“Will you make it in the end?
Will you fulfil your dreams?
Not as easy as it seems”

Weir – Killing Heidi 1999 (E.Hooper, J.Hooper)

Triple M and Today networks are “market leaders with under-40 listeners, with a 47.9% mainland capital city share.” Village Roadshow 1999 annual report.

Have you heard of Killing Heidi? If not you can’t have looked at a newspaper, listened to the radio, hired a video, been to the movies, watched TV, surfed the Net or read a magazine in a long, long time.

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Currently number one on the ARIA charts, Killing Heidi – or more importantly the relationship between Killing Heidi and their record label Village Roadshow – provide a glimpse of the future of pop music in Australia.

VR has a one-Australian-band policy that means the company will only actively promote one “up-and-coming” Australian band at a time. The last Australian band VR signed up on a such a deal, Savage Garden, have sold more than 30 million units worldwide. Obviously VR wants to make a similar killing with Killing Heidi.

Killing Heidi’s second single Mascara is currently Number One on the Australian charts, the first single Weir reached Number Four in the charts and was voted Number Two on the 1999 Triple J Hot 100. Playing a cramped cattle-shed at the Melbourne Big Day Out, they launched into theatrical rock’n’roll at its best with Ella celebrating her 17th birthday on stage before thousands of adoring fans crushing one another in an effort to get closer to their idols.

With two top ten singles already released, the industry buzz about KH’s upcoming album Reflector is amazing. Some are calling them the new silverchair, some the new Easybeats and a recent music industry poll saw Reflector listed as the second-most-anticipated release of 2000. European and US tours are in the pipeline if, as expected, Reflector tops the charts here. For Killing Heidi, like the long-forgotten ’80’s vamp Yazz, the only way is up.

But how did this all happen? How did two highly talented, naive country kids end up poised as the NBT’s (Next Big Things) of Australian music? Easy – big money, cultural capital and a publicity machine that puts the US Army to shame.

KH were signed up in 1997 by Paul Kosky, a well-known Australian rock identity, after he saw them play live at a showcase for young talent called Pushover. Kosky saw the immense marketing potential of an attractive teenage brother-sister combination who wrote their own songs, and jumped on the opportunity.

Having secured Jesse and Ella (the original Violetown drummer and bassist were left in the bush) on his personal label Wah-Wah Recordings, Kosky arranged a sole distribution deal with VR and began the long process of shaping raw teenage talent into the slick package required to shift records on a grand scale.

The first step was to get the band looking right; looking like “real” rock stars. VR paid hundreds of dollars for Jesse’s distinctive red dreadlocks and stretch camera technology was employed in the filmclips to make Ella look six foot five rather than the demure five foot six she is. Chapel Street streetwear shops were signed up on promotional contra deals to ensure the band was always clad in the latest clothes and Molly Meldrum duly sucked up to them as well.

Once Weir had been released and began slowly moving up the charts, the VR promotional machine really kicked in. Professor Alan Fels and the other luminaries of the ACCC would be, one suspects, most interested to learn of the machinations of this well-greased operation. Fels has already sniffed around Village’s cinema duopoly with Kerry Packer’s Hoyts group after a number of smaller operators complained about getting squeezed out.

The key was to get airplay on Melbourne’s top-rating rock stations Triple M and Fox-FM. For most up-and-coming bands this is but a pipedream, but for Killing Heidi it was easy. Why? Their record company also owns the radio stations!

Fox-FM and Triple M in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane are key parts of the Austereo network, which also includes Sydney’s 2DayFM, SA FM, B105FM in Brisbane, Perth’s PMFM and 94.5 FM, and FM 104.7 and Mix 106.3 in Canberra. All operate within a rock industry shibboleth that getting #1 is impossible without high-rotation airplay on Austereo. Village Roadshow owns Austereo, guaranteeing airplay for any of its acts. Anti-competitive or just good old fashioned vertical integration?

And while teenage boys’ desire to vertically (and horizontally) integrate with Ella may be one of the guiding lights of the Village Roadshow marketing strategy, some would say the Village Roadshow version borders on predatory.

Hire any Village Roadshow video and you’ll see Killing Heidi film clips both before and after the movie you actually paid good money to watch. Go to any of the VR super-mega-hyper-cinematropic complexes (or whatever they spin them as!) and again you’ll be bombarded with Killing Heidi promotional guff before the movie is screened.

Is this an example of savvy media-manipulation by Australia’s biggest entertainment group or is it an anti-competitive strategy that seeks to squeeze out competition by simultaneously employing the many tentacles of the VR corporate octopus? The US regulators who have brought anti-trust proceedings against Microsoft over the Netscape/Internet Explorer scandal would probably think so if they applied the same rationale to VR as Microsoft.

It would seem obvious that VR would use its Austereo network to promote VR acts like Killing Heidi. This type of vertical integration is spelled out by VR managing director Graham Burke in the company’s 1999 annual report. Clients are encouraged to “harness all its arms – cinema, radio, theme parks, movies and movie themes video and our direct marketing interests – to create high-exposure, high-value campaigns.”

The flipside is that a song competing with a VR act for chart space is likely to get short-shrift on Austereo.

VR is as shy of competition in the radio industry as it on its CD rotation lists. A successful lobbying campaign has kept its profits secure from new entrants, with the Federal Government this year ruling out fresh commercial stations in the medium term. Attempts by popular youth-based community stations for permanent slots have similarly been stymied. In the stagnant pond of commercial radio, last year VR’s stations recorded record profits – $47.4 million, up 20% on 1998.

The company sternly lectured in its latest annual report: “New and unreasonable levels of competition may compromise the industry’s great standards.”

VR managing director Graham Burke lists prime examples of these “great standards” in his report to shareholders. They include classy productions such as Whirl till you Hurl, House from Hell and “a promotional CD of beer songs (which) sold 250,000 copies”. Says Burke: “All these are showmanship at its finest.”

The other compelling question that arises from this arrangement is the effect such marketing strategies will have on Australian music. Australians pride themselves on their independent “pub-rock” culture, but this is surely threatened by practices like those employed by VR.

By corporatising music to this extreme, VR are making it harder and harder for bands to get anywhere without a major record company deal. While this has long been the industry standard in the US and UK, Australia has a tradition of bands building a live following before translating that into chart success, a path followed by acts like INXS and Men At Work.

The combination of VR-style “one-Australian-band” marketing and the increasingly generic nature of popular music makes this path almost impossible to follow in the 21st Century. Similarly, the reliance on top-end-of-town support will inevitably force a level of self-censorship on bands who will forgo creative licence in their quest for a contract.

While the Broadcasting Act requires radio stations to fill a mandatory percentage of airtime with Australian music, it does not specify that a variety of Australian acts be played. Quite conceivably Austereo could fulfil its Australian-content quota by playing only Savage Garden and Killing Heidi.

The great shame of the whole operation is in fact the effect it may have on Killing Heidi themselves. Granted the VR deal has guaranteed them short-term success but at what cost? Will the uber-talented Jesse and Ella (the only 17-year-old in Australia who lists Blondie as her fave rock star) be forced to curb their creativity to match the corporate construction they have become?

The great risk of over-corporatising the music industry is that it will stifle the talent that drives the whole operation. If all music becomes product, records become units, then inevitably music as a whole will be homogenised. Record companies will be increasingly reluctant to take a chance on a new act or style of music for fear of being unable to recoup their investment and we, the consumers, will be the great losers.