Triple J. Setting music back for a new generation
The following is lifted from Andrew McMillen’s National Affairs article in the January 2012 edition of Australian Rolling Stone:
What happens when your band wins the musical equivalent of the lottery, the triple j Unearthed slot to open the main stage of Splendour In The Grass? In 2011, the competition was won by Brisbane indie pop band Millions. Twenty-two-year-old drummer James Wright is being a little humble by equating the contest to a lottery: those rely on luck alone, not songwriting talent.
Still, it’s curious to hear Wright honestly state Millions’ intentions upon forming in December 2010. “The entire objective of the band was using triple j to get where we want to go,” he says. A four-piece comprised of members from three Brisbane bands you’ve never heard of, Millions realised during their initial rehearsals that their sound might appeal to the national broadcaster.
“There was the fleeting chance that, if we maybe more deliberately went towards the triple j sort of sound, in terms of being more accessible than our previous bands, then we might have a shot at actually doing some good, and getting played,” Wright says. “We didn’t exactly have high aspirations for it, but we were really happy with the two songs we’d written [at the time].”
He says that Millions are “the exact opposite” of their previous bands, in that their path was “extremely thought through, to the point of calculating exactly how many shows it would take us to get where we wanted to go, and to who we should play these shows with and why we should do them and where we should play them.” The Splendour 2011 slot was unexpected for the band, and “pretty much blew everyone’s mind” according to Wright, but not unsurprising given their ambitions.
Stephen Green is well acquainted with this kind of mindset among artists. Since beginning as a radio “plugger” – a guy who pitches new music to stations across the country – he now runs his own publicity consulting business, SGC Media.
“The problem of triple j being so dominant is that it artistically skews what some bands are coming out with,” he says. “If you’ve got the opportunity to do the song that’s in your head that’s not very ‘triple j’, or you tweak it somewhat and make it sound like bands that are getting airplay… I think a lot of bands are going down [the second] path a little more.”
“Didn’t I write somewhere on Collapseboard [about this]?” asks Jack Sargeant on Facebook.
Yes, you did, Jack. it was back in August, when Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was pictured posing with a pair of triple j breakfast DJs, to launch the start of a new, government-funded initiative, triple j’s digital Unearthed radio station. (triple j, for non-Australian readers, is the national ‘youth-orientated’ radio station, state-funded along the lines of the BBC, but run on a much narrower brief – mostly following the musical ‘taste’ of station boss Richard Kingsmill, whose idea of what comprises decent music is based on an appreciation of the NME during the 90s.)
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.
Interestingly enough, both parts of what Jack predicted are happening.
On one side are Millions and numerous journeymen bands like them, specifically altering their sound so they can get funding and radio plays.
And on the other are the bands playing squats and disused warehouses and living rooms, doing it because it’s fun not because they think it might be an easy career: Royal Headache and Kitchen’s Floor and The Native Cats, dozens of bands across the country, fuelled by a DIY ethic. It’s interesting. Folk often complain about the shite music played on triple j, but – to take that Millions quote (and several others in Andrew’s story) as an example, most of this shite music wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the existence of triple j. Need further proof it’s shite? Have a look at which Australian bands are feted by critics abroad … and no, it’s not the fucking Hilltop Hoods and Got-Icehouse-ye.
In fairness, one of my contacts, Andrew Stone – director at Rare Finds Publicity – doesn’t think it’s as straightforward as that.
He wrote on my Facebook wall:
As the bloke who pitched Millions to triple j in the first place, I think you’re missing the point. They wrote some good songs, had a relevant sound, bit of an image, triple j played them. End of story. Whether they consciously tailored their sound to triple j or not, I think their influences are broader than serving one cynical purpose.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe that’s just how funding works. Government-driven organisations demand you tick the right boxes, use the correct language, play the ‘right’ music. The grants, the awards go to the people who are the best at filling out the grant forms, fitting in the best with the prevalent status quo. Wow. What a way to write a song. What a way to run a radio station.
