Gurrumul Yunupingu, Saltwater Band, Lonely Boys and B2M are just a few of the names associated with Skinnyfish Music, the independent label that put Northern Territory music on the world map.
This year the Skinnyfish team celebrates 20 years of music.
Established in 1999 by managing director Mark Grose and creative director Michael Hohnen, Skinnyfish Music set itself apart by connecting with remote artists and their communities and producing music that told their stories.
Both Mr Grose and Mr Hohnen agreed a lot had changed since their first office in Mr Hohnen’s bedroom.
“We set up a card table in my bedroom and each morning Mark would knock on the door, walk in, sit down at the fax machine and start working,” Mr Hohnen said.
“We still have that card table, if any music museums are interested,” Mr Grose joked.
Mr Hohnen and Mr Grose laughed as they recalled their unlikely meeting and how quickly their conversations turned into a reality.
“I was living on Galiwin’ku, and Michael was delivering a music course which had the Saltwater Band members as a part of it,” Mr Grose said.
“When I asked what was likely to happen with these guys after the course, because they were really good, [Michael] said, ‘Likely, nothing’.
“I was at a point where I had spent a lot of time in remote communities hearing about great musicians with dreams who mostly never get those dreams fulfilled.”
Early recordings and home studios
Having both worked and lived in remote Aboriginal communities, Mr Grose and Mr Hohnen said Skinnyfish Music had a focus on telling stories through the voices of talented musicians.
“This ethos attracted us to some people and detracted from others, it’s an unspoken modus operandi that we are responsible for positive change within remote communities,” Mr Hohnen said.
“B2M [Bathurst to Melville] really targeted young people and getting a message across to kids of the Tiwi Islands.
“These guys were always on a message bandwagon because they wanted to help their community.”
Mr Grose explained that during the late 1990s, the Tiwi Islands were suffering as youth self-harm rates escalated at an alarming rate.
He said this was one of the major issues B2M wanted to confront through their music.
“You have a responsibility no matter what industry [you’re] in, when working with remote communities, to not harm them, and impact wherever you can positively to showcase the life of people in remote areas,” Mr Grose said.
Saltwater Band was one of the first artists on the Skinnyfish list to record an album.
Mr Grose said he believed this album slipped under the radar but the story of “the missing goanna” would always be remembered.
“We recorded the first Saltwater album at Mt Bundy station, so essentially the first recorded albums were in home studios,” he said.
“Where the boys recorded is quite the tourist attraction, and I met the woman who managed the place and she told me that while the boys were recording, her pet goanna had disappeared.
“That was until she opened her fridge and found that the boys had got hungry during the day and dug into her pet.”
Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu
A name loved across Australia and around the world is that of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu (Dr G), whose voice rings clear two years after his passing.
Mr Grose said, with a catch in his throat, that Dr G had been a part of Skinnyfish Music since the very beginning.
“What he achieved is phenomenal for such a humble and quiet person who loved music, [he] was a genius musically and [the] impact he had on Australian society is beyond anything we could’ve ever imagined,” Mr Grose said.
Skinnyfish Music, still very much in its infantile stages at this point, was not prepared for the popularity that would follow Dr G.
“When you’re still so small and not multinational, just a tiny spot in the Northern Territory, it was a barrage and a huge change to everything we were doing,” Mr Hohnen said.
“When Dr G’s CD took off it kind of mucked up our business, we were structured and stable, growing slowly and it was all working well as far as community development goes.
“When he came along, no-one could have predicted the effect it would have. We were then constantly bombarded with requests from across the world.”
Dr G was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist from Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island just off the Arnhem Land coast.
In his career he played with Yothu Yindi, released his first album sung almost entirely in his Yolngu language, and then followed up with two more albums, which sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.
“He was highly respected, he was loved by the world as a part of Yothi Yindi,” Mr Grose said.
“For me to be a part of assisting a quiet genius to impact other people is the treasure I take from all the work we have done.”
What’s next for Skinnyfish Music?
In the great Aussie tradition of having a go, Mr Grose said Skinnyfish Music had an element of fluke combined with perfect timing, starting up just at the cusp of the online music trade.
“The digital universe really helped us succeed, otherwise we would have just been way too isolated, the digital wave reduced the isolation, being able to send albums anywhere online,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of changes since sitting at a card table to now not being able to sell one CD in the bush because digital and mobile media has changed our direction.”
But the independent label is far from hanging up the hat.
“I think the retirement of the Saltwater Band and the passing of our good friend Dr G made us refocus on, if we are to stay in business, we need artists who are prepared to tour out of Arnhem land,” Mr Grose said.
“G’s passing in particular made us really stop and think, ‘Do we keep going?’.
“But we have chosen to keep going because we want to continue to honour his legacy.”