As strong a year as 2019 may have been for various Kiwi acts around the globe, their achievements have been gazumped by the successes of a number of breakthrough Australian artists with evident worldwide appeal. Tash Sultana is one who has gone from busker to international arena-filling star in the space of three years. Most recently newcomer Tones And I has been busily smashing all manner of records with her ludicrously catchy Dance Monkey. The song has been a #1 hit all over place (including a record 16 weeks on top in Aussie), has fair put the shazza into global Shazam charts, and will top one billion streams anytime soon. (That’s one song, nine zeros…) How bizarre then that both Tones and I and Tash Sultana are on the roster of Lemon Tree Music, a Melbourne-based company that’s headed by a couple of Kiwis – namely Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan.
Now in their mid-30s, this clever pair of musicians-turned Australian industry professionals were mates back at Tauranga Boys College, music already looming large in their life choices. Regan played lead guitar and sang a bit while Dave played bass, and at 14 they started a band with good mate Glenn Mossop.
The three ended up in Dunedin for university where they met drummer (and now lawyer) Dan Chisholm, and began playing and busking together as Bonjah. The band enjoyed enough success that they headed across to Melbourne in May 2006 to pursue a full-time career in music.
Bonjah continued to specialise as a busking band, finally folding several years ago. Dan Chisholm is now making his living as a lawyer back in Christchurch, Dave picking up the story of their band back in the day.
“Busking put food on the table for years, really set up the band for touring opportunities, made friends for life, plus led to a career in music management. We worked as full-time musicians for a solid eight years before starting to wind it back a bit, and then played a final show in 2016 to mark 10 years as a professional band.
“We played over 1000 shows and too many busks to count! We all started having kids and getting married, so we decided to call it a day and pursue our individual passions. We are all still best friends and support each other.”
Regan and Dave got involved in managing other artists back in 2013, first helping the now world-touring busking folk duo Pierce Brothers. It was pretty much, they say, using the knowledge they’d gained learning from their own mistakes to help guide the careers of their clients.
“Jack and Pat [Pierce] had an amazing work ethic and busked a lot so we really resonated with that, plus they are insane live. We saw the raw talent and magic that they created when playing live and knew that it would be all about getting people to see what they do on stage.
“The main focus was to build them globally live and they do amazing business, especially through Europe, today. They really helped set LTM up and paved the way for things to come.”
The Kiwi pair branded their new business Lemon Tree Music, the inspiration coming from Lemon Tree Bay, which is up around the Kaipara Harbour as Dave explains.
“We booked a bach there, at the end of a dairy farm, and rehearsed non-stop for two weeks before we moved over to Melbourne. It really was a special time and we bonded as players. We played day and night.
“It rained all the time so we just wrote songs and played music. We felt ready to take on the world after those couple of weeks and we felt like a real band. We had no idea what we were doing we just wanted to give it a go internationally!”
After six years in the game, Lemon Tree Music is now an organisation widely seen as having a Midas touch. Primarily their focus is music artist management, with the current roster of six clients that including Tash Sultana, Tones And I, Garrett Kato, Riley Pearce, Maddy Jane and the Pierce Brothers. They also have a label called Lemon Tree Records.
Six staff are employed at the head office in Melbourne, but these days Regan and Dave work from a second office north of Byron Bay, a better environment given that they’re both raising young families.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world, and Cooly airport is 15min away so it’s handy as we travel so much.”
Partnerships can all too easily become fraught business structures, equal load sharing being just one issue. Despite the top-like growth of their business, these two seem to have it well sussed.
“We have different roles in the company and we compliment each other really well,” explains Dave. “
Often we’re working on bigger picture stuff together and go about implementing it in our own ways. We’re both really proud of what we have built together and look forward to many more years ahead, working with amazing talent and bringing their vision to life around the world.
“I work with the wider teams (labels, publishers, agents, LTM staff) to ensure everyone has what they need and day to day operations are run smoothly. I handle the rollout of tour announces, album/single/EP campaign setups and implementation, and a do a lot of work with digital marketing and strategy. I also help with the back-end business set up for artists and implement business management and strategy for LTM.”
Regan’s role revolves around strategy, including setting teams up around their artists, building a global picture, doing deals, looking after radio, DSPs and press. (“For the most part…”)
They claim no special insight to the Australian music consumer that others perhaps miss.
