Words: Andrew McMillen
Photography: Adam Baidawi
This conversation took place on Thursday 27 October 2011 at triple j studios. I spent a few hours there that day, researching and interviewing for a Rolling Stone story about triple j’s power over Australian music.
This is what Richard and I discussed, while sitting on a couch near the station’s music library.
Andrew: I was talking to [triple j station manager] Chris Scaddan earlier about the Polaroids of Androids blog which was circulated last week.
Richard: What was your take?
There were a lot of unfounded … not so much allegations, but questions about how triple j’s positioning itself in terms of monopolising the culture.
I didn’t really read it. What do you think? I didn’t really read it so I can’t really counter. I flicked through it …
It’s just an opinion piece, so that can be taken with a grain of salt. It’s an anonymous guy who has no real identity. He’s just saying, “I’m not happy with the direction the station’s going in”. Maybe he’s the typical embittered musician who’s been denied airtime. I don’t know; it’s not really clear.
I can’t comment. I don’t know who’s written it and don’t exactly know what they said. We’ve been obviously incredibly focused and incredibly busy this year with the project of Unearthed. We’ve realised we were building towards this. That’s sort of taken up most of Nick [Findlay, assistant music director] and I, our resources, time, energy, and passion, and all that sort of stuff, just making sure that we’re getting it right with Unearthed. It’s been an exciting year and I personally can’t see too many downsides to what we’re doing at the moment.
I think that, being proactive and setting up an Unearthed digital station can only be a good thing. If anyone’s got any complaints and arguments against it, or thinks that we’re in some ways trying to monopolise the Australian industry…you get damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we sat back and went, “Well, we shouldn’t monopolise the Australian music industry, we should basically sit in this corner and do our little job and not try to do anything”, we’d get criticised for being negligent and not proactive. If you’re proactive then you tread on toes I guess, a little bit, but we’re not meaning to tread on toes. We’re just meaning to basically try to fulfil our brief as part of the ABC, as part of what the ABC should be doing, and Australian culture is just such a huge part of everything that runs through the ABC.
We’ve…not got the box seat, but we’ve got a pretty good seat to be as proactive as possible, with spreading this thing. Unearthed has been 16 years in the making. It started with big ideals, and it’s fantastic it’s still going after 16 years, and…it has a place. It’s not supposed to be 100%. Nothing’s supposed to be 100%. No one can be 100%, and no one should expect triple j to be 100%. We do what we do and we do it to the best of our abilities, and we try as hard as we possibly can, with the best of intentions. But at the end of the day, we’re all humans. And people react to music in all sorts of different ways.
They will see things very differently, one individual to another. At the end of the day, when we’re programming, when we’re talking about what we do as a station, the only thing that comes into our mind is the listeners. And it doesn’t matter about the vested interests in the industry. It doesn’t matter about who might be pissed off by certain decisions we make. We sit there and we go, “What do the listeners want from us? What should we give them? What do they want to hear? What do we think will excite them?”
At the end of the day, a lot of this is gut instinct, because we don’t do research. The only research we would do is at the end of the year for the Hottest 100. We obviously are canvassing a lot of thoughts through Facebook, Twitter, and texts every day to see what they’re into, but we also know how music works. People will hate something for the first five times they hear it and then all of a sudden fall in love with it.
If we went on the initial reactions to a lot of songs…
You’d rarely get anything new up.
That’s exactly what the commercial stations do. Commercial stations canvass new music down the phone lines to people, and of course people go, “I don’t know about this song. No, I don’t like it. I’m cooking dinner, fuck off.” They don’t add it. That’s not exactly being very proactive. So we’ll take chances and we’ll take risks, and sure, we’ll piss people off but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think there was a section of the community out there who was actually enjoying it. We don’t sit here and wish pain upon our listeners, at any point.
Throughout the comments on that article – and I’m sure you’ve had this many times before – people seem to have this idea in their mind that you are the man who calls the shots around here. Could you clarify exactly what it is you do?
I have been and always will be one of many in this place. As Music Director, what I am doing is not monopolising or acting as some sort of overlord. As you can see, it is a team environment. And all I’m doing is directing the team, basically going, “What does everyone think? What is everyone into? Let’s channel it, let’s try to put it out there.”
There’s obviously a variety of opinions within this place as to what’s good and bad, and we discuss that stuff at length. We talk about it. The email chains about music are long, and varied, and always being discussed. We check notes about what everyone’s doing, what the response is on certain programs, certain songs. And it’s my job to make sense of it all, and to channel it out there.
Nick and I sit there and we analyse what everyone’s into, and what they’re passionate about, and we go, “Right, this is the mix”. At the end of the day, we’ve all got stuff that we really, really like, but we leave that at the door and we go, “What do we need for the station to sound really great and exciting, and represent as much as we can?”
In the last three months, we’ve hit 50% Australian content across our stream, 50%. Our brief is 40%, but we’ve hit 50%. The figures have shown it.
I last saw you speaking in Perth in October 2010 at One Movement, and you were saying you were at 40% at that point.
Yeah, the last three months it’s hit 50%. It was 49, 49, then 50 last month. [Those are] documented figures. Obviously there’s going to be a variety of overseas music that’s going to miss out when you’ve got that much Australian music on a station, which is our prime objective and our prime role. Of course there’s going to be some stuff from overseas, some stuff that’s hitting the blogs over in New York Citythat’s exciting people that might take a little while before it filters onto triple j. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to hit the mark in terms of Australian music and I’m proud of that.
