opinion Features January 22, 2019

Was 2018 a turning point for Australian music on radio?

Managing Director
Was 2018 a turning point for Australian music on radio?
Photo Credit: Michelle Pitiris

Last week, The Music Network revealed their 2018 Annual Singles Report with some amazing news for Australian musicians. It was the year we saw country music continue to push into the mainstream with our homegrown superstar Morgan Evans. We saw Dean Lewis, Amy Shark5 Seconds Of Summer and Conrad Sewell prove that Aussies can deliver pop on par with, and in some cases, better than the yanks. And we proved that any debate over the ability of Australian tracks to compete has been put to bed.

Over on the ARIA Albums Chart, the #1 success of the likes of Gurrumul, John Butler Trio, Sheppard, Parkway Drive, Paul Kelly, Kylie Minogue and The Amity Affliction confirmed that Australian music was a mature market that could walk and chew gum at the same time, balancing both radio hits and niche superstars… the fact that the two markets aren’t always the same is okay.

And as the TMN Annual Singles Report noted, something clicked in Q2. Australian radio ended up doubling their support of Australian music year-on-year. Without doubt, the ability of Australian music to compete with big internationals was helped immensely by this expanded commitment as radio and record companies began moving closer together.

It’s been easy in the last decade to fall down a slippery slope. As the sophistication of research has gotten better at radio, it’s never been clearer to find out what listeners want and to use even more sophisticated international data to make decisions. There’s now real-time Spotify, iTunes, Shazam and other metrics that can help programmers put to air the best possible music mix. Networking has also increased and local differences and nuances have largely been ironed out. It’s been easier and cheaper to see the world as a global market, rely on the US/UK trends to aid our research, and forget the inconvenient truth that Australian listeners don’t always follow blindly along a path to Brexit/Trump led cultural imperialism.

On the music side, labels have been struggling with budget cuts and business pressures being front of mind. Investment in Australian music dropped, as did marketing budgets and the relationship between labels and radio slowly but surely drifted apart. It’s easy to disappear up your own ass when you’re struggling for survival. Now as the music industry bounces back, the focus of the labels to invest in Australian music has returned, and thanks to many of the same tools that radio use (Spotify, Shazam, etc.), sophistication of data on the label side is now next level.

The difference is that now-exceptional insights of both the music and radio industries are very different. Record companies understand that there’s nuance to a lot of the data that radio use. Without having a big presence in the US or UK, an Australian artist is unlikely to be seen smashing their chart numbers out of the park. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a superstar act or that they wouldn’t work on Australian radio for Australian audiences.

Radio on the other hand, know what the data trajectory of a hit looks like through private research and external data. They can tell from their own research what the familiarity and burn rates of a hit track should look like at different times in their life cycle and are probably more likely to know when to “fold ‘em”. They know what movement they should see in the numbers if a song is going to cut through with their audience. They are a key barometer of what HAS cut through to the mainstream and can be a helpful reality check.

Labels know that radio airplay, while important, doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between a hit and a miss. They understand that there are underground trends happening which mean that the music of today, the music played on Radio today and what we’ll see as “classic” tomorrow, are not necessarily always aligned. And they can often see strong potential from a much greater distance than radio research can. It’s a more nuanced view of the entire market, not just a listening demographic.

What the 2018’s singles report shows is that when the music industry and radio industry come together, talk honestly and share data, great things can happen. We learn that a song from Morgan Evans can smash it on radio without necessarily topping the streaming charts. We learn that Childish Gambino might be one of the hottest songs of the year, but it polarises anyone over 30. We learn that Dean Lewis might not be an immediate research smash, but if you stick with a good song, it can top the radio charts for eight weeks and the audience will love you for it.

In essence, we learn from each other’s expertise and find a middle ground where good decisions are made. When we’re interested in learning about what the other side needs for their audience and business, then it’s win/win.

Applying a victim mentality that radio is out to get you and doesn’t want to support Australian music is nowhere near as productive as talking honestly about the research, learning insights that can help the music industry from the numbers radio see and understanding that targeting 30+ females is neither the prime focus of the music industry, nor anything for radio to be ashamed of for doing so. Try as they might, radio doesn’t always get the calls right, but be honest… not everything the music industry thinks should be on air turns out to be a banger either.

Crying out that Australian music isn’t working in your numbers and isn’t as good as overseas works is nowhere near as productive as talking to record companies about what they are seeing in their data, why they signed an artist in the first place. Looking at things differently, working together on promo ideas or understanding external factors that might be impacting the numbers you’re relying on will create better outcomes and engagement opportunities for your station, ultimately being a good thing for the sound and the listeners.

Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s still a long way to go before we’re back to the grand old days of the 80s where radio and record companies were like two peas in a pod (thanks as much to social as business outcomes!), but what we see in the TMN Annual Singles Report for 2018 is a building blocks being set down for a new professional relationship of mutual respect. What we’ve learnt from last year is that both the radio and music industries love Australian music (apart from a few dinosaurs on both sides that can’t understand why we’re not still churning out Midnight Oil bangers) and that when we come together with a shared purpose and cast off assumptions about each other, this relationship works for Australian music.

Walking in partnership doesn’t mean we need to take wild risks pushing untested crap on unsuspecting radio listeners. It doesn’t mean that radio SHOULD play everything we serve up just because it’s Australian. It doesn’t mean that radio should stop programming with their listeners as the top priority. It doesn’t mean that we should change what we sign and develop because of a particular demographic that radio wants to serve.

It means that we both admit that each side has a wealth of knowledge and metrics that, when pooled together, can impact mainstream Australian culture. When both sides are open and respectful of the products they each produce, the robust discussions and disagreements over tracks, research methodology and what’s in the best interests of Australian music transform from being toxic to being not just healthy, but exciting.

Let’s not pretend like some utopia just opened up because some great Australian songs landed last year. But let’s not pretend that nothing’s changed. A successful 2018 opened the door to a new era of possibilities between music and radio for Australian music. If you’re working on either side and haven’t walked through that door yet, it’s a new year…. start walking.

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