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Gareth Farry: Aesthetic Revolutionary

Tola Newbery & Mara TK in Poropiti (The "Prophet")
Gareth Farry, Producer at Sugarlicks
Gareth Farry, the Producer at Sugarlicks, urges musicians to build their craft and amplify stories in new and innovative ways.

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Terming himself an “aesthetic revolutionary”, Gareth Farry rejects art for the sake of titillation and instead calls on artists to use their voices to tell powerful stories that contribute to social change. Gareth is the Producer at Sugarlicks, a music label with a long history of elevating the voices and music of artists that sit outside the mainstream. After a spell on the backburner, Sugarlicks is about to present their latest project, Poropiti (The "Prophet") in collaboration with musician, Mara TK, and theatre practitioner, Tola Newbery. This new work represents a larger shift in Gareth’s thinking about the music industry and how musicians can build on their craft to tell stories in powerful and innovative ways.

“Artists need to take up the challenge and realise that we need to do art to make social change. The best art for me gives commentary on the society that we live in and stands up for the dispossessed.”

Responding to inertia

As a young man growing up in Dunedin, Gareth’s music tastes were heavily influenced by his older cousins. Being half-Lebanese, there was a political aspect to the ideas and music that they introduced him to. “I grew up amongst a peer group of older cousins who were presenting ideas or music outside the mainstream.” There were five bands that summed up their record collection in his mid to late teens: Bob Marley, Public Enemy, The Clash, The Jam and The Specials. This mixing of musical genres and political messages laid the foundation of Gareth's approach to music as a vessel for amplifying different voices and ideas.

Gareth moved to Auckland after university where he was immersed in a cultural diversity that he had never experienced before. He found himself walking amongst talented artists from all around the world who weren’t visible in mainstream live or recorded music. “There was a lack of an outlet for people who weren’t mainstream artists who came from a different cultural background, whose music mixed genres or was too political for the mainstream.” Gareth responded to this void of expressive outlets by establishing an alternative music venue, the Khuja Lounge, in central Auckland.

The Khuja Lounge hit the ground running. “Khuja Lounge came really busy, really quickly and we didn’t anticipate that at all. We hadn’t even hired a cleaner and the place would be full until 4am and then we had to clean it ourselves ready for the next day.” Suffice to say, they had created something that people were ready to receive. “We were approached by a lot of people wanting to play and get their music out there … we had so many different faces coming there. There were artists, and messages and voices that needed to be heard.”

They could sense an energy in the music scene waiting to be harnessed. “We were responding to inertia … Auckland was evolving to become a multicultural city at this time. When we saw that, we saw an exciting opportunity to see what comes out of different cultures and people in this place. It’s very unique when people from different parts of the world come to a place like New Zealand and to a city like Auckland that is quite relaxed and open, people can explore interesting areas of their artistic expression … We realised that we had to start recording.”

They set up an independent record label, Sugarlicks. Gareth admits that he had very little idea what he was doing in the early days and he learned everything on the fly. His brother was doing the SAE Course in Audio and Film and helped him set up the equipment and technical side of recording systems. His degree in Law helped him understand the details of contracts and recording rights. To figure out the rest, Gareth buried his head into histories of the music industry and biographies of artists to learn from the stories of others about how cut throat the industry really is. “You have to do a lot of research, understand the structure and then find your own place in it.”

The biggest shock, Gareth says, was learning that once you’ve recorded an album, you’ve only completed 50% of the work. “I thought that we just created songs and then they are played on the radio.” Learning to navigate the world of promotion, distribution, interviews, getting on radio, making videos and touring was a huge learning curve and one that took many hours of work.

Their intention was always to sit outside the mainstream commercial music industry. “We decided to give that process 0%. Becoming commercially popular was never something we took too seriously.” This allowed them the space to be controversial, remain authentic and amplify voices and messages that sat outside the confines of commercial popularity, but it also meant that they didn’t have access to some of the easier income streams that come with fitting in the commercial box.

