On May 15, a long-awaited change debuted on the ARIA Albums chart, with qualifying on-demand streams contributing to the Album charts result. Already the case on the Singles chart, the change was designed to ensure that a small number of standout singles don’t artificially inflate the performance of their associated album.
However, according to Andrew Stone (Head of Chugg Music, AIR Board member, manager of Sheppard, Megan Washington, The Griswolds and others), the chart update has made it harder than ever for local artists to place in the upper echelon of the chart.
Stone’s op-ed below was transcribed from an interview. It has been edited for clarity.
The effect on Australian artists was immediate
Since the swap over to streaming hit the ARIA charts on May 15, there hasn’t been a #1 album from an Australian artist.
Bliss N Eso took the last one, and that was on May 8, a week before the change, and there was four this year before that. There hasn’t been a #1 Australian single this year and we’re in August already – there were two last year. It was Flume and The Veronicas in 2016, and there was Grace, Conrad Sewell and Delta Goodrem in 2015.
From an independent point of view, I know that there was a conversation happening amongst the ARIA people I would imagine, deciding whether to permit streaming numbers in the ARIA charts. One side of the argument, I suppose, is of course that they should permit it, because it reflects consumption and that’s what people are consuming – so let’s reflect that.
On the other side is the whole point of getting a #1 album, for a label or for an artist, a chance to sell a marketing story for that moment that you are in the charts. Because then you can go on and promote a tour, tell your story to potential international partners and promote everything else. Both are valid reasons, and both arguments, I’d imagine, voiced on both sides.
Before the change – and we would do this as an independent label – is we would push as much as we could to get those first week sales as high as possible. We and the other labels would use clever pre-order strategies, get the bands out to the community, and sell as many physical copies as we could because streaming didn’t count. You could rack up 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 sales, whatever it is Week 1, and you’ve got a #1 or top 10 album and then you’ve got that certification forever more. Then you can go off and tell your international label partners or potential label partners in the future, that you’ve got the #1 album in Australia. What people don’t realise is what happens to Week 2 sales, Week 3 sales… Was that an accurate reflection of consumption?
It’s a complicated question. What’s the whole point of charts anyway? Is it just a marketing exercise and trying to get Australian artists above the noise? What’s the point of the ARIAs? Is it just a marketing exercise, or is it a celebration of Australian music? I think it’s a bit of both. At the heart of the decision is that that it shines a spotlight on what Australian consumers are listening to, which is perfectly ok. It’s nice to know that.
So, what’s the problem? If an Australian artist is good enough then surely they’d just cut through and be #1 anyway? However, are our Australian artists offered the same opportunities as the global superstars when it comes to promoting our music in our market, or are the odds increasingly stacked against us?
In my opinion it’s a complicated structural problem that’s worth solving for the purpose of developing Australian music.
What does it take to become a #1 artist on the charts?
The rules are different today to what they were even just three years ago. Commercial radio is no longer a leader, but there are exceptions to that. Right now, we’ve got Sheppard’s latest single being spun really positively on Brisbane radio. This is an exception to the rule; the whole Sheppard story is an exception to the rule – which is why it is exciting to talk about it. We’ve built up such a good relationship with those commercial radio stations in Brisbane, and they are willing to take a chance on the band. They’ve also been given permission by the larger organisations behind them and they’ve hired great Program Directors who take chances.
I don’t want to criticise any radio stations that haven’t been supportive of us in the past; their motivation is to put music on that people like. Their metric to decide whether people like a song is to look at the charts – therefore you have this catch 22, self-perpetuating cycle where they play what is popular. The opportunities for us to tell these stations that we’re just as good as the Americans are taken away if we can’t sell them a streaming or chart success story. And so, the cycle continues.
The hard thing for the industry to reconcile is that for us to have a trajectory on streaming we need to understand that it takes a while. The curators here – they’ll pick the best playlists for the song if it’s shown to be reactive. If people aren’t skipping it, if people are enjoying it they’ll stick it on a pop playlist or a ‘Thursday relax’ playlist, or whatever it might be. So, it’s usually a slow trajectory climbing the charts on Spotify or Apple Music.
