Record labels have long been seen as money hungry leeches who do nothing but extort their artists while doing little to add to the culture from whence their talent comes.
Blanket theories such as this, however (and in general), do a disservice to the hardworking everymen who go into business not to make mounds of cash, but to create things that they’re proud of and to give back to a scene or movement that they deem meaningful. Johann Ponniah, founder and director of record label I Oh You (“keeping the gas on since ’09”), is one of the latter.
A common trait among (relatively) successful people is the ability to not overthink things and ride momentum when it starts to push. And that’s exactly how Johann managed to turn a series of parties that he threw in the back garden of his Melbourne share house into a label that houses some of the most beloved Australian bands currently touring.
“We started to get a few overdue gas bills and things like that,” says Johann. “And we decided to make a little extra cash by throwing house parties in the backyard. I was managing a band at the time who were on tour and their Melbourne show got cancelled the week before. So we just thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do the party in our backyard and we’ll charge entry.’”
Managing to take a series of backyard gigs to a functioning label housing names like DMAs, Violent Soho, DZ Deathrays and more, is quite the achievement. And what came to be called I Oh You—as a nod to their coinless roots—has been instrumental in fostering the popular resurgence of homegrown music on Australian shores. Johann describes the ascension as something that resulted from he and his friends, “just stumbling through it”, rather than a carefully executed strategy. I tend to believe him, although I suspect his modesty masks just quite how astute he’s been in reaction to the things that he’s “stumbled” into. When forced to explain the series of events that’s led to today, Johann can’t resist the inevitable “shit, it’s been almost 10 years” moment.
“The first party was in December 2009,” Johann says, briefly charting I Oh You’s rise. “I haven’t really stopped to think about just how long ago that actually is. Then the label itself only really came up properly as a business four or five years ago when we became partners with a bigger company called Mushroom. Until then it was just handshake deals and more of just a fun thing and a way that we could help our mates out.”
Having the support of a larger group allowed Johann to give I Oh You his full attention and to start putting out legitimate recordings, rather than the largely self-recorded and produced offerings of the early days. As things have grown, so too has the roster of bands, but Johann’s ever-conscious of not losing touch with the DIY roots that gave the label its initial charm. In keeping with that, all of the bands currently signed to the label are friends, or friends of friends, who can be traced back to the first band that Johann was involved with, Howl.
“It’s funny going through it and talking about how it all came about,” says Johann. “Literally every band signed to the label has some sort of personal connection to us. Like anything, change is always inevitable, but what we’ve tried to do with the label is to keep things very slim. It’s really been 10 years that it’s all been going on, and we only have 10 acts signed to the label still. We feel a big responsibility to the acts who are already signed to the label and the aim is not to try and do a lot, but to try and do what we do really well.”
When pushed for a crowning moment of what’s undoubtedly a far less glamorous day to day existence than it would be tempting for me to portray, Johann first mentions seeing one of his artists win an Aria (DZ Deathrays), before landing on something a little more in line with how and why he started off in the first place. Unsurprisingly (having personally heard the roar of the crowd from a shipping container out the back of the artists’ area where Monster Children was working on a newspaper) it was Violent Soho playing Splendour in the Grass two years ago.
“We were all there and all of a sudden we look up and Oscar (bass player Luke Henry’s son) is out there holding hands with Luke, looking up at what must’ve been 20, 25,000 people. Moments like that are nice because you realise that all of the hard work that all of these people are putting in—not just the bands and the label, but their families, their loved ones and friends—that everyone’s a part of this bigger thing. It’s a massive sacrifice and a lot of time that big artists have to put in to get to a moment like that.”