“We just work around the clock, work with great artists and people. There isn’t any secret recipe, it’s just we love what we do and are truly fortunate to work in music.”
Despite the stark evidence of their roster, Regan and Dave also deny suggestions of a ‘busker-only’ artist policy.
“Not really, we just admire buskers for their work ethic. They seem to want it that little bit more and put their whole heart into it. You really have to be all in with music as there is so many amazing artists and so much noise around. The key is staying you, staying unique and finding like-minded people to help you amplify what you are doing and bring it to life. Everything is global now and that’s been our thing from the very start.”
“We were introduced to Tash via Pierce Brothers after she started busking on the same strip as them, and the guys wanted her to support their shows. We were instantly blown away at the raw talent, and Regan started booking Tash for a solid 18 months as an agent. This naturally started crossing into a management role and we signed Tash officially in 2016 and got to work straight away setting up the global team. The Jungle video happened organically. A page shared it and it just went crazy.”
“We recently got back from seeing Tash play a sold-out Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado to 10,000 people,” Regan picks up. “Going from busking and me booking 200 capacity clubs in 2015 to that made me pretty emotional and speechless on the night! Tash hasn’t scratched the surface and 2020 will be another huge year.”
Which brings our conversation round to Tones & I and her record-demolishing Dance Monkey. Released May 10, it will hit 1 billion streams this summer. The song has been #1 on Global Shazam, #1 on Spotify’s Global chart, #1 on Deezer, #2 on Apple Music, #1 on i-Tunes, gone multi-platinum all over the world and has broken endless records, including #1 in the UK for six weeks and the longest ever #1 in Australia (16 weeks).
Did they possibly see that coming?
“Tones is an incredibly gifted songwriter and has one of the best voices we’ve ever heard,” says Regan. “She literally stops people in their tracks. We had a very special feeling about Tones – but I don’t think anyone could predict a global #1 streaming song – and to be #1 in 16 countries! It’s a real honour to be a cog in the wheel on the team and we are super excited for what’s next. Tones is incredibly inspiring. All the creative ideas and vision come from her. We just help bring it to life.”
“Dance Monkey has made a massive impact on a global scale and helped to open up markets on all continents that we can now develop a long-term career in for Tones,” Dave takes up. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially building a live career artist, but having this kind of success on a song helps to speed up the process I guess. One of the trickiest parts is not skipping steps along the way when you have a song blow up this early in a career. We’re very mindful of that.”
Stepping up from being a humble performer on the streets of say, Melbourne, straight to being confident and global could easily break anyone, physically and/or mentally.
“Fortunately we work with really inspiring and beautiful people. We take mental health super seriously and go the extra step to ensure everyone is doing okay. The creative mind works so differently, you don’t want to change any process – you just want to support, amplify and make dreams come true the best you can. It’s their lives and careers and we take it very seriously.”
Dramatically upscaling any business can also be problematic of course.
“There are always bumps in the road or you don’t learn or fly. It feels like a slow process really. Our schooling was being on the road for eight years as a band, and then it grew into LTM. As long as our clients are 100% happy, and our staff are happy, then we are happy. We don’t celebrate wins enough, we are always looking ahead to what we can do next or better, so we could probably stop and smell the roses a bit more!”
Do they feel like they have a formula applicable to work with other artists now?
“There isn’t a formula. We just try to set things up the right way for that artist, always look at it globally, don’t ever skip steps, work super hard and try to have fun along the way.
“Every act is different. The best marketing you can have is honing your craft, writing great songs, becoming a world-class live performer and taking your fans along for the journey. Friends telling friends about an act is the best possible way to grow a fan base and you need to put in the work for that to happen.”
For two businessmen who must be busy as all heck given the roll that Tones And I is currently on, Regan and Dave have been very generous with their time. As a final question, we couldn’t help asking the former Tauranga lads if they might want to add a Kiwi to their roster, for a change?
“We said we are done and then we were sent a video of Tones busking and we basically harassed her (and her manager Jackson from Artists Only) for a meeting. Never say never, but we are very content with our current roster and just want to throw everything we can into their careers. It’s such an exciting time to be in the music business as there are no rules.”