Australian music industry in the 1980s

BY LIZ GIUFFRE

Sydney community radio station 2SER 107.3 first went to air on 1 October 1979. To celebrate 2SER's 40th birthday, station archivist Dr Liz Giuffre shares excerpts from Money, Not Harmony, a four-part music industry documentary by Richard Kingsmill that aired on the station in 1988.

The Australian music industry in 1988 was very different to what we know now. CDs were relatively new, cassettes were all the rage, records were still mostly vinyl, FM radio was dominated by 'blokey' blokes and Countdown had just left TV.

2SER 107.3 logo

Richard Kingsmill and 2SER

To capture the moment was Richard Kingsmill – then working for Sydney community radio station 2SER FM. Kingsmill would go on to become an extremely important part of the industry he so carefully documented here – on and behind the microphone at triple j.

There he did hundreds, if not thousands of interviews, pioneered the series The J-Files, wrote a couple of books and generally continued to champion all that is good about music. Now the Group Music Director of the music teams at triple j, Double J, Unearthed, ABC Radio and ABC Country, Kingsmill is an important cog in the big wheel as it turns.

Kingsmill’s 1988 documentary, Money, Not Harmony, is a four-part series focused on different aspects of the music industry. The mainstream commercial players of the time were given particular airtime (and analysis) – the type of commentary that only independent media like community radio could provide.

The sound of the series is quite sedate by today’s standards, with editorials by Kingsmill delivered with a formality that music radio doesn’t hear today. There’s also a clear lack of diversity, with the documentary completely dominated by male voices. This is not a criticism of Kingsmill or the piece necessarily, but a sign of where power was thought to lay in the industry at the time.

The NFSA holds a copy of the series as part of its community radio archive, and we're publishing excerpts from it as part of the 40th birthday celebrations for 2SER. This is a station that has also contributed pioneering programming to the LGBTQI community, various musical genre specialities (from country to dance) and independent news and current affairs.

Money, Not Harmony – Excerpts

The first episode of Money, Not Harmony looks at the music press and its influence. In particular, Kingsmill explores the relationship between major record companies, advertising and favourable (or not) reviews.

It’s all very different to how the music industry and the press interact today – not least because there are so few print outlets left to cover this type of news. To create the picture there are lively interviews with journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald and RAM magazine, as well as EMI and CBS records. As this short excerpt reveals, there’s more than a little tension in the relationship between the music press and the record companies:

In episode two, Kingsmill examines the influence of radio. Interestingly, his future employer, triple j, is absent from the discussion, but this leaves room for a nuanced understanding of how commercial deals were done with the then extremely dominant big city FM stations.

What’s most striking is how local and new artists are sidelined in the discussions, and how international ‘classic hits’ dominated the airwaves. So, not that different to today after all.

In this short excerpt, Kingsmill compares the Australian context in the mid-80s to the US and notes the growing gap between commercial radio playlists and what appears on the Top 40 record charts:

The third episode considers music retailers. A 2019 music fan will find this piece particularly interesting (and perhaps alien!). In the pre-digital industry, artists, record companies and their distributors really had to fight for attention. And of course, money.

This episode considers formats, strategies, and touches on the early influences of piracy on the local industry. Featured is Warren Fahey from Larrikin Records, as well as journalist Phil Tripp, whose international perspective gives good insight into how prices were being influenced by forces beyond the local market:

Finally, episode four is Kingsmill’s chance to consider what types of music are making it into the Australian music market. This last one is especially bold, with important discussions about systematic biases and their influence.

Again, in a pre-digital era fans were significantly restricted by a few gatekeepers, and the consequences for those wanting to hear diverse sounds and styles were huge. Australian musicians are often the hardest hit when trying to innovate, with some interesting suggestions for workarounds being offered here. Interviewed in this excerpt is Phil Stafford of RAM magazine:

Main image: Richard Kingsmill at the offices of Sydney community radio station 2SER, c1986. Published courtesy of 2SER 107.3.

 

Dr Liz Giuffre is a Senior Lecturer in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney. She is currently the archivist for radio station 2SER.