They’re playing our song…

An article in Australian newspaper the Herald Sun outlines a new digital radio station being launched by Triple-J, the country’s public youth radio network. ‘Triple-J Unearthed’ will play 100% Australian music.

It is a major boost for Australian music on digital radio, with new digital stations exempt from local music quotas – the amount of Australian-made music they are obliged to play – for the next two years.

Commercial radio in Australia is widely criticised for playing only the bare minimum of local music.

While radio must play 25 per cent of Australian-made music between 6am and midnight, only 6.25 per cent of that must be new Australian music. Many commercial radio stations meet the quota with Australian-only shows late at night and playing old Australian hits.

I’m aware of only one other radio station with an ‘all local music’ policy, and that’s New Zealand’s Kiwi FM, which is problematic and controversial to say the least.

While it might make more sense for a public broadcasting organisation to give a platform for exclusively new local music than it does for an transnational commercial corporate to be given a free frequencies (worth millions of dollars) around the country, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for the production of local content as a way of taking up available spectrum that might be used for public broadcasting that may compete for audiences (a post for another day), there are still big questions about the efficacy of regional music programming.

The first problem from a programming perspective is that Australian music is not a genre. This is perhaps the simplest problem to overcome, since the radio station will not be interested in most genres of music, but rather in playing new music by new Australian artists who make popular forms (pop, rock, indie, dance, electronic, etc.).

The second, and perhaps more challenging problem, is the fact that in creating a platform for local music, Unearthed simultaneously creates a ghetto. While it taps into a sense of local pride and genuinely seeks to support and promote new music by local artists, it takes away the opportunity that mainstreaming offers – that is, the ‘normalising’ of local music that results from being played alongside international repertoire.

One of the criticisms levelled at Kiwi FM (and it is by no means one of the most damning critiques) is that fans of New Zealand bands are not exclusively fans of New Zealand bands. A radio station that plays exclusively regionally-defined music misunderstands music fandom. If I like to listen to Shihad (NZ band), then the chances are good that I may also like to listen to (say) Green Day. Kiwi FM potentially makes it an either-or proposition.

The advantage that Triple-J has is that there is a clear graduation path. Unearthed is very deliberately positioned as a music discovery and music testing ground. Songs that ‘perform well’ on Unearthed will likely find a route to the main Triple-J station. From a music market research perspective, Unearthed provides a laboratory as well as simply an outlet for new local artists.

In that sense, it scores over the BBC’s own Introducing radio show, which plays new music by new British artists – but which provides little (almost no) crossover path to the mainstream radio playlist. In contrast, Introducing (while valuable, well-meaning and appreciated by young artists and audiences alike) appears somewhat tokenistic.

There’s a lot to be said here about local music on local radio, and how that localism is defined. Because of the relative size and influence of the UK music industry – as well as the population density – in comparison to Australia and New Zealand, ‘localism’ is conceived of as regional in Britain, rather than at the level of the nation state. There’s also a lot to be said about the relationship between local music broadcasting and the sustainability and growth of local music industries.

I’ve written extensively about this in the past, but there are some great people writing about local music broadcasting. I’d like to get some more information about Canadian, French, Icelandic and other local government mandated music content quotas for radio.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that because Australia’s local music content quota is government-mandated and formalised in law, the definition of Australian music also necessarily includes New Zealand music, because of free trade agreements (specifically the Closer Economic Relations ‘Blue Sky‘ agreement) between the two countries. The reverse does not apply because New Zealand’s local content on radio is guided by a voluntary target system.

There’s still, of course, no definitive answer as to whether Crowded House count as an Australian or a New Zealand band, but as a new music station, Unearthed will not have to grapple with this problem…

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