27 January 2009

Triple J

Triple J, the "great" Australian independent (government-owned) radio station that gave us that live Hot Snakes album a few years ago, hosted their annual "Hot 100" Countdown yesterday. Of the top five spots, two were Kings of Leon songs, two were MGMT songs, and one was some Australian band that was blatantly ripping off MGMT.

If the kids that listen to that station like that music and decide to vote for it, I have no problem. But why is it that most of media's top critics didn't bother mentioning Kings of Leon at all in their year-end reviews and lists, while MGMT was buried behind TV On the Radio, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Deerhunter, Beach House, and Hercules & Love Affair? Again, I'm not commenting on the music itself, by why would only two bands corner the top 5 songs of the year?

Because Triple J operates much the same way that commercial radio does. They plug a very select few bands to no end, and ignore a lot of other music going on. In a world where there is practically unlimited resources for finding new music, crossing over genre lines, geographical boundaries, and major label/promotions influence, shouldn't the list be a little more varied? Maybe it has something to do with distribution, then. A lot of albums don't get a major label distribution deal here in Australia, so radio stations don't bother playing them. Of the aforementioned bands, only two had major label distribution: MGMT and Kings of Leon. In a post-major-label-industry, where supposedly listeners are dictating more and more of what's popular, Triple J, like nearly every radio station out there, is still operating with major label values in place. What makes this hurt a little more is that Triple J is supposed to be independent.

To their credit, they do make a concerted effort to play a lot of local music (and it doesn't hurt that the government forces them to). But in supporting local artists, there are plenty of very talented bands that, because of their geographical location, don't get a fair turn. A similar comparison would be that of affirmative action, except that the candidates aren't equal. Not by a long shot. In a lot of industries, I agree with regulation. In the music industry, I don't. Let the most talented artists get their due props, and the up-and-comers and down-and-outs will fall into place behind them.

Radio has never been a platform for promoting the "best" bands. Payola and cronyism have always played pivotal roles in radio. But we've been living in a hyper-aware world. Most people know of at least some corruption involved in the music industry, and can immediately circumvent such corruption by using the information superhighway. Most major labels are facing a financial crunch that's unrivaled by previous musical eras. They're turning to just about every sellable form of media to salvage their companies (ringtones, pre-loaded mp3 players, greeting cards, singing fish). So if there was ever a time for radio to change its tune, this would be it. Yet Triple J is still prescribing the music that people want to hear. And the kids are still eating it up.