Smash hit records don’t just make themselves. They’re a strange blend of good fortune, know-how, talent and timing, with a dash of serendipity.
There’s no bigger record in the world right now than Tones and I’s ‘Dance Monkey,’ a record that currently sits atop the Australian singles chart for an 11th consecutive week, and a second stint at No. 1 in the U.K. and in at least 11 other territories.
Strip it all down, and Tones’ lightning-fast start has a weave of all those ingredients, with the sort of luck that even a leprechaun on his birthday can’t summon.
Jackson Walkden-Brown was there at the very start. And were it not for a moment of serendipity, a special anniversary, the right place and the right time, the global charts might look pretty different right now.
Walkden-Brown remembers the first time he laid eyes on Toni Watson as she was busking on the streets of Byron Bay. The young artist had talent to burn, playing a set of covers on a dodgy Casio keyboard. When folks stopped to watch, they didn’t leave in a hurry.
“I heard the beautiful things about her voice, she did that top-end growl, which she refers to as a ‘bark,’” Walkden-Brown recounts. “She had just the beautiful tone, I was immediately drawn to it.”
She played OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya.’ “When I heard that, he says, “my jaw just dropped.”
Walkden-Brown couldn’t possibly forget all the precise details around the moment. It was the night of his wedding anniversary, and he and his wife were enjoying a rare date-night after the birth of their first child, with the in-laws on babysitting duties.
“We only had a bit of time, we knew our daughter wouldn’t last that long. We stayed a few songs but we were anxious the whole dinner, we really wanted to get back and see her. I had this really strong feeling about it,” Walkden-Brown remarks.
As luck would have it their meal was a letdown. They didn’t stay for dessert, and the pair jogged back to the action on the street.
Tones was still belting them out. Walkden-Brown and the singer chatted between songs. He left his card and suggested they talk, about whatever. He wasn’t a manager, but he knew his stuff having represented many others, and, over the years, been involved in artist disputes acting on behalf of both sides.
As it turns out, that was Tones’ first night of busking. She’d just driven up from Melbourne to Byron to give is a shot.
The planets aligned, the numbers came up.
A week later, Tones rang from home in Melbourne. Walkden-Brown pitched for management on that first phone call. She said “yes,” and became his first management client.
Soon after, Walkden-Brown launched Artists Only as a vehicle for his management services to Tones, and he’s currently in the process of bringing across his legal services under the same roof.
With Tones committing, the ball got rolling. Fast.
She quit her job working in retail at the Universal Store in the city and within a couple of weeks she was living with the Walkden-Browns.
From Monday to Thursday, Tones worked in her manager’s Beechmont studio on the Gold Coast hinterland, and stayed in his daughter’s cottage. “It was pretty hectic in the sense that we dove right into it. But she really gelled with us.”
Walkden-Brown encouraged Tones to develop her craft by busking as much possible. “We’d go down together on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, most of the time we’d be together sometimes she’d take a friend with her. It was pumping at the time, which it always is in Byron in the summer. It literally went off, from the get go. We didn’t have a bad night.”
They tried a few nights in Brisbane, and even the Gold Coast. But the vibe wasn’t there. “Byron has an energy about it, it really worked for her. Everyone is in such a good mood in Byron. Everyone is so chilled. The crowds were just phenomenal.” By the end of the first song, at least 20 would stop by. By the end of the 3rd, there was at least 50. And by the end of the set, 150 would be gathered. “We were getting shut down by the police in a few weeks,” notes Walkden-Brown. “The crowds were spilling onto the street and becoming dangerous.”
In mid-2018, Walkden-Brown realised he needed some expert support. He was now juggling a busy practice, part-time academic work and a growing family. Tones and her manager were considering releasing music, but I “really didn’t want to mess it up,” he admits.
Into the frame comes Pixie Weyand, an early supporter who runs The Zoo in Brisbane and was booking Tones’ shows. Wayand suggested Lemon Tree Music, and their founders Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan who, like Walkden-Brown and his band Aerials (now in hiatus), came from a band environment.
“These guys knew how to manage an artist who blows up quickly. I had a really strong gut feeling that Tones was going to blow up,” Walkden-Brown says.
“They have a really good reputation and have real strengths around the busking theme, with Tash Sultana and Pierce Brothers coming from a busking background.” When he mentioned LTM to Tones, her eyes lit up.
When she worked at Universal, she had grown up listening to Sultana and the Pierce bros busking on Bourke Street. “She wanted to become a musician by watching these artists,” he explains.
Walkden-Brown entered into a co-management deal in February with LTM. The next month, Tones released the first single, ‘Johnny Run Away’. After an 18-month incubation, Tones And I’s recording career was away.
The track, released through Tones’ label Bad Batch and distributed domestifcally by Sony Music, is now double-platinum certified. ‘Dance Monkey’ is four-times platinum.
“It’s unconventional to have three managers,” he acknowledges. “But it works like a dream. They know radio really well, deal with DSPs, all the practical things.” Walkden-Brown handles the legals and sets up the negotiations, and the deals which include a licence arrangement to Elektra for the world ex-ANZ. “We wanted to make sure we did the best for Tones.”
Listen to Tones And I’s ‘Dance Monkey’:
Three heads are clearly better than one. Tones has racked up eight nominations for the Nov. 27 ARIA Awards, she’s on a sold-out national headline tour and dates across Europe follow in early 2020.
And with its streak growing to 11 weeks at No. 1 on the ARIA Singles Chart, Tones extends her reign at the top of the leaderboard among all Aussie artists.
Walkden-Brown presented on a panel at Bigsound, and used the event as a soft launch for AO. In the years to come, he intends to add more artists to the roster.
“When it comes, I’ll jump. But I’m not rushing it,” he says. “I want to give this project everything it needs, and it needs a lot of time and energy.”
And what chances of getting lucky and finding another superstar masquerading as a busker? “I don’t think I’ll ever find someone as special as Tones. She’s a needle in a haystack.”
Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.