Diesel hopes COVID-19 sparks rethink in support for music industry

BRICKS AND MORTAR: Diesel's new album Sunset Suburbia is inspired by his fascination with the Australian dream of owning your own house on a quarter-acre block.
BRICKS AND MORTAR: Diesel's new album Sunset Suburbia is inspired by his fascination with the Australian dream of owning your own house on a quarter-acre block.

DIESEL has been waiting more than 30 years for the music industry to be taken seriously in Australia.

Not just a hobby for "arty farty" types or a plaything for wannabe rock stars, but a genuine industry respected for the revenue it generates and the meaningful outcomes it delivers in terms of education and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the music industry's darkest hour. It's almost completely decimated live performance and driven thousands of musicians, sound engineers, venue owners, promoters and light technicians onto government payments.

However Diesel, aka Mark Lizotte, is hopeful the coronavirus can be the catalyst for changing the public's perception of the music industry and the arts.

"It sounds ridiculous to say that, 'take it seriously', but it's exactly what needs to be done," Lizotte says.

"It hasn't been taken seriously like other countries like Sweden or Korea, where they look at the music industry as a real industry, not just a bunch of arty farty people who 'just love doing what they're doing, they'll be fine'.

"Of course we do, but we need help too, and we generate so much money it's insane."

Peak body, Music Australia, estimates the industry generates between $4 and $6 billion annually and employs 65,000 people. Lizotte says the music industry also has immeasurable health and social benefits.

"It's building societies as it's proven music helps kids with their education," he says. "It actually helps them study and focus. It helps people with depression, with Alzheimer's, it's actually medicinal. Outside of being entertainment, it's actually therapy.

"There's so many levels that music needs to be taken seriously, so I think this whole COVID thing has actually been a really good shake up in that it's given us a chance to speak up and have a voice."

In the '90s Lizotte was one of Australia's most commercially successful singer-songwriters. His albums Johnny Diesel and the Injectors (1989), Hepfidelity (1992) and The Lobbyist (1993) either went platinum or gold and peaked No.1 or No.2 on the ARIA charts.

Singles like Tip Of Your Tongue, Never Miss Your Water, Come To Me and Cry In Shame were radio staples and Diesel also won ARIAs for Best Male Artist three times.

Despite the commercial success, Lizotte says album sales and royalties merely covered the recording costs. Even before downloading and streaming ripped apart album sales, he relied on live performances.

"Ironically those days never yielded any money for me, it was always touring for me," he says. "The only time I've ever seen any tangible royalties from a record was when I made a live album, Singled Out, back in 2005.

"Because it cost nothing to make being a live record and it went gold."

On Saturday Diesel will play his first public performances since the COVID-19 lockdown with two 100-capacity shows at Newcastle's Lizotte's theatre, owned by his older brother Brian.

"It's a surreal idea," Lizotte says. "It's like, is this really happening? So many of my friends and work colleagues are in Victoria and it's just not a reality at all for them. You can't help but feel that."

Even if making albums is anything but a profitable exercise, songwriting remains a fierce passion for Lizotte.

Diesel's latest album Sunset Suburbia will be complete on Friday when the third and final EP is released.

Lizotte broke away from tradition by releasing the 12-track album in "bite-sized tasting plates."

Sunset Suburbia is a natural progression from Diesel's 2016 covers album, Americana, as it's inspired musically by the heartland rock sound from US legends like Bruce Springsteen.

Lyrically, however, Lizotte took inspiration from the classic Australian dream of the "quarter-acre block". Suburbia is often viewed cynically in art, but Lizotte finds it fascinating.

"It's a man or a woman's castle," he says. "No matter what it is they have that sense of pride, whether it's a mud hut or a three-storey McMansion.

"I saw that movie [The Castle] in New York and it made me really homesick. That pride that Australia has in it's little pieces. It's easy for people to say it's a suburban nothing, but it's not.

"There's a lot of heart and soul and when I see it being knocked down to build high-rise apartments, which is happening all over Sydney, it's soul destroying."

Diesel releases the album Sunset Suburbia on Friday.

This story Music-making remains a serious business for Diesel first appeared on Newcastle Herald.