Last week the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) announced it had registered a new code which would exempt digital commercial radio stations from local music quotas for three years.
Pulling the levers on this decision was Commercial Radio Australia (CRA). CRA put forward the new code to ACMA in spite of the concerns of music industry bodies that the process leading to the code’s registration had not been transparent nor consultative enough (claims refuted by CRA).
In the media release announcing ACMA’s decision to register the code, Chairman Chris Chapman cited the new code as an opportunity for broadcasters to “experiment with programming formats”. The examples given as evidence of this were the already-deployed digital channels used to promote American pop artists Pink and Lady GaGa.
CRA’s ubiquitous chief executive Joan Warner claimed the encouragement of “diversity” as an argument for nullifying the local quota.
Warner and Chapman should go halves in a thesaurus. Warner in particular seems to be confusing her synonyms with her antonyms.
These early days of digital radio are a critical proof-of-concept period. Any decisions taken now regarding composition of content will be much harder to shake in three years (when the code is up for review), when increased international dominance will have bedded in with audiences. Not to mention, when it comes to CRA’s core interest, with those powerful advertisers.
No music community benefits from being self-reflective for the sake of it. And certainly establishing quotas is a very different beast to enforcing quality — or even new — programming.
Nonetheless it remains important to support Australian content in terms of both the health of the local industry and the encouragement of local cultural creation.
In the domestic ecosystem, the flow-on effect of excluding Australian artists from the digital pie appears to have been either ignored or ill-considered in killing the quota. Less radio airplay for big local artists (the sort you hear on commercial radio) means less record sales and less big tours, which means less support slots, less exposure for growing artists, less income for the domestic divisions of labels, less merchandise, less beer sold at venues, less work for local booking agents and managers, and so on.
Symbolically what the ACMA registration suggests to artists is that Australian music – Australian stories – are neither worthy nor sticky enough to be depended upon to transition the industry into a new technological phase.
This must seem like a sort of déjà vu to the artists who were cut from local rosters when the arse started to fall out of their labels’ bottom lines; labels which chose to ignore that other recent technology game changer, file-sharing, and then, when it was already too late, opted to waste resource and more time pursuing obstruction and litigation, rather than working progressively with the new technology at hand.
Of course it will be up to individual broadcasters to decide to what extent they support Australian music across their portion of the digital spectrum. The landscape ought to look markedly different in the public and community sectors. (The ABC’s triple j, for example, has already run a month-long special event station as an extension of its Unearthed offering, dedicated to playing new and undiscovered Australian music .)
But only one of the ten most played songs on commercial radio in 2009 was by a local artist. If ACMA and CRA are intent on further ghettoising local content, they should at least have the decency to call the decision what it is: a move squarely aimed at marketing and cultural reductivism. There’s nothing experimental or diverse about it.