Once a song has proven itself, then you kind of bump up the tiers. If it’s an Australian artist signed out of Australia, typically it’s Spotify or Apple Music Australia’s job to tell that story to the other partners around the world. They certainly give it as good a go as they possibly can. That’s what would have happened with the Amy Shark record ‘Adore’, for instance – they would’ve told their partners about how great it’s doing in and to pay some close attention to it, but this wouldn’t have happened out of the gates. However, when you come back in, hat in hand, with the next single, to get some real momentum on streaming it’s very difficult unless you’re an international priority for a well-connected network of labels – and this lack of momentum can hurt an artist.
I don’t think the changes to the ARIA chart will help Australian artists get to #1, I think it will hurt whether Australian artists become #1 or not. What it might do is help us discover artists we don’t know about because people are looking at Spotify and Apple Music as the indication for the next upcoming artist, and therefore changing mainstream consumer habits. Not for a moment am I criticising Spotify and Apple Music’s role in promoting Australian music, they do a fantastic job and give up high profile real estate on their platforms for local acts. What we’re talking about at the end of the day is the relevancy of the ARIA charts and what it means for artists and the Australian music community.
Previously, it was only triple j that decided whether you could develop or not as an indie artist, because if you got that tick of approval then suddenly you could play the right tours and the media would write about you and festivals will put you on the bill. Some festivals are totally blunt in saying, “we only put artists on our bill who get played on triple j”. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, I know, but they are rare.
Now, because there are great curators at Spotify and Apple Music, artists can upload their stuff, whatever the genre, and it can propagate. You can have a song do well just based on the strength of the recording and the right playlist addition will give the track the shot in the arm it needs to really stand out. Again, it’s very hard for that artist to then make the right decisions on who they surround themselves with and what types of live opportunities they seek, but at least they have a shot.
In terms of getting to #1 on the singles charts or iTunes, say what you like about The Voice, it’s the only opportunity that Australian artists have to have mainstream primetime exposure through a live performance. Jessica Mauboy would not have been #1 on iTunes the day after the release of her new song if it wasn’t for her performance on The Voice and good on her for getting there. That cut through and instant impact gives the label and artist the instant story to then get the track onto the radio and they can take it from there. The song must be good, but again, at least you have a shot. The heads of the major labels in Australia, they know how important those media moments are, and we all wish there were more opportunities to put bands into primetime TV in Australia.
You want a #1 single in Australia? Start with a great song and an engaging artist. Play a big TV moment for that instant impact and back it up with across the board commercial radio play in all markets. Easy, right?
The solution? It’s complicated
The issue around the change to the ARIA chart is a structural problem. It’s complicated, and I think we should decide whether it’s a problem worth solving. It comes down to the development of artists, and the development of industry around those artists. Should audiences be exposed to Australian stories and Australian voices? I would like to think that ‘yes’ is the right answer.
Perhaps the real answer is, you can’t really incentivise it, but do encourage those mainstream primetime opportunities. I think the general public sometimes worry that the only music they feel that gets made in Australia is from The Voice. How many developing artists have you spoken to who have been frustrated by the question: “Oh, you should go on The Voice?”
The worry is that mainstream Australia think that is Australian music, or the line up on Splendour is Australian music, or the Hottest 100 is the total reflection. I think there are so many other layers and I don’t think audiences would mind if there were a few more risks taken and a bit more diversity championing local talent. Stations like BBC Radio 1 in the UK will play Miley Cyrus followed by Catfish and The Bottlemen, and the audience doesn’t crack the shits – they love it.
Same as if you have an alternative band play on something like The Voice, they would love it. But, again, I’m not sure that the bookers on The Voice would take that many chances to put on alternative bands they’re competing with MasterChef for their own survival. We don’t have a Jimmy Fallon or a Conan or a late-night TV show. Rove was great exposure for our artists, but it doesn’t exist anymore.
What we do have is we have is Spotify, Apple Music, triple j and great community stations and online communities. Someone can make a song in their bedroom and put it up online, you can post a performance on YouTube and that can propagate it. That’s how Tash Sultana became an international sensation after busking for years.
Maybe that’s the whole point: today’s solution for the fact that there is no Rove or no mainstream music TV shows outside of The Voice is that people will find it eventually on the internet. It makes it very hard for us to build a financial support structure around developing artists, but there’s always ways around that and it comes down to audience and fans. Major labels are figuring that out too, so instead of developing a musician and their fan base, in many cases they’re finding someone who already has an audience, putting a guitar in their hands and saying, “you’re a musician now, sell some records.” But that is a whole other conversation.