Music

Azealia Banks sparked a controversy about the lack of Australian acts in local music charts – but the American rapper has a point. By Shaad D’Souza.

Why Australian music struggles on ARIA charts

Two musicians on stage and holding microphones. They're surrounded by music equipment.
Dimathaya Burarrwanga and Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu of Australian band King Stingray.
Credit: AAP Image / James Gourley

For the better part of two months, the Australian music industry has been in a tailspin – and all because of some offhand Instagram stories by the American rapper Azealia Banks.

In early May, Banks – known as a wildcard on social media thanks to her fondness for posting outlandish but sharply observed takes on pop culture and current events – took to Instagram to post a screenshot of a Guardian Australia article that said only a small fraction of the songs on the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) chart were by Australian artists. “Australia’s music/media/entertainment industry isn’t exactly heralded by the heads of government or anyone in the world as a coveted cultural export,” she wrote. “They’re deluded with the idea that their whiteness makes Australia an A market, when it’s truly a C-D market. Brazil is a MUCH more important market for music than Australia.”

The entire thing is much longer – and includes, confusingly, an assertion of Banks’s love for the woefully cringe 2000s rock band Wolfmother – but in all it was a far keener take on the state of play in Australian music than is generally seen in Australia. “The reason the Australian music industry and Australian culture is so trash is BECAUSE of their country’s historical post-colonial obsession with trying to prove to England and the monarchy that they were in fact a proper white/Anglo-saxon society,” she wrote. “They have actually created one of the most culturally stale white nations on the planet.”

Banks hits on a fundamental truth of the Australian music industry: it often concentrates on the superficialities of looking good, rather than the work of producing culturally resonant art – or putting structures in place that could actually help the swaths of genuinely great music being made in Australia find a larger audience.

On cue, the industry scrambled to prove the problem was not the industry but how the charts were formulated and the breadth of “competition” coming in from overseas artists. Quoted in a feature on PedestrianTV, ARIA chief executive Annabelle Herd said “the dominance of catalogue music” – that is, older songs finding new virality and cultural significance via TikTok – was partly to blame for the lack of Australian music in the charts, while broadcaster Nic Kelly argued the charts were only “an aggregate of what’s being listened to” rather than culturally significant music. In a news piece for Guardian Australia by musician and writer Eilish Gilligan, a former employee at ARIA argued that we needed to change how local charts were constructed, suggesting older songs, such as Harry Styles’s “As It Was”, were “clogging” the charts, hanging around and taking up space that could be filled by Australian artists.

I love the charts precisely because they are an aggregate of what people are listening to. Calculating charts is a woefully imprecise science, but it’s still one of the best methods we have to understand what songs are being consumed. It’s remarkable – laughable, even – that the primary response of the Australian music industry to the lack of Australian artists in the charts is simply to say the charts are misinterpreting the data, or that they don’t really matter. I feel like I’m watching people pull wool over their own eyes.

Fundamentally, none of the supposed explanations for the lack of Australian artists in the charts really track. If Australian music is facing strong opposition in the resurgence of catalogue music, why isn’t any Australian catalogue music recurring in the charts? Why aren’t old Australian Crawl songs being revived by TikTok, and why hasn’t Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” hung around for four years? It’s not clear that the catalogue poses an existential threat to Australian pop – aside from a few notable exceptions, such as Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” and The Weeknd’s “Die For You”, the vast majority of the ARIA top 50 is fairly new, or as new as music on the charts tends to be. Similarly, it’s nonsensical to me that a charts body would introduce rules to shift older songs out of the charts or prohibit artists from having more than a handful of charting songs at any given time. What’s the point of a chart if it doesn’t provide an indication of what people are listening to?

These explanations and suggested solutions for the glut of international songs on our charts masks the true issue at the heart of Australian pop: the local music industry and the Australian government refuse to invest in structures that would help local pop artists thrive. Triple j is rapidly losing Gen Z listenership, and is responding to its lagging fandom through the increased playlisting of artists such as Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, the kinds of international major-label behemoths already played ad nauseam on commercial pop radio. Listeners are still drifting away, perhaps because they don’t actually want a monoculture: they want discovery and excitement, which won’t arrive in the form of a radio playlist that is remarkably similar to every other radio and streaming playlist. Triple j used to be able to spin grassroots local hits into genuine pop successes. In its current form, there’s far less opportunity for that to happen.

At the same time, there remain very few ways for mid-level Australian artists to make a viable living in this country. Unlike America, the touring circuit here is unforgiving. It would be hard – but not impossible – to cram into a van and drive along the coast, with enough stops to feasibly make back the money invested. It’s these kinds of tours that help artists organically grow fan bases, and which allow them to exist outside a radio-centric, streaming-centric ecosystem. There’s significant room for government support in this area. In countries such as Denmark, regional venues are paid a stipend for putting on shows, which allows for higher guaranteed fees for bands and less risk for the venue. Even so, it’s worth noting that during the pandemic it was venues that got the bulk of government support, not artists – a sad indication of funding priorities.

Without infrastructure overhauls such as these, there’s little chance for Australian artists to make it to the upper echelons of pop music. It’s not the charts that need to change: it’s the mechanisms that are woefully unequipped to help any artist make a national career from music, aside from the suggestion they should upload their song to triple j Unearthed and hope for the best. The system is rotten at its roots, but the industry insists on tending only to its leaves.

 

This piece was modified on July 10, 2023, to make clear that the Eilish Gilligan report mentioned was not her own opinion and that she was quoting the view of others. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Off the charts".

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