John Farnham. Impressions/Getty Images.

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian author, father and nu-metal apologist. You may have read his memoir, caught his compelling live performance at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, or noticed his distinct eyebrows on the street. He has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health and the social gymnastics of group chats. This is his column for Esquire.

JUST SHY OF three years ago, I was locked in a bedroom at my mum’s house on a Zoom call with some of the most important people in the Australian music industry. It was only a few months into the first global Covid lockdown, and it was becoming increasingly obvious to those dialling in that immediate support was needed, and without it, everyone involved in live music and the arts more broadly was in serious trouble.

My friend Jackie and I, two industry players with fire in our bellies, were determined to spearhead a campaign that would raise money and awareness and, ultimately, keep our fragile industry afloat.

Our pitch to the heads of Sony, Warner and Universal, was simple: let’s secure one of the nation’s most famous voices, mobilise the masses and save the music industry from total annihilation. Inspired by charity campaigns that had pulled in millions in the UK, from Geldof’s Band Aid all the way through to a fresh Foo Fighters all-star campaign with BBC, we were determined to make the largest impact. And in order to do that, we needed Whispering Jack. 

Beloved icon John Farnham returned to the news cycle recently, lending not only his most famous recording, but also his likeness, to the Yes campaign for the Voice referendum. As someone who came extremely close to securing another of the great man’s tracks for a crucial cause, I’ve been watching the reactions to his involvement unfold with interest. 

Reading comments under the video across the Internet, it’s struck me that among the general public, there seems to be a general misapprehension about how easy it is to secure platinum-level creative IP like this, whether for cause or commerce. ‘Clearing’ a track for use in any type of media, from a 30 second Westpac ad to a movie trailer or video game, is seriously hard work. There are entire teams and industries, both internal and external, from record labels to publishers, dedicated solely to this job of what the industry calls ‘synchronisation.’ 

Farnham in particular, has spent years knocking back requests like mine, which he is perfectly entitled to do. Sync money can be big money, and charities or social movements usually don’t have much to play with. Getting approval to use a song that isn’t a straight-up cover typically requires buy-in from rights holders on ‘both sides’, which means the Publishing (the writer/s of a song) and Master (usually the person that originally performed it or their label that released it).

In our case, we were aiming to use his stone-cold late’ 80s banger ‘Age Of Reason’. Originally, the plan was to primarily have other contemporary Aussie artists assemble on camera to belt it out. But I’d forgotten that as the original performer, Farnesy also would’ve had ‘moral rights’, which essentially boils down to having the last word if you were to call and ask him about it.

We were almost ready to lock in talent when Farnham, via his late manager, Glenn Wheatley, suddenly emailed and pulled the plug. We never did find out why, exactly. I’m sure he had his reasons, and, it should be noted that on a more practical level, the bloke was pretty unwell.

I can only imagine the myriad hoops the Yes campaign had to jump through to secure the rights to You’re The Voice. To even get to formally pitch an artist of this level, you need to go through their label, whoever holds their publishing and their manager. Each one of these conversations, usually on the phone but also on email, can ping back and forth for weeks. It’s creatives, producers, your Mum’s old boyfriend, any way you can find a way in. Hitting a dead end is remarkably common, even if the money is right, the idea is sound or the fit is perfect.

It’s often been said that You’re The Voice, which was a smash hit upon release and has essentially never left the popular imagination since, is Australia’s unofficial national anthem. How a creative work like this is handled in the decades after its release is a huge responsibility for the performer, even if they didn’t write it. Though legally it remains your property, in the heart and soul of Joe Public, a song like this no longer belongs to you. It is as much a part of the Australian cultural fabric as The Castle or Cathy Freeman, the latter of whom is also featured in the Yes spot. The song has also been co-opted – without permission – by everyone from anti-lockdown to far right campaigners. 

There are few artists living or dead in this country that breathe the same rarefied air as Farnham. He remains one of Australia’s highest selling and most enduring acts and isn’t in it for the money – particularly in this case. Consumers rarely see the managerial inbox full of requests like mine and Jackie’s that pile up over the years, nor the intense ideological conversations that surround them. While some requests are easy to wave away, many are not. 

In his twilight years, having survived bouts of cancer and the passing of his longtime manager and friend, won all the awards and sung at all the benefits, Farnesy has nothing left to prove. I know how difficult it was to make the case to him and his team and can only imagine how much trickier it would have been for the Yes campaign. But sometimes things just line up, and everyone’s reading from the same hymn sheet. 

That alone is worth making a song and dance over. 

Jonathan Seidler is an Esquire columnist and the author of It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin).

Like all proper columns, this one will be back next week. You can see Jonno’s first column for Esquire here.