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A combination of Melbourne being a dynamic music hub and the slow disintegration of major record labels and their determination to take creative control into their own hands has led to many developing Melbourne-based artists and bands choosing to undertake their musical careers independently. However, it seems that even when artists choose to act as their own record labels, they will still, inevitably be dictated to by larger, music-related bodies and industry ideals. Carus Thompson is an independent blues and roots artist originally from Fremantle, Western Australia, currently residing in Melbourne and has experienced encounters with these external pressures first-hand. One of the main influencing bodies for local musicians is “national youth public radio network” (Eltham, 2003) Triple J who claim they “have a licence to support and ‘unearth’ new Australian contemporary music” (Eltham, 2003), however it seems the intention of this radio service has changed quite dramatically within the past five to seven years and this has consequently affected the careers of musicians such as Carus.

Carus Thompson is a “self confessed troubadour” (Unknown, 2010) who began playing music when he was twelve years old and began playing in front of audiences as soon as he was legally able to enter licensed premises at the age of eighteen. Since then, he has had over twenty years experience in independently touring, writing and recording and has developed a hugely dedicated following in Australia, Europe and North America. His music is quite a unique mixture of blues and roots, folk and reggae and is centred on simplistic guitar sections and the additions of double bass, fiddle, keyboards and other instruments when playing with his band ‘The True Believers’. Related artists within his genre include John Butler Trio, The Waifs and Paul Kelly. Carus’ lyrics are often sentimental and retell his own stories of heartbreak, longing, travel as well as more trivial happenings during his youth such as “selling pot to pay his rent” (Thompson, 2003). The diverse mixture of subject matter discussed in his lyrics means there is something for every fan to relate to.

Although Carus hasn’t had a substantial amount of mainstream radio airplay nor has he had a record label behind him to encourage larger numbers of fans through publicity, promotion and marketing, he still manages to fill the majority of his gigs, has sold over 30,000 records (Smith, 2011) and has a dedicated fan base throughout the world. It could be said that the reason for his independent success is a result of his image and his music appealing to a vast range of people.
For example, many males enjoy his music, perhaps because of his masculine, pub rock-influenced stage presence as well as the many females enjoying his music, perhaps of his heartfelt lyrics and handsome appearance. In addition to this, Carus’ encouragement for audience members to dance and be merry at his performances creates a sense of community, which may explain why many fans repeatedly come to his gigs. His larrikin personality and infallible confidence on stage are also aspects of his image, which may have attracted the huge numbers of fans he has had throughout the past decade.

The music industry model that Carus has adopted in his musical practice is that of an independent musician. Being an independent artist means having independence from major, commercial record labels and their subsidiaries and therefore having an autonomous, ‘Do-It-Yourself’ approach to recording, publishing and promoting. The majority of musicians are independent as it is a relatively rare occasion to be scouted and approached by a major record label. Carus believes being an independent artist means, “touring to get your music heard” (Williams, 2011) because it is “difficult to use the mainstream media of radio, print and television” (Williams, 2011) however other independent artists may place more of an emphasis on another part of the management process such as recording, promoting and publicity or distribution. In independent artists being able to control these aspects of their career, they are given more creative control over their music and image as a whole, as well as benefiting from a larger percentage of profits.

Although being signed to a record label means all these facets of creating, recording, producing and delivering an artist’s music is completed for them, there are some definitely negative impacts associated with being governed by one of these larger bodies. There are multiple types of record deals, which may be proposed when being initially approached by record labels. In particular, the most extreme of contract types is a ‘360’ or ‘equity’ deal (Byrne, 2004) which generally generates the most amount of income, however it is also the agreement which restricts the artist’s creative control to the highest extent. As David Byrne, an industry professional who has owned a label which became a subsidiary of Warner Music Group explains “as a general rule, as the cash comes in, creative control goes out”. In maintaining independence as a musician, the ability to develop your own image and music remains with the artist, however it seems that this is only true to a certain extent.

In being an independent artist, Carus and other artists who have made use of this industry model have an abundance of work to complete on a regular basis. However, a large part of this work is networking with other music industry officials in order to delegate small areas of work to other businesses. For example, in Australia, Carus is associated with Premier Artists who are booking agents and MGM Distribution who ensure their artists’ music can be purchased in the necessary avenues, both online and in physical form. Smaller businesses are also included in this process such as for printing posters, creating merchandise and attempting to service radio stations and press. Therefore the question must be posed – are independent musicians truly independent?

