In Defence of Triple J: Gender, Indie and the Burden of Cultural Inheritance

From an interview at Tsunami Magazine with Richard Kingsmill:

Well, just because something is being played everywhere else on mainstream radio, does that mean that it doesn’t deserve a place on Triple J? Deserve the airtime?

Well, we’ve got a brief; we’ve got a charter that says that we should provide young Australia an alternative to what they’re getting elsewhere, to a certain degree. That’s a big part of our charter – that we don’t just mimic what is already out there in the marketplace. Mind you, it’d be good if commercial stations that get new licenses could also abide by that…but that’s another conversation point.
Coming back to those artists that are being played on commercial stations elsewhere: Kanye West, Lily Allen, Ladyhawke, Cut Copy, the Presets…all of those acts were started by Triple J. All of those acts got their first airplay on Triple J. All of those acts have had absolute consistent airplay on Triple J – every one of their songs have hit the mark, and we’ve played every single album they’ve put out, or tracks thereof. Now, with the Sneaky Sound System stuff, we didn’t support them in the beginning. We felt like that band was going to go somewhere else. That band was designed for commercial radio. There was no need for us to go there.
So anyone that criticises us for not playing them – just because they’re Australian, just because they’re independent: fuck you.

Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time has been criticised by various people for the lack of female vocalists. My friend Mel Campbell writing for the awesomely titled The Enthusiast described it as an embarrassing shortcoming. Mel argues that there is a “danger […] that people use these lists to create an imaginary musical landscape that subtly omits the contributions of women.” And extends this critique to isolate a further “danger […] that radio music directors can look at these lists and think, ‘Clearly people don’t want to hear songs by women.'” Mel then analyses the distribution of female workers across the main organisational structure of the expanded Triple J enterprise, which includes radio, magazine, television, but curiously no web? The organisational structure of a given istitution that serves as part of a scenes infrastructure is important. Various popular culture and music scholars have highlighted the importance of various kinds of businesses in the consiution and robust survival of a given scene.

I want to draw a connection between the critique of the most recent Hottest 100, mostly from the Left, and the more common critique of Triple J, mostly from the Right, that argues that Triple J is ‘out of touch’ with youth. I thought someone needed to defend Triple J. Firstly, the critique of the gendered nature of the Hottest 100 of All Time is problematic, not because it is wrong, but because I so far haven’t read anything that goes far enough. The Hottest 100 of All Time is merely symptomatic, the structural conditions of the social milieau to which Triple J mostly belongs needs to be critiqued. Secondly, the naysayers who argue that falling listener share in the radio ratings is evidence of a failure of Triple J and key Triple J personel is essentially flawed. I don’t think the people that make such criticisms are stupid, they just have accounted for the shifting terrain of the media landscape and how young people use various mediums to get their media.

Considering I cracked 30 earlier this year, I can’t be considered youth anymore or even young adult. Kate Crawford’s book Adult Themes explored the problematic location of people like me that haven’t yet assumed the specific roles associated with being ‘adult’ and yet retain tastes and cultural practices that are more ‘youth’ than ‘adult’. It means that I am writing about Triple J not as part of their target audience, but from somewhere on the periphery. I grew up listening to the Jay’s, my listening practices began just after they became a national radio network. I can distinctly remember laughing with my brother as the old Triple J announcer/personality and ‘resident dag’ Maynard Crabbes offered commentary while Pseudo Echo’s Funky Town played: “Guitar solo! weeeEEEheeEE” “Synth solo! waaAAAhaaaAA”

I spent many nights of my youth with the radio on as I drifted off to sleep. It was my connection to a world bigger than the comfortable and loving surrounds of the familial home and mainstream tastes of my mates that I with which I grew up. It was an opening on a world that I had little idea about. At this particular point in time, Triple J was almost solely a radio station charged with the responsibility of providing an alternative to the commercial radio stations. Various youth subcultures were given ‘air time’ and the more generalist shows played music that was at the time literally ‘alternative’ to the other radio stations and often produced by ‘independent’ record labels.

