Safe as ducklings: triple j to launch new Australian-only digital radio station, Unearthed

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Julia Gillard unearthed

By Jack Sargeant

“Say something, express thyself, say something, express yourself
Express … say something loudly” – ‘King Ink’, The Birthday Party

The best bands, the true greats, created their work because they had to. There was simply no choice. Not just compelled, but utterly driven by their vision. Invariably many created against the odds. We’re talking Mississippi John Hurt, Albert Ayler, Link Wray, Tiny Tim, Love, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, Teenage Jesus, This Heat, Sonic Youth etc etc etc … people who created art that articulated something from deep within themselves, often running counter to popular tastes. None of them searched for fame, just the opportunity to share their vision from a stage or – if they were lucky enough – through a recording. Some found minor success, a few a degree of fame, but most didn’t, that wasn’t what it was about.

Think of the proto-hardcore Black Flag crisscrossing America in their truck, playing gig-after-grueling-gig. Keep moving: don’t stop. Think of Crass turning a rural farmhouse into the base of a new subculture, or Billy Childish churning out hundreds of albums on almost as many indie labels. There was no choice for these people. This was a commitment to a life.

The urge to create was (and is) so immense that bands, fanzine writers, people putting on gigs or starting record labels have all taken up the challenge. While frequently attributed to ‘punk’, this is simply the most commonly articulated version of a far wider urge in which communities of likeminded individuals would come together and sometimes subcultures would develop – think of the folk music scene in 50s Greenwich Village or the sound systems of Jamaica during the same era. Ultimately these people did it simply because no body else was and they did it because you couldn’t trust somebody else not to fuck it up.

Now triple j has announced the launch of its new digital Unearthed radio station, with the noble cause of helping emergent bands reach a wider audience. Noble, sure, but passionless and safer than ducklings. There seems little risk of any danger. How can a band or a musical community develop and create something new if it is aimed so surely at the masses and the, at best, nebulous aims of reaching an audience? Artistic ambition should be about self-expression, not appearing on digital radio. Depressingly, the station appears to be sanctioned by elected officials at the highest level. Watch the trailer and, alongside a handful of musicians, are the voices of politicians Peter Garrett, Julia Gillard and Steven Conroy (yes, the man who wants to censor the Internet). Do we really want to leave our expression to a medium so readily sanctioned by these people?

Hopefully, somewhere, somebody is sitting with their band, getting ready to change music again, far away from the establishment. Here’s hoping people care enough to search it out.

7 Responses to Safe as ducklings: triple j to launch new Australian-only digital radio station, Unearthed

  1. Jonathan Craig August 26, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    So, what are you actually trying to say? That art is only valid if it’s a secret? Seems like you want to uphold a status quo wherein the best music is only for a chosen elite, which is you, basically. I understand your problems with the establishment, I understand what you’re saying about subcultures and their significance, that stuff is still there. This website is an example of that. But if I write a song and wanna get it out there, why the hell would I not put it on Unearthd? I don’t wanna be a tree falling with no one to hear. It’s just one avenue. It doesn’t have the passion of people like you guys, sure, but music is to be listened to. And why shouldn’t the people who want to change the world use the facilities they have available to them to get their message moving? You seem to be suggesting that musicians would be betraying themselves just by buying in, but I don’t think that’s at all reasonable. Surely any way to spread the noise is a good one. And radio is a brilliant medium for that. Words can be enlightening but also deceptive. Let the music speak for itself.

  2. Darragh August 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Well, I’m going to wait to hear what’s played on the station before judging. I’m inclined to side with Jonathan on this one – I don’t think the best art is necessarily secret.

    If you go on Unearthered there is a lot of crap. But also, there is a lot of good stuff there.

    And the implication that just because Julia Gillard is endorsing Triple J unearthered means that somehow everything that appears on the station is somehow tainted is a bit ridiculous. It’s not like she’s performing the songs or vetoing what goes on the station (though, she’d probably do a better job than Kingsmill).

  3. Matt O'Neill August 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Yeah, lost me with the first sentence. Whole article reads like a teenager discovering The Sex Pistols for the first time.

  4. Jack Sargeant August 26, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    I’m not interested in supporting elites, but neither am I interested in the idea of simply reaching the mass (a very concept that I don’t really believe exists in any real sense). But, assuming there is a mass audience, is it musical snobbery? Maybe, but from where I sit it appears that the mass rarely seek real challenge, that’s why people like U2 are so inexplicably popular; because the listener knows what to expect. What matters to me is that the search for interesting music is a pleasure; to be sitting in a bar and have a band come-on and blow you away or move you to tears or change your preconceptions is always an experience of pure joy.

    Jonathan, the fact you say it doesn’t have as much passion as Collapse Board speaks volumes, why would anybody – either audience or performer – get excited about something that didn’t want to grab you by the lapels and scream excitedly? Moreover, shouldn’t the bands and their fans be doing this?

    As to art being “secret”, of course the bands I listed were all at some point unknown and yet they were there in the open, people just had to know where to look. And they did. Fanzines, gigs and word of mouth worked wonders. There were no limits and everything was up for grabs. I see no reason why this isn’t still the case.

    I don’t think musicians would be betraying themselves to participate, that’s up to them, but the fact that somebody in the video clip talks about a musical “career” is anathema to me, that shouldn’t be an issue for creativity or self expression. A career is – possibly, if a musician is lucky – a side effect in music not the reason for it. Many great musicians and bands are broke, and just survive on their wits or they work the kind of day jobs that would crush most people, just so they can afford to continue to express themselves in their bands.

