Does triple j have too much influence?

22 August 2017

Written by: Andrew Handley

Three industry insiders debate whether criticism of the government-owned station is fair.

With millions of people tuning in each week, there is no denying the influence triple j has on the Australian music industry. For the last 40 years, the government-owned station has championed home-grown artists to their target audience of 18-25 year olds.

In recent years, the station has been criticised for having too much influence in the industry and even homogenising the sound of Australian music.

Three people in the Australian music industry spoke to upstart to explore whether any of the criticisms were fair.

Triple j’s influence is especially important for bands trying to break into the industry. “[Being played is] important, but not essential,” says Jack*, the bassist for a band whose new single has entered rotation on the station.

“There’s a commonly held belief that triple j airplay means your band has made it, [but] a few spins doesn’t translate into a successful career.”

Tom*is a former triple j Unearthed High finalist and Live A Version performer. He thinks airplay had more of a bearing on success.

“It is very difficult to achieve success in the Australian music industry without first gaining traction through triple j airplay.”

Greg, who has been managing and booking bands for the last 20 years, he says that if the artist’s music fits the market “airplay is crucial to taking artists from local to national attention.”

The importance of being played may be why critics have suggested some artists tailor their sound deliberately for airplay.

“I’ve never come across anyone who’s admitted to it, but I’m sure there are, and there’s a reason why their music isn’t on the radio,” says Jack.

“Listeners aren’t stupid – they can tell when a song isn’t inspired by something genuine.”

Tom thinks some artists do slip through the gap. “There’s a reason all the songs on triple j are approximately two to three minutes long, and upbeat.

“I’ve often been told when servicing songs to triple j that the song isn’t upbeat enough.

“I think they can definitely tell if you’re pandering too hard, and you may come across as insincere, but for the most part pandering to the sound seems to work for people,” says Tom.

“Bands that pander to anything are wallowing in a creative cesspool,” jokes Greg.

“The on-station music diversity is incredible compared to their commercial rivals, so triple j are way more likely to pick an original sounding artist over an act that sounds like others already receiving airtime.”

All three agreed that Australian music was being homogenised to an extent, although it wasn’t necessarily triple j’s fault.

“When I tune in, I hear a ‘triple j sound’ that encompasses music that is more refined in production and less challenging in content, but I concede that a station needs proper programming at the end of the day,” says Jack. “Otherwise it’s a shambolic request line 24/7.”

Tom has a more cynical outlook, “I just think Australia is a small marketplace for music and it seems like a lot of people don’t bother to look outside what gets played on triple j to find music.”

“Sadly the issue is far larger,” explaines Greg. “The internet homogenised music globally and triple j is responding to to their audience’s new worldview, rather than to the Australian music industry.”

The station broadened their reach with the launch of digital radio stations triple j unearthed and double j in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Triple j unearthed focuses on up and coming unsigned artists, while double j appeals to the over 30s audience.

Manager Greg says “both stations present new avenues for music to get heard, regardless of when it was recorded – tomorrow or 30 years ago – while leaving triple j to continue their original guise as taste makers to Australian music fans between 16 and 25.”

Bassist Jack says he was interested in some of double j’s programming, but couldn’t get over the obstacle of digital radio, “The accessibility of digital radio is getting better but it’s not the same as flicking it on in the car.”

“Double j is actually a kiss of death for a lot of artists,” says Tom. “If you get put on double j you’re basically being told you’re irrelevant. Conversely, I don’t think anyone really listens to the unearthed station, but it’s nice that it exists as a stepping stone.”

Another frequent criticism of triple j is that the songs on rotation are selected by a small group of people, particularly Richard Kingsmill, who was Music Director for 14 years until he moved on to Group Music Director this year.

“My understanding is that other programmers have the opportunity to listen to the same music and play it themselves, so it would be untrue to label it as a dictatorship of sorts,” says Jack. “The process of adding music to full or spot rotation on triple j is very influential though.”

“Music festivals have one main booker [and] record companies have a handful of [Artists and repertoire] staff,” says Greg. “It is a necessity to keep the number of people in the decision-making roles as small as possible.”

All the three believe triple j did far more good than bad.

“Discovering music is so rewarding,” says Jack, “Even though I don’t love the majority of the music played, I think it’s awesome that people can embrace the music that triple j plays and discover something else entirely.”

“I think they’re definitely vital to the Australian music industry despite their shortcomings,” says Tom. “We probably wouldn’t think that triple j is homogenising the Australian music scene if commercial stations actually played Australian music as well, instead of playing Top 40 from the States.”

“The fact that the Australian tax payer owns such a diverse broadcast platform is pretty much unique,” says Greg. “Most national broadcasters promote populism and the lowest common denominator [and] all commercial stations are beholden to their advertisers.

It’s not until you listen to the total dross that stations in Europe and America serve up that you appreciate what a cultural gem the station has been for over 40 years,” says Greg.

While triple j does have enormous influence on the Australian industry, all three insiders agreed it was more positive than negative. While the industry is being homogenised, it’s not necessarily triple j’s fault, and they’re doing much more to diversify it than their commercial counterparts.

*Names have been changed for anonymity

Andrew has recently moved from Adelaide to Melbourne to study a Master of Communication (Public Relations) at La Trobe University. You can follow him on twitter at andy_handley.