Nova 106.9fm: The Saviours of Australian Independent Music?

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If you’ve been following any of the posts about awards ceremonies on Collapse Board in recent days you will have read about the AIR (Australian Independent Record) Labels Association Awards’ media partnership/sponsorship/”brand alignment” with Nova, a commercial radio station.

As was also posted in one of the Collapse Board posts on the matter, there’s also been some thorough, passionate and entertaining discussion on a number of other websites, as a collective eyebrow has been raised at an independent record label organisation teaming up with a commercial entity whose business model is not best known for its support of the independent music scene. For more discussion see:

The controversy resulted in AIR’s General Manager, Nick O’Byrne formally responding to some of the online criticism on Mess+Noise, including directly addressing the partnership with Nova:

AIR is an organisation dedicated to representing and promoting the business interests of our members; we are trying to open up pathways for artists and labels to sell more records. Our “brand alignment”with Nova is not about recognising their contribution to independent music in the past, it’s about fostering a better working relationship in the future. Like it or not, mainstream commercial radio has more selling power than any other medium. A relationship like this one is the starting point for increased Australian Independent music on our airwaves.

Of course he’s entirely correct to say that mainstream commercial radio has more selling power than any other medium. The Nielsen Radio Rating Statistics always show commercial radio out front and in all the metropolitan centres Nova’s ratings are 25 – 45% higher (depending on the city) than those for Triple J – and yet whenever you go to a conference like Brisbane’s Big Sound or the recent Sound Summit event in Newcastle, the question on everyone in a band’s lips is the perennially depressing “But how do I get played on Triple J?”

But while AIR and O’Byrne have had to justify why they’ve teamed up with Nova for their awards ceremony, the response seems incredibly naive. Commercial radio is the same wherever you are: its playlist is severely restricted, especially so in regards to adding new songs to their current playlist, and they don’t “break” bands. Their job is to sell adverts and the inconvenient bits between adverts that they have to play to keep the audience interested (i.e. the music) is music of the lowest common denominator. It has to be for them to survive in a commercial environment.

But O’Byrne does say it’s about the future and not the past, and once again he’s probably correct. But is he right to be so optimistic or are AIR just kidding themselves that a commercial radio station will become more open to songs not coming from the big four labels (Universal, Sony, Warners and EMI)?

In order to check this out, I took one for the team and spent the day listening to Nova 106.9 fm to check out the current situation and to see if there’s any change in the air(waves) or if it’s just the usual diet of major label pap and dross that you would expect from a commercial radio station.

Here’s what happened.

  • I listened to Nova 106.9 fm from 9am to 6pm yesterday (Thursday 7 October 2010).
  • During that time I listened to 110 songs (I did miss a couple when I had to take a phone call but I don’t think it would have dramatically altered the results).
  • Those 110 songs were performed by a total of 72 artists.
  • The most played bands were Little Red and John Butler Trio (with four songs each).
  • Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, Birds of Tokyo, Taio Cruz, Bliss N Eso, Muse, Duck Sauce, Pendulum, Eminem and Powderfinger were all played three times.
  • The most played song was Barbara Streisand by Duck Sauce (the the DJ super-duo of A-Trak and Armand Van Helden), played three times in the nine hours.
  • In terms of nationality of the artists played, American acts were the most played (48 plays, 43.64% of the day’s total) with Australia coming second (36 plays, 32.73%).  The full breakdown is in the following table.
Nationality Total Percentage
USA 48 43.64%
Australian 36 32.73%
UK 23 20.91%
Canada 1 0.91%
Italy 1 0.91%
France 1 0.91%
Grand Total 110 100.00%

The big question is one of labels and how much chance have you got if you’re not either on a major label, or having the undeniable advantage of being distributed by one. It’s amazing how complicated this got, given all the different imprint, subsidiaries and issues with different territories, and in some cases it was hard to work out who was really pulling the strings. Some labels that I expected to be indies are published in Australia by majors (i.e. Domino) so in those instances I’ve assumed them to be major labels. I think we got there in the end but no doubt some commentators will come and post under the veil of internet anonymity, the scourge of the 21st century, to tell me I’m wrong. Either that or they’ll just tell me to go and have a wank.

