If you’ve ever been invited to the bar for some neck oil, chomped on sangers at lunch or shown where the dunny is, you’ve almost certainly engaged with an Australian. The current definition of an Australian stands as: ‘a native or inhabitant of Australia, or a person of Australian descent’ – but what the Oxford English Dictionary has forgotten to add is ‘someone who has a high chance of appreciating, consuming and attending gigs of an alternative nature.’ If you look at the Top 40 chart in AUS, of course you’ll find the Ed Sheerans and Charli XCXs of the world, but you don’t have to delve too far before you’re greeted with an array of alternative artists headlining festivals and being added to the playlists of many everyday folk from down under.
And why care? Well, because if you tune into radio, buy music mags, look on blogs or, indeed, use your ears for what they’re grown for, you’ll know and possibly love some of the artists from this part of the world. Australia has a ridiculously rich and colorful music scene with a wealth of genres and styles, characters and quirks to satisfy the most particular of music lovers. Alternative acts such as Jagwar Ma, Tame Impala, Flume and Courtney Barnett have become international stars in their own right: all four have made the front covers of music magazines and carried out headline tours in the UK alone. If you stop to think about it, an Australian artist hasn’t really gained recognition on an international platform for some time. Now we’ve got to a point where every contemporary music fan knows who Courtney Barnett is, sings every word to the Gotye’s famous track and can name at least one member of 5 Second Of Summer. As an English resident, I’ve found the past few years have opened the trapdoor on this Aussie secret and I’m curious to see what’s gone on.
Shall we have a little history lesson to get us up to speed? Since the arrival of British colonies in Australia, traditional Aboriginal styles of music have been heavily influenced by the ditties of Europe and the instruments they played. Country music has been a huge favorite, with one of Australia’s biggest selling artists, Slim Dusty, shifting over seven million albums of this style to date. Rock has also had its impact, beginning in the ’50s, feeding through the ’60s with the Beatles and into the ’70s, where mass appreciation of heavier guitar-based music led to the first music magazines being published, major recording studios set up and educational courses established. The ’00s saw another wave of passion for rock and similar genres, with names like Savage Garden, The Vines and Wolfmother emerging. Rock’s huge success led to national treasure Triple J, (then 2JJ), opening its doors as the first choice music radio station dedicated to alternative genres.
In addition to rock, Australia has seen its electro scene develop with key artists such as Empire Of The Sun catapulted around the world following the release of singles like “Walking On A Dream”. Rock sub-genres have blossomed across the country with pop punkers Tonight Alive, metalcore kings Parkway Drive and novelty folk rockers The Beards capturing the ears of a generation. R&B, dealing with a shaky start after many radio stations pulled tracks from the airwaves during the ’60s, has also had a significant impact on AUS music development alongside hip-hop. Many of the current top 50 albums and singles on the ARIA (Australia’s Official Music Chart) have roots in hip-hop, urban and R&B fields, even more so than the home of hip-hop, the United States. And speaking of Aussie superstars, is there anyone under the age of 30 who doesn’t know Iggy Azalea? She’s not South African as she emulates in her diction, but in fact, is straight out of Sydney.
Recent ARIA charts for both albums and singles list artists we’re all familiar with – Paloma Faith, Jessie J, George Ezra and Jack White, for example – but it’s outside of the top 10 that you’ll find the real passion Australians have for alternative and local music. It seems that there are two very distinctive and active sides to the country’s music scene, the first being the obvious commercial/big label artists whose songs worm their way into mainstream audiences’ ears. Many of these acts come from the machines of the UK and the USA music industry, with only a few native artists such as 5 Seconds Of Summer and Porter Robinson able to boast the same status. Secondly we have the indie artists, or as Rachel Cervonaro, a native of New South Wales now residing as a PR account manager in London, says, “Triple J-cultivated artists.” Triple J have a strong track record in taking emerging artists from the local scene, and pushing them to national stardom. Matt Corby, a finalist on Australian Idol back in 2007, was someone who initially faded after his appearance, but with support and interest from Triple J, became a 6x Platinum ARIA album seller.
