The man behind the music

STAR MAN: Promoter Michael Gudinski with Leonard Cohen, who played Wellington this week. "He's very calm, his demands are very limited. He's just very happy.
STAR MAN: Promoter Michael Gudinski with Leonard Cohen, who played Wellington this week. "He's very calm, his demands are very limited. He's just very happy.

Each year the Australasian Music Industry Directory issues its "Power 50", a list of the top 50 most influential music industry people in Australia. Last year Michael Gudinski was No 1.

Gudinski is also well known within the industry here and has been a major player since he founded Mushroom Records and Mushroom Music 40 years ago. Now 61, Gudinski signed Split Enz when they first decamped to Australia in 1974 at a time when many Australians couldn't make head nor tail of the band. Since founding Frontier Touring he has also brought many big name acts here.

Remember the Bob Dylan and Tom Petty double bill at Athletic Park in 1986? That was Gudinski's idea after seeing both artists on the same bill at benefit concert Farm Aid in the United States. This year acts he has brought to Wellington have included Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Gudinski has worked with Young since 1985 - and this week, for the third time, Leonard Cohen. Next year he brings British indie stars Arctic Monkeys, and he is working for the first time with The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, bringing both to Auckland. Frontier Touring employs about 200 people and has an office in Auckland headed by veteran Kiwi musician Brent Eccles. But for all Gudinski's involvement and influence in New Zealand, few outside the industry here would recognise the name.

Gudinski asks to meet in a noisy Wellington pub - and his choice is appropriate. Despite having worked with just about every big name in most people's album collections, Gudinski still takes time to check out young unknown bands in pubs, always on the lookout for something new and exciting.

"You have got to stay in touch with the audience," he says. "It's a bit awkward at some of the pubs because I'll be the oldest bloke there. But I've always been a massive live music fan and seeing a lot of acts in smaller venues is always a good indicator. I talk to punters.

"I've always said that the record company is my day job and the touring is very different. It's a concise period of time. It's hello at the airport and goodbye when they leave."

Gudinski brought several acts to Australia in the 1970s including Lou Reed and Blondie. After founding Frontier Touring, he toured the likes of The Police in 1980. The Frontier roster has since grown to cover artists from Aerosmith to ZZ Top. What sticks out is the variety - Duran Duran, Crowded House, The Cure, Kylie Minogue, Justin Bieber, Foo Fighters and more.

Gudinski says the live scene has changed significantly. "When I started an album cost so much more than a concert ticket. Now it's switched and the live experience has become so much more. Bands used to tour to promote their records. Now they record to promote the tours."

Gudinski says one reason is that live shows are far more sophisticated than they used to be. But people in his position also have to be cautious, he says. Young artists need to be given room to develop and not peak too early in what is a big and very competitive business. There have even been times he has advised acts not to tour so often.

"There are a lot of artists out there who aren't looking for No 1 records, who aren't looking to be the most successful and are happy to treat it as an art. But you have to be careful, some of those people, when they least expect it, have commercial success.

"It's very easy for someone to have a very big hit but not to have done a lot touring."

But Gudinski says there's no magic formula and he is heartened by some examples this year, including New Zealand's Lorde.

"Her success is stunning. I think her people have been very smart and aren't pushing her too hard.

"I saw her play in Sydney and it was really interesting. Her hair was blowing and it was all very Kate Bush. It is just so encouraging. There are so many talented New Zealanders and yet there hasn't been that much international success."

Gudinski says in his early years he tended to sign or tour bands he was also a fan of. These days it's a mix. He didn't count himself as a big Cohen fan before he toured the singer-songwriter, but that's changed, especially seeing how much Cohen enjoys performing.

"He's just a true artist. He wouldn't have toured if he hadn't been financially mismanaged [a few years ago] so something incredible came out of something bad.

"He's very calm, His demands are very limited. He's just very happy."

It's difficult to resist asking Gudinski what it was like to work with many of his artists, but it would take hours for him to tell them all.

He gives several hilarious accounts in the book Every Poster Tells a Story, published two years ago about the history of Frontier.

On one tour he spent half an hour in the same room with Dylan. Dylan only spoke two words and then went to the toilet.

A worried Gudinski told Dylan's manager:, "I don't think Bob likes me".

"Believe me," the manager replied, "you wouldn't be sitting there for half an hour if he didn't like you".

But Gudinski is also focused on the future. Next year is a double whammy.

"I never thought in my lifetime I'd be working with The Rolling Stones."

And he had tried to woo Springsteen more than 30 years ago to no avail. This year Springsteen's manager and producer Jon Landau told Gudinski: "We always wanted to work with you but you seemed too wild at the time."

Gudinski laughs.

"I took that as a real compliment."

The Dominion Post