Illustration: Matt Davidson.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

As a popular Australian musician, the video clips of his solo project have garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. He has been signed to a major record label and played to capacity venues the country over.

When he formed a new band recently, he was eager to see it equal or better his past successes. So he doctored his new songs to specifically chase airplay on the ABC's popular youth radio station, Triple J.

"We did, to be honest, cater the songwriting to Triple J in the beginning," concedes the 27-year-old Melbourne musician. He has since received occasional Triple J airplay, and has asked not to be identified.

Some of the CDs in the Triple J library at the ABC studios, Ultimo.

Some of the CDs in the Triple J library at the ABC studios, Ultimo. Photo: Marco Del Grande

"It definitely affects bands Australia-wide," he says. "I feel like you shouldn't have any sort of worry or any other thought except, 'I'm going to make exactly what I want to make'." Instead, he says, the initial writing process is clouded by thoughts of "is Triple J going to like this?"

"It really is shit, it really is frustrating. I talk about this with nearly every musician friend that I've got that there's no other station that's up there with Triple J."

Triple J is perhaps the most discussed, divisive station in Australia's musical landscape. Paradoxically, it is also the most supportive of emerging Australian artists, with an average weekly reach of 1.8 million listeners across the country. Theories about every aspect of Triple J's policies and operations are debated endlessly in bars, offices and rehearsal studios. But the single accusation that leaves the worst taste in musicians' and music fans' mouths is the suggestion that musicians are ignoring pure self-expression in favour of manufacturing a sound to get played on the popular station.

Is this leading to homogenisation in new Australian music?

Five musicians and seven other industry figures interviewed for this article expressed an opinion in line with these sentiments and all requested to remain either anonymous or off the record completely. These requests speak to a curious fear of Triple J that exists in the minds of some. Subsequently, music industry conversations of this manner usually occur only in private, for fear of the acts or organizations with which they are involved not being supported by the hugely influential station.

One respected 26-year-old Sydney musician, who has enjoyed periods of high rotation on Triple J with both of her nationally recognised bands over the past five years, talks of some innocuous comments she made in the media suggesting there was a certain "sound" required to get on Triple J. These remarks caused an unprecedented state of panic among her peers. "Once this got published our publicist rang up and screamed, 'What the f--- have you done, you'll never get played on Triple J again!' " she says. "I was like, 'What do you mean? I didn't even say anything bad' and then our manager was calling up, and then [our people] made me write an apology. I mean that is f---ing ridiculous . . .

"It shouldn't be this dictatorial thing where you're not even allowed to criticise Triple J because that's bullshit," she says.

"No branch of the government is like that at all. We should be able to discuss this more . . . there's this sense that they're above criticism."

Station manager Chris Scaddan says in response: "People can get frustrated with Triple J if we're not adding their acts to high rotation or playing their songs and that goes with the territory. We can't play everything though; we've got to make editorial decisions and we're open with artists about that. But the thought that we turn away artists if they criticise us isn't true. We are always open to discussion and there are countless opinions out there about Triple J."

Scaddan has an ally in Kris Schroeder of stalwart Melbourne band the Basics. Regarded as one of Australia's best and hardest-working indie rock acts, the Basics struggled to get Triple J airplay in the early part of their career, leading to Schroeder openly criticising the station, particularly music director Richard Kingsmill, during a 2007 interview. "We were pissed off that they were neglecting us when we were young and we were a lot more headstrong or whatever," Schroeder acknowledges now. "And it's like, well . . . you've just gotta deal with it."

Triple J isn't the only avenue to success, though it appears to be the most direct route. Artist manager and music publicist Zac Abroms, whose Viceroyalty Management and online PR business sees him working closely with emerging acts, insists that community radio stations including RRR, FBi and PBS do a fantastic job of giving exposure to young artists. On a national scale, however, Triple J "has extensive and rather unique powers when it comes to placing a young local artist in the national consciousness and providing them with the opportunity for career success.

"This is particularly true for artists creating music that is less commercially accessible," he says, "where Triple J's lack of commercial imperative may provide them with their only avenue for radio exposure at a national level."

This influence increasingly extends beyond the "alternative" spheres. One needs only to have watched the 2013 ARIA awards for evidence of Triple J's ability to break acts that go on to own the charts. Two "alternative" acts in Flume (four awards) and Tame Impala (three awards) dominated; Triple J championed both before they achieved crossover success.

