The organic evolution of Courtney Barnett's Milk! Records

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How Courtney Barnett fostered success on her own terms by starting a record label.

'How does it feel to be so successful?'

Courtney Barnett gets asked that question a lot, but she doesn’t know how to answer it.

“I was just getting on with everyday life," she says. "Stuff was really exciting and it was pretty overwhelming at times. It still is, but I just see it as part of this big adventure of life”.

It’s an incredibly down to earth response and a little hard to believe. After all, Barnett has won a J Award, played most of the world's biggest festivals and a couple of the biggest shows on TV. She's even scored a Grammy nomination. But when you understand how Barnett operates it makes a lot of sense.

 

Barnett’s grandma lent her money to press her first EP. It was around this time that she first thought of inventing a name to release music under.

"I just drew this little logo on the back of my CD hoping that that would make it look more professional. And then a real record label grew around it."

The logo was for Milk! Records. The label would go on to cultivate a community of like minded musicians and fans.

"I took a small business course, set up this basic website and web store and started selling it, to not many people," Barnett says. "But that small amount of people grew over time and I had so many friends that were making music so we banded together."

One of those friends was Fraser A. Gorman. He remembers Barnett’s unceremonious pitch to join the label.

"One day she said, 'do you wanna be on Milk!?'. She just said it to me in the pub. I was like 'yeah sure that sounds good'. It wasn’t even a thing. What was not a thing really did become a bigger thing. I guess I’m just real lucky."

I just drew this little logo on the back of my CD hoping that that would make it look more professional.

Courtney Barnett

Barnett will be the first to tell you Milk! is not your average record label. But don’t take the relaxed meeting style as a reflection of the effort they put in.

Jen Cloher, Barnett’s partner, observed this early on.

"Right at the beginning I watched that lovely care and attention to detail," Cloher says. "That real community way of putting something out into the world."

Today Cloher releases her music under Milk! and helps Barnett run it. Their skills complement each other, which is handy considering Barnett admits to being afraid of answering the phone.

Cloher gets a lot out of running the label with her partner.

"It’s a great thing because it’s a shared passion," she says. "You both get to enjoy the successes together. I guess Milk! Records has been a little bit of a musical baby for us."

Under the Milk! banner, the word organically spread from Barnett’s Melbourne bedroom to the world. The whole time Barnett remained in creative control. Feet firmly planted on the ground by continuing to collaborate and nurture the local mates she’d invited onto the roster.

Today the label now includes Ouch My Face, East Brunswick All Girls Choir, Loose Tooth and The Finks.

But Barnett isn’t getting ahead of herself.

"We’re challenging ourselves artistically and that’s the fun of it. There’s no formula for success and if we had that I would quit straight away."

There was no 'major record deal moment', no overnight catalyst which spread success. Courtney Barnett was a frog in milk that brought herself and those around her to boil.

That’s why Courtney Barnett is just "getting on with everyday life." 

Milk! Records' Good For You compilation is out now. Bands from the label hit the road through March: dates are here.

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