“I tried for 30 years and nothing happened. I couldn’t get anything, any air play, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue I produced something which became bigger than all the earlier stuff.”
With a career spanning more than fifty years, singer/songwriter Russell Morris’ experience pursuing a career in music exemplifies the unpredictable nature of the industry, while also reinforcing the importance of remaining positive and motivated in one’s career, and the importance of building a strong network of industry contacts.
Singer of the original version of the Johnny Young-written and Ian “Molly” Meldrum produced Australian rock classic, The Real Thing, Russell’s career is one which has experienced a range of highs and lows. The Real Thing, released in 1969 has been recognised as one of the top 30 Australian songs of all time. Despite experiencing such success, Russell has experienced hardship over the ensuing decades in being able to continue pursuing music. As he recalls,
“For a while there, I couldn’t make any money. I would probably do 15 shows a year at the most, and the rest of the time I was trying to write television ads, commercials and things to make money so I could survive, and that was really, really hard.”
While being recognised for his contribution to the Australian music landscape would see him be inducted into the ARIA [Australian Record Industry Association] Hall of Fame in 2008, it was a bittersweet moment for Russell, but also the catalyst for him to re-commit to music:
“It was like, go and sit on the porch, you’ve done your bit, just move out the way, this is your contribution to music; now you’ve got it, there’s the door. So I thought, wow, is that it? That’s it; I’ve got my gold watch and I thought, damn it; so that’s when I started to galvanise myself and thought, right, I’m going to do another album.”
A resurgence would occur for Russell in 2012 with the release of the ARIA Award winning album Sharkmouth:
“ABC [radio] picked it up and the album just went straight through the roof. All the community [radio] stations picked it up as well. It was like a juggernaut. But that album, as I said, won an ARIA, it was a platinum album, it was top 10, it was the biggest Australian selling album of that year.”
Russell credits his positivity and the strong support network of industry connections he has developed over the life of his career with being able to sustain himself through difficult periods. While he recognises that networking is a skill to learn (“some people are good at it and some people aren’t”), he says
“Connections are really, really important. It becomes very important not to become a diva and not to treat people in a way that you think that you’re better than they are… You have to show respect for people and I think that helps your connections. Holding grudges doesn’t help either.”
Valuing the contribution of his backing band, one of the key challenges Russell experiences is being able to have a regular stream of live performances in place in so as to support the members financially. Being able to do this, however, is impacted by the relatively small music market in Australia (“you can’t work every single week”). Making his living primarily from live performances means that Russell spends considerable time traveling, and therefore is often away from home. He recognises that while he is fortunate – and enjoys traveling – this can take its toll, particularly when performing in regional areas of the country.
Despite these challenges, Russell continues to find passion in music, by discovering new ways of playing the guitar. A commitment to learning (“I’m always challenging myself, trying to find a new mountain to climb”), is what continues to sustain Russell:
“I like to keep my explorer shoes on. I like to be the type of person that continues to discover new things and discover new things musically, and record new albums… I try to discover new things, and I try to surprise the people that have been so generous to buy my records.”
After more than five decades in the industry, Russell has witnessed the shift from vinyl to CDs to streaming, and broad shifts in consumer behaviours relating to the sale of singles and albums. He sees particular challenges for musicians who are reliant on streaming as an income stream, and for those who work as the song writers for other artists. One way he sees of mitigating this impact is to increase the royalties being paid to musicians, which would help them in being able to generate a liveable income (“they’re always trying to get increased royalties but it just doesn’t seem to happen”). As he explains,
“Big artists are safe, but it’s the little artists that I worry about. Of course there’s someone that’s always going to break through and become really big but there’s a lot that’s going to fall through the cracks. A lot that’ll fall through the cracks that if they had been nurtured they could have been something special.”