    I don’t ‘care’ that the government endorse the whole enterprise, but this is the same government who want to censor the internet. I’d suggest that this doesn’t bode well for any band who don’t tick the correct boxes.

  5. Neil August 27, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    I don’t really understand what you’re on about either.

    Firstly, it may be sanctioned by politicians but, errm, that’ll be the ABC, the State Broadcaster. Are you expecting DMG or Austereo to run it? As a youngster growing up in Scotland, I listened to the John Peel show on BBC Radio 1, the State Broadcaster, run by and responsible to the government. And not just any government, but Thatcher’s government! Yet during that time John Peel gave airtime to countless non-mainstream acts, including most of the ones you highlight above. He was, alongside MM, NME and Sounds, the most important conduit of quality (subjective) music to discerning (subjective) ears. Presumably those acts sent their records (or worse, had a record label employee send them) to John, c/o the BBC, the State Broadcaster. Where’s the difference between doing that and sending them to JJJ’s new station?

    You seem to draw a distinction between your bands “sharing their vision” and these hyopthetical JJJ Unearthed bands “reaching a wider audience”. It’s the same thing! It is exactly the same thing. What do you think Black Flag were doing “playing gig after gruelling gig”? Trying to reach people. Gigs, radio, fanzines, blogs, whatever. “Spreading the word”, “delivering your message”; it’s all the same thing. And by implying one is more sinister and less saintly than the other you’re just putting your own prejudices and preconceptions on to a hypothetical musical act. I mean, the station isn’t even on-air yet, and hasn’t played a single song by a single band, so you can’t possibly be talking with any degree of authority as to where their drive comes from. You certainly can’t be sure their motives are any different from the acts you namecheck. Your attitude reminds me of Beverley Hughes, the UK MP who in campaigning for the TV show “Brasseye” to be taken off air, famously described it as “despicably sick”, before admitting she had never seen it.

    I don’t know how anyone can be judging the passion of something that doesn’t exist yet either. How do you know they won’t be grabbing you by the lapels and screaming excitedly? I’m guessing you’re 100% wrong, and there will be nothing but excited screaming which, and this is where we might agree in the future, will be misguided 99% of the time. But honestly, if you’re trying to make serious comment, you should avoid such speculation.

    I’m not the target audience, and I doubt I’ll be listening in much, but really you’re over-reacting. A small amount of good bands will find themselves able to get shows in other cities, or sell music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard them (or if it seems more palatable and less-careerist to you, let’s flip it round and say some hardcore music fans will be able to buy records and be moved by beautiful music), and really, that’s not a terrible thing, even if we can make an educated guess and say they’ll probably have to wallow through a lot of mediocre shite to get there. Such is life.

  6. Jack Sargeant August 27, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Neil: I grew up with and loved John Peel, but I never got a sense he was doing anything but what he wanted. Radio 1 had DJs who all had their own presence, Peel was late at night, he filled a specific slot and most importantly he foregrounded his own taste, which couldn’t ever be second guessed. I don’t recall he ever got photographed with a prime minister, but he did mime mandolin on Top of the Pops; he followed his own star.

    re ‘the drive’ behind the station, if you watch the interview linked to above you’ll hear the following:

    Q: “You must get some shockers too.”

    A: “There’s plenty of unusual ones. We were considering a segment at one stage of some of the unknown treasures of Unearthed…” [sigh]

    A: “Lesbian Goat I believe was one band that was on there…” [shaking head]

    Q: “What sort of music was it?”

    A: “You don’t want to know… it was unclasssifiable.” [laughter]

    I made a point of listening to this band, and they sound suitably ‘unclassifiable’. I hope music that’s strange, different and unclassifiable gets airtime on the new radio station. But some things are, apparently, unclassifiable and I have a horrible feeling that this may mean unmarketable. Perhaps in the quest for homegrown talent and launching careers there’ll be a little space for aesthetic dissonance, for the kind of oddball voices that people like Peel supported (do you remember Oh Look There Goes Concord Again by the Native Hipsters or Bricks by the Diagram brothers?). That’s why Peel mattered in the face of most of Radio 1’s output. All the bands I listed in the piece were considered dissonant at the time, that’s why I listed them.

    As to those bands having vision, of course many bands have vision now, but as I said above, the emphasis on “career” in the trailer is just weird, I was positioning vision and necessity against notions of career and success.

    Have I got my own prejudices? Of course. That’s why I – as Everett put it – rolled my eyes at this. I have no problems with the ABC or public broadcasting, but the presentation of all of this seems patronising: “If you’re an unsigned band you can upload your music…” it’s almost like it’s giving permission to people to be in a band. Beside’s isn’t Triple J already meant to be playing new bands? Is there a risk of pushing unsigned music into one space will mean that other broadcasters don’t risk playing anything unsigned?

    Neil – yes, you’re probably right about the lapel grabbing and screaming.

    All this talk of John Peel and my comments reminds me of The Fall: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSCLzNOWax4&playnext=1&list=PLF86A8790599DD9A7

  7. Marisa Giorgi September 3, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    One of the more interesting points that come from Mr. Sargeant’s observations is the need to strengthen community radio stations across Australia. No doubt radio is a powerful beast in this country and hiding away on ‘unclassifiable’ music on digital radio does not unearth the next Dirty Three or Scientists or The Necks.

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