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What Do The ABC Cuts Mean For Australian Music?

Image Title: Music Deli – an ABC music diversity pioneer Image Source: Music Deli
Chris Bowen
| December 5, 2016

What do the ABC cuts mean for Australian music?

With five of six music programs on the RN network to be cut, we explore what this could mean for Australian music, and examine the role and responsibility of the public broadcaster, and actions being taken by thousands of frustrated musicians and supporters.

These cuts to music programs on RN, reported here, have generated significant industry concern, which we have covered here, and a petition to change.org  has generated over 12,000 signatures. So what does this all mean?

Radio still matters

Surprisingly for some in the digital age, radio still matters for music. In the US Billboard Magazine quotes studies showing up to 69 percent of people discover new music through radio. In Australia it is similar, and ABC’s Chris Scaddan wrote a piece in 2013 titled “why music radio still matters.” And Australia Council research shows that 95 percent of Australians listen to music on radio or TV, more than any other medium.

And Australian radio continues to thrive and pull audiences. Commercial Radio Australia reported that in 2015 “10.3 million Australians tuned in each week in the five metropolitan capitals, up from 10.1 million in 2014”.  ABC Radio networks provide airplay for multiple music genres, and reach audiences of close to 5 million Australians every week in the five capital cities alone. Community radio also has close to 5 million listeners each week.

But not for all Australian music

Yet, despite tens of millions of listeners, Australian radio does not necessarily connect audiences with Australian music.

On commercial radio Australian music is not well served. While stations generally meet their content requirements, anecdotal evidence suggests this music is rarely played during peak periods. And the music follows the formats which favour mainstream pop and classic rock. There’s not much space for new Australian music.

While community radio is a strong supporter of Australian content and an important contributor, particularly through its AMRAP project, it is a relatively small overall player, although significant in particular markets and genres.

So for Australian music to thrive and prosper, it is obvious to turn to the ABC.

The ABC and music

Our public broadcaster, with national reach and resources, is best positioned to champion Australian music. Historically they have done this well, on radio and on TV.  Triple J for example, is recognised as one of the world’s best youth music radio networks, and Classic FM also has a fine reputation and loyal audience. The Music Deli radio program was a pioneer in presenting Australian musical diversity, and the contribution and popularity of TV music show Countdown is legendary.

More recently, the opening up of digital spectrum, has enabled the ABC to increase its music networks, including digital station Double J.

However, ABC music policy is complex. History leaves us with two free to air networks serving particular music genres and demographics, one classical and the other youth. This is a good thing. However no other music has such dedicated attention. Some argue this has led to Australia’s oversupply of indie rock bands – as they can get airplay on Triple J. It is hard for other genres to get comparable attention.  It can also cause sector resentment with the ageing classical audience perceived as receiving special treatment by virtue of history. Plus, music content on the ABC’s TV networks is not what it was, with no regular live contemporary music program, which many in the music industry see as a major omission.

While the ABC does play a lot of music across multiple platforms and genres, this policy history leaves many gaps. And is not always readily apparent how these are filled, particularly in the euphemistically known adult music genres (folk, world, roots, country, jazz, and alternative styles, etc).

This is why these cuts to RN programs are an issue – for this is the music they play.

Diverse music matters

This diversity of music does matter; it contributes to a rich and original national musical culture and identity. And it’s in demand, including in our music export success, where mainstream rock and pop no longer dominate. As Billboard’s Lars Brandle has observed “Australia’s music exports are as diverse as the landscape of the country they call home”.

So, for a rich Australian musical future to be forged, and viable careers for Australian artists maintained, then diverse forms of music must be nourished, and connected with their audiences – including on radio.

ABC’s changes may not be good for music

While the music sector may want the ABC to champion diverse local content, the broadcaster, with one eye on budget cuts, and another on ratings, may not see this as their priority. The ABC’s emphasis on audiences (the 2015 Annual Report was subtitled “all about audiences”) can leave specialist programming vulnerable.  This is RN’s dilemma – it has rich content but relatively small, niche audiences.

No doubt there are useful improvements to be gained in internal coordination and sound quality by using new digital networks. However if the pursuit of audiences and rationalisation adversely impacts the diversity and richness of Australian music on air, and reduces public access, particularly regionally, the effects may be long lived and our music and musicians worse off.

Arguing the case for music

So advocates have launched a website and asked the ABC in a recent open letter, can you assure the listening public that these changes won’t be detrimental to Australian music and audiences?

They ask if the ABC is confident these changes – reducing specific music shows, integrating with other networks, and moving from free to air to digital – won’t reduce audiences for these varied music genres, diminish the diversity of music styles played, or adversely impact the live music ecosystem for these musicians and their audiences?

Will similar amounts of new Australian music be promoted, Australian musicians profiled and interviewed, and resources devoted to these activities? And will regional Australians still enjoy the same access to music?

And has the ABC considered, in delivering on it charter, its responsibility to the broader music community and to the country, to supporting viable careers and an important national industry, culturally and economically?

The questions of what’s good for Australian music and the ABC’s role, may well come down to good advocacy, and 16,000 petitioners are doing exactly that. We wish them well.

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