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"You don't need permission to do it yourself": Nick Ward on the Brockhampton Effect and Sydney's artist-driven future

$Nick Ward Promo Photo
Image: Nick Ward Promo Photo

This past Sunday, Nick Ward did a good tweet.

nick ward Profile Image
nick ward @nickwarddd
sydney music scene insanely fertile ground right now like…we’re literally sitting on the edge of something BIG. my friends and i just want the culture to change - this isn’t about clout or taking credit for it. i’m a broken record at this point but invest in young, hungry ppl <3

The Sydney-based songwriter, vocalist and producer is, as the cliché goes, a rising star with a passionate fanbase. But he's also deeply plugged into a community of driven young artists who are crafting their own approach to DIY — a delicate balance of mutual appreciation and community-building, internet hustling and fuck-it-why-not creativity. It's starkly distinct from the 00s-era online hype cycle of next-big-things and 360 deals with major (or astroturfed "indie") labels — a dated industry dinosaur model of artist development that's still visibly limping along in the streamocene.

I slid into Ward's DMs to see if he was keen to talk more about the view from the ground, and was rewarded (sorry) with an inspiring, thoughtful glimpse into the world of Sydney's new young poptimists.

He's playing tonight at Mary's Underground — check details and see what else is on for the weekend over on the gig guide.

Was there anything specifically today that made you want to tweet that?

Well, my friends threw a concert in Western Sydney last night and I feel like just seeing that and seeing the turnout, it was sold out so quickly. And I was like, there is an audience for this. Like, because it might not be as commercially viable - they're just not getting the same support from tastemakers or gatekeepers. I think it just feels like a systematic thing. Also – not even just not even just on the industry side – I think that a lot of people are just not curious about Australian music. Like, if you went over to your next door neighbour and asked them to name five Australian music acts they'd probably have a pretty hard time.

You feel like Triple J's embrace of an Australian artist makes so much of the difference and that's part of the problem?

I personally love Triple J and have been lucky enough to get love back from them in return, and I think that platforms like Unearthed localise peoples' fan bases. Before I got any support, my top city was in Poland - you know what I mean? I wouldn't have been able to play a show in Sydney.

Do you know how the fans in Poland were finding you?

I think it was just Spotify algorithm? I'm actually not entirely sure. But I think when I get frustrated with Sydney music and Australian music, it's like, just a homogenous sound… What I think the problem is, is that a lot of young people don't feel empowered to produce their own music, or mix their own music, and they're going to the same five people for those jobs. And it means that a lot of things are sounding same-y. I think a lot of young people don't feel empowered to, you know, try and search for their own style yet because they don't know if it's a risk, or... I just think it's kind of like a case of young people not really feeling like they are in a position to be able to make it on their own, or achieve things on their own terms and not compromise.

Yeah, like there's a certain path they have to follow — you have to get featured on these outlets, you have to get this kind of Unearthed attention or something like that, or you have to get signed by one of these three labels early on, and that's the path, whereas there are other other paths and other ways to do it.

Yeah, I think there's that. And it's also like, even just in the creation process before it actually comes out, I feel like a lot of people just don't think they can do the graphic design themselves, or don't really trust themselves to direct the video, or mix it, or produce it. I dunno, I think that as someone who over time has learned to do these things myself: One, it's a billion times cheaper when you do it yourself, and also, you're gonna get a product that you're actually happier with, and you have more ownership of it.

Do you think part of it is maybe that people feel like they need permission from someone else who's a professional in the industry to say "OK, this is good enough, you can release it, you can do this"? Whereas if you're doing it yourself, then it's just like, "Fuck it, here goes! I like it. I'm proud of it. I'll put it out."

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think that a lot of people just don't have the confidence to feel like they can do it themselves. And I feel like when BROCKHAMPTON came up, and they were doing the videos in their backyard, and releasing music independently, and producing it all in house, like, I think that made a pretty huge kind of shift in the music industry. We could so easily have that here but I think that there's so much power given to labels and the industry, that I feel like people who are on the outskirts of that, and people who don't have that same team or backing, it's kind of easier for them to not have the same confidence. [They] just don't have access to the same resources, and then they might not be playlisted or supported by certain outlets and stuff like that. And it's a cycle that feeds itself, I feel.

What was the what was the gig that was on last night? Can you tell me something about it?

So it was called For The Lover in You, and it was Dylan Atlantis, Sollyy, Zion Garcia, Baschoe, Breakfast Road. They're a bunch of local acts – and also just my friends. They had this vision for throwing a concert themselves. Their dads were the security guards, they threw it at a warehouse space that they hang out in all the time. It was, like, 150+ people and completely sold out. Everyone was loving it and I feel like that's why I say there is an audience for these types of artists and this music, and I think that people – audience members – are just gonna get tired of, I don't know, the generic topline pop sounds that we're used to.

