The best ideas always seem to come when your utilities are about to be shut off – just ask Johann Ponniah, who’s been keeping the gas on since 2009 with his company, IOHYOU Records.
Living in a Melbourne share house with three friends and a stack of overdue bills, they did what all good twenty-somethings do: threw a party. Charging an entry fee of the 250 kids that turned up, and very nicely asking their musician friends – who were already getting some exposure – to provide entertainment, Johann and Friends had enough cash to cover the next quarter. The rest, as they say, is history.
“After that, my housemates all went their separate ways and I already worked in the music industry, so I just decided to keep it going,”
“It went from house parties to warehouse parties with bands like Foals and Yeasayer, and it naturally developed and I found myself here.”
When he says “found himself here” he really means it – it was never Johann’s intention to build a record label. He just wanted to throw some parties and pay some bills.
“The label side really came about because I was managing the bands on the side anyway, so we thought “fuck it, we’ll just put it all under the IOHYOU banner”, which kids were getting to know thanks to the parties,”
“We put out an EP, and it went OK, so we signed another band and that EP did even better and it naturally snowballed. I wish I could say it was part of some grand master plan, but that’s how it really happened.”
Well, it worked. IOHYOU is now home to some of Australia’s most loved bands, including Violent Soho, DZ Deathrays, DMA’s and City Calm Down. On top of the label, IOHYOU manages bands and takes care of tours for a bunch of other artists.
“I’ve always found that if I’m only doing one thing, I get quite bored. Things become stale,”
“Obviously sometimes you have to do multiple things to make money, but I’ve always thought that doing a few different things makes everything always feel fresh.”
Maybe that’s the secret recipe for contentment, because I ask Johann if – in such a big, competitive industry – there’s ever been a setback or a time he wanted to quit. He couldn’t think of anything.
“There’s never really been a point where I was ready to throw in the towel,”
“When I first started working in music, the band I was managing left me for a bigger manager, which happens quite a lot, but it’s still a pretty big burn.
“This will sound cheesy, but I remember my friend saying to me that no one will ever be judged by the bad things that happen to them, it’s about what they do after that – that’s what defines you.
“It’s not meant to sound like a fucking Denzel Washington quote out of Remember the Titans, but it stuck with me.”
Growing up in Campbelltown, an hour and a bit out of Sydney, Johann knew he wanted to work in music, but just wasn’t sure in what field – or how his parents would take it.
“In terms of any musical talent, I definitely didn’t have any. I figured out at an early age that if I was ever going to work in the music industry, it would be behind-the-scenes, which was fine with me,”
“Initially my parents weren’t very happy about it.
“They migrated to Australia two years before I was born, and worked pretty fucking hard to send me and my brother to good schools, so moving to Melbourne three days after I finished high school to couch surf and work in music wasn’t really in their plan.”
Seems like Johann has the plan sorted though, setting some big long-term goals for IOHYOU.
“It’s a difficult thing and I guess that’s why not many people have done it, but I’ve always envisaged IOHYOU as being a global record label,”
“We’ve certainly made some good in-roads internationally, but I’d like to follow in the likes of Modular Records, who is a label that I grew up with and admire for being one of the only Australian labels in recent times to do it successfully.”
But what about the parties? At this point I picture Johann, mid-50s turning it up in a suburban warehouse. I need to know what his party stamina is like.
“I personally don’t really do the parties anymore… When you start getting too old to want to go out, and do whatever you do when you party, it becomes a lot less fun,”
“That said, we’ll always keep doing them – they’ve always been a great way for people to connect to our label.
“They get a feel for the brand when they come to the party, they can understand what we’re about and who we are as people. It makes it real.”
I can tell Johann is just so damn chill, and very passionate about his brand and what he’s doing; maybe it’s because he’s behind-the-scenes, or maybe because he’s just a big legend, but it’s actually quite refreshing coming from someone in the music industry.
“I’d love IOHYOU to be known for constantly putting out good music, but released in unique way, and totally different, outside of the usual triangle or square or whatever shape you want to pick for that metaphor.”
I ask him my final and most important question of the day: if all of his artists were in a big, old-fashioned brawl, who would win? Of course, he keeps the nice guy vibes coming. There’s a long pause, and then:
“…Ummmm….. Well it would just be the shittest fight, because they’re all just sweethearts.”
FINISH THE SENTENCE
My last meal would be…ideally deep-fried.
My hidden talent is…hiding.
The best day of my life was…today.
I spent my first pay check on…groceries and $50 to sleep on a couch.
One band I could listen to all day is…Bandwidth.
If you're going to the bar, get me a…Bloody Mary, please.