As tour development manager for the Art Council’s Northern Territory division, Alan James added an original and spontaneous note to the usual mix of organising Territory tours for the likes of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “I would stop by the side of the road, ring an Aboriginal community and say, ‘I’ve got some drummers [with me] from Ghana – we’ll be there in three days’,” he recalls of the days before mobile phones.
In 1986 one of those visits to an indigenous community was to change his life and those of many others. In Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, he encountered a charismatic teacher, Mr Yunupingu, who wanted to form a band and was in search of a manager. He’d heard James was manager of local white rock band the Swamp Jockeys.
“We sat on a beach drinking beer and he played five songs on his guitar. I was impressed,” recalls James. “I knew people would want to listen to him, so I said, ‘If we’re going to work together you’d better get a passport because we’re going to be doing a lot of travelling’. I didn’t sit and think ‘ching ching’. It wasn’t the money. I was just intrigued.”
As Yothu Yindi – which means “child mother” and refers to the kinship system between Yolngu clans in Arnhem Land – the band became a reality. They went on to record six albums with Mushroom Records and tour the world many times, supporting artists of the likes of Neil Young and Tracy Chapman. Their songs “Treaty” (co-written with Paul Kelly) and “Djapana” were platinum- and gold-selling releases respectively. In 1993 James won AIM Northern Territory Manager of the Year for his work with the band. In 2000 they performed at the Sydney Olympics Closing Ceremony. In 2001, “Treaty” was named as one of ARIA’s 30 top Australian songs of all time and in 2012 the band (along with James) was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
And, according to James, it might be a rare case of art triumphing over commerce. “We didn’t have a sensible business plan,” he says. “A business planner would have shut us down straight away and told me, ‘Go and get a real job, you silly bastard’.”
“We didn’t have a sensible business plan. A business planner would have shut us down straight away.”
Despite the band’s success the management side was never easy. In the early days the band’s touring schedule had to fit in with the school holidays, as Mr Yunupingu continued to teach. Later on they were often on the road for half the year, band members came and went, and supposedly simple things, such as getting everyone to the concert on time, was a never-ending struggle.
“It takes its toll on you, physically and emotionally,” says James. “Plenty of money came in, but it went out just as quickly.”
While the group was welcomed in the concert halls of the world, the Darwin Entertainment Centre had other ideas. Says James: “It wouldn’t allow Yothu Yindi to perform there even though the band was at the height of its fame and would have sold out the place. We were selling out similar venues in America but weren’t allowed to do the same at home.”
It’s ironic, then, that three years ago James became the manager of the struggling entertainment centre, which had been making losses for five years running.
“I’ve been whingeing about the Darwin Entertainment Centre for 20 years and now, for my sins, I’ve got the job of fixing it,” he says.
Together with a more business-minded management board, James has notched up three straight profits. It is not unusual for thousands of paying customers to pass through the doors each weekend.
“He’s very entrepreneurial,” says the centre’s chair, David Silvera. He attributes the centre’s revitalisaton to James, who in turn demurs: “I don’t think it was rocket science – just straightforward sound management: cutting waste, giving the customers what they wanted, not what we thought they should want. Having said that, it hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial but that hasn’t made me rich. I’ve been called a social entrepreneur,” he says.
Alan James in a nutshell
Born: In 1957, Alan James was born in Katherine, then a town of only a couple of thousand people, 330km south of Darwin. His family later moved to Darwin.
Most traumatic event: When James was 17, Cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974. As the city braced for the onslaught, James and his three younger brothers were sent to look after their maternal grandmother nearby.
Tracy struck in the middle of the night, killing 71 people, making 41,000 of the 47,000 residents homeless and causing $4.5 billion dollars worth of damage in today’s money.“It was a harrowing night,” recounts James. “The noise was deafening until the winds died down in the morning.”
But the trauma wasn’t over. James ran home at first light only to find the family house destroyed and his parents nowhere to be seen.“I thought they were dead. I found them a few hours later back at my granny’s house. It was an emotional reunion, something I’ll never forget.”
First job: With the government clean-up gangs in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy.
A city changes: “Darwin used to be a wild place. The ratio of men to women was 10-1, but it seemed like 50-1,” says James. “As a child, I went down south and immediately noticed the grey hair. You didn’t get grey-haired people in Darwin. As soon as you got to 55 you left. Now our older people are staying.
“There was very little irrigation. Vegetation was transformed into greenery in the Wet season but everything was allowed to go brown in the Dry. Then irrigation was introduced and Darwin became a very attractive city.”
Best reward: When he was in the food export business, winning a federal government grant to visit every major fish market in the world. “It was marvellous. I went to London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris… I remember being at the Tokyo fish market at four in the morning. Travelling is one of the most rewarding things you can do.”
Determination: A drummer known simply as Miltjiri (the Blind Man) was living on Elcho Island. James wanted him to join Yothu Yindi so he flew a Cessna 530km from Darwin and knocked on doors until he found him. The man’s real name is Gurrumul Yunupingu – and he has gone on to international stardom as a singer and guitarist.
Are managers born or made? “Good management is often downplayed. Some people say they are born good managers; I [definitely] learnt it.”
Thoughts on leadership: “Leadership is all about doing something that you believe in and leading by example. If people know you are serious, and you can share that vision, they will come with you. If they can’t then they won’t and that’s OK, too.”