There is relentless support for local musicians across Australia. This could be because the AUS music scene is so small or that consumers haven’t had the same exposure to blogs and websites that give access to an international selection of artists. For me, it’s a constant battle of searching blogs, checking alternative music playlists and monitoring BBC Introducing output to stay in tune with emerging British talent, but it’s not so hard for our commonwealth friends. Every Australia Day, a bank holiday for most of the working population, Triple J runs its Hottest 100 list which is a must listen. For many across the world, this is a reference point to keep check on what’s popular and who’s next in that scene, picking up on the passions of the everyday man, rather than the industry tastemakers. Looking through the listener voted list, you can see how different the music consumers of Australia are compared to other key national charts. With no Katy Perrys in sight, it’s a music lover’s playground featuring seven countries-worth of music.
Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
As part of the 43% majority of home grown talent, we see a huge range of contemporary artists that we haven’t met in other nations. These include San Cisco, Rufus and Dune Rats, who give every newcomer a refreshing aural introduction to an area that has previously gone ignored. By just browsing through this list when it was released on Australia Day 2014, I heard offerings to rival Macklemore, Biffy Clyro, The xx, Passenger and Ariana Grande. There’s a wealth of musicianship and new favorite songs just a click away for the modern music fan that will still evade the mass international scene. Triple J itself has been criticized by bands looking to gain national recognition, claiming it holds a monopoly on Australia’s alternative music scene, but considering the humongous task and responsibility that falls on the station to select the best of up-and-coming talent, the network is holding up much better than its international equivalents. The launch of sister station Triple J Unearthed, which focuses on very new and developing artists, acts as a feeder station to its larger sibling, and gets fresh artists radio play that reaches the entire country.
As we’ve seen in the ARIA charts across history, it only takes a few bands or artists to set a trend. The Beatles caused a huge influx of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s, Marvin Gaye and his soul crew monopolized the ’80s, Nirvana introduced the world to grunge, and, indeed, Seattle’s musical offerings in the ’90s, plus modern artists like Calvin Harris, Zedd and Avicii, have taken EDM sky high. In this instance, we find Australia joining in with the global affection for EDM with Stereosonic, (a touring festival stopping in Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne) acknowledged as the biggest EDM festival in the world and nearly 65,000 people attending the show in 2014. This trend is starting to weaken, however, with a return to live instrumentation and messy bands becoming more appealing than the shiny EDM outfit. The popularity of rock-infused artists from Sticky Fingers to DZ DEATHRAYS has supported this theory, with a glance at the Triple J overall charts showing 46 artists with indie, rock, metal or punk origins, many from their Unearthed radar.
Triple J Hit List – Source: ABC
With every new piece of music you hear, there’s a tendency to try to associate it with an existing artist so you can talk about them with others or simply figure out whether they’re for you. It’s not the same with picking out where they’re from. Some regions do have popular trademark sounds: American stadium rock, Swedish female-fronted pop and European EDM, but how does the Australian offering fare compared to this? It’s not quite the Cola challenge, but with just a little awareness and understanding of the AUS music scene, you can definitely pick out their contemporary artists from others around the globe.
One area of the industry that is swiftly gaining traction outside of its local area is the alt. guitar-based genres. Everything from garage rock to punk has its superstars in the waiting and all they need is just one artist to kick start the fire. Contenders include Kingswood, who combine a Caleb Followill tone with Black Keys anthemic rock ‘n’ roll, to Melbourne’s Big Scary, who offer stripped back, thoughtful folk indie. Despite the EDM names that are topping the leaderboard, with Flume and Porter Robinson becoming household names, it’s in this sector that I spot the most potential.
Take artists like DZ DEATHRAYS, who have already taken on the Death From Above 1979 fan base and initially caught the industry’s eye with “The Mess U” (check out the video – they down a whole bottle of JD in the duration of the song!) Their songs started appearing on radio stations, blogs and even a car advert, and before they knew it, they were being invited to play across the world. A few years later, with the release of their second album Black Rat, the services of their mental thrash punk riffs are required again as the thirst for Australian garage rock becomes more apparent. Grunge heroes Violent Soho, who I’m told packed out Splendour’s main stage in the middle of the day and attracted as many revelers as headliners Outkast, have time again proved they can write an absolute tune; ones I argue could rival ”Smells Like Teen Sprit” given the right platform.
