THE NON-COMMERCIAL IMPERATIVE: Triple J fans’ misguided uproar over a record company takeover

With so much cool and such passion for music, it’s little wonder Triple J listeners and Facebook subscribers to the station’s Hack program were today up in arms about Universal Music’s recently announced takeover of EMI.

J-fans are a funny mob, aren’t they? All at once, proponents of individualism and anti-capitalism, possessive of their ‘non-commercial’ status and fiercely loyal to the independent heritage of their favourite radio station. J-fans, like the station’s on-air announcers, are laid back in that too-cool-for-school kind of way that you always expect from chilled-out uni students, bohemians, the chronically unemployed-but-in-a-totally-cool-way and anyone else with a left-of-the-middle artistic, social or cultural bent. Both groups enjoy using terms like “dude”, “man” and “chill out”; newsreaders commence bulletins with “hey” or “hi there” as if they’re sitting opposite you, personally delivering a (very brief) summary of key world events; and the announcers all use the same J-chic terminology in their frequent discussions of the things they very frequently discuss – every album they talk about isn’t an album or a CD, it’s a “record”, as if their real jobs were as full-time recording artists and despite most of them being too young to even know what a vinyl record looks like; and a collective of just about anything must be described as a “bunch” – a bunch’a cool bands, a bunch’a cool tracks, a bunch’a people, a bunch’a very cool music festivals, a bunch’a records.

None of which is to say I dislike anything about Triple J. In fact it’s the only radio station I listen to these days, just as it was almost 20 years ago. But it hasn’t always been that way.

It was 1994 when I made the discovery – 102.1 on the FM band in Newcastle. It was the start of a heady five-year love affair. Immediately it was clear to me that Triple J was very much home to the “indie” crew – uni students, anyone whose wardrobe was entirely comprised of second-hand clothes and true lovers of music – but not just any music. It was all about the difference. It was indie, grunge and alternative, all the way. Just as they are today, being Australian, being almost (if not entirely) unknown and/or being unsigned were key ingredients for a band’s success with Triple J listeners. No Top 40 or classic Aussie rock here, then. In fact as far as I recall, there was very little pop or dance music and practically no R&B or hip-hop – at least, not if it was deemed ‘commercial’. I suspect the only definition a J-fan had for ‘commercial’ back then was if something made 2Day-FM’s playlist or sold in sufficient quantities to hit the Top 40. Sounds like a pretty flimsy and vague definition, but the result for Triple J in the mid-90s was a pretty watertight and definitive sound.

At the time of that first life-changing encounter with the Js, I was only 20. I’d already dropped out of Uni and had only recently left the ranks of the chronically unemployed. There was nothing cool about my wardrobe or where I lived. Up to that point I’d never voluntarily consumed a single mouthful of beer, much less enjoyed it. And I was more likely to be found sweating my Friday and Saturday nights away on a dance floor somewhere – or at home watching tele – than in a pub or at a live gig. Almost without exception, the only music I ever bought was throw-away pop schlock and the kind of dance music that was only ever popular in the UK and Europe. I used to have a theory that my interest in a piece of music was inversely proportional to the amount of meaning in its lyric or the number of real musical instruments used in its construction.

That first five years truly changed my life. So many songs and bands discovered during my initial stint as a Triple J listener have stayed with me to this day, still sounding as fresh and different as they did the first time I heard them, all of them so evocative of time and place. The wonderful Portishead and their 1994 début album Dummy with all its amazing sounds and two of my favourite songs of all time, Glory Box and Sour Times; French band Air and their seminal – and still sublime – 1998 début Moon Safari; the drum’n’ bass of Alex Reece’s Candles; without Triple J I’d never have discovered an awesome Melbourne band called Rebecca’s Empire and So Rude (the lead singer, Rebecca Barnard, even went against the Triple J grain in another way – while the majority of bands and artists on their playlist were relatively youthful, Ms Barnard was already 36 by the time Rebecca’s Empire was really noticed). The wonderful You’re Gorgeous by Babybird still makes me smile – even giggle a little – 16 years later. And the list goes on – The Fauves, Eels, Lewis Taylor, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Primitive Radio Gods, Olive, Republica, Beth Orton, Deadstar, Kinobe, St Germain, Moby. I’d potentially have none of this musical fabulousness in my life, if not for Triple J.

