Triple J the music industry’s Holy Grail?

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Musicians in countless Australian bands dream of being discovered by Triple J. But is the radio station as influential in determining success as some believe? Mia Burgess reports.

It’s a Monday night in Melbourne and the streets are reasonably quiet. Four 20-somethings lug guitars, amps and cymbals across the Brunswick-Gertrude Street intersection towards the muffled hum of music and dim glow coming from The Workers Club.

The front door of the pub opens and immediately a wall of warmth coming from 100 or so bodies hits. The jovial clink of $2 pots and Indie-rock B sides fill the room as people swarm to the front of the stage.

REIKA are currently one of the leading bands on Melbourne’s live music, pub circuit. Over the last four years, the four-piece have played over 150 shows and released two EP’s all while finishing school and studying.

REIKA have it all – charisma, a uniquely Australian rock sound, an extensive following, professionally produced music, and to top it off, they can fill a pub, even on a Monday night. However, one thing REIKA and thousands of other Australian bands have in common is their dream of being discovered by Triple J.

But is Triple J’s influence really the ‘be all and end all’ of succeeding in Australian music? While some say this powerful organisation is a great service to Australian music, others argue its power and dominance is influencing artists to skew their sound in the hopes of being played.

Triple J is undoubtedly a major entity in the Australian music industry. Figures show that in this year alone, Triple J’s average weekly listenership in the five main capital cities has almost reached two million, while the network’s core demographic of 18-24 ranks in the top three most listened-to stations of those capital cities and first in Sydney and Perth. Additionally, Triple J also boasts over 1.7 million fans on social media, more than any other Australian radio station.

Not only is Triple J’s Hit List program the most listened to partner playlist on Spotify Australia, but Triple J also made history last year as the first radio station to team up with Beats1 on Apple Music to present a show bringing Australian music to an international audience. 

Robbie Hallam, lead singer of REIKA says: “Triple J is really prominent across the board, not just on radio. If you are able to secure high rotation on Triple J, you’re going to be pretty damn big.”

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Triple J Unearthed allows musicians to upload their music for free in the hopes that Triple J will put it on their main music rotation or play it on their sister station Unearthed Digital.

Unearthed is arguably the backbone to Australia’s independent music scene, with a mission statement of uncovering the expansive hidden talent within Australia, and allowing some of best lesser-known acts to gain more exposure through the likes of radio play and support slots for festivals.

Zac Abroms is the director of leading Australian publicity and management company Vice Royalty and says there is nothing in the world like Triple J Unearthed in today’s landscape.

“It has never been easier to make great music, and people are doing it in their bedrooms, we have access to thousands of tools and we have access to things like Unearthed.

“Anyone can put their music online without a record label, that several of my clients have had their biggest successes through the Unearthed, however while this accessibility is great it has never been a more saturated and competitive market place,” says Abroms.

Hallam says: “When we release a song, if it gets in the Unearthed charts we definitely notice that a lot more gig opportunities, people wanting to use our songs for different projects, interviews for blogs and stuff like that, but once you drop out of the charts, and that initial hype has gone it’s pretty hard for people to find us.”

Earlier this year, legendary sound engineer Tony ‘Jack The Bear’ Mantz posted a video on Facebook expressing his concerns about young bands “pandering” to Triple J, and altering their sound to be noticed on Triple J Unearthed.

In the video Mantz says he understands that Triple J airplay is a great thing for exposure, but musicians should focus on their art.

“When you set out making your art in the hope that they’re gonna like it, you’re looking for validation, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You’re a musician, you’re an artist, that’s what you do.”

Hallam says: “It’s obviously something that’s there in the back of your mind when you’re making music. We don’t make music to get on Triple J. If it does, great. But we don’t write for Triple J, we write for us.”

“It’s easy to see why other bands do this, especially for a band our size. We really push to get people at our shows. People see being played on Triple J as reassurance that the band is worth paying to see, and so they’re more likely to go to their shows.”

Mantz says he does not like to believe that Triple J has too much power and that artists shouldn’t see it as the only way to “make it” in music.

“Triple J is very powerful and very influential and I can understand why people see it as a bit of a holy grail, but once we start going down that avenue that they have too much power, that really is a very defeatist attitude.

“We live in a global, digital age, there are plenty of other possibilities and outlets. Who’s to say artists can’t go out there on the internet, develop a following and if it goes well, wait for Triple J to come sniffing?”

Hallam says because Triple J is yet to discover REIKA, they try a variety of ways to promote their music.

“We’ve had to learn that Triple J isn’t the only station that is playing new Australian music. We have had a lot of support from Melbourne’s SYN FM and community radio. We also upload our music to the AMRAP service, and they email it out to regional community radio stations all around Australia.

“I think the problem is that there’s no other big stations doing what Triple J do, and playing as much Australian music as they do. What we need is for listeners to expand their radio frequencies and try listening to other smaller stations” says Hallam.

Abroms believes Australians should be thankful that Triple J exists at all.

“I think sometimes people try to villanise Triple J and think that they wield too much power, but in rebuttal to that you have to acknowledge that without them it’s hard to imagine what the Australian music landscape would be like without them.”

Triple j did not respond to requests for comment.

Mantz leaves this advice to young bands. “Focus on being a trend-setter, not just being trendy, I really admire and respect people who go out on a limb and say, ‘F*** you, I’m gonna do it on my terms, my way, the way I want to do it.’ That’s what music, and art is about.”