As discussed, there’s a strong movement of dance DJs emanating from the New South Wales region, with Flume leading the way. Emerging talent from the likes of Wave Racer and Slumberjack take their own spin on the style, but the basic building blocks are the same. If you look at the international dance scene, there are certain geographical areas that seem to become outlets for a specific style. Prominent examples include Swedish house hits, American’s bass beats and the British ‘I make Number 1 anthems’ DJs like Calvin Harris and DJ Fresh. Within this jigsaw, the AUS scene has something very distinctive to offer in terms of style, but the risk here lies with saturation both nationally and internationally of this signature sound.
Like the rest of the globe, dance music has infiltrated into genres that aren’t traditionally associated with DJs (think Coldplay’s “Sky Full Of Stars” using a house piano melody), but this isn’t as prominent and much less of a trademark sound down under. Take RÜFÜS, a collective from Sydney, who have captured the ears of the nation with their indie dance beats. ‘Tropical indie’ is a simple tag used to describe their sound, but they wouldn’t be completely misplaced in a line with Secondcity, Disclosure or Route 94; all dance artists. At times they showcase a flavor of what I imagine Friendly Fires might sound like today, but as a general example, RÜFÜS are one of many hybrid genre artists who have taken a more subtle approach to having a dance + [insert style here]. Perhaps it’s a regional thing, but it seems like the Northern Hemisphere is all about house music at the moment, leaving less thoroughbred styles lapping at the sidelines. A possible explanation is that young bands like RÜFÜS, who chart so well in AUS, have failed to make an impact overseas.
One thing that does unite western music lovers is the need for solid, well produced indie rock hits. Looking at successes like Jake Bugg through to Half Moon Run, there are similar offerings across AUS that satisfy these fan bases. For fans of Dallas Green, you have Dustin Tebbutt, with stripped back, folk-infused strumming. Those with a passion for ’00s Brit indie can enjoy the likes of Raging Serfs. For sing-a-long Franz Ferdinand hooks or more modern interpretations of indie rock like Dan Croll or Grouplove, you have the John Butler Trio with their tropical, upbeat melodies. While these artists are in their own right fantastic, notching up radio plays and downloads at home, there still needs to be an initial pull to attract the international audience. I feel that in this genre there are perhaps too many similarities between those on offer internationally, allowing only a few headline acts through on a global scale. As yet, only Tame Impala can hold this crown for AUS with their infectious psych-indie rock that has resonated so well with a new generation.
Speaking of like-for-like artistic styles, I’ve discovered hip-hop and R&B have their respective counterparts in the AUS. Macklemore have found their equivalent in Illy and Thundamentals, who combine message fuelled MC verses with sung or sampled melodic choruses. Clocking up nearly 700,000 views on YouTube, Thundamentals’ recent hit “Smiles Don’t Lie” gives you a glimpse of this group’s potential outside of its island of origin. Despite this, very few people have heard of them in London city. Why? Perhaps until recently the music industry hasn’t had the faith or investment allocated to push AUS artists further afield. But perhaps with the help of hit makers like Gotye, this will change. With services like Shazam indicating what will be the next big hit in Australia, maybe it’s time for the music industry and music fans alike to pay attention rather than click straight through to the UK / US offerings. We all know which handful of artists will be on those charts and surely it’s more interesting to open our ears to the hit singles and albums that you won’t find so readily available on pop stations and MTV?
Shazam AUS top 100 – Source: Shazam
Ultimately, however you analyse, compare, contrast - and other buzz words associated with your English exam papers – Australia doesn’t just mirror the biggest acts on the planet. It creates its own bespoke take on genres, taking elements of the global music scene and adding its own flavor and insight at every step. Whatever style takes your fancy, you can find examples of it in Australia, from head-turning electro indie artist Thief, who won the hearts of many industry bods and fans alike at this year’s The Great Escape festival, to 5 Seconds Of Summer, who have honed that McBusted appeal of pop boys with piercings and taken on the One Direction lovers. In essence, they just seem to do things a little differently over there. Is there something in the water? Or are they just wired up differently to us?