That first period of torrid infatuation with the Js was also when I discovered the brilliant Richard Kingsmill – surely the ABC’s in-house Glenn A. Baker. His The J Files program became compulsory listening of a Thursday night. In late 1997, just months out from Kylie Minogue releasing her brilliant Impossible Princess album – back when even she was being dubbed “indie” – Kingsmill devoted an entire J Files episode to Kylie’s career, previewing select tracks from the new album, as well as playing a handful of old favourites – old favourites, it must be said, that had likely never been anywhere near Triple J’s playlist before, nor have they been since. But even so, that was my first sign. Even in 1997 while the Js were still predominantly indie-flavoured, it wasn’t without the occasional dash of ‘commercial’.

I gave up on Triple J around 1999 – not for any particular reason, I just wasn’t listening to the radio as much. There was heaps of awesome ‘commercial’ pop and dance music around at the time and it was eating up most of my available listening time, not to mention much of my salary. In 2007 I started driving to work again, meaning two daily doses of drive-time radio. For almost three years I flitted about between Sydney’s overwhelming choice of FM stations, but was left feeling distinctly hollow by all of them. Generally this was because, regardless of a station’s genre or tagline – “sounds different”, “the best of the 80s, 90s and today”, “Sydney’s home of rock” or “Sydney’s #1 hit music station” – I’d end up hearing exactly the same bunch of songs hundreds of times a week. The tedious playlist repetition and the dizzying array of banal ex-comedian announcers, with their endless phone pranks and other cheap tricks, were inescapable! Eventually I decided I needed something betwixt and between, so I tried to force a rediscovery of Triple J on myself. I gave it a really good shot, but I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The sound of 1996 – “my Triple J” – was gone! Obviously I didn’t expect to hear 15-year-old music on Triple J, but it seemed the whole ethos of the Js had changed. Somehow – naïvely I suppose – despite the rest of the world (including the majority of Triple J’s youthful audience) having moved on by more than a decade by then, I guess I’d expected to find that the unique and eclectic Triple J style, its very point of difference, had remained firmly rooted in 1996. The human mind rejects what it does not understand. I didn’t understand this new Triple J, so I rejected it.

Skip to September 2012. I’m now older, wiser (sort of) and certainly a great deal more jaded than I was in 1994. About a year ago I also found myself wanting for more, musically. I gave the Js another go and it was like a revelation. Four years ago, I got it wrong. Plain and simple. It wasn’t the ethos of the Js that had changed – it’s still the same as ever. They still embrace new music with gusto – Australian bands, unknown or unsigned bands, interesting stuff from overseas that’d be unlikely to get airplay elsewhere. They still spend more time on the music, the musicians and the musical process than any other station – they’re truly staffed and listened to by music fans. The playlist still caters to fans – from the casual to the aficionado – of so many musical genres. In short, the sounds may be different but the reasons for playing them remain the same.

Which brings me back to Friday’s announcement of Universal Music’s takeover of EMI and today’s general up-in-arms response from some of the Triple J fan base. When the Facebook page of Sophie McNeill’s Hack program posed the question “Does it matter that one major record label will have so much power”, there was a flurry of responses to the effect that Triple J doesn’t play what’s on commercial radio anyway, so why should it even matter? Why, indeed? Possibly a valid question if the issue was with what’s played on commercial radio versus what’s played on Triple J. But the question was actually about how many big record labels exist and how much power they wield. If Triple J’s current Hit List wasn’t so liberally sprinkled with titles from the four major record companies – Universal, EMI, Warner and Sony – it’d probably be a moot point, with little relevance to the playlists, programmers or listeners of Triple J. In fact, of the 90 titles on this week’s list nearly 50 of them are distributed by one of the ‘big four’ or one of their subsidiary labels.

In the end, it’s probably still a moot point to the average J-fan. Based on much of today’s response, despite all their pretensions to anti-capitalism and support of the Occupy movement, many clearly don’t care where the music comes from, who controls its distribution or how much money the record company moguls make – just as long as they still get the music.

Misguided? Perhaps. Conflicted? Maybe. Disingenuous? Possibly just a tad. But it might also encapsulate the Triple J ethos perfectly – I don’t care where it comes from, as long as I still have the music.

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