The number of Australian musicians in the local


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.”

Most weeks this year, there have been more albums by Taylor Swift in the Australian top 50 than albums by all Australian artists combined.()

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.”

Double J music correspondent Zan Rowe says we need to reconsider how we approach music charts.  ()

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.

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