Dave Dowling was putting on one of his semi-regular backyard DIY gigs on the north side of Melbourne when he first met Harley Young, a local musician with a big idea and a lot of enthusiasm.
"He just came around to my house and launched straight into it," Dowling says. "'I've been thinking about this for a while. And I'd like your involvement'."
That idea was for Off The List Records, a record label and event organising collective focused on empowering artists and music lovers with a disability.
"I was so into the idea," Dowling says. "I was like, 'Yeah, I would like to be a part of that'.
"It is really thoughtful to think about starting a label that empowers disabled punters and musicians within the Australian music landscape."
"I found out that Dave was a hard of hearing arts worker and I was interested to know what he faces, because I live with mental health condition," Young says.
"We got talking about challenges, barriers, and stigma around disability in the music industry."
There were plenty of barriers, some of them visible and obvious, others much less so. Young and Dowling wanted to address both.
"Often artists with disability are pushed out to the community sector, and they're sort of told that their music is not culturally important," Young says.
"It's like, 'You do that for therapy, for your own therapy'.
"There's a lot of disability arts initiatives that are well intentioned but run by people who come from a disability support background, not from a music background.
"So, it ends up with situations where you've got a well-intentioned mum or dad type organising a rock concert with different genres and poor marketing and it just doesn't work."
'There's no shame or secrecy'
Off The List have now released music from a series of acts – including Sydney dream pop quintet Library Siesta, Brisbane punk trio Slumlawwd, and Melbourne solo project Celiac – and have sought to be an operation that put the artistry of musicians first, not their disability.
"I wanted to bring together something like a label or an initiative was truly disability led but also something that had focus, in terms of the style and type of music that we like to do, so that it creatively made sense." Young says.
"Something that was cool and made people want to come to shows, and make able bodied people care about access."
Not everyone who plays at an Off The List show, or release a record through their label, is disabled.
"We want access to be the key," Young says. "And to be a best practice label in terms of access and inclusion.
"We release music from artists without disability and we keep a pretty broad remit in terms of what we mean for disability. We just want to make sure that at least 50 percent of the music that we release is from artists with disability or lived experience of mental illness."
One of their artists is Between Mirrors, the classically trained Naarm / Melbourne based duo of Emily Gray and Irene Zhong who've been making music together for a couple of years.
They've just released their debut EP, Blue Dreams, a dreamy release with intimate songs that found new meaning during Melbourne's many COVID lockdowns.
"A lot of the songs are about loneliness and connection, those sorts of things," Gray says. "When we weren't able to see anyone, it started to kind of mean different things.
"So, I think we kind of leaned into that a bit more over lockdown. It's interesting how a song that you write can start to mean something different."
Zhong was participating in a mentorship program with Arts Access Victoria when Young approached them, asking if their band would be interested in releasing music through his label.
The band and the label began talking, and it seemed a good fit.
"From the beginning, they were like, 'Let us know if there's anything we can do to work with you better'," Gray says.
"'If there's particular things we can do when we're meeting, or when we're doing a gig, like, what are the things you need?' That was always like front and centre. I think, for a lot of people, that's kind of an afterthought."
"Like you have to be discreet somehow," Zhong adds. "Or you have to signal it subtly. But, with them, it's very out in the open. There's no shame or secrecy."
The power of asking questions
Disability takes on countless forms and every individual has different needs when it comes to delivering accessible events. This makes 'getting it right' a particularly tricky undertaking.
"Just because you have certain access barriers doesn't mean you really know everything about access," Young says. "We know for sure we're going to make mistakes."
The label work through this by asking a lot of questions, and by calling on help from those in the know. This includes arts workers, disability and accessibility experts, and their own artists.
This is an area where the traditional music industry structures can fall down when looking to engage with marginalised communities.
No one likes being wrong, very few of us like saying something or addressing someone in a way that causes hurt or distress.
But it's the defensiveness, rather than the mistakes, that can prove most challenging and hurtful to those they're consulting.
This could be one of the greatest barriers getting in the way of a more widespread dedication to making spaces more accessible.
"There's a lot of fear of being cancelled for doing something wrong," Young says.
"A lot of people feel really uncomfortable when they're confronted with the fact that they might not know everything," Zhong says.
"They get really caught up in that self-consciousness of like, 'I don't want to ask the questions, because that would reveal that I don't know everything'."
"Something that I really valued from Off The List is that they've never responded in a personal way," Gray says of her dealings with the label.
"They just ask questions. They ask what you need. It's very welcoming, and I feel like that's what accessibility should be like."
"Leading with flexibility and open-mindedness," Zhong agrees. "Instead of saying, 'How can I make up my mind about this person? What statements can I make?' It's like, 'What questions can I ask? And what new things can I learn?'"
"A lot of people don't want to learn," Gray continues. "They just want to keep going the way that they've been going.
"But I feel like people are starting to realise that the way that we have been doing things is flawed in a lot of ways. And that we need to change, fundamentally, the structures of live music and stuff. It's really heartening to work with people who actually see that."
While some of those changes are daunting, Young wants people in all sectors of the music industry to know that some are not.
"There's no access information available anywhere for music venues," he says.
"A lot of venue owners are very receptive to working with the disability community, but feel like they don't know how, or don't feel empowered to, and are worried.
"We found that, with only a little bit of work, you can make a lot of venues that you would normally think aren't accessible, accessible. As long as they had an accessible toilet and ramp entry, we could do a lot of the other things built around it.
"All they really needed was a proper access document, to show the access information to support access needs for people who come to an event. And also, I guess, just a bit of help and confidence that they can do it."
Off The List have begun taking it upon themselves to prepare these access documents to the venues they use for no charge. They hope it's one way they can help remove barriers that might prevent everyone enjoying a live music experience.
"There's about four or five venues which previously wouldn't have called themselves an accessible venue, or would not have known that they're accessible," Young says.
"Even in some circumstances where your venue is not entirely accessible, if you've got three stairs and a handrail, you should let people know about that. Because that might mean 40 percent of the disability community can still come to your event or your venue. They just didn't know they could."
Promising progress, but still a way to go
Ultimately, Dowling thinks that parts of the music industry are beginning to dismantle the unintentional ableism that has forever been a part of its structure. That doesn't mean there isn't a long way to go.
"There are places out there that won't provide seating," Dowling says. "They'll show strobe lights, even when they've been asked beforehand to please not do it. There's still so many venues with staircases up to where the bands are playing, all of that kind of thing.
"It's not a thing that you can just magically change overnight, but from my viewpoint you're seeing some really good and big positive things."
The music industry has a long history of co-opting styles, sounds, and ideas from the underground, so perhaps it will be independent operators like Off The List setting the example for larger entities
While small in stature, they hope to have a big impact on the lives of those they interact with.
"I want us to be able to grow a label that is kind of a community, in the sense that people identify with the label," Young says.
"It gets people excited, it gets people thinking, 'Yeah, this is how I feel. This is how I am, this is who I am. These are the people I want to be with and hang out with. I want to go to this show because these are the types of people that I like to be with'.
"It gives people a sense of belonging."
It's this attitude that makes Between Mirrors so comfortable working with them.
"Accessibility is much bigger than having a ramp at your venue," Zhong says. "It's not a checklist, it's more of a mindset.
"For us, aligning with people who put accessibility first is [aligning with] people who put empathy first, which lets them connect to other marginalisations that aren't just disability.
"I'm a Chinese immigrant, for example. And we're both queer. Other marginalised communities benefit greatly from more empathy and more thinking like, 'What can I do to make someone who's not like me feel a little more comfortable or a little more at home?'
"That's kind of what accessibility as a mindset brings to how we approach everything."