When speaking with Simon Ridley, the drummer from DZ DEATHRAYS, he commented on the attitude to music in his home town and how it’s created a melting pot of genres that contribute to AUS’s musical uniqueness: “Brisbane’s got such a friendly music scene. Loads of my friends are in pop bands and they come and check us out, and vice versa.” Perhaps this willingness to support local music and not remain segregated from other genre tribes has led to this explosion of fresh and unique musical styles in Australia. Liz Drummond, part of Sydney-based indie folk unit Little May, believes the secret to Australia’s success is due to the creative freedom the country’s artists enjoy. “Perhaps it’s because there is so much diversity in the Australian music scene, maybe it’s being such an isolated country geographically that keeps us focused on what we’re creating rather than constantly peering over the fence at our neighbors to see what they’re up to. The sheer quality and range of a lot of Australian music is very infectious and inspiring at the moment.”
With all the quality music available in Australia at the moment, the next twelve months will be an interesting period for watching the music industry. Will there be more Gotyes, 5 SOSs and Tame Impalas to fuel the fire or will the hype die down on this flourishing scene? As Paddy Cornwall, bassist from rock reggae hybrid band Sticky Fingers, says, “There’s a new generation of already cult status bands on the rise”, and with the advent of blogs, YouTube and internet access allowing millions of fans to dismiss location as a barrier, it’s a great position to start in. The only thing that I think could hinder the Australian market becoming as influential as America or the UK is its quirky taste in music. By looking at the current Shazam chart, you can guarantee the pop crowd are checking up on what the next One Direction or Lady Gaga song will be, but alongside these big names are artists like Meghan Trainor with her pop doo-wop hit “All About That Bass” and electro reggae indie track “I’m Ready” by AJR.
Being distinctive has always been something that makes the Australian scene stand out from the crowd with fantastic artists and offerings, but often leaves it standing alone in terms of tastes and trends. Whereas artists like Flume are lucky enough to be backed by a record label to fly them around the world and support their elaborate touring, many lower level bands have to make hard choices about their careers. They must stay internal (to save money and concentrate on gaining a strong following with their passionate native fans) or get drawn into massive debt playing around the world for a few pounds a night. In a modern digital era and with the onset of more ‘scenester’ audiences using blogs to find their next ‘most played’, I hope the nation’s alternative scene becomes more than just a musical gem hiding in plain sight. With the increase in live bands returning to the forefront, I feel that a new generation of musicians will come forward, leading to an explosion of Australian talent in the music industry.
As the passionate AUS music fan who has created this article and spoken to music bods around the world to give you a taste, I believe these artists deserve to be embraced by the music industry and funded to bring their music (and their tours) to our shores. Even if these future legends only come to life on our music blogs, online streams and twitter feeds, it’ll still be the beginning of a vibrant and exciting ride that anyone who uses the internet [tick box if you do] will come to love.
The next few acts have been selected as ‘Ones To Watch for 2014’ by key names in the Australian music scene. Hand picked by those who live and breathe music, who hear those first demos and work in the industry with big national names, these artists may end up being your next favourite artist or creating your most played track on Spotify.
Rachel Cervonaro, account manager at Lander PR / native to New South Wales, recommends The Griswolds.
“The Griswolds have a fantastic pop single out now – I’m shocked it hasn’t been picked up here.”
Liz Drummond from Little May recommends D D Dumbo:
Simon Ridley from DZ DEATHRAYS recommends Palms:
“These guys are so good, I don’t know why those guys aren’t bigger than they are, I mean they can write crazy choruses…”
Elise Cobain, Artist Discovery Editor at Unrecorded, recommends Willow Beats:
Lachlan West, keyboard /percussion in The Griswolds, recommends Elizabeth Rose:
“She’s really talented. She writes a lot of songs with other people and she’s beautiful and great to watch onstage.”
Melissa Scheinberg, New Music Editor at Unrecorded / previous Sony Music AUS intern, recommends Wave Racer:
James Limon, Digital Music Manager at ABC, recommends DMAs:
“These guys are bringing back ’90s garage rock. With a huge local buzz these guys are destined for huge things.”
Paddy Fingers, bassist in Sticky Fingers, recommends Violent Soho:
“(They) have become one of the country’s biggers rock ‘n’ roll acts. Doesn’t happen nearly enough and here’s a band that have been going hard for ten years.”
Hugh McClure of Good Manners Music recommends Klo:
The stations to add to your favorites stream:
Triple J Unearthed
The blogs to check out:
Polaroids of Androids
Mess and Noise