. Certainly in the 70’s and 80’s Australia, but the experience of managers was overall limited and most record companies were ignored by their overseas ‘parent’ companies.
There was probably a band better than the Beatles but because they performed in a non-English way were never discovered at all.
Where in your house do you keep your Grammy?
Front Entrance in front of a Beatles and Manager Original Picture, underneath an original Picasso.
Is tour manager a good starting point to launch into band manager as you did with Split Enz ?
I started as a combination, Tour, Stage and Production Manager. Australia was too small to have separate people doing each. I was also a Roady, so in all things taken into consideration the family of a band that included all the workers. So I had a grounding in all things ‘Live’, initially. The day to day handling of the live performance is mostly where a band lives, how they interact, how they arrange themselves personally and musically. I prefer the road to the office, but use my hotel room as my office and had a separate ‘Office suitcase’, pre-computer.
How else would someone interested in managing a band be able to start?
Read first, experience from the ground floor up. People who start up the ladder are only partially aware of the whole ‘world’. This especially so when the most and quickest a band makes money is live and merchandising, with PRO income. Record and Publishing are inequitable and out of date to normal life today.
How do you know what songs belong on an album and which to filter out and to leave for live performances only?
Generally I prefer bands to start with 30 - 35 songs, they get whittled away to about 20, but not lost as their composition ‘bones’ may reconstitute sometime later like a Frankenstein Monster a composer builds from bits and pieces. The remainder go into pre-production and say 16 remains, then some work out in the studio at the time and some don’t. I help pick the singles, as they are commercial compromises that arise.
I actually get a physical reaction to good songs, a tingle down my spine, literally. Also I listen to music as I work, demos and as I concentrate so hard as I work if a song distracts me it is usually quite good.
What is better for an artist's career these days, a hit song on the radio or a trending music video?
The song comes first, the visualization is an interpretation. Having said that a good video can attract attention to the song. When I listen to demos or songs, I usually close my eyes to become more focussed on the song and its elements, rather than be distracted by any visual.
What is the wildest party you've ever attended?
Van Halen in Hawaii and I’m quite conservative and never looked for or received "treats" backstage. I avoid drugs when I work.
Which decade has been your favourite?
The 80’s and now.
What is it about Australia that keeps you there?
It’s young and growing and I can contribute more to cultural growth and archiving. Australia is so young it detests original music and music is an endangered species on the radio.
Australians are known to the world as innovators, what has your biggest innovation been to the music industry?
The ability to enable artists to take control of every aspect of their career, less dependant on labels and publishers and others. If you can enable this type of control all elements from music, image, marketing can be "true" to the creative roots of an act and therefore less polluted with outside, perhaps inappropriate marketing "spin."
What is your favourite song here in 2020?
Was "Circles," now the 80’s influence The Weekend’s "Save Your Tears," these are singles to me, simple, yet complex, great sonics. I have a shuffle play on my Radio Nathan, my I-Tunes Catalogue which is 76 days, 10 Hours, 24 Minutes and 54 Seconds long.
You have impressive credentials, an enviable amount of success and live in what we Canadians would call paradise (especially in December.)
Are you a happy person?
Mostly, I have a beautiful wife, a daughter from my first marriage graduating with a double law degree at a top Law University in Canberra and a young boy 10 years old I’m teaching at home, in Virusville.
You can either wait for opportunity to come knocking or you can take charge and make it happen. Nathan Brenner is one of the latter personalities that achieved not out of luck, but persistence entwined with talent and no regard for being told something can't be done.
Always looking forward, anticipating the next song to chill his spine, Brenner remains ahead of the pack, dialled into the mainstream and underground at the tip of the spear of the Australian and international music scene.