Commercial radio has always been whinged about. In fact, I’m yet to hear anyone who raves about Commercial radio. Despite the emergence of spotify, iPod inputs in cars and digital music in general, what radio plays continues to translate to sales. And while sales nowadays also put pressure on radio to play high-selling tracks, if radio takes a chance on something, it usually means the public does also.
This week the radio airplay charts are a grim sight. The only Australian act that features is Justice Crew and they’re followed by international artists Nico & Vinz, Mr. Probz (Yeah, us either) and The Madden Brothers. The number one song, Nico & Vinz’s Am I Wrong was spun 898 times just this week. Compare those artists to any of the Best of 2014 lists doing the rounds and you’re likely to find no similarities.
It’s an age old question but why does radio seem so mundane? It comes down to the fact that it doesn’t like to take risks. Trend-wise it follows American radio playlists and, to some extent, British radio, meaning that it rarely gets to dictate what should be played in the way a station like the UK’s BBC Radio 1 can.
I spoke to the Music Editor at News Limited, Kathy McCabe last year who said, “Commercial radio in Australia is pretty much programmed mainly by what’s happening in America. A few British artists sneak through but it still tends to take its cue from whatever Ryan Seacrest is doing.” This hits the nail on the head. Australian radio is suffering from a lack of innovation as it is so far down the cultural food chain.
This may also be the reason that radio shies away from home-grown talent. 12 of the top 40 artists played on radio this week are Australian. While that may seem positive, this includes Iggy Azalea, Sia and Five Seconds of Summer who spend more time away from the country than in it at present. It’s also interesting to note, that all of them bar one (Sheppard) are signed to a major label.
McCabe told me “We still seem to have this bizarre cultural cringe in terms of the support of Australian music that should be far more fundamental particularly on the airwaves.” The cultural cringe is often what prevents Australian artists from reaching commercial radio. Iggy Azelea found it onto Australia radio but not until she was adopted in America with a record that has no Australian fingerprints on it, really.
It’s worthwhile to look at the fact that on the rare occasion a track that sounds less commercial crosses over it ends up doing pretty well. There’s a little song called Somebody That I Used To Know that shot Australian, Wally de Backer to the top of the charts in this country and then all around the world.
In 2007, Gotye won Best Male Artist at the ARIA Awards to a collective “who?” At the time his album had failed to make the top 20, while none of his singles had charted. Heart's A Mess was the album's first single, a song that has now featured on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Somebody I Used To Know wasn’t a record made for commercial radio but was one that was swiftly adopted when its video went viral. Without that video, one could speculate that the record never would’ve made it to commercial radio.
A few more examples of songs that have crossed over into the mainstream include Flume’s Holdin’ On, The Black Keys’ Lonely Boy and Lana Del Rey’s Video Games. The three of them sounded completely foreign on commercial radio but with each play a revolution was started. Flume is now the most sought-after electronic artist in the country, the Black Keys have been upgraded to an arena-band and Lana Del Rey has just debuted atop the ARIA charts with her sophomore record, Ultraviolence.
Turns out being different ain’t such a bad thing.
It’s easy to whinge but hard to come up with any solutions to commercial radio’s problems. So, below are a few artists that would find a comfy home on commercial radio while keeping their innovative edge, independent status and creative control.
22 year-old Megan McInerney has only released three tracks but already she’s carving a name for herself on Triple J, having already taken on the infamous Like A Version. Her tracks have a straight-forward simplicity to them with optimistic pop-hooks that would be delectable to commercial radio. If radio were to take a chance on a young Australian artists, my money would be on Mac.
An alternative to: Adele, Sara Bareilles
Most radio-ready track: Roll Up Your Sleeves
Why she’s not on radio: She’s a self-made artist who is neither flashy nor self-gratuitous. Had she been a winner of The Voice, her tracks would be eaten up by radio.
Let it be known that I have nothing against Lorde, but she didn’t exactly make it to the top from nowhere. At 13, she was signed to Universal Music Group which certainly helps with radio airplay. Segue from that to 18 year-old Kiwi artist, Thomston, who’s just released his debut EP Argonaut. His dark, pop tunes could be the perfect antidote to some of the over-thought music coming from male songwriters at the moment. It’s got the sort of electronic undertones that radio is devouring right now.
An alternative to: Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith
Most radio-ready track: Anaesthetic
Why he’s not on radio: Being a young, unsigned artists from New Zealand doesn’t really bode well for you on radio here.
Girl bands have had a resurgence of late but if you look at the radio charts you wouldn’t know. There isn’t one to be seen in the top 40. M.O. are three girls from London making ‘90s throwback R&B. It’s full of great pop hook, bouncin’ beats and perfect harmonies. Think TLC with a hint of Destiny’s Child.
An alternative to: Little Mix, Neon Jungle
Most radio-ready track: Dance On My Own
Why they’re not on radio: It’s beyond me. The ball is in Britain’s court. Once they catch on, Australia will follow.
This Nashville trio is slightly too enigmatic at this point to make it in the mainstream, but their songs suggest otherwise. With four tracks to their name so far, they’re showing a knack for velvety, synth-pop. It’s melodic enough to stick to radio and also has enough street cred to see it on Triple J’s playlists as well.
An alternative to: Nico & Vinz, Mr. Probz
Most radio-ready track: ILYSB
Why they’re not on radio: They’re far too mysterious right now. Radio doesn’t like that. It wants somebody who’s going to say “This is LANY and you’re listening to the hottest radio station on the planet”.
Liz is the First Lady of Diplo’s label Mad Decent and she’s producing damn fine, millennium RnB. She evokes nostalgia from the golden days of pop/RnB when Britney was queen and Xtina was the dirrrrtiest gal around. Touches of Ryan Hemsworth-esque electronica ensure that Liz sounds contemporary while having a throwback sound. It’s as if she was the sole survivor of the dreaded millennium bug.
An alternative to: Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj
Most radio-ready track: All Them Boys
Why she’s not on radio: She’s channeling an RnB sound that hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet. While the RnB revolution has flooded online blogs, Ariana Grande is perhaps the first artist to bring it to radio. Hold tight Liz-lovers.
Here's the full list of what we would play if we got to take over the radio for a day: