Music

How NLV Records Became One Of The Most Important Labels In Australia

In an age of shifting major label power, NLV Records is on track for domination.

It’s 6.30pm at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory, and Kota Banks’ in-ear monitors are refusing to work.

There’s a few hours to go before Banks’ headlining set tonight, so it’s not a disaster just yet, but Banks is still nervous. The sound tech shuffles back and forth from the booth to the stage, changing around leads and fiddling with knobs and encouraging Kota to keep singing and testing them out.

After 15 minutes the sound tech finally admits defeat, and Banks’ label boss Nina Las Vegas — born Nina Agzarian — who is calmly watching the soundcheck from a booth close to the stage, puts the callout on social media for anyone who might have some spare in-ears.

“You’ve done this so many times before, you’ll be fine without them,” she says to Banks. “You don’t rehearse with them — you even chucked them onto the ground at Bigsound, you’ll be sweet.”

Banks nods, looking somewhat reassured. A few moments later she’s joined by tour mate DJ Kritty and they run through a couple of songs, her voice booming around the empty space. She’s pitch perfect — no in-ears needed.

Tonight is the last stop on Banks’ first headlining tour of the east coast, in support of her wildly popular Prize mixtape, which landed in June. And it’s also serving as a bit of a victory party for NLV Records, which over the last 12 months has cemented itself as one of the most exciting labels in Australia.

With a growing roster that now includes Banks, Swick, Lewis Cancut, UNIIQU3, Strict Face, and the newly signed Ninajirachi, the label has carved itself a place right in the centre of the current club and pop music collision. Their current path? Domination.

NLV Records Kota Banks

Back To The Beginning

In October 2015, after 11 years at triple j hosting shows such as House Party and Mix Up, Agzarian made the decision to leave the station.

“I didn’t really want to leave, but it was one of those things where I just reached the end,” she tells Music Junkee just after Banks’ soundcheck wraps up. “At the end of the day I just thought, ‘Well, I can’t do much more.’ I didn’t want to do the main shows, like Mornings or Breakfast. I liked being in control of that dance segment.

“Looking back at it now, I think that moment sadly is gone, of club music happening every weekend in the same capacity,” she adds sadly. “I think that moment was beautiful and I’ll never change it, and I have the most amazing experiences from that time, but I don’t miss it at all.”

The idea for a new label took hold about a year before Agzarian left, when the country was in the grip of Flume-driven electronic music madness. Agzarian went around meeting with major labels discussing the possibilities of an imprint, but nothing came to fruition. But it eventually clicked into place when she met up with UNIFIED Music Group CEO Jaddan Comerford and aired her frustrations about the major labels dragging their feet.

“Jaddan was like ‘How do you feel about it? I was like, ‘Cool, but we’re taking too long and it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable that it’s even taking this long to confirm,'” Agzarian explains. “And then he’s like, ‘Do you want to do it together?'”

And just like that, NLV Records was born. Nina would handle everything on the creative side, and UNIFIED would take care of financing and distribution.

“It’s a label of love, it’s a joint venture, so I’m not getting paid for it, so I just have to hope that these girls make a million bucks one day,” she laughs as she taps away on her phone, sorting out an Uber Eats order for the crew.

Kota Banks Oxford Art Factory

Kota Banks on stage at the Oxford Art Factory.

From The Club To The Masses

With early signees like Swick, Lewis Cancut, and Strict Face, NLV Records quickly had the club scene on lock. Then a Sydney artist and songwriter by the name of Kota Banks came along, and suddenly they were on the brink of a massive pop expansion.

“She came to me as a songwriter, and she just had a great voice,” Agzarian told me a few months ago, when I was collecting comments for a piece about the new wave of Australian pop music. “I actually started to get a bit worried about what was going to happen to her. I know that sounds a bit intense, but I just thought ‘Wow, there is some really great talent here.’ And I just didn’t know who she was going to work with, or what she was going to do.

“I was just worried she wouldn’t be able to take risks if she signed with a major. She’s just trying to find her own self right now, and all we’re doing is helping her find that.”

“I met Nina through a session I did with Mushroom,” Banks tells me in the dressing room of the OAF, where she’s retreated post-soundcheck. “Mushroom hooked up this session with Nina and I, and I was meant to be just doing a top-line for one of Nina’s songs. We just hit it off. She liked my vibe and I liked her production skills, and that was it.”

Asked whether she felt any trepidation about signing to a small label as opposed to a major, Banks shakes her head.

“I don’t think that Prize would have been released on a major label.”

“Growing up, I always wanted to sign with a major, but I just think when you know, you know.” She continues. “It’s the same in love and it’s the same with business deals. They’re the same shit to me. I just knew that Nina and I shared the same vision and we were super on the same page about everything, and ultimately she was going to give me much more creative control than any major label was.

“She was going to be able to move forward with something super boundary pushing sonically, and make me have a point of difference in the industry because I think it’s super easy for major labels to just push you as like a product and it’s super easy to blend in and just become like everyone else and they don’t really want to take risks. I don’t think that Prize would have been released on a major label.”

