The Godfather of Australian Music

BY THORSTEN KAEDING

NFSA Curator Thorsten Kaeding pays tribute to a giant of the Australian music industry.

Head and shoulders shot of Australian music producer Michael Gudinski, circa 2009.

Michael Gudinski, c 2009

Michael Gudinski (1952–2021) was one of the giants of Australia’s popular music industry and a true friend and supporter of the work of the NFSA.

Born in 1952 to Russian immigrant parents, Michael grew up in Melbourne, a city he was to remain intimately connected to throughout his life.

In the following clip, an excerpt from SBS's Face the Press, Michael talks about having a career that he was passionate about and being lucky enough to live in a country he loved and appreciated: 

Living in the 70s

Michael's passion for music led to him promoting local bands in Melbourne and forming his first company Australian Entertainment Exchange, with Ray Evans, in the late 60s. By 1972 this had evolved into Mushroom Records and Premier Artists agency.

Mushroom released its first single ‘Goodbye Lollipop’ by Madder Lake in 1973 and its first album Highlights of Sunbury ‘74 in 1974. Despite releasing many critically acclaimed records the label struggled during its first 18 months.

This all changed when the label signed an up-and-coming Melbourne band in 1974. That band was Skyhooks and their debut album Living in the 70s became the highest selling album by an Australian band in Australia at that time.

In the following clip from Michael's 2012 oral history interview with the NFSA, he talks about how the controversy surrounding the release of Living in the 70s worked to their advantage:  

The 1970s saw a fundamental shift in Australian popular music. A unique Australian sensibility, less reliant on mimicking overseas artists and trends, was emerging. This was led and supported by the many independent record labels appearing all around the country. 

Mushroom, with its emphasis on promoting local talent, was at the forefront of this evolution. Michael's vital role in this transformation remained one of his proudest achievements.

In another excerpt from his oral history interview, he talks about his legacy as the 'Godfather of Australian music', but emphasises how he wished the focus was on the artists:

A Driving Force

From the mid-70s onwards, Mushroom went from strength to strength. It became one of, if not the, most important independent Australian record label. Artists such as Split Enz, The Saints, Kylie Minogue, The Angels, Christine Anu, Jimmy Barnes, Yothu Yindi and Paul Kelly ensured that Mushroom was a driving force in Australian music.

Not content with the success of Mushroom, Michael formed White Label Records in 1981. White Label focused on experimental and alternative Australian artists at a time when the music scene was going through a creative explosion. It was a key contributor to this era's flowering of Australian talent, promoting artists such as Hunters and Collectors, The Stems, The Triffids and Frente.

Michael’s vital role in promoting Australian artists continued with the set up of Mushroom Pictures in 1993 and, after the sale of Mushroom Records in 1998, through his involvement in founding Liberation Music – another independent label with a focus on nurturing and promoting Australian musicians.

An Industry Giant

Over the years Michael was a proud and much valued supporter of the NFSA. In 2012 Michael presented the NFSA Thomas Rome lecture at the Melbourne Town Hall. He talked about the challenges and opportunities ahead for the Australian music industry, a subject close to his heart, as you can hear in this excerpt:

Michael also generously donated, through his companies, thousands of sound recordings and hundreds of films and documentaries. These donations highlight the diversity and sheer quality of the music and art Michael was instrumental in helping to shape and promote.

His companies' output remains a testament to his passion, drive and total commitment to Australian popular culture.

The term ‘giant’ is often overused, but there is no doubt that it perfectly describes Michael Gudinski and his central place in the story of Australian music now and into the future.

More Michael

Listen to more audio from Michael's 2012 oral history interview with the NFSA, including where he talks about signing Kylie Minogue to the Mushroom label and the making of the Sunbury albums. And you can hear the full 2012 Thomas Rome Lecture on Soundcloud.

You can also watch another excerpt from Michael's 1993 interview on SBS's Face the Press, in which he discusses Yothu Yindi and other Indigenous musicians signed to Mushroom Records.