In Australian music history, the story of Courtney Barnett and the independent label she founded in a Thornbury sharehouse in Naarm’s inner north, is canonical. Barnett was just 24 years old when she picked up a pen and drew the outline of a milk bottle tipped on its side with the words “Milk! Records” floating in its puddle. Eleven years and over 70 releases later, Barnett will close the label with its final release, ‘End of the Day (music from the film Anonymous Club)’.

So much spilled out from that tiny illustration. Milk! launched Barnett’s career as one of her generation’s most-celebrated artists, that appearance on Ellen and international acclaim. And beyond Barnett’s own successes, the label fostered a DIY community of musicians who chose to do things their own way, outside a system that rarely worked in their best interests – if it paid attention at all.

“I’ve been going through my old hard drive in the last few days, going through old things like photos and documents. I’ve been having a real trip down memory lane,” says Barnett of some of the pictures strewn through this story. “I think [starting Milk! Records] was about trying to find community, like-minded people and musicians. That’s a hard thing to do in life, I think. We all have our own insecurities and all those things that get in the way.”

Milk! Records’ 10-year celebration by Izzie Austin
Milk! Records’ 10-year celebration. Credit: Izzie Austin

Barnett had moved to Naarm from Hobart in 2008 and began planning the label in 2011. When Barnett announced her plan to her then partner Jen Cloher, an experienced and acclaimed musician in her own right, Cloher had her doubts.

“It wasn’t so much underestimating her. [Rather], it was an interesting time in music. Streaming wasn’t a thing yet but iTunes was. A lot of people didn’t buy music,” says Cloher, remembering the illegal downloads running rampant on file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay. “I was like: ‘How are you gonna make any money?’”

Barnett recorded her first EP, ‘I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris’, in a mate’s living room in November 2011. She registered Milk! as a business in February 2012, borrowed $1,000s from her nan Margaret to press a bunch of CDs and released the EP that April. She began selling friends’ music from the label’s webstore, too, and sent off orders herself from the local post office.

Tom Larnach-Jones, Marcelle Bradbeer, Anika Ostendorf and Courtney Barnett (core Milk! team in 2020) in front of Steph Hughes’ mural at the Milk! Records warehouse by Dave Mudie
Tom Larnach-Jones, Marcelle Bradbeer, Anika Ostendorf and Courtney Barnett (core Milk! team in 2020) in front of Steph Hughes’ mural at the Milk! Records warehouse. Credit: Dave Mudie

The label had been running for about six months when Barnett suggested she and Cloher release a split 7-inch together, 2012’s ‘Mount Beauty/History Eraser’. The single’s cover art was illustrated using the blood of its artist, Celeste Potter. They pressed 500 copies that they sold for $10 each; original copies have since sold on the Discogs marketplace for as much as $167.75 a pop. Cloher decided to release her next album on the label, 2013’s ‘In Blood Memory’.

As Barnett’s career skyrocketed following the release of her second EP ‘How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose’ and its iconic single ‘Avant Gardener’, Cloher became more involved in the day-to-day label management. Cloher put her decade-long experience running self-management workshops for musicians to use, hustling every angle to make a buck from shows, to government grants and merch sales. “We had boxes full of merch in every room, interns coming into the house sitting around and at the kitchen table,” says Cloher of their Thornbury HQ.

Milk! Records’ 10-year celebration by Izzie Austin
Milk! Records’ 10-year celebration. Image: Izzie Austin

Around 2017 the label had become big enough to warrant its own space and they moved into a Coburg warehouse on Sydney Road, from which it has operated to this day. “It became a kind of beacon of the label, where it finally had room to grow. It was the first place out of the house, bedroom and lounge room and into this other space. Took it up a level,” says Barnett, who wrote the majority of her second album, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ in the space.

The slow-but-sure viability and the growing community of Milk! Records eventually convinced Cloher. “I was coming from a real place of having debt in business; running workshops where I’m hearing about artists going into tens of thousands, sometimes more, in debt. And I just couldn’t see how starting a record label and adding another job to what an artist needs to do was going to be sustainable. I think what Courtney showed me was that things were changing.”

“What Courtney and I both shared in common was a love of community, of working with others and being around lots of people who are doing the same. We craved that energetically, we didn’t want to be alone. I think that’s what Milk! showed me that this is actually the way you can build community.”

Milk! Records crew outside shopfront by Marcelle Bradbeer
Milk! Records crew outside shopfront. Credit: Marcelle Bradbeer

For both Cloher and Barnett, their personal lives, relationship and individual creative outputs could become mixed up in the running of Milk!.

“Definitely over the years they’ve melded together at certain points,” says Barnett. “It’s not a normal job, or a normal label. There was certainly a great number of years where I was working on it every day and night time, into the late hours, and it probably wasn’t normal. But it has been such an important part of my musical career… it kind of makes sense that they’re entwined like that.”

