Why isn’t Australian music charting on the ARIA charts?

Why isn’t Australian music charting on the ARIA charts?

The excitement generated by the 2023 Eurovision contest was palpable. Members of my family, like thousands of Australians, were awake at 5am on a Sunday to cheer on Australia’s Eurovision contenders, Perth band Voyager. Their song Promise was the eighth Australian entry since we first competed in 2015. Seven of these entries have made the finals.

The media coverage and public engagement with Eurovision demonstrates how intensely interested we are in the international success of our musicians.

However, recent comments made by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) CEO, Annabelle Herd, reveal a jarring discrepancy between our support for Australian musicians at Eurovision and our actual listening and spending habits.

Even though we spent $609.6 million on recorded music in 2022 through direct sales and streaming, a 16-year high and more than $40 million higher than 2021, we tend to neglect the music of Australians in favour of overseas artists.

Herd stated:

the lack of a single Australian album in the ARIA Albums Chart last week alone proves the need to develop an urgent strategy […] to ensure that the growing number of Australian music lovers can connect with Australian artists.

Though Kate Ceberano’s My Life is a Symphony has just this week entered the chart at number six, ARIA’s top 50 album chart demonstrates our preoccupation with the likes of huge non-Australian artists such as Taylor Swift, Post Malone, Harry Styles and others.

Cultural cringe

Non-Indigenous Australians have a history of importing or “transplanting” their musical culture.

From Italian opera in the 1890s to the Beatles in the 1960s to Taylor Swift in the 2020s (who currently has eight albums in our top 50), our predilection for imported music is inarguable.

While there’s nothing wrong with cosmopolitan taste, and we should note ARIA does track the sales of Australian artists through dedicated charts, we must interrogate the patterns of music consumption that reveal a tendency to neglect our homegrown musicians.

The term “cultural cringe”, coined by AA Philips in his seminal Meanjin article of 1950, describes a “disease of the Australian mind” that assumes “domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article”.

For much of the 20th century, overseas training or overseas acclaim was a pre-requisite for domestic acceptance of Australian artists, musicians and writers.

Pianist Percy Grainger, considered an archetypal Australian musician, lived and worked in America for much of his life and is often remembered as an American composer. The experience of creatives like Germaine Greer, Malcolm Williamson and Clive James needing to leave our shores to pursue a career in the arts is echoed in the story of a millennial singer like Vassy.

In a 2022 interview, Vassy describes the frustrations that led her to leave Australia to pursue opportunities in America. She describes her then-record label as not being committed to Australian performers unless they evoked a specific type of “Australiana”.

“So it was either you look that part and you be that Australian thing that they want or they just push American acts, like, A-list acts.”

Is it possible that our love of Eurovision, and our collective desire for the international acclaim that would accompany a win, has its roots in the cultural cringe? That we’d cheer our musicians overseas, but inadequately support them at home, generates a vicious cycle that prevents Australian music thriving as it should.

Pirates and streaming

There may be other reasons apart from our awkward cultural history that account for the underrepresentation of Australian music on the ARIA charts.

Two decades ago, digital disruption in the form of filesharing sites like Napster broke the business model of the recording industry. While streaming subscriptions and the resurgence of vinyl now underpin sales of recorded music, the effects of disruption continue to be felt.

ARIA, for example, only began to include streaming in its charts from 2014, with current arrangements updated as recently as March 2022 to include official content streams by logged-in YouTube users in the charts.

While the ARIA charts tell us a great deal about music consumption in Australia, they, like any survey, are not perfect. Musicians who independently release their music and monetise their work in non-traditional ways, such as via a following on social media, direct support through a platform like Patreon or through merchandise sales, are less likely to have their output recognised in the ARIA charts.

Likewise, a consumer’s use of a VPN to access music via a streaming service in an international jurisdiction may render the economic activity that results impossible to track.

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Quotas and solutions

The other significant impact of the changing digital landscape is the blunting of long-standing policies designed to support Australian music making.

For example, the CBAA Code of Practice requires most community radio stations to broadcast at least 25% Australian content. This requirement has over many decades fuelled a need for Australian music. Streaming services have no equivalent requirement and, as audiences increasingly migrate to these new platforms, this imperative for new Australian music wanes.

The federal government has sought to address some of these challenges via its National Cultural Policy, titled Revive. It plans to introduce legislation later this year. Australia’s music industry will likely welcome this intervention, particularly if it builds capacity and creates opportunities for Australian musicians to thrive in Australia.

Such policy interventions are not without hazard: my research reveals that when government uses cultural policy as a political tool it distorts and ultimately stifles creative practice. Listening to musicians, addressing their needs (such as navigating the eligibility requirements for inclusion in the ARIA charts) and helping connect them to Australian audiences are key.

In the meantime, we should all listen to some new Australian music. Let’s make our Kate and the MSO number one!

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