Going back to the 110 songs played between 9am and 6pm, the Big Four completely dominated, as you’d expect from a commercial radio’s playlist, 85 out of 110 songs played, 77.27% of the total, pretty much in line with the unwritten theory that four companies are responsible for 80% of the music that the average person on the street hears.

Label Total Percentage
Universal 30 27.27%
Warner 22 20.00%
EMI 18 16.36%
Sony 15 13.64%
Total 85 77.27%

So what about the remaining 25 songs played during the day? Have you got much of a chance of getting a song played if you’re on an independent label? Or are you only going to get played if you have some major involvement in getting your songs out there?  In terms of the labels it looks like this.

Label Total Percentage
Liberation Music 8 7.27%
Jarrah Records 4 3.64%
Modular 4 3.64%
Fool’s Gold Records 3 2.73%
Independent 1 0.91%
DFA 1 0.91%
Normal People Making Hits/Boomtown Records 1 0.91%
Dew Process 1 0.91%
Stop Start 1 0.91%
Vicious 1 0.91%
Total 25 22.73%
  • First things first, Modular are 50% owned by the world’s largest major record label, Universal. So they’re out.
  • Liberation, the most played of the “independent” labels is distributed by Universal (as pointed out by The Vine’s story about the AIR Awards).
  • Fool’s Gold Records (the label responsible for Duck Sauce’s Barbara Streisand) is also distributed by Universal.
  • As is Dew Process (Mumford & Sons).
  • As is Vicious (Potbelleez).
  • Stop Start (Old Man River) is distributed through EMI.
  • As is DFA (LCD Soundsystem).

When you take those away you’re left with six songs played from three labels, who, are far as I can tell, can no involvement with the major labels in any shape or form: Jarrah Records, the home of the John Butler Trio, Normal People Making Hits/Boomtown Records, Philadelphia Grand Jury’s label and the only self-released, independent song played on Nova today, Art vs Science’s Parlez Vous Francais?

AIR would probably point to the fact that there are independent acts on Nova, even ones that don’t have any connections with the majors, and they’d be right. It’s a tiny percentage but it’s still there, although if you take John Butler as a bit of an exception, that tiny percentage becomes even smaller. Is it going to change in the future and grow to a larger proportion? AIR seem to expect it to; I can’t see it myself, or at least I can’t see it being anyone that hasn’t got a very polished, commercial radio sound, a very narrrow sound and musical style, and hasn’t already had the benefit of being heavily supported by commercial radio’s feeder station, Triple J.

A single day’s listening (and only part of the day at that) is a very small sample, possibly not very representative, although a lot of what was played was exactly what you would have expected to hear on a commercial radio station and towards the end of the day, songs that had been played earlier in the day were being repeated. Nick O’Byrne has said it’s about the future and this is just a small snapshot of the current situation. Maybe this time next year Nova’s playlist will have an entirely different look; If I’m having to listen to another day of Nova in a year’s time to write an update to this post I sorely hope it is.

A couple of final observations.

  • For someone who doesn’t listen to commercial radio, the amount of music played was surprising. There were constant remainders throughout the day about how many songs in a row were about to be played before any adverts were broadcast, and for much of the day it was 10 or 11 songs before an advert was played. At the same time, DJ input throughout was minimal.  This meant that for most of the day they were playing between 12 and 15 songs an hour, with this only decreasing after 4pm when the more Zoo format drivetime show started. I would say that they played a lot more music than you would hear on Triple J.
  • Drivetime, as you’d expect, was terrible. The funniest bit was when they played John Butler, mentioned his recent winning of an AIR award and then had a discussion about what an AIR award actually was and what AIR stood for. The AIR/Nova partnership is obviously a worthwhile venture for Nova too…
  • If you take away all the R’n’B, Pop, Nu Metal and Emo, the rest of the songs and acts played isn’t a lot different from what you hear on Triple J. But maybe that says more about Triple J’s move to being a pseudo-commercial radio station than it does about Nova opening its playlist up to anything that’s not major label affiliated.