Hip-hop artist Al Murray, 27, who performs as Illy, winner of the best urban album category at the 2013 ARIAs, is himself starting to reap the rewards of this crossover appeal.

"I don't know if I'd ever be able to have a music career if it wasn't for the station and their support of grassroots Australian music," Murray says. "Triple J supported Aussie hip-hop and as a result the scene became more than a scene, it really became a legitimate genre in its own right in the mainstream."

The station's perceived omnipotence is in part to do with its increasing popularity.

Triple J has been building its 18-to-24 audience for the past five years. There are more young people tuning in to Triple J now than ever before, as highlighted by its first-ever Nielsen metropolitan radio ratings win in Perth last August, plus an average weekly reach of 1.789 million listeners across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide in 2013 – up more than 200,000 from 2012.

The already vast spread of the Triple J brand now encompasses two digital radio stations in Triple J – Unearthed and Dig. The former's playlist is sourced from its popular website that sees unsigned and independent bands upload their music, while the latter (acquired by Triple J last October) is being rebuilt in response to audience and industry feedback.

"Triple J unashamedly targets young Australians, and sometimes artists who have a more mature sound may not feature heavily on Triple J," Scaddan says.

"Dig will be a chance for plenty more acts to find a regular audience.’’ 

As well as servicing Australians who  have moved beyond the 18-to-24 demographic, many believe Dig could alleviate any sameness that is occurring in the sounds new acts are developing, by providing Australians with a wider  palette of musical influences and an alternative platform on which to be heard. 

Additionally, despite the proliferation of music streaming services, the broader democratisation of the music industry and the trend towards personal music libraries (on streaming services, iTunes or MP3 players), the manner in which Triple J embraces new media to foster a sense of music community sees it further its position as a taste maker and mass influencer.

‘‘We’ve made every effort to be visible on any emerging platforms, from social media to on-demand streaming services to YouTube,’’ Scaddan says.  

‘‘Young people are really well versed on culture and they’re preferring independent media options in greater numbers.  It’s never been easier to avoid the mainstream and find your own way through popular culture.’’

Nevertheless, critics of Triple J maintain that the brand’s increasing popularity is evidence of its dominance and resulting sameness.  

As for the suggestion that the playlisting of their ‘‘non-mainstream’’ new acts is done with particular ‘‘sounds’’ in mind, thereby creating homogenisation, Triple J Unearthed music director Dave Ruby Howe ardently disagrees.  

‘‘Naturally there are some particular sounds and influences at the moment that you hear a bit more of like the Flume effect that’s inspired a lot of new electronic producers as well as the Queensland garage scene championed by bands like Bleeding Knees and Dune Rats,’’ he says.

‘‘Taking inspiration and influence from other artists makes sense, but when music becomes forced and inauthentic it’s pretty easy to see through it.’’

With about 500 to 600 new songs uploaded each week across the 43,000 artist profiles on Unearthed, Howe and his team need a keen ear to delineate between the prodigious and the pretenders.  

Howe’s advice for copycats who look to mimic sounds they hear on the radio is cautionary. 

‘‘Unearthed also allows us to see how fast things move and sounds evolve currently, so imitating a certain sound that could soon be usurped feels like a fruitless pursuit and I’d encourage any upcoming artist to continue developing their own style.’’

Whether or not Triple J encourages certain sounds will continue to be debated.

Given the station’s relies on government funding, which dictates that it must play 25 per cent Australian music (it comfortably exceeds 40 per cent) and unearth new Australian acts, prioritising artists to which young people want to listen might merely be viewed as essential. 

The Basics’ Kris Schroeder says: ‘‘Basically if you put it in a metaphor of the stockmarket, Triple J is the insider that says ‘Buy these shares’ and everybody rushes to buy them. There’s stuff that just falls by the wayside consequentially. It’s about alternatives and there aren’t many alternatives in this business because most people prefer to be followers rather than leaders. 

‘‘It’s just a shame that the industry is so obsessed with the decisions that a couple of people [at Triple J] make,’’ he says.

‘‘Maybe if the industry wasn’t so f---ing lazy and so narrow-minded ... the industry itself needs a shake-up.’’