Australia’s music artists are in dire straits – yet taxpayer-funded Triple J won’t shake its commercial flavour

Australia’s music artists are in dire straits – yet taxpayer-funded Triple J won’t shake its commercial flavour

On June 12, Sydney musician and software engineer Harrison Khannah launched Triple J Watchdog, a website dedicated to aggregating and analysing the music played on Australia’s national youth broadcaster Triple J.

The site currently displays data from March 31 onward while Harrison continues work on backdating it to the beginning of this year. The site displays a range of Triple J metrics, including:

  • top artist of the week
  • top song of the week
  • a breakdown of artists/bands played by country of origin
  • a breakdown of artists’ pronouns (using data from Make Music Equal)
  • the top 15 tracks and top 15 artists played
  • the average popularity of artists played
  • the average Spotify follower count of artists played (currently 3,242,692)
  • the top ten genres played (cross-referenced and defined against Spotify categories)
  • and the most played genre by hour for every hour across the day (based on data from Roy Morgan).

At a glance, the data aren’t surprising. Triple J plays more Australian artists/bands than from anywhere else, as well as more he/him artists (although the disparity isn’t particularly egregious). The station’s most played genre is “Australian indie”.

Close scrutiny, however, reveals a different story.

During the week of June 10–16, British pop star Charli XCX was Triple J’s most played artist. This was mainly due to her recent release, BRAT, being given the coveted feature album slot. Other 2024 feature albums have included Beyonce and Billie Eilish. Eilish also features as the second-most played artist since March.

Why is a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster that has historically been dedicated to breaking emerging local talent providing significant airtime to an artist whose biggest hit is widely recognised as a KFC jingle?

The breakdown of most played genres by hour further reveals pop is consistently played during drive time, when the station has its largest average daily share of listeners.

Since Triple J has no commercial imperative, it can theoretically program whatever it wants during these peak periods. Why, then, does it consistently play commercially oriented tracks when most people are tuning in?

Critiquing Triple J: a national pastime

Australia’s music industries have spent decades decrying the national youth radio network for being too commercial. Several academics have also questioned the station’s significance and relevance, including Ben Eltham in his notable 2009 essay The Curious Significance of Triple J.

Despite being published 15 years ago, many of the arguments presented in Eltham’s piece remain relevant today: Triple J is more concerned with its own brand than with enhancing Australian culture and community.

The Triple J network retains substantial influence over Australia’s music market and the capacity for local artists to gain an audience. This is true despite declining ratings among its target demographic of 18–24-year-olds.

Its national reach means it also has an outsized impact on touring networks and festival lineups. This somewhat explains why many emerging and even established artists fear reprisal, should they speak out against it.

Triple J Watchdog isn’t the first time the station’s programming data have been publicly listed. J Play, a service run by The Brag Media, served this niche for many years until its cancellation in 2019. However, J Play was still very much a part of the music industry’s establishment, rather than a completely independent scrutineer.

Triple J Watchdog fills an important resource gap by providing transparent insights into the station’s programming data.

What was Triple J made for?

There’s a strong argument that Triple J’s programming of commercially lucrative artists comes down to a desire to drive people to the station.

In Eltham’s 2009 piece this was framed as a part of its model, wherein the station functions as a stepping stone in a chain of discoverability that begins with commercial bops and ends with community radio.

While this may have been true in 2009, the sector has shifted substantially. In the era of digital streaming and algorithmically-driven recommendation systems, discoverability has changed. Yet, Triple J’s influence on festival lineups and the national touring network remains significant. This influence becomes doubly important as opportunities for local artists continue to shrink due to festival cancellations.

As a public service untethered from commercial interests, Triple J has the potential to expand the horizons of Australian music. It may be easy to frame this perspective as snobby or elitist – especially when concerns are focused purely on issues of genre – but the counterargument serves the literal elites: the millionaires (and increasingly billionaires) who reign atop the music industries pyramid.

Public resources are meant to enhance our democracy and, in the case of popular music, our sense of belonging, community and cultural identity. With recent research suggesting the average Australian artist makes about A$23,200 from their art, we must continue to pay attention to which voices are given a platform and which are not.

Read more:
The arts are being sidelined in the cost of living crisis. It’s time we stopped framing them as a luxury

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