In the 80s and 90s, when the Australian music industry was booming and everybody was buying CDs, the big record companies would unleash their wallets with lavish after ARIA award parties. The annual awards night was seen as a real showcase of local music talent – the record industry’s night of nights. In the great rock’n’roll tradition, all roads led to the after-parties, to celebrate the winners, pop the champagne corks and imbibe until the wee small hours.
These days the post-awards shindigs are a lot more subdued and the free booze doesn’t flow quite so freely. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a more sober and responsible era, minus the coke-snorting rituals that were once commonplace. The reality is that there’s not a great deal to celebrate, despite the usual hype that surrounds the event – and many would argue that the record industry as we once knew it is all but dead.
CD sales have plummeted and whilst there’s money to be made out of downloads, today’s major record companies are a far cry from those of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Their rosters of artists are greatly reduced, they no longer go out of their way to discover new talent and their focus is often on promoting the winners of TV talent shows.
Sadly most of the smaller Australian independent record companies of the 80s and 90s have all but disappeared. At a time when live music was thriving, they played a pivotal role in recording new artists and bands who often went on to sign with the majors. These days many young and up and coming artists still record tracks and albums but rely on self marketed CDs or digital downloads to promote their music, without the support of a record company.
If you happened to watch the telecast of the ARIA awards last Wednesday you might have concluded that the Australian music industry has never been healthier and no doubt there are a number of artists who deserve the gongs. Those of a more cynical persuasion may have dismissed it as a glitzy promotional exercise for the major companies, pushing a small number of artists in whom they are heavily invested, to a youthful demographic that is most likely to download from Apple Music.
Once a big deal on Australian TV, guaranteed to be a ratings winner, the ARIA awards are now a much lesser event with a painful predictability about the various winners. A prime Sunday night timeslot has now been downgraded to a midweek airing with little of the usual PR build-up.
The local live music scene is often described as moribund and maybe that’s a contributing factor to our own recording industry. The days when the majors sent their A&R personnel to check out bands in inner city pubs and music venues are long gone. Whereas record companies were once prepared to develop and nurture artists over a period of time, often investing in their live appearances and touring, they now want almost instant results. The winners of shows like The Voice and Australian Idol deliver those ready-made artists and it’s an easy sell to push their first single or album.
For a minority of Australians, those cultural luddites that still buy CDs and vinyl, enthuse about the back catalogue and eschew the various download services, the ARIA awards are all but irrelevant. Many view the modus operandi of the major record companies like those of McDonalds and KFC, flogging fast food to the mass market with profit being the only real motive.
Perhaps in a few years time, the so-called record industry will become so homogenised, formula-driven and artistically bankrupt that mutual admiration nights like the ARIAs will seem unnecessary. Why go to all that expense in staging an event when everybody knows months in advance who the winners will be?
That does not necessarily mean the after-party should be scrapped, as the money saved from an actual telecast could be funnelled into a good old 80s rock’n’roll party – a kind of wake for what the once proud record industry stood for. Lots of booze, even a few lines of coke and a venue that would look like a war zone after the record bosses, rock musicians, music journalists, groupies and hangers-on had all departed.