I think it’s fantastic that we’ve had our most successful years in terms of listeners listening to the station. This has been our most successful year ever. People seem to not want to take this on board, but it has been [our biggest year], and we’re doing 50% Australian content. At the end of the day, I’m not looking back with many regrets. I’m not looking back reading an article that 30 people are probably reading, and worrying about it too much.
I have no idea who this faceless guy is [writing on PoA]; if it’s a guy or a girl. I don’t know. If they can’t put their name to it, and if they can’t set out like I have what…I don’t hide anything. I don’t hide my age. I don’t hide how long I’ve been here. I don’t hide any of my thoughts. I’m on Twitter, I’ve got 14,000 people following me. I basically talk about my passion about music every Sunday night. If anyone wants a piece of me, they can get it. Everyone knows my email address. Everyone sends me emails. I’ve got a guestbook on the thing. I don’t hide.
Really, someone who’s written a blog posting about triple j, complaining about the fact that we’re trying to monopolise Australian music, really doesn’t keep me up at night. I really don’t worry about it. What I worry about is spending time listening to all the CDs sent to me, and all the emails that have been sent to me with attachments of songs, and scanning Unearthed and trying to listen to it all because that’s what I’m here to do. That’s what I enjoy doing; listening to music and trying to pick stuff that I reckon is really special and worth highlighting, and getting the mix right. It’s as simple as that.
Is it a fair comment to say that you’re the most powerful man in Australian music?
No, it is not. It is not anywhere near the truth. This is just such a misconception to think this place isn’t a team of people. There’s 50 people who work at triple j and without every one of those people trying really hard, and being really good at their jobs, we wouldn’t be in the place that we are right now. This station is built on teamwork. It always has been. If you’ve got a bad framework, or teamwork vibe happening in this place, it shows on the other end of the radio. When we all work together, we get the results. It’s as simple as that.
I have said this time and time again, and if people still think that I sit there and basically call all the shots, they are wrong. I can’t say it enough. The Unearthed team is running Unearthed at the moment. I am not in there 24/7 telling them what to do. They are running it. They’re good people. We hired them. We know them. We’ve employed them because of their skills and because of their talents. They’re running it. They’re doing it. They’ve got the objective, they’ve got the game plan – “now go and do it”.
[pause] It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work like that. You know…[pause] A director of a film doesn’t do everything on the film, does he? He basically gets all the talented people and gets them to do the job, and works off feedback, and gets the best out of people. [My job is] not similar, but it’s not dissimilar.
You seem quite passionate about this. Is it taxing to constantly be questioned in this way? Is it hard to shut it out?
It’s not hard to shut it out. I’ve got so much on my plate to do that you just have to, but it’s frustrating that…it’s not really frustrating, because at the end of the day the listeners are there and they’re really enjoying what we’re doing and that’s absolutely fantastic that we’re serving them and they’re excited. If a few people are whingeing and grumbling behind the scenes, I’m not really too concerned about it because I know how people in this industry can bitch and moan about certain things.
Look, I guess people think that I’m the most powerful man in the industry. If they do think that, they’re misguided, but if they do think that it’s because at the end of the day I’ve got to give the feedback to the people as to, “No, I’m sorry, we just don’t think it’s a priority. We don’t think it’s good enough. We’ve got other things we like more.” That’s not me sitting there going, “No, I’m not going to play you because I don’t like you”.
Some people have said the most outrageously stupid things about the way that I judge music. All I’m doing is channelling what we, as a consensus, think about stuff. Like anyone in this place, music will come in and I’ll go, “This is really fantastic”, and I’ll play it to the team and I’ll go, “I think this is really fantastic”. Or I’ll get a piece of music and go, “I don’t know, people are saying that I should like this, that this is really great. I can’t quite hear it, what do you all reckon?” We throw it around. If there’s enough of a vibe in the place of people going, “No, we really think this is great, this is really great”, I’ll take that on board. We’ll basically take a chance with it.
I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that people hear music in different ways, and you can’t be sitting in the seat judging it all the time, right, when we’ve got such a big listenership. You’ve got to throw it around and canvass thoughts. That’s what I do, but if at the end of the day people think I’m calling all the shots, then they’ll continue to say it.
That’s part of the role of being such a public face.
But it’s not true, and it’s my job is basically to try to get the team…you know, like, everything. It’s all consensus. The J Award nominations this year, it’s all basically sending the emails around, “Here’s the list of emails that have come out this year, tell us what you thought”. Tally it up; there it is, there’s the next three nominations. Everyone basically voting for it.
It’s not my decision. Some of my favourite records this year haven’t been nominated so far, and probably won’t. The Jack Ladder record I reckon is great. I’m the only one voting for it at the moment. So that’s the reality of the situation.
You’ve been in this role for eight years, since 2003?
Do you intend to stay for much longer?
You obviously seem quite happy in this role, and quite passionate, still.
Yeah, I am happy in this role. I also think I’m really good in this role, so I can’t see too many reasons to worry about it too much, at this point. But it’s a year-by-year scenario for me, and it has been for a while.
I’ll leave it there. Thanks for your time.
That’s alright. Good to talk to you.
Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. http://andrewmcmillen.com/
Triple J. Setting music back for a new generation