If you really want to know, this is what I had to listen to during the day:

Little Red – Rock It
Kelly Rowland – Forever And A Day
Powderfinger – All Of The Dreamers
Ou Est Le Swimming Pool – Jackson’s Last Stand
Bloody Beetroots – Awesome
Gyroscope – What Do I Know About Pain?
Eminem – Love the Way You Lie
Birds Of Tokyo – The Saddest Thing I Know
Old Man River – Norway (I Like It Like This)
The Presets – My people
B.O.B – Magic
Tinie Tempah – Written In The Stars
Mark Ronson – Bang Bang Bang
Coldplay – Clocks
Usher – Oh My Gosh
Mark Sholtez – Mystery Of You
Cobra Starship – Good Girls Go Bad
My Chemical Romance – Na Na Na
Duck Sauce – Barbara Streisand
John Butler Trio – Better Than
BoB – Airplanes
Florence And The Machine – Hurricane Drunk
Muse – Starlight
Kings Of Leon – Radioactive
Bruno Mars – Just The Way You Are
Franz Ferdinand – No You Girls
Pendulum – The Island
Katy Perry – Teenage Dream
Arctic Monkeys – Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor
Taio Cruz – Break Your Heart
Little Red – Slow Motion
Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
30 Seconds to Mars – Closer to The Edge
Chromeo – Don’t Turn The Lights On
Art vs Science – Parlez Vous Francais?
Bliss N Eso – Addicted
Boy In A Box – Moon Comes Up
Flo Rida ft. David Guetta – Club Can’t Handle Me
Lily Allen – Back To The Start
Birds Of Tokyo – Plans
Potbelleez – Hello
Mumford and Sons – The Cave
Eminem – No Love
Linkin Park – Breaking The Habit
Pink – Raise Your Glass
Good Charlotte – Like It’s Her Birthday
Hilltop Hoods – Nosebleed Section
Rihanna – Only Girl
Muse – Could Be Wrong
Mike Posner – Cooler Than Me
John Butler Trio – Don’t Want To See Your Face
Justin Timberlake – What Goes Around Comes Around
Angus and Julia Stone – Big Jet Plane
The Klaxons – Twin Flames
Taio Cruz – Dynamite
Phoenix – Lisztomania
Ou Est Le Swimming Pool – Dance The Way I Feel
Bag Raiders – Way Back Home
Gyroscope – Baby I’m Getting Better
Calvin Harris – You Used to Hold Me
Washington – The Hardest Pary
Temper Trap – Sweet Disposition
Paramore – The Only Exception
Eminem – Not Afraid
The Kooks – Naïve
Cee-Lo – Fuck You
Band Of Horses – Compliments
Pendulum – ABC News Television Theme
Scouting For Girls – This Ain’t A Love Song
Kelly Rowland – Forever And A Day
The Killers – Somebody Told Me
Bliss N Eso – Down By The River
Angus and Julia Stone – Hold On
John Butler Trio – Close To You
Philadelphia Grand Jury – Save Our Town
Duck Sauce – Barbara Streisand
Powderfinger – Sail The Wildest Stretch
La Roux – Bulletproof
Linkin Park – Waiting For The End
Little Red – Slow Motion
LCD Soundsystem – Daft Punk Is Playing at My House
Bruno Mars – Just The Way You Are
Amy Meredith – Lying
Ting Tings – Hands
Muse – Uprising
Katy Perry – Teenage Dream
Fall Out Boy – This Ain’t A Scene It’s An Arms Race
Adam Lambert – For Your Entertainment
Bliss N Eso – Addicted
B.O.B – Magic
Scissor Sisters – I Don’t Feel Like Dancing
Kings Of Leon – Radioactive
Enrique Ingesias – I Like It
Powderfinger – Burn Your Name
Jason Derülo – Whatcha Say
Chiddy Bang – Opposite Of Adults
Lady Gaga – Just Dance
Ou Est Le Swimming Pool – Jackson’s Last Stand
Paramore – Careful
Pink – Raise Your Glass
Little Red – Rock It
Taio Cruz – Dynamite
30 Seconds to Mars – Closer to The Edge
Pendulum – The Island
Birds Of Tokyo – Plans
Nelly – Just A Dream
John Butler Trio – Revolution
Cee-Lo – Fuck You
My Chemical Romance – Na Na Na
Duck Sauce – Barbara Streisand

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