One of the main businesses which independent artists and bands rely on to make themselves recognised in a saturated industry is Triple J. The radio station was founded in 1975 and originally named ‘2JJ’ or ‘Double Jay’ (M E Skeel, 2010), had an early ambition to appeal to young audiences by playing music which was controversial in comparison to the music being played on other commercial stations. Censorship was a common restriction occurring on radio programs prior to 2JJ being founded with “any allusion to sex, drugs, immoral or illegal behaviour” (Nightingdale, 2010) being “bleeped or banned outright.” However 2JJ invited this controversy by playing restricted material and allowing local content to be played on their station. Since the initial development of this youth-orientated radio station and many years of success, criticism has erupted in relation to the station undermining its original purposes with one journalist suggesting that “JJJ has been turned into a mini-commercial station” (Zuel, 2003) due to centralised programming and “nurturing Triple J’s corporate identity rather than reflecting the community around it” (Eltham, 2003).

Carus is one of the many independent artists who have struggled as a result of the commercialization of Triple J due to the lack of other avenues for these artists to exploit and achieve the same exposure as Triple J offers. Although Carus sells records, promotes Australian music abroad, has attracted audiences through being featured on Triple J’s online charts and feature sections and has even been interviewed by Triple J presenters, his music still never reached rotation.
In asking Carus for his opinion of Triple J, he responded with a definitive comment stating “they’re ‘tastemakers’ who control and dictate what is successful in the market” (Williams, 2011) as well as assisting the commercial stations by filtering through the music which could potentially be successful in mainstream outlets. He further explains that he believes Triple J “should be more like a community radio station such as Triple R or PBS who play a broad cross section of music and provide a platform for hard working Australian musicians to get their music [heard]” (Williams, 2011). It could be determined that this was the original purpose of Triple J, however with the new focus on promoting bands who have already had a substantial amount of commercial success, independent acts such as Carus aren’t being put on rotation.

Triple J’s most recent answer to this accusation has been to create a separate ‘Unearthed’ radio station which only hosts ‘Unearthed’ artists, however even this resolution has caused some argument. After almost two months of the station being on air, listeners are finding that pre-existing Triple J artists are being deployed back to “unearthed” status. It could therefore be proposed that the subsidiary station has been created to allow for more space for commercial music to be played on the main Triple J station. In addition to this, it has been reported in the ABC Radio’s annual report in 2002 that sixty per cent of music played on Triple J is from international bands and artists with all subsequent years’ reports reflecting a similar pattern. One article appropriately titled “Triple J loves Aussie music, but loves ratings more” suggests that programs such as ‘Home and Hosed’ and the new Unearthed station are merely excuses for Triple J to maintain their supposed reputation as supporters of Australian music and up and coming, new music, despite much of the music being played on the station being neither Australian or from up and coming bands or artists.

Carus’ admits one of his albums entitled ‘Creature of Habit’, which was less produced than his most recent album ‘Caravan’, but fuller in sound than live album ‘Acoustic at the Norfolk’, was his “final stab at cracking the Triple J market” (Author Unknown, 2011). However, despite the album being carefully crafted to comply with Triple J standards, his music still didn’t receive any airplay. Accepting that Triple J was no longer an option as a vehicle to have his music played, he developed an album that focused on the music and how it sounded rather than constructing songs to fit a genre. Carus’ latest album had a “bigger production, with a full string section on some songs” (Author Unknown, 2011) and aimed to attract a wider audience than just Triple J and as he admitted “bigger than Australian audiences” (Author Unknown, 2011). If Triple J continues to ignore these hardworking, dedicated Australian artists who, if given the chance would only assist in making the station a more dynamic business, other local artists will use the technology available to them to produce their music and target offshore audiences and avoid the path of hope supposedly offered by Triple J. It’s obvious, then, that Triple J’s emphasis should revert back to Australian, home-grown talent without the screening and selection process that appear to be in place otherwise local talent will follow Carus’ lead and create music with the intention of promoting this material to overseas audiences. This way Australian music will continue to be exposed and developed, as well as Australia eventually being recognised as a major competitor with UK and US music. After all, as Carus explains “music is a numbers game” (Author Unknown, 2011) and there are vastly more people in Europe than there are in Australia to sell music to.

Carus is a true icon of Australian music who has worked independently to achieve the success he has on a national and international level. Like many Australian artists, he sought the support of the media that purport to buoy up local artists but was by-passed. However, despite his independent success, it seems the extra push he relies on from larger businesses such as Triple J to reach the next level in his career is still unavailable to him. This is one of many case studies, which illustrates that Triple J is undermining its original intentions of acting as a youth broadcast, devoted to providing a platform to “unearth” original Australian bands and artists. Despite their attempts to reinforce their commitment to these artists through the new ‘Unearthed’ station, it seems Triple J are still too preoccupied with achieving larger percentages of market share and ratings to truly assist the artists who deserve radio play.

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