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The inside story of Michael Gudinski’s incredible rise to the top of the music game

The inside story of Michael Gudinski’s incredible rise to the top of the music game

Many years ago I asked Michael Gudinski – who had by that stage already promoted tours by hundreds of international artists – which star he’d most like to bring to Australia.

He didn’t hesitate for more than a tenth of a second, which was actually a long time in his world, before answering.

‘I’d love to bring Steve Winwood to Australia,’ he said.

Wish list: Many years ago I asked Michael Gudinski (pictured) – who had by that stage already promoted tours by hundreds of international artists – which star he’d most like to bring to Australia

‘He’s one of my musical heroes.’

Winwood, the singer from the Spencer Davis Group, then Traffic, before a very successful solo career, did tour Australia for Gudinski some years later on a double bill with Steely Dan.

It was the first time Winwood had returned to these shores in more than two decades, and his first time with Gudinski’s Frontier Touring as the promoters.

Where there's a will, there's a way: Gudinski usually managed to get what he wanted - and if he didn't it wasn't for lack of trying. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

Where there’s a will, there’s a way: Gudinski usually managed to get what he wanted – and if he didn’t it wasn’t for lack of trying. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

Gudinski usually managed to get what he wanted – and if he didn’t it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The Australian music legend, who passed away earlier this month at 68 from a heart attack, was known around the globe for many things. 

He was a great deal maker, had endless energy, a passionate love of music, an extremely astute business head, and an inability to accept that things couldn’t be made to happen.

Renowned: The Australian music legend, who passed away earlier this month at 68 from a heart attack, was known around the globe for many things. Pictured with Bruce Springsteen

Renowned: The Australian music legend, who passed away earlier this month at 68 from a heart attack, was known around the globe for many things. Pictured with Bruce Springsteen

If he wanted something – any idea at all – to become a reality, his sole drive was making the deal and putting the music out or getting the tickets on sale. Wondering ‘what if’ was not part of his make up.

Winwood would come to Australia on a tour promoted by Gudinski. There was no question that that’s what Gudinski wanted. It was simply a matter of timing and making the deal right for the artist – and Gudinski of course.

It’s been said many times over recently that Gudinski was a larger than life figure. And he was. For 50 years Gudinski shaped the face of popular culture in Australia.

Multi-tasker: He was a great deal maker, had endless energy, a passionate love of music, an extremely astute business head, and an inability to accept that things couldn't be made to happen. Pictured in Melbourne in September 2006

Multi-tasker: He was a great deal maker, had endless energy, a passionate love of music, an extremely astute business head, and an inability to accept that things couldn’t be made to happen. Pictured in Melbourne in September 2006

It all started with a fledgling artist booking agency and Mushroom Records in the early 1970s. 

That enterprise grew to an empire that encompassed more than 50 companies devoted to promoting, music publishing, merchandising, event and artist management, film and television production (his company produced films such as Chopper and Wolf Creek) and many other areas of the entertainment business.

If there was a pie to put a finger in, the hands of Gudinski’s were somewhere around. Closely around.

Making dreams come true: If he wanted something - any idea at all - to become a reality, his sole drive was making the deal and putting the music out or getting the tickets on sale. Pictured with Ed Sheeran

Making dreams come true: If he wanted something – any idea at all – to become a reality, his sole drive was making the deal and putting the music out or getting the tickets on sale. Pictured with Ed Sheeran

The roster of artists on Gudinski’s Mushroom Records and associated labels is a who’s who of five decades of Australian music. Kylie Minogue, Paul Kelly, Jimmy Barnes, Skyhooks, Yothu Yindi, Split Enz, Archie Roach and Hunters & Collectors are just a sampling of the artists he signed and nurtured.

It’s a sign of the global significance of Gudinski and Frontier Touring that in the aftermath of his passing, tributes have come from artists including Paul McCartney, Ed Sheeran and Bruce Springsteen, the latter saying that after touring around the world for 50 years he’d never encountered a better promoter.

Over the years, Gudinski had also promoted tours by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Taylor Swift and Sting.

Go-getter: Wondering 'what if' was not part of his make up. Pictured with his wife, Sue, at a movie premiere in Melbourne in June 2013

Go-getter: Wondering ‘what if’ was not part of his make up. Pictured with his wife, Sue, at a movie premiere in Melbourne in June 2013

He was the face of Australian music globally. From the early 1970s he lived in planes, travelling up to 20 times a year to the US, Europe and the UK.

As a young journalist and soon after as manager of the Hoodoo Gurus and Paul Kelly, I used to travel regularly to America in the early 1980s.

Often I’d ask people there what they knew about Australian music and its industry.

Presence: It's been said many times over recently that Gudinski was a larger than life figure. And he was. Pictured with Molly Meldrum at the AFL Premiership Cup in Melbourne in September 2012

Presence: It’s been said many times over recently that Gudinski was a larger than life figure. And he was. Pictured with Molly Meldrum at the AFL Premiership Cup in Melbourne in September 2012

They’d usually blank a little and then deliver a variant on, ‘Well, I know AC/DC… and Men At Work… and Michael Gudinski.’