Historically, Milk!’s story has been framed through Barnett and Cloher’s relationship (on this point Cloher firmly insists the label is, and always was, Barnett’s idea). It’s a narrative women artists are often subjected to over their male counterparts. Looking back, one can especially see the media’s eagerness to run with their story of romance as Australia moved towards the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017.

“What Courtney and I both shared in common was a love of community, of working with others and being around lots of people who are doing the same” — Jen Cloher

“I think we lived in a relationship that revolved around our work. Courtney was in my band, we ran the label together, that was our passion. I don’t think we really viewed life and work as two separate things, it was our life’s work,” says Cloher. “I don’t think either of us ever looked at this work as a burden, or something that needed to be separated out from us.”

But Milk!’s roster told its own understated diversity narrative through its steady output of accomplished, varied releases, the majority of which came from women and/or queer artists. It was a classic case of “show don’t tell” that unburdened its artists of the sexism, ageism or any other -ism they’d endured in the past and allowed them to speak first and foremost through the quality of their work.

Milk! highlights include Barnett’s instant hit ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’ and its knottier successor ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’; Cloher’s self-titled 2017 album and newest release ‘I Am The River, The River Is Me’, sung partly in te reo Māori; Liz Stringer’s ‘First Time Really Feeling’; and several acclaimed albums by Aotearoa songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, who performs as Tiny Ruins.

Jen Cloher’s self-titled album launch party at the Milk! Records warehouse in 2017 by Marcelle Bradbeer
Jen Cloher’s self-titled album launch party at the Milk! Records warehouse in 2017. Credit: Marcelle Bradbeer

Milk!’s records could howl with furious guitars, deliver whip-smart observational lyrics or dive into playful electronic pop – such as that made by its signee Hachiku – also label employee Anika Ostendorf.

Ostendorf came onboard Milk! first as an intern in 2015 while on a university exchange from her home country, Germany. She became a permanent employee in 2016, taking over mail-out duties from Cloher’s drummer, Jen Sholakis. (When the team was under the pump, Barnett would get into the weeds of stocking shelves and mailing orders too, Ostendorf recalls.)

“First and foremost, it’s equivalent to a group of friends, not just individual friendships, but a collective. What unites you is common care for each other and wanting to support each other; you want to see each other flourish and do well; be proud of each other and your achievements and successes,” says Ostendorf.

Since the label announced its closing Ostendorf has seen firsthand how that sense of community radiated out to Milk!’s international fans, too.

Anika Ostendorf, also known as Hachiku, by Marcelle Bradbeer
Anika Ostendorf, also known as Hachiku. Credit: Marcelle Bradbeer

“You get all these beautiful, meaningful messages of what Milk! has been for people in their lives. I was saying to Courtney: it’s almost like you have your funeral and you get to witness everyone and [hear] what you’ve meant to them,” says Ostendorf, who as a queer person herself, could relate to the impact the label was having on others.

“I just find it so inspiring: having two queer artists build something from scratch and not be driven by financial success or money, but really, just by the love for the art that you want to support. I think that’s really resonated with people all over the world that feel seen and recognise themselves in that.”

For Barnett, the label’s closure and the release of ‘End of the Day’ is both an end and a beginning. The album collects improvisations first recorded for Anonymous Club, the 2022 documentary that followed Barnett through the raw and emotionally punishing period surrounding the release of ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’. It’s Barnett’s first instrumental album, an undulating, tonal work of profound beauty and stillness. Much like the creation of Milk! it feels like a statement of self-determination, a clearing of past strife and a step towards inner peace.

“[Starting Milk! Records] was about trying to find community, like-minded people and musicians. That’s a hard thing to do in life” — Courtney Barnett

“It’s like a step into the unknown, a new kind of pathway or a journey… it all felt quite cosmically well-timed. Sometimes trusting that gut instinct is hard. But when it makes sense it seems like the right thing to do. It seems like the kind of perfect next step into a kind of unknown world,” says Barnett.

To mangle two turns of phrase, there’s no use crying over spilt milk, because what’s been left behind is most certainly a glass half full. Milk!’s story and legacy is one of agency: choosing to step outside of a system set up to favour others and crafting one to give your own community the best chance of success based on its own metrics, morals and vision. Barnett is closing Milk! on her own terms with gratitude for what’s been and the friends she’s made along the way.

“The overall feeling is one of real celebration,” says Barnett. “I’ve got so many lovely letters in the past few weeks from people who met their best friend at a Milk! show, or met a partner and got married or picked up a guitar and started a band. I think it’s so easy in life to get bogged down in what we’re doing. And you can’t see how grand it is.

“But when you hear stories like that, it’s like a tiny spark that grew from something that you were a part of, and I think that’s really, really special.”

Courtney Barnett’s ‘End of the Day (Music from the Film Anonymous Club)’ is out September 8 via Milk! Records

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