Your Name In Lights Some first-hand experiences and advice from a woman in Australian music

Text: Jen Cloher

I came to Melbourne from Sydney 16 years ago because I’d heard the music scene was thriving and I wanted to find a scene. I think most musicians move to Melbourne for this reason, maybe even more so these days?

I didn’t know anyone in music, I was a NIDA acting graduate. So I went out and watched bands, I read the street press, I rode my bike around from one open-mic night to the next. I got drunk, went to parties and slowly, I started to meet people. Most of them became my band The Endless Sea.

I submitted a grant application to Creative Victoria because someone told me to, won seven grand and went and made a record at Sing Sing Studios. We recorded the entire album live in four days because we didn’t have much money. We played our first residencies at The Empress and The Retreat Hotels. People came out to see us. A guy called Richard Moffatt started playing our music on RRR. The album was received well critically and nominated for an ARIA.

Just as things were starting to come together I moved to New Zealand to take care of my mother Dorothy who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers.

I returned to Melbourne two years later to release my second album and tour. This time I didn’t receive the same support at radio or in the media, the album wasn’t as successful and as a result I went into a lot of debt.

I couldn’t work out how artists were managing to have sustainable careers in a massive country with such a small population, just touring a band to Perth would set you back thousands of dollars. How were other artists managing to stay afloat? I had to find out. So I started workshops for self-managed artists that are still running today called I Manage My Music. I wanted to find out how other artists were managing to record, market, promote, tour a band, make clips and pay everyone when they were only playing to a couple hundred people in each capital city.

Jen Cloher recording album # 4. Photography by Xavier Fennell

What I discovered was that they weren’t managing. Most of them were in debt, some of them were in tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. So I made a decision to never go into debt again for my music business. Inspired by the independent artists around me I crowdfunded, went for grants, saved money, stopped touring my band and played solo, said no to shows or tours that would set me back financially and made records based on what was in my bank account, not what I wished was in my bank account.

And a funny thing happened.

More opportunities came my way, I was paid well, my next record made with half the budget of its predecessor was my most fulfilling creatively and professionally. I started a record label with my partner and applied everything I had learnt through my workshops and it worked! I saw a community of artists grow around me and I saw that two of my theories were true. As an independent artist I discovered the first golden rule for a career of longevity — never go into debt.


Another thing I discovered was that it was very difficult to sustain interest in this country from radio and media once you hit the middle of your career. If you hadn’t reached a certain level of success you were sort of shelved and ignored. With only one music dedicated national broadcaster, the minute they decided you were too old for their youth demographic also meant the end of a profitable touring circuit.

I watched as both myself and my contemporaries’ audiences got smaller and smaller. We were doing all the right things, strong PR, servicing our music to all media and radio, putting aside money for a modest marketing budget, creating our best work and yet things weren’t converting into sales or a new audience walking through the door.

What I discovered was that you had to use social media, a record label, collaborations with other artists and new projects to build a community. If you could build that community and relate directly to them, then you didn’t need to worry so much about radio or media. You had an audience, there ready and waiting for your next show or release. It was exciting again!


Here was the second rule — Find your community. This community also means those around you walking the same path. Other independent artists. Creative shoulders to cry on. People who understand how hard you have to work if you want to be an artist creating within your means. If you try to do it alone at home in your bedroom, uploading songs to Soundcloud and waiting to be discovered, you won’t last. Music is about playing with people to people. That much will never change.

During this time another quite incredible thing started to happen. Something I had never seen before. An Australian woman became famous around the world for her songwriting. Not her dance moves, or extensive wardrobe, but for writing great songs. She also happened to be the woman I was in love with.

This was where my own personal nightmare began. For the first two years of her career I grappled with my own feelings of failure. Stupidly I used her success as a marker for my own musical worth. I lost confidence. I played some of my worst shows. I questioned whether it was even worth continuing. Her career was what success looked like. Who was I trying to fool? Every great review from Pitchfork or public nod from Paul Kelly felt like a slap in the face. I was filled with envy and the worst thing was that this was my partner, the woman I should be celebrating and supporting.

Photography by Tajette O’Hallaran

And then one day I got over it. I did the work to address my envy and I grew up. I saw what a marvelous opportunity it was. How it shone a light on the community of artists on Milk! Records, that due to this, a younger generation of music fans started coming to my shows, opportunities for women in Australian music started opening up overseas, that more and more girls started to pick up the guitar because they could see a trail was being blazed.

Without even realising it, Courtney Barnett opened the door for artists like Tash Sultana to walk through, and there will be more and more and more to come. This is just the beginning. There has never been a better time to be a woman in independent music.

The wave of ‘female singer-songwriters’ that was heralded by Missy Higgins’ Sound Of White will be remembered in Australian history books, because up-and-coming writers like Holly Pereira will write those history books. Romy Hoffman, Celeste Potter, Laura Jean, Mia Dyson, Sarah Blasko, Evelyn Morris, Liz Stringer, Adalita, Abbe May, Sia Furler, Jess Cornelius, Sally Seltmann, Holly Throsby – these women and many, many more – started the wave ten years ago that has now become a tsunami. Women in Australian music can no longer be erased from history books.

So what more needs to happen? Women educating themselves around the business of music, learning how to manage their own careers and become sustainable in their practice. Women speaking up in music, props to Thelma Plum, Camp Cope and Bec Sandridge for calling out predatory and abusive behavior. And when they do face up to racist, sexist, homophobic bullies, knowing there is a supportive community of sisters there to hold a space for them. We have to continue building our community of women artists. To start in our own hearts. To not be threatened or envious of each other’s success – but to celebrate wholeheartedly everyone’s contribution to our Australian story.


Jen Cloher – Forgot Myself

Jen Cloher is an AMP and ARIA nominated recording artist and artist advocate. She is founder of ‘I Manage My Music’ – and co-founder of Milk! Records with Courtney Barnett. This article is a transcript of her keynote speech,‘Women in Australian music can no longer be erased from the history books’, for One Of One’s inaugural ‘Women In Music’ breakfast held on Friday, 3rd March 2017.

Jen Cloher will be appearing with NEIGHBOURHOOD columnist Helen Razer, academic Eloise Brook and journalist Allan Clarke at Queerstories, 7.30-9.30pm, Friday, June 23 at Giant Dwarf, 199 Cleveland Street, Redfern:

She releases her latest album, the self-titled Jen Cloher, on August 11.

Cloher plays the Oxford Arts Factory on August 25. Tickets here.


Listen to some of Jen Cloher’s favorite songs on a playlist she put together for NEIGHBOURHOOD:


Jen Cloher ‘Milk’





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