Living and Breathing music – meet Stu Watters from AIR

When AIR’s (Australian Independent Records) head honcho Stu Watters was just a wee lad he saw his first concert at Kuranda amphitheatre… The seven year old Stu immediately acquired a taste for rock n roll, not all that surprising really given that his Dad was a struggling actor and muso – so it seemd inevitable that a career in the industry was pretty much always on the cards. Recalls Stu of that fateful Red Gum concert: “I remember asking my mum what the guy next to me was smoking ...she said it was a small cigar. I guess that was Rock and Roll”…

As a teen Stu lived in Darwin where he cut his teeth pounding a beat on a set of skins, although he admits “learning drums with a pipe band at the local showgrounds – was not very rock and roll” but an encounter with Dire Straits (who were doing their mammoth Brothers in Arms tour) saw him taking a lesson with Dire Straits’ drummer Terry Williams and wound up with the young Stu scoring his first freebies to a gig.. ”[Terry Williams ]came down and met with all the budding young drummers and we all got free tickets for us and our families. My first taste of VIPs with a plus one for my Dad!”

Cut to the present and whilst Stu still “harbours rock ‘n’ roll dreams”

these days he’s more content to help others achieve their time in the spotlight. “I always enjoyed the behind the scenes work but have always enjoyed playing music and will always enjoy playing,” explains Stu. “It’s just that I understand that you have to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the music as a performer to make something of it and I’ve become increasingly involved in the mechanics of the business of helping other people achieve those dreams.”

Stu first became involved with AIR after serving his time at Q Music

(the state peak body for music in Queensland)” I’d been working for Q Music for a number of years and through that we partnered in a number of projects [with AIR] so I became pretty familiar with it and how it operated. Beyond that though, I’d been a follower of the AIR charts since their inception as I felt this was a true reflection of Australian music that wasn’t reflected in the shit that was rammed at us through the ARIA top 40.”

For Stu, the main point of difference for AIR is that he sees the company as providing “a voice for the independent sector that goes largely unheard if we’re not there”.

He explains: “Our aim is to represent the diversity of music culture that defines Australia not just what is the big seller in the market. Our charts represent the alternative to the mainstream yet lately bleed into the mainstream as is evidenced by the ARIA awards and the dominance of the indies there. The awards also enable us to get better profile for the independent sector that otherwise wouldn’t be acknowledged.”

To that end Stu believes AIR has made some inroads in allowing people to discover new music… “Insofar as organisations like ours go, I think we are still young and our best years are still ahead of us. However I think we provide an outlet for new music to be discovered through programs like the charts and the awards which in turn provide commercial returns for the sector.

“Additionally, we lobby government, industry and commercial entities for a better deal for the indies who are often overlooked when decision making occurs. We provide a voice that would be otherwise unheard. There are things in progress now that won’t be felt for a few year yet but AIR has been instrumental in the development of a global network of independent labels and their associations called WIN (Worldwide Independent Network). When it reaches maturity, there will be fantastic benefits to the industry and punters alike.”

Last year AIR held their inaugural Awards ceremony – according to Stu, the AIR Awards are something that has been in the pipeline for several years…

“The AIR Awards has always been on the agenda since AIR was first thought of in 1996,” says Stu. “It wasn’t until 2000 that AIR really got moving and in 2006, we bit the bullet and figured if we didn’t take a step forward then we’d still be standing still saying how good it would be to honour those indie artists who were achieving well amongst their peers. We have purposefully elected to build them slowly and will grow the award categories slowly until it reaches its optimum level. There were 4 in the first year and we’ve added another to reflect the genre charts we do throughout the year and in 2008 we will probably grow them again.

When asked what the inspiration for holding the awards was – especially given the abundance of award ceremonies currently on offer... Stu is quick to defend the relevance of the AIR Awards

“That question comes up a bit – so many awards, no meaning,” he shrugs. “I tend to dismiss that though as I think there is a place for these awards in the industry and its really about celebrating the achievements of the independent artists who are, despite the odds, resonating with the Australian (and increasingly international) audiences. The purpose of any awards generally is to celebrate excellence. While ours are about that too, they are equally about celebrating diversity.

So where does he think they fit?

“With anyone who has bought independent albums or singles or gone to see live music at venues and festivals that make the Australia music scene.

Stu also believes there are plenty of benefits for the artists that are nominated for the Awards, adding that the nominees are the main focus of the event… “We actually make a point of ensuring that the focus on the Awards is really about the nominees and creating as much additional exposure for them as we possibly can. To that end, we seek to generate a higher profile at all media (print, radio, TV, internet), retail and with the industry itself. While this raises their public profile, we also aim to raise their commercial profile as a priority. Having an increased profile within the iTunes store and also at physical retail is integral to ensuring that there are flow on benefits for the nominees AND the winners.

Given the ever changing face of the music industry how does Stu think AIR will retain relevance? For Stu the answer is simple:

“There is a lot of music available to the public… The AIR Awards are integral to providing a platform for exposing the independent scene that is otherwise not there. Granted some of the artists being nominated are being recognised already but their nominee partners are not always so fortunate and this is great opportunity for them to generate new audiences that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”

While for most of us music is about entertainment – there is no denying it is also a business. To that end how does Stu position the AIR Awards in terms of branding…Was finding corporate sponsorship for the Awards inevitable?

“I have no drama with it at all,” says Stu. “We have something that brands want to align themselves with. Why wouldn’t they? I think so long as there are lines in the sand that are drawn out in advance and that we stand true to our own principles and retain creative control and that the overall benefit derives back to the artist and labels then, we are achieving our goals. I think as the awards grow even further in the future there will be greater brand competition to be engaged with the awards and as such, we will be able to reach broader audiences – this works as much for us as it does the brand.”

So in closing, what can peeps look forward to at the Awards – what does he think will be a highlight?

“The performances. I think we’ve put together a really good diverse mix of music that is representative of Australian music. I wish we had more time to put together a show that could have more acts performing but on the night it will be the performances of the 4 acts that will remind the audience why we’re all here. We’ll also have a couple of announcements to make about the awards and the charts in 2008.”


The AIR Awards take place on December 10 at the Toff in Town.*