Gudinski’s life could and did fill a book. I wrote it. In 2015 Gudinski – The Godfather Of Australian Rock ‘N’ Roll was published. It wasn’t an authorised book. For reasons that I never could extract from the subject he didn’t want a book written about him – despite, I heard from many sources, that he was secretly flattered by it.

For the most part, Gudinski was comfortable with what I wrote. If he’d had control – and he was unaccustomed to not having control – he would have tempered my chapter on his dealings with Kylie Minogue.

Maverick: For 50 years Gudinski shaped the face of popular culture in Australia. Pictured in Melbourne in September 2006

Maverick: For 50 years Gudinski shaped the face of popular culture in Australia. Pictured in Melbourne in September 2006

He also felt that others were given more prominence than he was in the masterly business negotiations, which resulted in Gudinski and the creator of Myspace being amongst the only people on the planet who could honestly say they got the better of Rupert Murdoch in a business deal.

In that deal in the mid 1990s, Gudinski sold 50 per cent of the then haemorrhaging Mushroom Records label to Murdoch for what is estimated to be between $20 and $40million.

Then, some years later, when the label was in even worse shape as a result of dramatic changes within the global music industry, Gudinski off-loaded the remaining 50 per cent and his controlling interest for even more than he’d received for the initial share. It was smart. Very smart.

Talent: If there was a pie to put a finger in, the hands of Gudinski's were somewhere around. Closely around. Pictured with Kylie and Dannii Minogue in Melbourne in March 2009

Talent: If there was a pie to put a finger in, the hands of Gudinski’s were somewhere around. Closely around. Pictured with Kylie and Dannii Minogue in Melbourne in March 2009

But Gudinski grew to regret it. Mushroom Records was his baby. His legacy. Now someone else owned it and was free to on-sell to whoever they pleased.

His first real love (outside of course his family) was Mushroom Records, the label that he had audaciously launched with a triple vinyl album.

He loved music – particularly blues-based music – and travelled to Chicago to hang out at blues clubs as a young fan. He also bought many blues artists to Australia and started an offshoot label – Toadstool – to release their records.

Recognition: It's a sign of the global significance of Gudinski and Frontier Touring that in the aftermath of his passing, tributes have come from international artists. Pictured with Jimmy Barnes (left) and Molly Meldrum (centre) at the ARIA Awards in July 2005

Recognition: It’s a sign of the global significance of Gudinski and Frontier Touring that in the aftermath of his passing, tributes have come from international artists. Pictured with Jimmy Barnes (left) and Molly Meldrum (centre) at the ARIA Awards in July 2005

Gudinski realised early on that he had nothing in the business world without his artists.

‘Our artists are our strength,’ was one of his trademark sayings.

His strength also came from the people he surrounded himself with. He had a knack for hiring some remarkable personalities – always making sure that they were totally unlike him. He knew the business only needed one free-wheeling, frenetic bundle of craziness that was Michael Gudinski.

Famed: He was the face of Australian music globally. From the early 1970s he lived in planes, travelling up to 20 times a year to the US, Europe and the UK. Pictured with Ed Sheeran in Perth in March 2018

Famed: He was the face of Australian music globally. From the early 1970s he lived in planes, travelling up to 20 times a year to the US, Europe and the UK. Pictured with Ed Sheeran in Perth in March 2018

Gudinski should be given credit – in any industry not known for its forward thinking in the area – to giving many talented, opinionated and intelligent women their start in the music industry and allowing them to grow and flourish within it.

But Gudinski never thought in terms of gender. He just wanted the best possible people around him. Very few employees ever left. Why would they? He respected them, gave them a lot of room to move and develop, and rewarded them well.

Gudinski and I continued to be good friends after my book was published. We’d known each other since the early 1980s and I knew I was putting that relationship on the line writing the book honestly. But despite a few grumbles, Gudinski and I were OK.

Book of life: Gudinski's life could and did fill a book. I wrote it. In 2015 Gudinski - The Godfather Of Australian Rock 'N' Roll was published. Pictured at Hanging Rock in Victoria in March 2013

Book of life: Gudinski’s life could and did fill a book. I wrote it. In 2015 Gudinski – The Godfather Of Australian Rock ‘N’ Roll was published. Pictured at Hanging Rock in Victoria in March 2013

A few months after the book was published, my phone rang and it was the legendary deep voice of Gudinski mumbling a torrent of words down the line.

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‘Hey Stuart – I’m a Jew, we don’t do Christmas – but what’s your address, I have something for you.’

A few days later a wonderful vertical turntable arrived at my door with a note from Gudinski.

Taking care of business: His first real love (outside of course his family) was Mushroom Records, the label that he had audaciously launched with a triple vinyl album. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

Taking care of business: His first real love (outside of course his family) was Mushroom Records, the label that he had audaciously launched with a triple vinyl album. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

Sometime later we appeared together at a media/advertising conference, Gudinski slightly the worse for wear and still celebrating his first (of subsequently two) Melbourne Cup winning horses he had a financial interest in.

