It was no secret that Indigenous band Lonely Boys were playing on borrowed instruments when they supported Queens of the Stone Age earlier this year.
Although they were sharing a stage with one of contemporary rock music’s biggest acts, musicians from remote communities are for the most part used to sharing.
And the healthy local music scenes of these communities — where lyrics send positive messages and are often recorded in local languages — have begun to catch the ears of east coast tastemakers.
“It just feels like the Territory scene is on the up,” Mark Smith, executive director of peak body Music NT, said.
“Having 10 bands at Nannup [Music Festival] last year and four bands showcasing at BIGSOUND this year — that really hasn’t happened before.”
But when it comes to the challenges remote bands face, their issues are far removed from the east coast.
“I’m a drummer in Darwin, and even if you bust a skin, sometimes the shop here might not have it so you have to order from interstate,” Mr Smith said.
The wait and cost can be extensive for remote locations, so Music NT has been raising money to address the logistical headache of providing such areas with access to musical equipment.
“That’s the main issue — whether it’s a broken drum skin, it’s snapped sticks, it’s broken strings, then it can more often lead to those instruments getting put aside,” Mr Smith said.
“The opportunity to perform and get better just gets lost.”
The show must go on
At the Bush Bands Bash — an annual concert of Indigenous bands held in Alice Springs — groups are increasingly turning up with their own equipment.
But there are still occasions when they arrive with nothing and have to borrow.
“If they haven’t got a guitar that’s not going to stop them,” Mr Smith said.
The challenge of delivering new gear to these communities is a complex one.
In the lead-up to a recent concert in the Gibson Desert community of Kiwirrkurra, organisers had to hire equipment from Alice Springs.
“There was a special concert happening and the boys had been given some money to put on a really good show,” supplier Darren Rumbal said.
The dearest part wasn’t going to be hiring the equipment, but getting it freighted for long distances on unsealed roads.
“I think it worked out cheaper to just buy the gear,” Mr Rumbal said.
Councils, community stores stocking up
Some local councils have begun putting in large orders for shared equipment to reduce these large, once-off shipping costs.
“But if you’re a guitarist in a band and suddenly your D string snaps and you just want to get that, it’s a whole other story,” Mr Smith said.
For individual deliveries, bands have been known to call upon the ‘Bush Bus’.
The bus ferries people to and from remote communities surrounding Alice Springs, including to the APY Lands community of Wingellina, where Irrunytju Band is based.
Frontman Chris Reid said the band mostly used other instruments or gear while they waited for new bits and pieces to arrive.
Elsewhere, community stores have also begun purchasing supplies.
The big industry names that increasingly take part in Bush Bands Business — a skills development camp for remote bands that culminates with the Bush Bands Bash — are also looking to change things.
“We had Drew [Goddard] from Karnivool and Brian [Ritchie] from the Violent Femmes this year and they both said ‘We’ve got existing relationships with [music suppliers]’,” Mr Smith said.
The musicians are looking into whether these relationships could be used to leverage a direct supply model and make sure large-scale music events are well-equipped.
The turn to digital
Skinnyfish Music is getting ready for a zenith in streaming services expected in the next few years.
This could be good news for the record label that represents Lonely Boys alongside a swag of Indigenous music acts, because they are used to turning down potentially lucrative live music gigs.
Why? Flights are expensive, and groups often have up to five or six members.
Shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane come with a price tag upwards of $10,000.
“All of these guys work four or five times as hard as a mainstream band in Melbourne to be able to go on a basic tour,” label co-founder Michael Hohnen said.
This means streaming services are shaping up as a key tool to help bands grow their audience beyond the communities where support is already strong.
The future of music
The bands have been receptive to the idea.
Lonely Boys have their new EP and a handful of singles on Spotify, where each has garnered several thousand plays.
“Income is generating slowly,” Mr Hohnen said.
“It will still take a long time and, for some, it will still be impossible to make much money.”
Nonetheless, he is optimistic these platforms have the potential to unearth unknown acts.
Mr Smith is also hopeful.
“Regardless of where you are in the NT, we’re a long way from the east coast industry,” he said.
“[Streaming] addresses the issue that these bands are quite large and touring isn’t always viable or practical.
“But they can still get the music out. And that helps feed this broader idea that there is good stuff happening here.”