Most weeks this year, there have been more albums by Taylor Swift in the Australian top 50 than albums by all Australian artists combined.
It’s part of a trend that has also seen decades-old songs from artists like Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac propelled into the charts off the back of viral cultural moments, while perennial favourites like The Killers’ Mr Brightside seem impossible to dislodge.
They’re hits for a reason, but the chart success of old music has come at the expense of local artists.
After streaming upended the music industry, the number of Australian artists in the charts has this year plunged to its lowest level since the ARIA charts began, an analysis by ABC News has found.
Industry bodies, managers and music broadcasters now fear that in a world where most music consumption happens on global streaming platforms, emerging local artists will struggle while megastars like Harry Styles never leave the top 50.
“I think we’re in a really dire place right now and none of us actually know the solution,” artist manager Bill Cullen said last month.
It started out with new hits. How did it end up like this?
The rise of streaming
For decades, music charts commanded significant influence, able to propel an artist’s career both domestically and overseas. They affected what we heard on commercial radio, what CDs were placed at the front of record stores, like the now-defunct Sanity, and alerted the masses to the next big thing.
Since 1988, Australia’s charts have been run by ARIA — the industry body for record labels — and calculated from music sales at retailers and, more recently, digital streams.
The ABC has mapped the history of Aussies in the charts, by collecting ARIA records since they began and analysing the country of origin of artists.
While a decade ago you would typically see at least 10 Australian albums in the top 50 each week, now it’s not uncommon for there to be just one or two.
ARIA’s chief executive Annabelle Herd calls it a crisis for Australian artists. “The charts can’t fix this problem, they are just measuring what is happening,” she says. “Now is the time to act, we really don’t have long to turn it around.”
The charts have always counted music sales — including CDs, vinyls, tapes, cassettes and digital downloads — and a sample of stores across the country continue to submit their weekly sales data for inclusion in the charts.
But now that most people listen to music online, streams by Australians on digital platforms are also included.
“Streaming is absolutely the bulk of listening in Australia these days,” Ms Herd says. “When you combine digital downloads with streaming it’s up around 90-95 per cent.”
ARIA converts streams to what it deems as an equivalent number of sales. That conversion rate changes regularly, but at the moment ARIA says a sale is worth the same as about 170 streams on a paid service or 420 streams on a free ad-supported service.
That blend of sales and consumption is one reason why every week in 2023, Taylor Swift albums have appeared more in the charts than all Australian artists.
The high-water mark for the number of Australians making the charts was probably in October 2016. Six months later, streams were included for the first time.
That coincided with a swift decline in the number of Australians charting.
Things have only got worse for Australian artists this year, and getting a number one seems to be increasingly elusive.
Brisbane band Cub Sport is one of few Australian artists to achieve it this year, with their latest album Jesus at the Gay Bar launching straight to the top of the album charts in April.
“Honestly, I was shocked,” singer Tim Nelson told the ABC while on tour in the United States. “I’m very aware of how difficult it is to get a number one album, especially with all of the major albums that have come out in this post-COVID rush of releases and with big artists touring and that sort of thing.”
“It was something that we were really hoping for. Our previous album debuted at number two [but] Taylor Swift announced folklore the night before our album was coming out and then she obviously got number one.”
“For this one, I was like, if we can even get a top 10, I’ll be over the moon.”
It’s happening in the singles charts, too
Streaming has also transformed the singles charts, now that all streams of all songs get counted rather than just the tracks released on CD as a single.
It means that when global artists like Kanye West, Taylor Swift or Harry Styles release a new album, there’s a good chance that every single song will appear on the charts.
And it’s allowed songs like The Killers’ Mr Brightside to chart week-in, week-out.
That song did moderately well when it was released nearly two decades ago, but in 2021 it roared back to the charts. In 2022 it charted in all but four weeks of the year.
Do we still need charts at all?
While the charts used to have significant clout, their cultural capital has faded.
“I can’t remember the last time someone told me what had hit number one on the charts, and that made me want to go and listen to a record, and I don’t think any of my friends who don’t work in the music industry would say that either,” Double J music correspondent Zan Rowe says.
“We need to adjust the rules of how we analyse charts, how we analyse play, how we analyse connectedness, because at the moment, it’s a very old set of rules for a very new way of listening.”
Rowe believes the current iteration of the charts seems to be more focused on the industry and the artist, rather than the audience. “I think who the charts serve is something that we should be taking a look at,” she says.
ARIA argues that while music fans are less likely to be checking the charts than they used to, getting a number one still gives artists a career boost.
“Not only does it give the artist or the band a sense of recognition for their work … it’s actually a really important tool for them to be able to use both domestically and globally with agents overseas, festival promoters, overseas with the streaming platforms,” Herd says.
Tim Nelson, from Cub Sport, agrees the charts don’t mean as much for music fans anymore but says it’s still an important milestone for artists.