When I last visited him at his home in Toorak to do an extended interview for my Paul Kelly biography, we conducted the conversation in between watching horse races on the TV and Gudinski being constantly interrupted by three different mobile phones that seemed to ring constantly. That was his world.

There was no off button with Gudinski. Not that I observed anyway. A few months back he called and proudly told me how he’d been in bed before 1am the previous five nights.

Music man: Gudinski realised early on that he had nothing in the business world without his artists. 'Our artists are our strength,' was one of his trademark sayings. Pictured with Madonna

Music man: Gudinski realised early on that he had nothing in the business world without his artists. ‘Our artists are our strength,’ was one of his trademark sayings. Pictured with Madonna

I mentioned this to one of his staffers who laughed and said, ‘We’ve all heard – he’s so proud of himself.’

Gudinski’s world was a tangential one. He could and did think of a dozen things at once, the thoughts jumbling into a torrent of words. Following the train of thoughts was a learnt art and most people admitted that they usually only understood 60 per cent of what he said when he was in full flight.

Talk of a Rolling Stones or any other tour would effortlessly – and inexplicably – segue into discussions about the St Kilda football team, the state of Australian radio, a bunch of new releases, other tours, some music industry gossip, a reference to a conversation that may have occurred six months earlier, allusions to some new venture or idea, and then, again seemingly effortlessly, loop back to the Rolling Stones tour.

Advocate: Gudinski should be given credit - in any industry not known for its forward thinking in the area - to giving many talented, opinionated and intelligent women their start in the music industry. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

Advocate: Gudinski should be given credit – in any industry not known for its forward thinking in the area – to giving many talented, opinionated and intelligent women their start in the music industry. Pictured with Kylie Minogue

In some ways, Gudinski’s world was summed up when literally days before my book went to the printers, my phone beeped at 1am in the morning.

It was Gudinski with a long text (bearing in mind he rarely texts and when he does it’s haltingly and with one finger) as he was looking at page proofs.

In it, he ranged variously through some of the main players in the book, a forthcoming Sam Smith tour, the current state of Frontier Touring, the game earlier that day between St Kilda and Hawthorn, the Chopper movie, Mushroom Pictures, his daughter getting the rights to an Elliot Smith documentary and a few other observations about life.

Equality: Gudinski never thought in terms of gender. He just wanted the best possible people around him. Pictured with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson

Equality: Gudinski never thought in terms of gender. He just wanted the best possible people around him. Pictured with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson

He called the next morning: ‘Mate, have you seen the Queen’s Birthday honours list – Archie Roach is almost the whole of the front page of The Age… I mean, there’s things about Mushroom that I’m so proud of… Look, I’m just watching the NBL with [son] Matt… Do you know there’s an Australian in each of the teams and one just scored a goal for Cleveland… And how’s this line up – Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Taylor Swift… we’ve got them all playing on the same night in different cities in November…’

Gudinski had no off button. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He wasn’t wired that way. And nothing changed with the passing of the years.

During the 12 months now known as the COVID year Gudinski was as busy as he’s ever been, signing new artists, instigating the Songs From the Homefront streamed concert and subsequent album, re-releasing the triple album of live recordings from the Sunbury music festivals that were the first release on Mushroom Records, and developing and getting to air the weekly ABC TV music show, The Sound, in effect Countdown for a new generation. He was also busy planning all manner of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Mushroom Records in 2022.

Energetic: Gudinski had no off button. And he wouldn't have had it any other way. He wasn't wired that way. And nothing changed with the passing of the years. Pictured with Michael Rowland (left) and Peter Garrett (centre)

Energetic: Gudinski had no off button. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He wasn’t wired that way. And nothing changed with the passing of the years. Pictured with Michael Rowland (left) and Peter Garrett (centre)

One of my favourite moments with Gudinski was when my partner Susan and I visited him at home one afternoon in 2017.

Susan was in the midst of an intense treatment regime for breast cancer. As we left the house, Gudinski walked into his garden, found a rose, handed it to her and wished her good luck with everything. She pressed it and still has it.

Gudinski cared about people. His life was about nurturing musicians and bringing their creativity to the widest possible audience. Beneath the brash exterior was a deeply caring man, and that’s one of the many reasons why his passing leaves an indelible hole in the lives of some many that he touched.

Stuart Coupe is a freelance rock journalist and former band manager. He now runs his own independent record label, Laughing Outlaw Records. In addition to being a published author, he’s also written for a variety of publications, including The Sun-Herald and Rolling Stone Australia. His new book, Gudinski – The Godfather of Australian Rock ‘N’ Roll, is available March 26.

Coming soon: Stuart Coupe's new book, Gudinski - The Godfather of Australian Rock 'N' Roll, is available March 26

Coming soon: Stuart Coupe’s new book, Gudinski – The Godfather of Australian Rock ‘N’ Roll, is available March 26


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