Reflecting on 10 years of Astral People, an unstoppable force in Australia’s music industry

astral people

Astral People do it all, and they do it best. Whether their forward thinking live music events, their management roster, their newly formed record label or their music publishing arm, Astral People are an independent monolith in the Australian music industry, one that does things on its own terms and with pure artistic taste at its core.

Founded by Tom Huggett, Vichara Edirisinghe and Lee Danilewitz the institution that now is Astral People began as a management company. Since then, they’ve diversified into almost every field in the music industry. They’re most known for their touring arm. Most recently they’ve taken the likes of local artists Genesis Owusu, Young Franco and Milan Ring around the country, not to mention bring international acts for Australian tours from the likes of Stormzy, Sampha, Snakehips, AJ Tracey, Objekt, Freddie Gibbs, Little Simz, Rejije Snow and heaps more. Also on the live front, they’ve curated event series such as OutsideIn Festival, Last Dance NYE and Summer Dance, as well as curating stages at the likes of Vivid Live, Strawberry Fields, Subsonic and Splendour in The Grass.

Their incredible track record does not stop there, as many artists call Astral People their home base on the management and record label front. Their record label has seen hot releases from the likes of legacy Sydney electronic act Wave Racer and up and coming superstar Stevan. They also take care, and have developed the careers of artists such as Milan Ring, Retiree, Winston Surfshirt, Arno Faraji, Moktar and many more.

Astral People have been going at it for 10 years, and were meant to celebrate their 10th Birthday as a part of Vivid Live in 2021. They curated a two night event in the Opera House Forecourt with a pair of diverse lineups, perfectly showcasing their taste and impact as a brand in Australian music. The lineup featured the likes of Milan Ring, Hiatus Kaiyote, Cosmos Midnight Genesis Owusu & The Black Dog Band, DJ Seinfeld, Andras & Oscar and Dameeeela. They’re forward thinking in everything they do, recruiting some of the biggest indie acts in Australia, combining them with some of the most iconic underground electronic adored artists within our scenes. It’s that combination that makes Astral People just work. There’s a careful attention to detail and curation in everything they do and it’s that ethos that’s driven them to the forefront of independent music companies in Australia.

Despite the cancellation of the 10 year show, we were lucky enough to chat with Astral People founder, Vichara Edirisinghe to reflect on the decade that’s been.

 

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There’s a rumour Australia started at Dimitri’s Pizzeria. What was the initial idea or structure for Astral People? 

Astral was started by three people, myself, Tom Huggett and Lee Danilewitz. Basically, we came together with the idea for starting Astral  People, and the first place we would go to meet as ‘Astral’ was at Dimitri’s on Crown Street. Those initial ideas were definitely focussed as a management company. At the time Tom Huggett was managing acts, Lee and I were also managing artists. We just thought to put all the acts together into a family network, into a pool of clients and Astral People was born. It’s since then been diverted into so many different facets of the music industry. 

A decade is a long time. Longevity and independence is a big thing. How much pride comes in being completely independent for that long a period of time?

It’s so much pride. The fact that we’ve been able to do it our way, or sacrifice any integrity, being selective with projects we work on is something we hold very dear to ourselves. We have never to this day in 10 years, taken one loan, or debt. We’ve never partnered for a holistic merger, or external investment. Every single thing thats come from Astral was birthed by our first ever launch party. All the money that was made for that was reinvested. 

How do you think, from an ethos perspective has the Astral overarching ideology changed?

I remember in our early days we were always very stern on not compromising our vision. The vision was basically to bring different genres and tastes into the fold and not to be directly a dance, hip-hop, grime, soul or indie crew. We do all of those things. In those early days it would have thrown people off a little bit, people would question “how would they go to a Freddie Gibbs show to a Palms Trax show the next week.” I’m so glad we stuck to that initial vision, so now we can do whatever we want when we want to do it. We have that freedom to do so, without being grounded by any genre. It’s super opening for us and allows us to divert into different worlds. 

Why do you think that blend of genres works so well? I attended both Freddie Gibbs, and then went to Objekt as well and it was a no brainer.

Australia has always leant on the UK in terms of taste. Things that work in the UK over time translate quite well into Australia. Things in Europe and UK, like the house scene that’s exploding in Australia. The Summer Dance series we were running was doing 1500 people in advance every time 4 times a summer. And of course Grime is the biggest genre out of the UK, and thats doing really well in Australia. We’ve always had that connection with the UK as an organisation and in Australia. The US is definitely more different. Things from the US work well in Australia but not the other way, but with the UK I feel like it definitely works both ways. At the end of the day these are the genres we just love to promote, and it makes my heart warm that people go between the two. 

There’s such a big crossover between hip hop and electronic DJs at the moment. The DJ cross pollination is so interesting to see unfold at the moment.

