Out of the ashes, something new. The year in the music biz got off to a stunning start when Amrap split from its management parent, the CBAA, due to what Amrap staff described as a raft of conduct, governance and management issues.

An ugly divorce followed, as all six Amrap staff united under the “Republic of Amrap” to blow the whistle. Their campaign appeared to be amassing stakeholder support across both community radio and the music industry, until the CBAA confirmed they had sacked the entire Amrap team, and both parties went abruptly silent.

The CBAA had little to say about the issues raised. Industry professionals were alarmed by the situation and the outcome, with Mushroom’s Ian James describing the CBAA’s response as ‘curious’ and ‘very corporate’, others praising the work and reputations of the Amrap staff, and Stephen Green calling on the CBAA to provide more of an answer than “just pretending like nothing happened”.

Comments on a TIO’s article detailing the sacking of Amrap staff

More than half-a-year has passed since TIO broke the story, the news cycle has moved on. Though a sense of unfinished business remains, the team behind Amrap has also moved on.

The former Amrap crew has reunited under a new organisation, ontoitmedia. Its mission: to make it easier for pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, festivals and other venues to program, and to promote live music opportunities. The project got a boost yesterday when City of Sydney announced grant funding for live music enterprises, including a cash injection for the Sydney Venue Toolkit, a B2B website to be created by ontoitmedia.

Sydney Venue Toolkit ontoitmedia
ontoitmedia’s Sydney Venue Toolkit

The Industry Observer caught up with ontoitmedia‘s Chris Johnson, Brooke Olsen and Chelsea Deeley to explore their new organisation, and their take on the Amrap management issue they blew the whistle on earlier this year.

What is your new organisation all about?

Chris: ontoitmedia’s mission is to increase the amount, viability, diversity and reach of live music in Australian venues and events. I created it a decade ago but then I was asked to manage Amrap, so I put ontoitmedia on hold and transferred some of the concepts that were in development to Amrap and the community radio sector.

Brooke: Then this year when it was time to move on from Amrap, Ben suggested that we keep the team together and create something new. So Chris invited us to reposition ontoitmedia to develop software and services for pubs, clubs, bars, hotels and other venues. It’s all about increasing their capacity to program and promote live performance.

Chelsea: We’re taking a practical approach, by finding and fixing gaps in planning, digital marketing and audience development to make it easier for artists, promoters, booking agents, curators and venues to improve outcomes for their shows. We’ve already done a lot of consultation with those stakeholders, government and sector bodies.

Chris: Yeah and we’ve also surveyed over 500 venues, and everyone we speak to is so excited that we’ve honed in on some real problems, some of which no one had articulated. We’re developing some practical solutions that we’ll announce and roll out over the coming months.

Your background is in community radio. Why make the jump to live?

The jump was really easy because there are so many parallels between community radio and venues and also our combined skill set is easily transferable.

Chris: Yeah just like Community Radio most venues are small to medium sized businesses and many want to support local music and arts but it’s a challenge to juggle their business and financial needs with their desire to support live entertainment.

The secret to Amrap’s success was that we created software and services that integrated new Australian music into each station’s business practices and organisational culture. Frankly it’s easier for most stations to play well known international hits than to take a punt on new local music, so we had to make it compelling, easy and rewarding to air Aussie music. We know that clever technology and practical services make all the difference, so we’re transferring our approach to help venues make it more viable to program and promote live performance.

Brooke: And we’ve all worked in live music for years. Chris was a live sound engineer before he was appointed to manage Edge Radio in Hobart. In-between curating gigs and festivals, I founded a Sydney venue called Dirty Shirlows which ran for 5 years in Marrickville. There, we hosted hundreds of events to support local and International musicians. Chelsea was operations manager for Global Rhythms which attracts thousands of world music fans To Sydney’s Bicentennial Park.

Chelsea: And Ben and Chris still perform their music all over the traps. So in many ways it’s a really natural fit to transfer our experience to increase live performance in venues.

You just scored City of Sydney funding. How did that come about?

Chris: We’re chuffed the City of Sydney is backing us with a grant to create a Sydney Venue Toolkit, which will be an interactive website and e-learning platform to help artists, curators and venues program and promote live performance.

