Five Things I Know: Johann Ponniah, I OH YOU

NME catches up with Johann Ponniah, who in 2009 founded I OH YOU, the label home to Hayley Mary, Jack River, DZ Deathrays and many other beloved Aussie artists. He talks keeping a small but potent roster, the differences between the pandemic album campaigns for DMA’S and Violent Soho, and being a person of colour in a predominantly white industry

Don’t over-promise and under-deliver

I OH YOU is in its 12th year and I think we may have only ever worked with 16 artists on the label side. That’s a purposefully small number. While we are part of the Mushroom Group, we are still a small team. I have great ambitions for our label and for our artists, and if we’re going to remain independent, then we can’t be trying to take on too much and then under-deliver.

If we want to be releasing stuff that punches above its weight class and competes with the majors, what we need to do is work with a small amount of artists and throw everything we have behind them: our time, resources and experience.

A shared vision is crucial

We’re looking to work with artists firstly whose music we love but secondly whose vision we understand. There have been times when I was obsessed with an artist’s music but ultimately, we realised that we were on different wavelengths in terms of what I thought their music was going to do, and what they wanted to do with their music.

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At that point, you just sit back and be a fan, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing more frustrating for everyone when you’re in a creative relationship and ideas are just not flowing. People get frustrated and you’re not getting the best out of each other. So what’s the point?

Johann Ponniah, I OH YOU
Johann Ponniah, I OH YOU. Credit: Supplied

The pivots have to make sense

I think DMA’S are probably one of the few artists that may have gotten much bigger during the pandemic. That lies in how they were able to reconfigure what they do: pre-COVID, they were a six-piece live band with big production. But during the pandemic, they did a series of acoustic shows in Sydney and continued to do that at the AFL Grand Final and for television performances.

Violent Soho, on the other hand, play music that is a lot heavier – they couldn’t really reconfigure in the same way. A lot of the artists we work with are uncompromising with their art, which is something I respect and a trait we seek out. Violent Soho were quite rightfully saying, “Well, there’s not much we can do. We’re not interested in doing seated shows, that sounds like it would be very awkward to us.”

When we release Violent Soho records, people make their memories and connection with the songs at festivals and packed, sweaty clubs. When you take that away, that becomes very challenging, and there’s only so much you can do that doesn’t eventually feel desperate. We don’t like making content just for the sake of it. We’re always down to do things but it has to feel true to the artist.

No huge risk without good reason

I OH YOU organised Campbelltown’s first music festival, Out Of Bounds, last year. I’d been thinking of putting on a festival for a while and initially had an idea to do it around the March time period – share some artists with other festivals that happen at that time of year and do it in the Blue Mountains. But I was thinking about it one day and wondered, ‘Well, why am I doing this? Why are we taking this huge risk to put on an event in an area I have no emotional attachment to?’

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If you’re doing something to stroke your own ego or to make a quick buck, running a festival is not the way to do it. If those are your two reasons for doing it, then I don’t think that’s good enough.

Then one year I was back in Campbelltown, visiting my family for Christmas. It’s where I grew up, and I love going back there. And I realised: this is the place I should do this. I don’t mind risking a lot when there’s a reason to do it – and helping Campbelltown get its first major music festival, potentially creating more touring opportunities in the area and possibly developing something for the Australian festival circuit were reasons I could stand behind.

“If you’re doing something to stroke your own ego or to make a quick buck, running a festival is not the way to do it”

People of colour still bear some burden of representation

My experience as a person of colour in Australia’s music industry has been OK. That’s perhaps because I developed a knack for code-switching relatively early on. But I definitely agree that there is a lack of diversity in the Australian music industry, particularly in the roles higher up. There is amazing talent coming up now, so it feels like the tide is starting to turn, though it will still take a while.

The person I’ve spoken to most about this is a friend, Imran Ahmed, who used to be one of the heads of A&R at XL and has founded a great label called In Real Life. We started talking about this quite a lot when I was asked to speak at BIGSOUND last year. I was caught between feeling a responsibility to use my keynote to discuss diversity and representation or simply talk to about I OH YOU and my experiences in the music industry.

It’s my hope that, 10 years from now, when people of colour are asked to do a keynote speech at BIGSOUND, they don’t have to think about that and they can just focus on the second part: speaking about their business and what they do. I purposefully decided not to touch on diversity. Not that I’m afraid of the topic or that I don’t feel passionately about it – I do. It’s a tricky thing, ’cause I was like, ‘Am I kind of selling out my other people of colour by not talking about this or is it a step forward?’ I just don’t want for every time a person of colour is asked to speak at something like that, they feel as though they have to speak about being a person of colour and not just what they do in music.

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