A brief history of Astral People
What started as a humble artist management agency, created over pizza on Crown Street, has turned into a multi-armed music juggernaut, whose parties have attracted the attention of Thom Yorke and Elton John. Andy Webb traces the humble origins of Sydney luminaries Astral People.
I'll never forget the unhinged energy of Jonti's set at Astral People's launch party. Intently stabbing a modular synth with patch cables to create an aural kaleidoscope of bleeps and bloops and twisted electronics over a shuffling drum machine, the climax of his performance felt thrillingly close to downright mania while managing to stay on the right side of genius. It was exhilarating.
The Sydney-based musician, who had recently signed to legendary LA hip hop label Stones Throw, was more or less headlining the night at short-lived Surry Hills venue Tone Nightclub. He joined an eclectic mix of acts like IDM-leaning group Bon Chat Bon Rat, RnB-inspired electronic pop duo Collarbones and the silky house of Albatross AKA Alba for an all-local showcase that, for 2011, was impressively forward-thinking in its broad programming.
That stylistic diversity and seamless meeting of different scenes and sounds is one of the biggest strengths of Astral People, the Sydney artist management agency turned promoter, touring agency, publisher and record label, which was born a decade ago after some inspired meetings at Crown Street pizza joint Dimitri's.
"When we started, we kind of wanted to bring DJs and bands together," explains Tom Huggett, better known as Huggs, over a cosy lockdown Zoom call with his Astral co-founder Vic Edirisinghe. It was all about having those worlds collide, the stage and the club, "where you could have a night starting at 8 PM but ending at 6 AM".
Together with Jonti's brother Lee Danielewitz, who has since moved on from the Astral family, they joined their wide-ranging tastes and personal management rosters together to start a business that would become one of Australia's most influential and respected independent music companies. Today, with an upcoming three-night 10+1 birthday bonanza programmed across the Sydney Opera House's northern boardwalk and Studio spaces, they're shaping the careers of world-renowned artists like Cosmo's Midnight, Wave Racer and Winston Surfshirt.
Having come from separate party crews who had a friendly rivalry and experienced mixed success with their own past events, the launch party was an instant home run, selling out 400 tickets with a fully homegrown lineup. "It was a feeling I'd never experienced before," Vic recalls. "Selling out something as your first ever party, that was crazy. All that money that we made we put into office rent, upkeep, and it kind of set us up for those first couple of months."
Working away in their tiny $50-a-week Rozelle office for the summer, where the trio often worked shirtless in the heat, they put together a golden run of shows that never failed to draw amazing crowds. "I think that was a bit of a gift and a curse," Huggs says, "because we got so used to everything being so successful and selling out in the first 9 months, it was like we couldn't be stopped."
That confidence led them to host their first festival, OutsideIn, only a year after launching. They programmed a daringly brilliant lineup at Marrickville's Factory Theatre, combining their rostered acts with the likes of New York rapper Smoke DZA, genre-bending beatsmith Shigeto and an on-the-rise Flume, whose double-platinum debut album had just been released earlier that week.
"I think the craziest thing at that festival was going to the green room at the end of the night and Thom Yorke's there," says Huggs. "It's like, what the hell, we're 22 or 23, putting on our first festival, and Thom Yorke's in the green room having a beer. It was just the most surreal shit ever."
After such a stellar first year, the endless highs made way for the full spectrum of success that included some challenging lows. Ambitious plans for future years of OutsideIn met a city that perhaps wasn't quite ready for the cutting-edge, diverse programming they were presenting, and the fourth and final edition of the festival nearly resulted in the folding of the business.
"I think losing that money is where you learn the biggest lessons," Huggs explains. "I don't regret any of that shit, because what I learned from losing that money, I couldn't learn that from a university degree. We changed the way we do everything after that."
Astral People began to broaden its business scope, and it led to long-term partnerships with local heavyweights Handsome Tours, publishing giant BMG and lauded Belgian label PIAS Recordings. In the wake of Sydney's lockout laws completely shifting the landscape of events in the Harbour City, it also brought about the birth of possibly their most beloved party series, Summer Dance.
Inspired by iconic, sun-drenched shindigs like New York's Mister Saturday Night, Summer Dance took over the stunning sandstone surrounds of the National Art School for a few Saturdays every season with an open-air setting, glorious house music and Zooper Doopers being flung into the 1,500-strong crowd from the balcony above. It turned out to be the breath of fresh air the city's stifled dance scene so desperately needed.
"It was simple, but it was a really effective concept," Vic recalls. "It also was just a party that we loved doing. Out of all the parties that we did, that was probably Huggs and I's favourite party to attend. From when that series started to when it ended, we had come so far. Suddenly we had multi-platinum management artists. Before, we didn't have that. Suddenly we were touring artists like Stormzy who were going up to doing Hordern Pavilion type shows."
Step by step, from the $50 sweatbox in Rozelle to their current dream office on Oxford St, just by Taylor Square, they've managed to create a multi-armed music juggernaut without a dollar of outside investment that's caught the ear of everyone from your average Sydney gig-goer to Elton John. (Sir Elton announced Winston Surfshirt as his "favourite band of the moment," leading Vic and Huggs to giddily hang out with the English titan for the day.)
Over the years, Astral People has also been a fixture at the Opera House's Studio club parties as part of Vivid LIVE, hosting legendary DJs like Omar-S, Danny Krivit and Robert Owens in the belly of the world's most iconic music venue. For Vic and Huggs, after having such a close relationship to such a special institution, there was nowhere else the milestone birthday could have been.
After kicking off the celebrations with a John Talabot club session in the Studio, they'll be taking over the Broadwalk for two nights with Yussef Dayes, Hiatus Kaiyote, Jay1, Mildlife, Youngn Lipz and stacks more in an effort to give a taste of the many flavours that make up the Astral recipe. "To sum up 11 years worth of parties—especially our sound, which is basically every sound—into three nights was always going to be hard," Vic says. Still, they're convinced they've nailed it, booking a lineup where every artist has a meaningful and lasting connection to the brand and what it's become.
Reflecting their impact over the past decade, he says "we've shown that you can be different. We showed that you don't have to stick to one thing, that you can still be respected and you can still be successful. I hope that's part of the legacy that we will leave behind."
That spirit of blazing your own trail and trusting your instincts is something Huggs wants to pass on to the next generation in the industry. "We essentially just want to be open books and help everyone win," he says. "Because at the end of the day if you win, we win. We all come up together, really."
From the launch night to now, the spirit of their home city is probably their biggest motivator to keep innovating and working towards creating a stronger scene for everybody. "Without the people of Sydney, we wouldn't be here, because we wouldn't have sold out that first show which injected the entire company and got us to where we are today. So fuck yeah, Sydney."
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