Brooke: It’s not about reinventing the wheel and we don’t claim to be experts, so the Toolkit will be really collaborative with case studies and real working models that others can adopt. The City of Sydney, the Live Music Office, MusicNSW and others have made some amazing headway with policy, consultation, practical guides, and training workshops and loads of information is out there already. The Toolkit will gather that information, along with our stakeholder interviews and research so that venues, artists, the hospitality and music sector can keep learning from each other. We also want to make it easier for pubs, hotels and other venues who are not currently programming live music to use the Toolkit for future events – there are so many potential live rooms laying dormant in Sydney.

Chris: And it’s perfect timing as the ongoing NSW parliamentary enquiry into Sydney’s night time economy has already shown that current approaches have hit venues and artists hard. There are some amazing people and organisations working on the policy, laws and politics, while ontoitmedia will focus on assisting with daily operational issues and strategy to further integrate live performance into each venues business practices and culture. So our Sydney Venue Toolkit will be a useful resource with positive ideas and solutions.

What’s the business model and when does it launch?

Chelsea: It’s largely based on a subscription services for venues. The subscription model means we’ll be on the ground to continually support, review and improve what’s working for a venue, their staff and performers.

Chris: We’re also gathering grant funding and commercial investment to subsidise the subscription fees for venues.  With grant support we aim to make it low cost and attractive to any venue that wants to subscribe to increase live performance.

Brooke: Live music is at the core as that’s the most popular art form and close to our hearts, but we want to increase the viability of all types of arts and performance. We’re starting in NSW with the aim to go national by 2020.

Who’s on board?

Chelsea: The entire Amrap team left in January, so it’s basically all of us aside from our awesome casual Kate who already had a full plate with her other jobs. Chris, Ben and Brooke ran Amrap for a decade and invented AirIt, Amrap Pages and Radio Website Services. They were real game changers and that’s what attracted me to work at Amrap. Maddy and I joined them a few years back and we all wanted to keep working together so ontoitmedia is our new home.

Chris: We found the dream team and I’m so chuffed everyone wanted to stay together. It’s a blow to Amrap but as many would know we spoke out against some very troubling governance and directional issues from the CBAA, who unfortunately still hold the management contract for Amrap. We knew if the CBAA kept control we would not want to work at Amrap anymore.

Brooke: But rather than just resigning, we decided to make a stand, speak the truth, and try to protect Amrap.

Now you’ve mentioned it, what’s the situation with Amrap? Has there been any resolution?

Chris: Our Republic of Amrap campaign called out just some of the many serious issues plaguing Amrap under its current governance structure. The CBAA went to great lengths to try to gag us, so while we’ve been forced to reduce public engagement, our work has finally triggered the much-needed scrutiny that we sought.

We hope the scrutineers will get to the bottom of the issue and come to the same logical conclusions that we did, and establish a new, cost effective and transparent structure for Amrap. I’ll probably get a nasty letter for saying that.

Brooke: Yeah, but we’re proud of our results for Australian musicians and community broadcasters, including recent work to protect Amrap. Time will tell whether that’s handled properly to create a future for Amrap that broadcasters and musicians deserve. But we’re glad we risked our livelihoods to protect their interests. And honestly, we’ve had so much support from stakeholders, and now for ontoitmedia, so we’re focused on that.

republic of amrap
The Republic of Amrap project

Did the Amrap situation leave you with a bad taste in your mouth? Some observers will be surprised you got a new business up and running so soon after that mess.

Chelsea: It sucks that it’s still not resolved, but none of us have any regrets because we did the right thing and the music and community radio sector rallied to support and agree with us.

Chris: Yeah it’s really those folks, particularly the music sector who spurred us on to create ontoitmedia because as soon as we started exploring it everyone was so supportive and excited.

Chelsea: We went to the Music Cities conference in April to soft launch ontoitmedia and consult with industry, and it was so amazing to see the goodwill and support that the industry has for us.

Chris: So it was sad goodbye to Amrap, but as one of the godfathers of the Australian music industry said to us – when other people make a mess and it’s no longer working, you can let it go, dust yourself off, and get to work on the next useful thing.

Brooke: And we’re thrilled to be doing the next useful thing together!

Chelsea: Absolutely! As we say on our website, we’re ready to transfer our innovative and professional track record to the live & hospitality sectors, to ultimately give Australian artists and live performers a much-needed boost.