“For us, having released five albums now, it’s kind of just like a cool marker to be able to recognise the growth that we’ve seen throughout that time,” he says. “Now that we get to have one of those little number one ARIA album plaque things, I’m excited to put that in my studio when we get home from this tour.”
One of the reasons Cub Sport topped the charts is likely due to strong pre-order sales, which get counted in launch week.
It doesn’t detract from their achievement in a competitive market, but it would explain why when the following week’s chart was published, Cub Sport was nowhere to be seen.
“A physical album gives an Australian artist a shot in the first week by doing a pre-order campaign, and really it’s the only hope a lot of Australian artists have of getting in the charts whereas the equivalent streams take years to get back to that equivalent of somebody buying a record today,” Bill Cullen said at an ARIA panel last month.
It’s also one of the reasons artists will try to bundle music sales alongside concert tickets or merchandise.
“I do feel we’re cheating some of the time, because when I’m selling a ticket to someone and for a dollar extra they get a digital download, I know they’re not even going to listen to that digital download when they can go to Spotify and listen to the same songs.”
That strategy is entirely within ARIA’s rules, and was even implicitly supported by ARIA representatives at the event.
On the same panel, artist manager Jess Keeley said it was “100 per cent impossible” for an Australian to get a number one without releasing a physical product.
Finding an audience
ARIA says the big problem is one of music discovery: in a crowded global marketplace, it’s hard for new artists to get the attention of music fans.
“I can tell you right now it is not the talent that we have in this country,” Herd says. “We have got some incredible talent, we’ve got some incredible new talent and some artists that are doing incredible things overseas as well.
“The difficulty and the challenge that we have for Australian music is that because there is so much music available, the share of listening of Australian music is declining.”
She says it’s never been harder for artists to find an audience.
“A stat that I heard the other day was that 80 per cent of music discovery is of old music. In other words, only 20 per cent of music discovery is of new music, and that includes Taylor’s new album, or Beyonce’s new album.”
Zan Rowe calls streaming services like Spotify a “huge sea of content” that is easy to get lost in.
“I know that many artists get really excited when they’re added to key Spotify playlists or Apple playlists,” she says.
“But it’s incredibly hard when you have an algorithm that will just tip you into all these classics.”
Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke has already flagged a plan to look at the plight of Australian music, creating a new body called Music Australia as part of the rebranded Australia Council.
“Play an Australian album on one of those [streaming services] and have the feature on that keeps choosing music for you, and by the third or fourth song if you haven’t gone to North America in the choices it’s taken you to, then you’re getting a different experience to what I get,” he told the National Press Club in February.
“Getting inside those algorithms and getting a better deal for Australian music will make a huge difference for Australian artists.”
Music Australia’s work on streaming algorithms is yet to get underway, but in the meantime, Spotify says it is the single biggest contributor to the local industry, having paid out nearly $250 million to Australian artists last year for their global streaming activity.
“When it comes to local playlists on Spotify, 15 of the top 20 playlists consumed by local listeners are actually curated locally and have a strong emphasis on surfacing Australian music,” says Alicia Sbrugnera, the company’s head of music in Australia and New Zealand.
“At the same time, Spotify’s RADAR program is celebrating three years since it arrived in Australia. Inclusion in the program sees the artist featured on the RADAR playlist, plus significant promotional activity.
“This support looks like photo shoots, PR and editorial support, as well as social media and investment in marketing that has seen these artists appear in places like Spotify’s Times Square Billboard in New York and around FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium.”
The consequences for local art
Cub Sport’s success hasn’t come overnight. It took years of writing, touring, and building communities.
Tim Nelson worries about whether there’s a viable path for today’s new artists to do the same.
“When we did our first support tour, it was 2012 and we were supporting Ball Park Music … there was just enough budget for us to do the tour, but we were sleeping on friend’s floors and that sort of thing,” he says.
“If we had to do that now, like the airfares alone, it just wouldn’t be possible.”
Music charts aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to success in the industry. They are simply one way of measuring what has mainstream appeal, and an imperfect way at that.
Zan Rowe says the music industry is a complex ecosystem, and it all needs to be looked at in concert.
“Bands have been slogging it out for many, many years, had a hard time during the pandemic and have come out of that and continue to do what they’ve always done,” she says.
“It’s just a much more uneven playing field when all of these other elements come into the fore.
“There are so many incredible Australian artists … like The Kid LAROI, Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, who have been doing huge things internationally and of course here in Australia.”
“Who are the next artists that are in line to do that? And how do we support them to get to those stages, to get to those record deals and to get to those audience numbers that all these artists have before them?”
Notes on methodology:
The ABC has collected chart data from the ARIA website (for charts since July 2019) and from australian-charts.com (prior to July 2019)
ARIA publishes information about Australian artists for charts published since 2019. For earlier charts the ABC has collected country of origin data from MusicBrainz using its API, followed by a process of manual error-checking and correction.