I can't remember if you use the in the wording of your tweet the words scene, or community, but when people talk about a "scene", is that what you feel like you're part of?

I think I've just seen over the course of my recent rollout, and just going to the concert last night – it's within people's palates to enjoy this type of stuff and there is an audience for it and a culture around it. I think that's what probably separates a community and a scene – having a similar ethos or culture around to tie it all together.

I just feel like, you know, if you're in the music industry, or if you're tapped into indie music, like, maybe you're aware? But just general audience, or people in the mainstream…, I don't know if people aren't curious about Australian music, because they haven't been excited about  Australian music in a while? Or I don't know if it's because they're just not being told to be excited about Australian music? Like, yeah, I don't know where it starts and ends.

Do you remember going to see all ages gigs? Or did you stick with DIY stuff when you were under 18?

I couldn't go to any gigs when I was under 18.

See, that's fucked! Teenagers should be at shows!

Yeah. Like, I remember my first gig was actually supporting BENEE at The Lansdowne and I couldn't leave the greenroom because I was 17.

Fuck, and that would have been like, pre-pandemic as well [Ward turned 21 in April this year] and so you've been locked inside for nearly three years?

Yeah, exactly. And that's why it was so tragic when The Lansdowne almost went down, because that's kind of like, the venue that those bands would play, you know – interesting up-and-coming artists. Because it's about a 250-300 cap venue. It's kind of a step above Oxford Gallery Bar, a step above the Vanguard – but it's not quite Oxford Arts or Mary's Underground or something of that capacity - it's a perfect logical middle ground.

Yeah, those small rooms, like — I reckon Newtown Social Club would have been a bit before your time then as well?

Yeah, I see posters and stuff, right? But yeah I think it was.

Those small rooms are so important. 

Exactly. And the Lansdowne, it's still a very legitimate venue. It's not like a weird, showcase pub thing... It's actually a proper music venue. And you know, Billie Eilish played Lansdowne the first time she was in Australia. So thankfully, it's still going.

I think there needs to be a couple of different artists coming out of a similar sort of geographical area, with a similar kind of work ethic or aesthetic or level of distinctiveness [for a scene to form]. Like, one band is a fluke, but when more happens, people are like, "Oh, shit, what's happening over there?"

Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, I just think the scene is kind of set and I just think in the next four or five years, things are going to change and it's gonna be a lot more artist-driven and independent-leaning, and hopefully more ambitious sonically. I just feel like we will have that BROCKHAMPTON effect of kids feeling empowered to make great art on their own terms. I literally get dozens of messages a week from kids asking how to record a song, or how to get signed to a label and all this stuff. People are just so intimidated by the industry and by the creative process that they feel like they can't do it themselves. 

What do you tell them?

I always just say that you don't need permission to do it yourself and that you shouldn't cap yourself at making 'lo-fi' or 'bedroom' stuff. You should be trying to make stuff that you think is elevated and exciting and ambitious — just because you don't have any resources, doesn't mean that your music has to reflect that. I feel like people respond so much better to ambitious music that doesn't hit the mark than really generic, boring music executed well.

If you're looking to play shows in Sydney, or if you're looking to put on shows in Sydney, like your mates, where are the gaps? Is it that we don't have enough smaller venues in a certain area? What needs to happen next to make this really pop off?

I don't really know. I think it could be like a tastemaker thing... That's the other thing I tell kids when they pop up — I tell them to go on Unearthed, because that's just a really simple way to find people who will champion your music, and will be a really solid support. It will also place you into a community of other similar, like-minded people. Most of them, pretty much our entire group of friends, all posted on Unearthed and kind of found each other through Unearthed. One of our friends works at Unearthed. Sollyy is a DJ - he actually started working at Triple J and Unearthed as well.

🎵 Listen to Nick Ward

What I find really interesting is like, me and my friends, and my partner who works on a lot of the visuals for my projects, get hit up all the time to work on major label releases and pop releases and stuff like that. I sometimes get silly paranoia that our style's getting jacked, or something. Or, people are starting to see the value in young local creative people. Talking to a couple of bigger artists, it's actually a breath of fresh air [for them] working with young hungry people who haven't had that break yet. Whereas a lot of the in-house teams at labels are old, jaded, 40-year-old white men graphic designers.

I fully agree with that. I just hope that people are getting paid properly. Like, you know, don't let the fact that they're 21 feel like they can't ask for money. I never thought I could ask for money. And if you ask for money, often they're like, "Oh, this person is for real." And if they give you attitude, then tell them, you know, fuck off. They'll probably jack your style anyway. But you'll know and you'll have receipts. 


