As I look back on my two month stop in Sydney on the grass clippings global tour, there’s one person that encapsulates so much of the music scene there. I did get to know a number of artists Down Under, but the most significant figure I met was a fan.
Frances Martin, a charming fifty-something Sydneysider who retired from her radio industry job years ago, was in the audience of nearly every show I went to around town. While she did have a man back home, Fran, like me, mostly showed up to shows alone. So, we would chat quite a bit. She would tell me about going to shows in Sydney long ago, her massive vinyl collection – something she built over years of going to record stores from a young age – and even about new artists. So what sets her apart? And what does it have to do with Sydney? It’s really just two things: community and patience.
The local music scene in Sydney is smaller than I expected. There are only a handful of carefully curated venues. And because Australia’s national radio station, triple j, tends to drive most of the excitement and visibility around artists, the performances by acts that see little or no airplay are typically light in attendance. That creates an environment where artists are close to each other…and most know the fans that show up to their shows. Despite the fact that Fran is old enough to mother all of the bands I went to see, they all embrace her fandom. Unlike too many too-cool-for-school hipster folk bands from New York, Portland or Nashville that are hesitant to engage fans that aren’t just like them, Sydney’s music culture is consistent with its broader culture – welcoming, lacking in cynicism and pretentiousness. Folkers like The Falls, Jack Carty, boy outside and Packwood think of Fran as part of the family.
The Australian release dates of albums by artists in the US or UK are typically many months after their local release. Also, it’s outrageously far and expensive for internationally touring bands to come to Australia, even if they’re touring Asia. Fran told me that she had to wait 14 months before she could buy Springsteen’s Born to Run. She was also a fan of Joni Mitchell for 17 years before getting to see her live in Sydney in the 80s.
Folk music has always carried a culture of inclusion that counters other genres and even its surrounding culture. Longing makes the heart grow fonder.
Fran, you are a champion and I won’t soon forget you.