John O’Donnell (EMI boss & Cold Chisel co-manager): AIM Industry Insights Podcast

John O’Donnell is a voracious consumer of music; a passion that has struck a chord throughout his long and loud career in the Australian music industry. Now Managing Director of EMI and co-manager of the iconic Cold Chisel, John joined host Ed St John for this week’s episode of the AIM Industry Insights podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify podcasts.

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John O’Donnell got his start in the Aussie industry as a rookie reporter for street press and Rolling Stone. After a staff walkout at Rolling Stone, he took the helm at the staff-spawned new Australian music magazine Juice, where he continued to amass a terrifyingly vast record collection. John went on to form a subsidiary of Sony Music called Murmur in the mid-Nineties and was responsible for signing a slew of iconic Australian bands including Ammonia, Jebediah, Something For Kate and the teenage “lightning in a bottle” that was Silverchair.  

These days, John’s role at the top of EMI sees him keenly involved at every stage of his artists’ trajectories as they navigate an industry streaming through rapid change. Beyond overseeing a string of successful records from the likes of Empire of The Sun and Jet, he still has an enthusiastic ear out for new talent: he was charmed by Angus and Julia Stone when they were still playing an empty Manly Boatshed (and has since watched them become international festival darlings). Alongside co-authors Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson, John committed his favourites to print in “Best 100 Australian Albums,” shockingly the first book to focus on great musical works created exclusively on our shores. 

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John’s lifelong rock and roll vision quest doesn’t end there. He also co-manages Cold Chisel, a band that has evolved from a fiery and unpredictable punk rock lunatic asylum to an Australian institution; elder statesmen of Australian rock known for Songs with a capital “S”. Cold Chisel has come full circle; ironically scoring a #5 record just last year with a rare re-release of one of those electric early concerts. Even as the old model burns to the ground, O’Donnell is hopeful about the future of music in Australia.

Silverchair: from high school to huge in America 

Ed: You had a long relationship with Silverchair. It’s a fascinating story, because you literally signed them as children. And then saw them go to the very height of the music industry, and then to some degree, I suppose, come down the other side. And that was somewhat rocky path at times. That must have been an interesting journey, to [sign] them at literally 14 years old? 

John: It was so exciting. Everything about it. I thought this is what happened in the music industry every day. They broke overseas quite quickly. I’d never been to America ever, I think I did 15 or 16 trips with them. So everything about it was incredible. They played at the MTV Awards that first year. None of this was scripted. And none of it was even thought about. And suddenly it was all happening.  

[Co-manager John Watson] and I saw them at a place called the Jewells Tavern, in a suburb of Newcastle. On the way home, we just were absolutely raving about them. I’d been in the job literally two weeks at Sony, so I was taking my lead from John. The next morning, he got up and wrote a whole marketing plan – like a five page document – that we emailed up to the parents of how we should develop this band. And we said they shouldn’t play Mickey Mouse shows, they should play with real bands. And that was the kind of template we set for the first two years of their life: don’t play a show that sucks (in their speak). Only play credible shows (they’re [also] at school, so they couldn’t play too often). Don’t worry about the money, if you build it that can come.

The bright side of streaming music

Ed: You and I spent a lot of time in an era where a hit CD could sell 600,000 units. What do the economics look like now in the digital age? 

John: Now, you don’t have those runaway successes. The biggest album in the market last year sold 65,000 [units]. That was AC/DC. But 65,000 albums – that includes streams, downloads, physical sales all combined – versus 600,000. So everyone’s had to look at the model and change it, turn it upside down and reinvent it.

Now, If you stream well, and you stream around the world – which is so much easier to do than 15 years ago – [you can] reach a global audience. It’s easier because streaming means that everybody can access that music on the day it’s released. And that never used to happen. 

15 years ago, you had to beg your international labels that you’re affiliated with. EMI [would] be ringing people up going, you need to release this record, we want you to release this record … they may not get it, they might not understand it, they may not be music fans. And so, you know, that’s an uphill battle.  

Particularly with something like Empire of the Sun, it took a long time for people to understand that this music could cut through. But now everything’s released on the day, all around the world. So that’s exciting.

Whether it succeeds or not to another question, you still have different gatekeepers there who aren’t particularly interested in your record selling, they want their record to sell. So it’s a different set of challenges. 

So a lot less money is being made across a lot more artists … you probably invest a bit less than you used to. Video costs are still (if you want to play on the world stage) what they’ve always been, which is a lot of money. But people can make albums a lot cheaper than they used to make them.
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The next Best 100 Australian Albums 

Ed: So somewhere in the middle of all of this effort of releasing albums, you you went and wrote a book with your colleagues called 100 Best Australian albums, revised to 110 a few years ago. What Australian albums that have come out in the last four years deserve to be added to the list? 

John: I’d say “Currents” by Tame Impala would be a contender. “The Return” by Sampa The Great. “Life is Fine” by Paul Kelly; I think is a stunning one. And I would probably count that in any new list that was done.  

Passion to the point of obsession

Ed: What is your advice to somebody that wants to have a career in the music business?

John: There was one quote I read, a journalist wrote this about a particular sportsman. And he wrote, “This guy’s exhibiting passion to the point of obsession, and hard unrelenting work.” And I went, that’s a pretty good mantra for kind of anything that one does in life. I think that passion to the point of obsession is really important.

You’ve got to be obsessed, you’ve got to put all your energy into it. I think you have to study the masters. You have to go back to Bob Dylan records, you have to go back to Public Enemy records, if that’s your thing. You have to go to electronic records, you have to go to Talking Heads records, whatever. I’m using older references, but you’ve got to get back to so much great stuff to learn what it is and how music has developed. Or maybe the Sex Pistols you come along and go, that’s all rubbish. But you’ve got to be really good at what you do to break beyond all of that and define something kind of new.

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