When it comes to Australian music, there aren’t many who match the make-you-or-break-you power of Richard Kingsmill.
As music director at youth radio network triple j, “The King” sits in the driver’s seat of one of the few outlets with the mandate to uncover (or “unearth” in JJJ parlance) up-and-coming local artists.
It’s something the station prides itself on, but it also tends to get up people’s noses. There’s no shortage of knockers who say triple j, and by extension Kingsmill, wields too much power over the direction of the music industry.
The most hotly discussed new incarnation of this power has been its new digital radio station Unearthed, recently launched to solely play songs from independent and unsigned artists. Some critics say the station (along with the accompanying website where artists upload their songs in the hope of making the main station) amounts to a “monopolisation” of Australian music.
“At the end of the day what triple j are trying to do through the guise of Unearthed is to create a system whereby they can take ownership over emerging Australian musical talent,” a contributor at music site Polaroids of Androids wrote recently.
It’s a sledge the wiry and sandy-haired Kingsmill has heard before and is content to counter with the argument that triple j (they spell it in trendy lower case) is simply fulfilling its brief as part of the ABC.
“I think that, being proactive and setting up an unearthed digital station can only be a good thing,” he told freelance journalist Andrew McMillen. “If anyone’s got any complaints and arguments against it, or thinks that we’re in some ways trying to monopolise the Australian industry … you get damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
While Kingsmill’s role in what takes place at triple j is often shrouded in mythology (he couldn’t take part in this profile as he is currently on leave), it’s undoubted the station acts as one of Australian music’s key tastemakers and a battleground new bands need to conquer before winning commercial success.
According to ex-Nova program director Dan Bradley, from radio consultancy Kaizen Media, programmers at major radio stations hold significant influence over the success of new music. “And this is particularly so for Kingsmill given triple j’s enormous national footprint and the brand attributes of triple j as a trusted source for new music,” he tells The Power Index.
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Some also say Kingsmill has more “hard power” than anyone in the industry. He’s often portrayed as a kind of Roman emperor, casting an almighty thumbs up or thumbs down to the latest young band lucky enough to have their demo played by him. It’s a perception the long-time broadcaster loathes, regularly asserting to those who ask him about his power that what happens at triple j is a team effort.
“It is such a misconception to think this place isn’t a team of people,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I have said this time and time again, and if people still think that I sit there and basically call all the shots, they are wrong.”
Still, there is a belief that Kingsmill’s tastes provide the bedrock for what gets picked up and championed by triple j. Songs selected for high rotation are exposed to an audience which last year was quoted at more than 1.5 million across the five capital cities.
The station often competes for top billing as number one for 18-24-year-olds. And then there’s triple j’s regional reach, which is unrivalled by any of the commercial networks.
Just getting on the playlist can be the popularity boost to make a band, let alone being selected as one of its “featured” artists or to play at any number of triple j-backed gigs and festivals like Splendour In The Grass.
Some of the artists to have graduated from triple j airtime to wider popularity include Washington, Hilltop Hoods and Gotye. There are many others clamouring to be heard by Kingsmill in the hope they’ll be next.