The alternative music generes were almost always collapsed into ‘alternative rock’. ‘Indie’ music hadn’t yet become a genre and actually referred to the structural conditions of music production. Now ‘indie’ is a genre, as is ‘alternative’. The structural conditions of the production of music has largely been elided as the big labels realised they could buy or create boutique labels in house for the purposes of capturing a slice of the various indie/alternative niche markets. This quasi-Marxist critique of the relation between Triple J and the music scene needs to be revisited in light of the Unearthed competition, created largely in response of the Indie-fication of the mainstream.

As Will Straw and other popular music scholars have argued there has long been a gendered binary within popular music between a feminised ‘pop’ and a masculine ‘rock’. The ‘games of distinction’ belonging to rock that valorised masculine cultural qualities of music, such as toughness, loudness, frankness, etc. were mapped on to the genre of indie/alternative as signifiers of the separation from the feminised ‘pop’ mainstream. (This argument is not entirely accurate the ‘mainstream’ side of the genedered binary had the big hair/cock rock bands of the 1980s and early 1990s.)

If we follow the post-structuralist feminsts in their separation of gender and biological sex in the production and distribution of difference throughout cultural formations, then the problem with the Hottest 100 becomes slightly different. The Hottest 100 of All Time is explicitly sexist due to the lack of female vocalists and preponderance of all-male ensembles. It would seem that Triple J remains properly configured around the sexist binary that defines appreciation of indie/alternative popular music. But if the question is posed in terms of gender and non-hegemonic masculinities, then the critique of the sexist character of the Hottest 100 of All Time loses some of its sting. A simple perusal of the list will demonstrate what I am getting at.

The other potentially more damning critique is that Triple J is ‘out of touch’ with its target audience of youth. Ratings figures are mobilised to demonstrate Triple J’s falling share of the radio listener pie (hmmm, tasty!). Radio listeners? How much of the Triple J enterprise is focus on the radio? If the Jay’s have lost some of the percentage share of the radio listeners in their target markets, then this is good thing. Listener numbers have been dropping for years, which is why ethically bankrupt people are on mainstream radio to try to grab attention anyway they can.

Triple J should be understood as a brilliant example of an old media model adapting to the new media landscape. I have often listened to podcasts, particularly of the nightly current affairs show, Hack. They have expanded into television with Triple J TV. Are the ‘ratings’ for these other media ‘channels’ taken into account when Triple is critiqued rather simplisitcally in terms of raw radio listener numbers? Nope. The other radio stations are dying slowly and fucking painfully for the rest of us mildly-sane people. The expansion of the Triple J brand into cross-media opportunities afforded by ‘new media’ is a very interesting model for the rest of us who may work in an old media industry who has yet to grasp the distributed character of brand management. The biggest success story is Triple J’s Unearthed competition. It largely uses popular music radio’s ‘old media’ function to valorise some music over others through exposure connected with the ‘new media’ function of connectivity. One of my students from a few years ago was in a band that won the NSW section of the competition and I witnessed exactly what happened in terms of exposure and new opportunities.

The contemporary Triple J has a strong and resonant identity across Australia, if not the world. Triple J is an icon of popular music and youth culture. It has inherited a cultural values and practices that emerged when a radio station was merely a radio station. There is a burden of cultural inheritance that has stumped many a canny media operator, my own experience is in the magazine industry certainly supports the thesis that many managers don’t really know what to do, even yet, after 10-15 years of the net. Triple J is not just a radio station, yet it has reinvigorated the best elements of the function of a radio station in different ways across a number of media channels.

6 replies on “In Defence of Triple J: Gender, Indie and the Burden of Cultural Inheritance”

  1. Great piece, glen.

    I’ve been planning for a while now to write a piece on Triple J and the questions of listening and listenerships (will hopefully get to it sometime early next year), looking at radio generally (and Triple J in particular) as a mechanism for distributing specific capacities for listening, hence at the technological underpinnings to listening practices (or listening formations, if you like), etc. And one of the things that interests me about these formations is the aesthetico-political (or aesthetico-ethical) coupling in or of such practices.

