By the end of the 1980s Flying Nun was stretched to the limit financially. There was too much money tied up in unready to release recording projects (which the accountant called Work in Progress) and a need by the established bands to get into the studio to record ever more ambitious records and tour overseas to further their careers. There was a plenitude of great music and a chronic lack of cash to realise and release the undoubted potential. It was crunch time with two possible outcomes. Either encourage the bigger bands to find deals with major record companies in New Zealand or overseas and downsize. Or find a compatible cash happy partner to invest in Flying Nun allowing it to continue to grow by working with its established bands at a new level. There was a third option that was too terrible to contemplate.
A very respectable New York multinational record company did show an interest in getting involved but Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Records got serious first and were much closer to home. As far as record company culture went, we were chalk and cheese. Mushroom Records liked it rock and roll with some pop and produced its artists to be played on the radio. Flying Nun was a post punk construction which was drifting towards a post rock world where pop barely existed. Mushroom had just had international success with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donavon and had money to burn. We burnt some of it.
Mushroom got to buy a big chunk of Flying Nun. 49% of the existing label and 51% of a new entity called Flying Nun Australia. With Flying Nun New Zealand it was business as usual, more so than we expected. Flying Nun Australia was the vehicle to which a number of the bigger acts were signed and who had the more hands on treatment due to the amount of money now lavished on them with regards to recording and the push to break them internationally.
It was a complicated and awkward arrangement that could be said to reflect the rather strained relationship I had with Michael Gudinski. He was a loud brash Australian who I, being shy and retiring, found alarmingly gauche. The incomprehension was mutual. We shared nothing in terms of the way we dealt with artists, or appreciated their music or in the way we sold it. Our world views were totally different and accordingly conversations were stilted and usually collapsed into silence. Silence was perhaps the only thing that disconcerted Michael Gudinski.
Despite all of this, there was a degree of understanding and a tangible amount of respect. He said he knew how hard it must have been keeping Flying Nun afloat for ten years and that it was a major achievement. That mirrored my own view of what he had achieved with Mushroom Records knowing that it would have been a harrowing journey making it as Australia’s biggest independent. Australia had other music business “beasts” as fearsome as Michael and he had ultimately triumphed but was still dependent on radio play and was at the mercy of radio stations for survival which must have been a constant stress.
Most importantly Michael Gudinski gave the go ahead for large amounts of money to be spent on Flying Nun recording projects through the 1990s as well as forking out for tour support and underwriting overseas tours. At times Michael and Mushroom could be Kafkaesque to deal with but generally he was committed to the bigger Flying Nun project. That commitment only wavered when the whole artifice started to crumble.
I was in London with Flying Nun working out of the Mushroom office when the Kylie and Jason money began to run out and it began to unravel. Strange as it may seem I got to spend many all-nighters with Michael’s Mushroom Records co-shareholder and fellow director Gary Ashley in the News Corporation offices in the City of London. Bizarrely I was co-opted to work the calculator and comment on the projections. It seemed that Gary and I were organising a coup with support by someone with clout and a key at News Corp. Gary fronted the operation while I worked the numbers. Gary had left to fly to Melbourne to install the new regime but while he was on that flight Michael got wind of it all and cut Gary off at the pass. Michael’s connections in News Corp were more powerful in the end. I was dumbfounded when Gary rang, not to say Michael was out, but to tell me to burn the spreadsheets. I slunk back to my day job without anyone else being any the wiser. But as a result of the News Corp buyout of Mushroom Flying Nun went with it and was merged into Festival Records to create a new entity called FMR. By this stage I was out the door, with my remaining shareholding squeezed out of me and nothing but an employment settlement to go out with.
I managed to get a small consortium to buy Flying Nun back in 2010. By this stage News Corp had sold FMR to Warner Music in what was described at the time as a brilliant piece of James Murdoch business acumen. I know some of the figures and it can have been nothing but a disaster, a very small one for News Corps size, but one over seen by James Murdoch never the less.
When I was Melbourne on a book tour 5 years ago, I was sought out by Mushroom for a lunch. Michael was sensible enough not to be there, neither of us wanted that. The potential silence. A general manager or two came along and I was a quizzed about how I managed to buy back Flying Nun from Warner Music. They told me Michael was interested in reacquiring Mushroom Records from Warner Music and the catalogue it owned. He had sold Mushroom Records off to News Corp in the first place because he knew the future of the industry was uncertain and News Corp didn’t. The cash was invested in other and presumably more profitable music related businesses. I guess now he missed the record company - maybe he sensed there was still business to be done, especially where he also owned the publishing. In the end the asking price must have been too high as it never happened and Michael was always careful with what he spent his money on, usually.
After the lunch and back in a Mushroom office waiting for my taxi, I felt a presence bluster through the building. The other eyes in the room shifted to the doorway and the presence manifested itself in the form of an extended trousered leg that stopped mid stride. Michael was checking in on how things went but sensed that I was in the room just in time. The leg quickly withdrew as Michael evaporated back away. That trousered leg was the last I saw of Michael Gudinski. Always a music man and keen to be a record man again.