As someone else commented on Facebook:
Unearthed is badly run. The national youth broadcaster should not be running a contest but showcasing music from all over the country. I believe it fails regional Australia.
So what are the functions of the Corporation? They are:
- (a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:
- (i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and
- (ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;
- (b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:
- (i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
- (ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
- (c) to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.
Just a thought, but is a) best served by slavishly playing Australian bands who’ve determinedly altered their sound so that they sound like all the other bands played on triple j, who also (coincidentally) sound American or British … ?
I have a new slogan for the corporation: Triple J. Setting music back for a new generation.
[I wouldn’t normally do this, but I think the next series of points – lifted from the comment section below – are particularly pertinent – Ed]
To be perfectly honest, I think this is all daft.
There have always been bands who have tailored their sound to a popular contemporary aesthetic. Likewise, there have always been bands who have disregarded those ambitions. Neither approach is inherently more valuable than the other. All that matters is the end result. I mean – did we not just have a gigantic fucking discussion around these parts wherein it was basically concluded that the entire concept of authenticity was a complete fabrication?
Now, if you don’t agree with all of that, I suppose I have a question – what do you think these bands would do if Triple J weren’t around to give them a target? Do you think they’d immediately start seeking out their own path? Or stop making music altogether? Personally, I suspect they’d just find something else to shape their sound. If there is a problem with this model (and, personally, I don’t think there is) – it isn’t with the station. It’s with the musicians.
Look at the mission statement, Matt. The functions of the Corporation are:
(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:
(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community
It doesn’t do that. It’s a state-funded government radio station, and it doesn’t do that. Fuck questions of authenticity. That’s nothing to do with what I’m talking about here (Jack’s quote might have been a bit of a red herring as far as that was concerned, I’ll admit). triple j does NOT reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community and it does NOT contribute to a sense of national identity. And if the government was stricter in maintaining its funding controls, it would cut the flow of money RIGHT NOW on those grounds alone.
triple j could step outside their own brief, Matt. They could invite a plurality of tastes to help determine what’s played on the station. They could genuinely champion new music and new scenes and new regions by broadening their scope (and maybe even thereby broadening their audience). They could easily do that. They’re funded by state. They don’t have to continue to kowtow to one man’s idea of what ‘good’ music is, based on a model which is not only not Australian, but also at least a decade out of date.
Aside from that, mostly I agree with you. All music is shaped by what’s going on around you, the musician. It’s just … I dunno … it’s just that I never really saw that filling in a grant application to be the most fertile pool of inspiration to draw from. Perhaps you disagree with me.
Who decides what’s commercial? It’s not the audience. You create your own audience.
A more interesting question is, what would happen if triple j started playing music that wasn’t specifically designed to be played on triple j? What would happen then? Or is that one of those self-perpetuating thingamajigs?
I guess what it comes down to is this:
There have always been bands who have tailored their sound to a popular contemporary aesthetic. Likewise, there have always been bands who have disregarded those ambitions. Neither approach is inherently more valuable than the other. All that matters is the end result.
And the end-result – as featured hour in, hour out on triple j – is shite. It’s supposed to represent Australian culture and it doesn’t even do that, unless you’re arguing that most all Australian culture is sloppily-pilfered, fifth-rate versions of American and British culture. A brave argument, but perhaps not one to be had here. Culture can thrive outside the mainstream obviously: it doesn’t mean however that the mainstream should turn its back on it. Especially not a mainstream that is (rather laughably) claiming to be ‘alternative’.
It’s a disgrace that a government-funded national radio station aimed at promoting Australian cultural diversity is run by a man who doesn’t believe in the value of Australian cultural diversity.
Rolling Stone story: ‘The Discovery Channel: triple j’s power over Australian music’, January 2012
Triple J Unearthed and the Great Monopolisation of Australian Music
Safe as ducklings: triple j to launch new Australian-only digital radio station, Unearthed
Triple J Week – the week in numbers
An interview with Richard Kingsmill, triple j Music Director