Banks’ NLV Records debut single ‘Holiday‘ landed in November last year, and the online hype machine dutifully cranked into gear. By the time follow-up ‘Zoom’ landed a few months later, Banks was tipped as one of Australian pop’s Next Big Things. And suddenly, NLV Records was in the mainstream.

NLV Records

Kota Banks, Swick, Lewis Cancut, Strict Face, and Nina Las Vegas.

An Unstoppable Force Meets A Hungry Audience

One of the major pulls to NLV Records — and the major driving force behind it — is the person it’s named after.

Agzarian is a relentless and passionate advocate for Australian music, and she’s unabashed about her ambition to elevate the artists around her and push their music to as many people as possible. And not just of those on her label, but of every emerging artist in Australia.

“She’s the most competent, efficient, productive, organised woman on the planet,” Banks tells me. “Like the fact that she makes you feel like you’re the only artist on her label. She has all these artists and she’s running around doing all these things. She does her stuff. She produces all her own stuff. And she just makes you feel like super taken care of and super special.

“She’s had so much experience and she really has her finger on the pulse of what’s going on, so I always feel very comfortable and in safe hands when I play her stuff. She just has been in the industry so long, she knows how everything works and who to trust and what advice to give and how to handle situations, so it’s been amazing. She’s a mentor.”

Agzarian is at the start of her label boss career, but she says she’s determined to be across every part of the business — from the PR and marketing, to the legalities of licensing and publishing. And of course, that learning includes making mistakes.

“The first year, we had PR and marketing all around the world. That was a ridiculous spend,” she says. “But that was the learning curve, and at the time we wanted to try it and everyone was ahead of it.”

She wants NLV Records to be as artist-friendly as possible (“There’s some pretty fucked up shit happening to artists out there,” she remarks), and is eager to push further into the publishing realm, encouraging her artists to write for and work with as many people as possible.

“There’s some pretty fucked up shit happening to artists out there,” she remarks.

Her big focus for the next year is securing advertising syncs (that is, getting songs in advertisements), and also figuring out how to grow an audience in an era when Sydney’s nightlife has been all but crushed. A week after Banks’ gig at OAF, Agzarian will pack up her Sydney home for good and head overseas to play gigs in Japan and the UK, for the simple reason that she can’t make a living as a DJ in Australian anymore. “I need to go where the work is,” she says, shrugging.

But there’s also a bigger, more ultimate, goal in her mind for NLV Records: to leave a legacy within Australian music.

“I just want to empower women,” she admits. ” I know it sounds obvious but it’s true, and I feel like I am. I want to be empowered in a room of other label heads. And I still think I’m not there yet.

“Even at something like Bigsound,” she adds. “There’s so many parties, there’s so much drinking, and I think there were missed opportunities for actual change. There’s so much socialising and dick-swinging. That’s not me at all. I’m bold and sassy and stuff, but I don’t need to be in those places. I’d rather just be with the artists.”

Nina Las Veags

Nina Las Vegas.

The Importance Of Community

An hour before the NLV Records crew rolled into the OAF, they got themselves inked.

Kota Banks, DJ Kritty, and tour photographer Tiff Williams all lift up their arms and show me the fresh and delicate ‘GIRLS’, pencilled on the back of their arms, just above the elbow. Agzarian didn’t get one (“Hell no,” she laughs) but the crew managed to convince her to write the ‘GIRLS’ script for them.

“You actually don’t need a label, so why would you do it? You do it because it’s something you care about.”

It’s obvious that Agzarian’s intention for NLV Records is less a top-down label situation, and more of a creative collective — like Skrillex’s OWLSA or the early days of Ed Banger Records.

“I think it’s really clear we’ve set up a community in a time when stuff’s not community-based at the moment,” Nina says. “I was always surrounded by dance music labels, like Mad Decent, and Ed Banger — they had a community for so long. They still do, but it’s very different now. ”

“A community can make stuff,” she continues. “So even this tour…I want the crew to feel a part of something, because anyone can put music out now. You actually don’t need a label, so why would you do it? You should do it because there’s a cool connection, you do it because it’s something you care about.”

Ninajirachi, Kota Banks, DJ Kritty, and Freya Staer at the Oxford Art Factory.

A couple of hours later, Banks tears through her set in front of the sold out crowd — at one point lifting her arm to proudly show off her fresh ink. She closes with the punching ‘Zoom’, whipping up the crowd into a half-frenzied sing-a-long.

Afterwards, Agzarian is back in a booth at the very back of the OAF, joined by Ninajirachi and ‘Talk Talk’ hitmaker George Maple — who dropped by to check out Kota on the way to a birthday party. Agzarian is beaming: “It was good wasn’t it?” she asks, full well knowing the answer.

You get the feeling this victory party is the first of many.

Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Writer. Follow her on Twitter

All photos courtesy of NLV Records.