    Like you, I have in mind the fact of Triple J’s ‘multi-media’ structure (but also its programming structure and playlisting regularities) and how this sits with the competing policy rhetorics used to account for Triple J’s mandate (e.g. “alternative”, “youth”). And I also thought that the recent H100 OAT could serve as a useful case study, though my thoughts have traveled more in the direction of the way the poll resonated with (conservative) logics both of aesthetics (i.e. timelessness, etc.) and politics (i.e. democracy as popular vote).

    Most ‘informal’ reactions to the poll (see the forums) but also the bulk of the ‘official’ responses (e.g. from the punditariat and from the network representatives themselves) have tried to reduce this complex multiplicity to a simple oppositional structure in order either to criticise or to defend Triple J in the wake of the poll results.

    Personally, even before the poll I did not have very high expectations, and I knew that the poll was going to disappoint even those low expectations the moment I heard Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ in the mix. I also can’t help but feel that many of the face of Triple J feel a little embarrassed by the poll (possibly for the lack of women, but also for the very ‘un-Triple J’ look of the list), seeing as there’s been very little in the way of follow-up publicity on their part — a couple of days’ announcements that SLTS had taken No.1, and then nothing.

  2. I offer but a provocation, Glen, seeing as you have certainly defended Triple J on certain fronts but not others, and that is: should a public (youth) radio station act as if it were a record label?

    e.g. – “My Deliruim – I mean, we’ve played seven tracks off that record”
    or – ”We do review things on a song-by-song basis, but we’ve also got core artists and people that we want to support.”

  3. I am not sure Lawson, it depends on whether you believe radio stations don’t already act as part of the recording industry as proxies for record label companies’ marketing and distribution departments?

    The question should be of the relation between Triple J’s function to valorise certain musical talents over others through exposure being in synergy with the recently intensified commercial imperatives of the ABC. (‘Public’ doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did even in the early 1990s.)

    The production of taste hierarchies is part of the work of the cultural industry, be they public or explicitly commercial in scope. I think this is not a good or bad thing, but instrinsic to the (sub)culture.

    The commercial imperatives of the ABC with its ABC Shop income stream has affected the way Triple J operates. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Triple J has the strongest brand identity in the ABC and the greatest potential for marketplace capitalisation.

    If the record label part of the now-expanded, cross-media Triple J serves to valorise certain musical talents over others (as per their charter) then I think this is a good thing. If the record label part is purely in the interests of the fucking brand managers in the service economy ABC, producing Triple J branded shit for no apparent reason other than earning coinm, then they can shove it. The Hottest 100 of All Time was clearly an exercise in the second kind of organisational relation to the popular music market.

  4. Fair points; I certainly agree that radio stations of all stripes are a nexus in record companies’ promotion strategies, but that’s almost a moot point. If Triple J is to assume – perhaps even embrace – this marketing function, then why the fuck market only a handful of ‘core’ bands, many of which are not even Australian? And Ladyhawke, does she really fucking need another station to market her? Hasn’t she been blogged to the nines already? Why not more evenly market a diverse majority of bands? For as much as I love pop(ular culture) and will defend it to the death, I still believe certain spaces should be reserved for alternatives. This, in fact, is JJJ’s charter, no?

  5. Lawson, you’ve collapsed the separation I made between the valorising function of the broader cross-media Triple J and the marketing function of the pay-its-own-way ‘public’ Triple J as the type of situation you’ve raised above. (I don’t know who ladyhawke is!) I wasn’t merely talking about marketing but a number of different ways of monetizing Triple J’s institutional status. A rough breakdown of what i was talking about can be represented thus:

    1) Do we want a Triple J that is ‘out of touch’ with most of the youth, so it can focus on a certain subcultures or emergent sounds? This triple j won’t necessarily be able to ‘pay its own way’.

    2) Do we want a Triple J that is less ‘out of touch’ with most youth, and only partially focus on subcultures/emergent sounds? this triple J may be able to pay its own way

    3) Do we want a Tirple J that is basically a copy of the mainstream ‘out of touch with various subcultures and emergent sounds, but can pay its own way and probably turn a decent profit?

    I am not sure what else to say? If you have an issue with music selection, ie what is valorised and exposed over others (what i think you call the marketing function), then this is up to the music programmers. I am talking about the structural position of Triple J in relation to various mediums and the shifting (declining) funding arrangements with government.

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