Michael Gudinski (1952-2021) Made Australian Music Serious

As founder and head of Mushroom Records/Group, Michael Gudinski skewered cultural cringe to make Australian music beloved by Australians, building an industry from nothing.

Michael Gudinski passed away peacefully in his sleep today, aged 68. His legacy as the co-founder of Mushroom Records, live music promoter and industry advocate is too enormous to articulate – it's often easier to communicate through the careers of Australian musicians he launched. 

In legacy newspapers, it's Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Barnes, Skyhooks and Frontier Touring that made Gudinski an immortal music mogul. "The music business turned, grew and moved forward in Australia because of Michael," Barnes said in tribute to his memory. "Today the heart of Australian music was ripped out. I felt it, my family felt it, the music business felt it, the world felt it."

In provincial music publications, the focus is on how the critical glitterati of Australia's '80s jangle pop, folk and rock put out their definitive albums on Mushroom. The Go-Betweens' 16 Lovers Lane, The Triffids' Born Sandy Devotional, and The Church's Starfish – now authoritative rock texts – were placed by Gudinski's hand.

There are many ongoing jokes about Australia taking credit for New Zealand's best bands, but Gudinski made a bonafide career out of doing so: Split Enz (the antecedent of Crowded House), Swingers, local publishing of Flying Nun Records and more.

But in broader Australia, it might be better to measure Gudinski's worth by the signings of Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi – both of whom have made immeasurable contributions to the celebration of First Nations music. Mushroom was also the first in Australia to sign an Indigenous woman with Ruby Hunter's 1994 solo album Thoughts Within.

I am a young person on the freelance fringes of the music industry, who never met Gudinski. But I do feel profoundly grateful for the idea he popularised – that Australian music is worthy of the world's attention. The pandemic has only heightened this country's parochial attitude to art and culture; that we aren't satisfied with what's happening on our shores, despite it being high quality and plentiful. It's part of why music media in this country struggles to talk about Australian music intelligently, or even exist. Gudinski was the one who gave it a fighting chance, skewering cultural cringe by building a serious Australian music industry where there was none.

When he founded Mushroom Records with Ray Evans in 1972, it didn't succeed immediately – their first band to get an international recording contract was the unlikely jazz fusion group Ayers Rock in 1974. They were a "real musos band", Gudisnki later said, which was representative of his approach to music business – art before the rest. They were buoyed by the breakout success of Skyhooks' album Living in the 70's in 1974, which allowed them to fund other bands. This was a pattern of success that would repeat throughout their history; hit it big with one, to fund three more.

The atmosphere was progressive, and aspirational. Mushroom contrasted to the smoke-filled and aggressively male rooms of most record companies. In 1998, he told Billboard why they had more female employees or executives than any other record company in the country – "I've always liked working with women. Australia is the last bastion of [male] chauvinism, and I've never understood all that. We're lucky that, as more female artists come to the fore, they relate more to women executives," Gudinski said.

Even as Mushroom Group ballooned into a multi-million dollar enterprise, traded between Gudinski and News Corp in the late '90s with tens of subsidiaries, it retained an independent mindset. In a 2019 interview with ABC's Jon Faine, Gudinski gently pushed back at the idea he had become part of the establishment. "Look, it's big business now. I still think I'm a rebel, I'm not part of ARIA – which is what I call the International Recording Industry of Australia," he said. To the end, he had tunnel vision for Australian music and resented profiteers of international ventures who abandoned their home. It was a fitting triumph then, that in 2010 he wrenched back independent control of Mushroom Group. 

Gudinski's last year was the worst for the Australian music industry in living memory – and his parting gift was to stave off its financial oblivion. He took the industry seriously, when the Australian government refused to provide meaningful support. In many ways, Gudinski was our de facto Federal Minister for the Arts while Paul Fletcher floundered in inactivity. He collaborated with a more artistically receptive Victorian Government and ABC to launch several initiatives benefiting and expressing solidarity for the music industry, including the Music From The Home Front ANZAC Day concert last year and the lockdown music performance show The Sound (I suspect the latter will now be a permanent fixture).

We don't yet have a replacement for a titan like Michael Gudinski – but we don't have to let his ideas die.

Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.

MTV is paying tribute to Gudders in the best way we know how – with music. Turn on MTV Classic at 5pm on Sunday, March 7 to celebrate Michael Gudinski. More info here.

More from Josh: 

Are Limited-capacity Gigs Worth It?

What A Year (In Aussie Music)

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