I'm glad you're getting hit up, but you're absolutely right. It shows that what you're doing has value and that people recognise that it has value.

Yeah, well that's the thing. I think that the more I kind of move around in the industry, the more I realised that the metrics don't actually mean anything. Us, or the 1300 guys or whoever, like, will play pretty medium-sized rooms with a passionate crowd, but won't have insane [streaming numbers] or insane industry backing, or like, Instagram followers. But then you'll see these people who have insane metrics and insane streams but they won't be able to pack a 200-person room. That word-of-mouth cult following comes from real people who actually support you and aren't just passive listeners.

Have you played many shows in other cities?

Yeah, we just played Brisbane and Melbourne at the start of the month.

How was that?

So good. This is exactly like, to my point. There's kids with Nick Ward tattoos in the crowd, and they're like, crying and going fucking apeshit, but we don't have a track with 10 million streams. I used to get hung up on that. But I think that seeing that just makes you realise that that's where the value lies – in that actual human connection with people. Some of the tracks that I've released that have the least amount of streams, people will know every word of at the show — it's...yeah, I don't really know how to articulate it. 

It's stuff you can't measure. But you can feel it.

Yeah. I'm sorry, if that all sounds like a weird flex or something, but it's more just my point — that's the edge that I think young independent artists have – is that it's actually a slow, sustained and organic growth, rather than BAM! you're on the cover of New Music Friday, and overnight, you're supposed to be a household name. I think that the slow sustained growth is what leads to a long career.

Because people always come back to you.

Yeah, it means you build a catalogue and you build, like, a world. So then, when you do have that song, or when you do have that crazy opportunity, it means that people suddenly have a whole world to dive into rather than, like, it's your debut single that's just popped up out of the blue.

That is so fucking true. I've been talking to early-career artists about that for a long time, and don't think I've heard that quite so well articulated.

I feel like I'm always worried of sounding bitter, or whatever, but it's actually coming from a place of optimism. I'm not cynical about it, like, "Oh, no, the industry is fucked, therefore we can never make it". It's kind of like, the industry's fucked, and I think that people know it's fucked. Especially living in a post-Denis Handlin world where label power structures are kind of being questioned and turned on their heads — and also TikTok. We're in this weird, fluid time in Australian music history where I feel like it's really fertile ground for people who have a really strong idea of what they want to do. It's great.

People talk a lot now about marginalised voices and lifting them up — if someone's a young, straight, white person in Australia, is it meaningful to consciously seek out, say, artists of colour or queer artists and get outside their bubble? Or is that something that should come more naturally?

I think it's a tricky one. Because I think from my perspective, like, I'm queer and Chinese-Australian, and I feel like I've been given lots of support from people. Sometimes I'll get paranoid about like, is it because they actually liked my music? Or is it just because of how I identify? I think it is worth raising up these voices because these are stories that need to be heard, and different experiences from people who might also not have access to the same resources. Also, at the end of the day, I will listen to anything over some, like, straight white dude singing about overthinking.

I don't think anyone wants to be appreciated as, like — it should never be a tokenistic thing. 

Yeah, I was pretty paranoid about that for a bit. I feel like I've definitely seen it being tokenistic with certain people… I think that's why I'm so open with it in my music, because I feel like that's the story that I have to tell, so that's what I'm gonna tell.

Last question: any faves you want to shout out? Especially Sydney, but whoever makes you really excited right now?

Is it alright if it's not just it's not just Sydney?

Oh, of course. Go for it. 

There's a really great electronic artist I know named Nuum, who opened my Melbourne show. 1300, obviously incredible. SPEED are an amazing local hardcore band. Zion Garcia is an amazing Western Sydney rapper. Dylan Atlantis — amazing Western Sydney R&B and genre-bending artist. My pals Breakfast Road are trying to define themselves as Western Sydney's first boyband.

I found them via your Twitter today actually. They're really fun — that Fire and Rescue warning on their newsletter widget made me laugh so fucking hard.

Yeah they're hilarious — they just made an app, or like a video game for their recent release. They're really just ambitious and crazy, and that's what I'm attracted to. Jerome Blazé is an amazing friend of mine from Sydney who makes these like really big, cinematic songs... He's 23 and he teaches music at The Conservatorium – he's insane. Lonelyspeck from Adelaide...

I love Lonelyspeck so much.

Yeah, Sione is amazing. Trying to think who else? Armlock are an amazing band, they opened up my Melbourne show too… There's a whole web of artists. And usually by finding one, and looking into them, you will naturally find out about more artists because we all talk to each other. You'll see!

And that's how it should be. Love it.

Caitlin Welsh
30 Jun 2022