It’s been a big couple of weeks for Commercial Radio Australia, with the industry hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
First was the decision from the ACMA that 2GB’s Alan Jones had been found guilty of breaching the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice, in regards to his coverage of native vegetation laws. (Some reports say he’ll be up for investigation about his climate change-related broadcasts in the coming months.)
Social media fumed! Petitions were signed! Advertisers pulled commercials in droves! All round, November was not an easy month for Commercial Radio Australia (CRA). Sure, people were talking about radio, but for all the wrong reasons.
But one good thing had come out of these scandals; they took the heat off comments made by CEO Joan Warner in regards to the Australian music quota and its place in the current radio environment.
Warner and CRA are lobbying the Federal Government to remove local music quotas, arguing that they can’t compete with online media outlets with no restrictions imposed on what they broadcast. Warner argues, “a quota for Australian music can only fully achieve its aim of supporting Australian music and musicians if it were to apply across all music distribution platforms in Australia.” She also called the quotas “unsustainable and inequitable”. However, she went on to point to programs such as New Artists 2 Radio, now in its ninth year, as being just some of the ways that Commercial Radio Australia upholds its obligations to Australian music.
But then, in a back flip on what appears initially to be support for the Australian music industry, Warner then goes on to say, ”We don’t produce a quarter of the world’s music, so why would you want to hear more than one in four songs that’s Australian?”
Now, there are a few problems with Warner’s argument.
Firstly, her “one in four” statistic is a bit misleading. The quota changes for each different type of station format, but for most music stations there is a 25% Australian music quota between 6am and 12pm.
Let’s do the maths: that’s 18 hours. Of that amount of time, 25% = 4.5 hours. There’s no indication in the codes that says you can’t put most of that local music into the 3 hours to midnight – you’ve just got to get it in there. (Oh hey, that sounds familiar… Remember this gem from Jay Whalley of Frenzal Rhomb?)
Okay, so that might sound like a good chunk of time. But here’s the interesting thing – only a quarter of that quarter (6.25%) has to have been released in the last 12 months. That’s only 1.12 hours of new Australian music in an entire 24 hour period, and again, you can cram all that in just before midnight if you want. As much as I love their work, that’s the whole reason shows like Landed Music exist – so that the new, untested music can be crammed into the not-so-glamourous spot of late night radio, Monday to Thursday nights. The rest of your quota could be made up of any of the Aussie classics – INXS, Savage Garden, Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Kylie… But that doesn’t help the next generation trying to make it in the industry, does it?
Don’t believe it? The Age did a quick, unscientific survey and it seems, yes, the Australian music isn’t coming out during the daylight hours.
Then there’s the fact that last year the Australian Communications and Media Authority announced that the code would exempt digital commercial radio stations from local music quotas for three years. This puts a bit of a dent in the argument about internet radio being a threat, especially since it’s not being taken up in the same numbers here as overseas, and according to CRA’s own media release, isn’t being listened to for the same amount of time as digital radio. Suddenly those quotas aren’t looking so draconian after all.
Secondly, if you take away the quotas, the other programs Commercial Radio Australia is running to promote new Australian music aren’t really that effective. Here’s a list of artists who’ve won the NA2R competition since 2004. I bet you’ve only heard of two or three, and even then, I doubt you’ve heard any more than one or two of their tracks on commercial radio, if at all, especially if you live in a regional market. (And let’s be honest, Sarah Blasko and Faker got their first big push on Triple J…) Pretty poor strike rate for the spearhead local music initiative of a national media industry body, don’t you think?
On top of these issues of whether the current quotas are actually being effective or not, there’s the comparison with other countries. Compare our quota with those in Canada, for example. Under their current quotas, stations have an obligation to play a minimum 35% local music content between 6am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. Those who know radio will know that these are the top listening times, and therefore Canadian music is getting peak exposure under these regulations. Similar quotas are also upheld in France, South Africa, The Philippines, the UK and Nigeria.
There’s also the fact that Triple J have just launched a digital channel entirely dedicated to new, unsigned Australian artists. And Austereo has Radar Radio, which has a strong(er than most) Australian bent, to judge from its website. Surely if maintaining such a high level of Australian music content was so “unsustainable and inequitable”, it wouldn’t have been worth the punt in the first place?
But the biggest (and by far the stupidest) problem with Warner’s argument is that for most stations, IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. Why? Because you can’t make an interview segment with an artist if you’re not playing their track. You can’t give away tickets to a concert for an overseas artist that you do play who never tours Australia, because they don’t live here. You don’t give away tickets to a gig for an Australian artist, because nobody knows who they are because they never get air time. You don’t get big “Aussie Star Makes It Big In US” headlines without some support from back home in the early days.
Warner and CRA maintain that commercial radio stations will continue to play Australian artists, but the big question is “why should they?” It’s so much easier to break a tried and tested track that’s already charting in the US than it is to introduce a new Australian artist into the mix. New Zealand got rid of quotas and the bottom fell out of their music industry, because radio simply didn’t care about them any more. That’s when the problems above will begin to arise, maybe not for the big players like Austereo and DMG, kept cozy with their gigantic profits, keeping the amount of industry revenue rising to new highs, but definitely for the little regional stations, scrabbling for promotions and interviews. They’re the slaves to the trends set by the big fish in the big cities, and the ones left with the scraps when there’s nothing left.
Really, there are no winners in removing Australian music quotas from the Commercial Radio Australia codes. Even stations under their banner could be faced with some major shifts in programming due to the proposed changes. The Australian music industry loses a publicity lifeline, when they’re already in a significant amount of turmoil. The listeners lose prize opportunities, and lose diversity in the music they hear on the radio. And, tragically, in trying to beat ’em by joining ’em, commercial radio loses another point of difference, potentially scoring an own goal in the game to stop the industry dissolving into static.