That’s the beauty of the genres. You’ve got these techno artists now producing for pop artists. The lines are so blurred between genres right now. It was everything that we foresaw 10 years ago. You can do it all, you can promote different genres and they can all work together. It’s come full circle now. You can see it in the way that festivals are programmed now. They’re so diverse in sound, from classic indie, hip-hop headliners, a throwback artist, to underground DJs, that’s the makeup of a lot of those boutique lineups. 

How do you think today’s Covid context has affected the way that you’ve reflected on the monuments? Does it make it more emotional, or do you feel it feels less real without true big physical events?

It’s a bit from both. With the 10th birthday at Vivid not happening, we don’t get excited for any event until we are standing at the show on show day. Regardless, we really feel the lineup was super reflective of what Astral People means and is. We are so super grateful that Vivid and the Opera House allowed us to potentially put together a lineup like that in a space like that. 

It takes almost, luck to be able to throw live music in the past couple of years. My other focus Parry Talks has been trying to throw a small club night since January last year and we’ve just had no luck.

There’s a lot of luck that goes into it definitely. We’ve been super lucky in Australia generally, we had a 24 date Genesis Owusu tour that most of the dates could happen. We recently had to reschedule the whole Young Franco tour that we were running. It’s just a bit frustrating, some shows happen and others don’t and there’s no way to tell. Until we are all vaccinated, or a big part of the population are, I don’t think we’ll go back to a free flowing booking industry. 

 

Astral has always felt like a family brand that properly takes care of artists. Was it difficult to transition into the record label space, or do you feel like it was a super natural transition for the organisation?

Every single thing we do at Astral is very organic growth focussed. We initially started as a management company. At the time we had such a small roster of developing artists. We had to bring in other income streams. That’s when we started doing parties and events. After that, it became an evolution into touring international artists. We found it was a great income stream for us, and was a great part of the industry to get into. Also, it gave our management artists to support these artists and collaborate with these artists. Everything was always done thinking about the other aspects of the business. Soon after that came the festivals like Outside In to showcase those local artists. 

Naturally after that came publishing and the record label. We had people knocking on our door to set the record label up early, but it didn’t feel right then. We only want to set up a record label that was a point of difference, and support what we were doing on the local and international touring front. We wanted to set up something like a label, we wanted to assist those international artists in the Australian region. Everything’s always worked symbiotically. We never planned well in advance to set these things up, it’s always just what has felt right for us and also, the main thing at all times, was to make sure whatever we do to do it properly.

Whether we set up a publishing, label, or touring arm, if we are going to do it, we need to give it the time and attention that it needs to make it impactful. We see so many companies starting new businesses. We want everything that we do to be robust, and of course to mean something. We’ve added all these things to the business over a very long time period, 10 years to be exact.

My favourite of your events and event series had to be Summer Dance. How rewarding was pulling that off in a city like Sydney?

Summer Dance was a party that Tom and I just wanted to be at. We loved going to outdoor parties. We were inspired by this New York Party, Mister Sunday, that’ pulls diverse crowd. Summer Dance started as a reaction to lockouts. The late night parties were not making economic sense to us. So thinking outside the box, we got through the long process of getting the party approved at the National Art School, and Summer Dance was born.  The first two years it was a tough slog, from council issues, sound issues, complaints. The first ever Summer Dance party with Omar S was bucketing with rain. After time I’m so glad we stuck with the vision. After those tough years people began to realise that it was a sick outdoor party in the middle of Sydney at an affordable price. We were able to fine tune the concept perfectly, to the point that where we left it it was selling out in advance, 1500 tickets.

We look back on it with the fondest of memories. In its last years, with the context of Sydney, police were coming down to Summer Dance, and it was just weird. We had never caused any issues with behaviour. It was one of the only parties we did with a 60/40 split female to male ratio, which is something we are really proud of. When that starting happening Tom and I reflected on it. The last thing we want to do is running it into the ground, and let it end the way we saw it heading with external restrictions. We made the decision to leave it, while it was at its peak. Maybe one day we will bring it back when the stars align. We are so thankful that we were able to run in Sydney.  

Tough question here, how do you measure success? Not so much from a business goals standpoint in terms of coin or anything like that. But from the point of view of the business, what impact do you want to make?

For Astral, it’s leaving a legacy behind on this city that is positive, inclusive and nurturing. When we first started there were so many different scenes and crews doing their own things in their own little pockets. Now looking back on it, it feels like people are coming together, being supportive and helping in any way we can. We want to make sure everyone is heard, from all different backgrounds. We want to make them feel like they’ve got a say and voice in this city. The other main side of Astral people is the education side of things. One thing that I’ve been doing a-lot of is lecturing and education. Educating new people coming through in the industry and giving them the tools needed to pursue careers in the music industry. I would have saved four or five years if I had a mentor that helped me and pointed me in the right direction. Being able to support people, and being the company that anyone can come to for any little bit of advice, our doors are always open. 

Words by PARRY TRITSINIOTIS

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Parry Talks, and also writes.