The rise of digital technologies and the decline of the music industry

Initially, Sugarlicks, had great success with distribution channels in Europe, the UK, and Japan. Gareth had a lucky break in Berlin when he went to Popkomm, an international trade show dedicated to the music industry that ran in the 1990s and 2000s. Sugarlicks got noticed by some of the big European names in publishing and distribution and was promoted to the top of their lists as a production company to look out for. “I remember sitting in a room at a function, there were a lot of top agents and distributors there, and I could hear people’s conversations talking about this label from New Zealand. I realised, ‘wow, people are talking about us!’ I was so green. I just had no idea what to do with that information.” This event landed them a great distribution deal in Europe.

Two years after successfully launching Sugarlicks as a label, there was a shift in digital technology and everything changed for the music industry. “Digital took over and we lost 80% of our sales base.” Income streams dried up and at this point in the game, no one had any idea how to get paid. “It was too early in the world of digital music for any of that to have been worked out. These were fast paced changes in the music industry and it was messy at the beginning. Things are a little more organised now, but at the time, it was too hard to keep going.” Gareth spent two years trying to figure things out, “thinking, oh god, what am I going to do?”, until he applied for and got the job as the Arts Manager at the British Council.

Poropiti (The "Prophet"): Emerging beyond the record

Gareth put Sugarlicks on the backburner and spent seven years immersed in the larger arts world. “I was watching a progression. I saw the music industry pie shrinking and getting more and more complicated about how to make money online. I noticed at the same time that the whole arts festival market and audiences were really increasing. Arts festivals have popped up in the provinces all over the country. It’s become a vibrant part of the culture of these places.” This work helped him expand his concept of how musicians could participate and earn a living beyond solely producing records.

However, it was a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that really changed the way that he thought about the music industry. The show was called Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest. It combined theatre, soliloquy, stage craft and hip hop. “She was 17 and the show was so deep that it completely blew me away. I sat there thinking that I wish the people I have worked with over the last 10 years were sitting beside me.” This spurred him into opening conversations with musicians about developing shows that use stagecraft to tell a much bigger story. “There is so much more for musicians and artists to do as far as stagecraft goes. That was a turning point for me.”

For the last two years, Gareth has been working with musician, Mara TK and theatre practitioner, Tola Newbery, to bring to life a new work that extends beyond what any of them have done before. Poropiti (The "Prophet") unravels some of the prophetic movements throughout the Taranaki region during the New Zealand Wars. For Gareth, this story was particularly important to tell because it was something that he had never learned about in school. He was shocked when he learned that despite growing up in Dunedin he had never been taught that the Shore Street caves had held Māori prisoners or that the roads had been built using Māori prison labour. “I never knew we had a country or a government that did that.”

Poropiti combines physical-theatre, choreography and live music, and requires both Mara and Tola to stand outside their comfort zones as artists as they take on multi-disciplinary roles on stage. The show finds new pathways into storytelling provoking the imagination of the watcher as these two explore deep aspects of our indigenous history. The work carries a challenge for the history of this land to be re-explored. Through this work they hope to empower urban Māori to question the stories that they have been told about their ancestors and the Crown and reconsider their cultural identity that has emerged from the mis-telling of these histories.

Poropiti marks a new direction for Sugarlicks as a label. Gareth comments that the state of the industry remains largely unchanged, and non-mainstream artists continue to sit outside commercial music channels. Sugarlicks is unlikely to become his bread and butter again (he currently works as a creative consultant at Splice), however, he continues as producer at Sugarlicks “for the love of it” and his commitment to amplifying the voices and music of those artists who he believes in remains unchanged. Gareth now prioritises working with musicians who are prepared to be inventive in the way that they tell stories and the mediums that they use. When working with artists, it is authenticity that he looks for: “Is [their work] unique? Do they stand up straight? Do they look like they’re being derivative?” He urges artists to use their expression to convey meaning. “Artists need to take up the challenge and realise that we need to do art to make social change. The best art for me gives commentary on the society that we live in and stands up for the dispossessed.”

Poropiti will have its debut season June 20-24 2017 during Auckland Matariki Festival at Basement Theatre. Book your tickets here

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

2 Jun 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.