Five Things I Know: Annabelle Herd, ARIA

Last January, Annabelle Herd was appointed the CEO of ARIA – the peak body’s first female CEO in its history. A newcomer to music, Herd joined the industry with a background in television and government. Now 21 months into the role, she talks to NME about what she has learned from the industry so far and how it compares to other areas of Australian entertainment, discussing the recently released bombshell report “Raising Their Voices”; the looming “crisis” around local new music listenership; the ARIA Awards going gender neutral and more

Music is a fragmented, fast-changing industry

I came into the music industry at a time when everything was in a state of flux. We had not only the COVID situation that was killing live music and was so damaging for our artists, but also a huge cultural change, with momentum building around some issues that had obviously been going on for many years and could no longer be ignored.

What surprised me most about the industry was the extent of the issues in terms of cultural practice. The other thing I’ve noticed since joining the role is the fragmented nature of the industry compared to other creative industries in Australia. It is so dispersed and even the big businesses are quite small. Some of those that I represent are the big end of town, but they’re still really small in the scheme of general entertainment businesses in this country, let alone ASX-listed companies. Music is a very fragmented industry going through a lot of change – and I suppose that wasn’t so apparent from the outside.

Annabelle Herd
ARIA CEO Annabelle Herd

Australians listening to new local music: a potential crisis

The music business has been so successful, both in Australia and overseas. Thus far we’ve done it with barely any government support and we’ve been very self-reliant. But right now there are some big challenges we can’t face alone.

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In particular, we are looking at a bit of a crisis around Australians listening to new Australian music. It is getting harder and harder for new music to cut through to an audience for a number of reasons: media fragmentation, the impact of playlists on listening choices, the fact TikTok is the primary method of discovery for young audiences but is also pushing catalog music a lot. All of these make it harder for Australians to be exposed to new Australian music, but a particularly big factor is that Australian commercial radio just doesn’t play much new Australian music. That needs to change.

triple j is a really powerful tool for musicians to be discovered, but its audience has been declining. The last radio survey confirms triple j’s audience share is not huge: it captured just 3.3 per cent of radio listeners in Melbourne and 4 per cent in Sydney. To be fair, its share is bigger in some under-40s demographics, but it’s still not high. Many artists can’t sustain a successful career from their support alone. We need more Australian music across more Australian stations if we want to see the true potential of our passionate and dedicated industry.

Addressing the overall problem with Australian music engagement is going to require a multi-pronged strategy. We have provided submissions to the Albanese Government in the last month as it writes our first national cultural policy in 10 years.

A big part of the shift that needs to take place is government recognising that yes, this industry makes huge contributions to Australian culture, but it is also a huge export business and an incredibly successful business. They should be treating us the same way that they treat film, television, radio, commercial television broadcast and gaming. I’ve seen firsthand how that support helps those industries grow and develop. We’ve just been left to do it all on our own.

These are existing problems that have been compounded by COVID and could become a much bigger problem very quickly if we don’t address them now. It is a looming ‘crisis’ in the sense that we need to do something right now. If we don’t, we could be heading down to a very difficult path for new Australian artists.

“We are looking at a bit of a crisis around Australians listening to new Australian music. It is getting harder and harder for new local artists to cut through to an audience”

Balancing inclusivity with leadership is a challenge

The initial gathering that we had last year was a taste of how difficult this issue is to deal with [ARIA was one of a few peak bodies to call a closed #MeToo meeting in May 2021 that came under criticism for not extending invitations to artists who’d aired allegations].

From my point of view, we had to get people in a room as soon as possible to answer one question: how do we even start a process here? Jaguar Jonze’s contribution was so critical on that day, and the key thing to come out of that was that we needed to get all voices in the room, which is exactly why an independent temporary working group was established, leading to the report. Its very title, “Raising Their Voices”, shows it was about gathering those stories. I take my hat off to all the people who contributed to that report. I’m sure it was extremely difficult to relive the situations they’d been through and without their contribution, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We now have a robust picture of what’s been happening and why. Now we need to take action.

How we get that balance right – of bringing everybody into the room and also making change happen – that’s the really tricky part of this. The report does say that people want leadership. And if that’s what they want, then I and the other leaders of the industry bodies are more than willing to step up and provide that leadership. But it is very difficult, we have trust to build back and we must be listening to the voices of victim survivors. Jaguar Jonze is an amazing advocate for victim survivors, and there are plenty of others in the industry who have been working around this area for years. All of those people need to be a part of what happens next. But it has to also be driven from the industry bodies, because if we don’t bring everybody with us, top to bottom, things won’t actually change.

The ARIA Awards aren’t immutable

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We’re constantly looking at ways to evolve and ensure we are doing our best to promote the diversity of Australian music across both the charts and the awards. The ARIA Awards becoming gender-neutral last year was a big example of that change. Basing categories of achievement in music on gender, when your gender doesn’t affect how good an artist you are, seems to be very outdated. I’m very proud of this change. The Brits changed their awards after we did. The Grammys have been gender-neutral since 2012.

The criticism was: are you going to be reducing the representation of women from five guaranteed nominees to perhaps none in one given year? Music is so cyclical and last year, it was four out of 10. We’ll see what it is this year, it could bounce around quite significantly depending on the releases of the year. Our intent is to promote diversity in artists as best we can while still maintaining the integrity of the awards. We’re trying to recognise the best of the best in this industry. Things are not set in stone, they are not black and white.

And look, an award doesn’t change the underlying structural issues in an industry. If we are not getting enough success for female artists, non-binary artists, artists of colour or First Nations artists, we need to tackle that at the source. The award and the charts are just reflections of how Australians are engaging with music, which is why we need overall systemic change and representation. We will use any opportunity we can around the Awards and outside the Awards to promote those artists and those categories, including hip hop and other genres that are really popular and growing particularly with young and diverse audiences here and around the world.

Genesis Owusu receives the award for Album of the Year at the 2021 ARIA Awards
Genesis Owusu receives the award for Album of the Year at the 2021 ARIA Awards. Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Aus music has work to do but also great success to be proud of

The issues that the Australian music industry is facing at the moment have nothing to do with how good we are at music. We are amazing at music and we have the past export success and the domestic success to prove that. We need to get a few things right: we need to get culture right, we need to get support right, we need to get an export strategy right. And we need to address some of these challenges around listening in Australia, like making the radio quotas function.

What I would ask or suggest is that people continue to think positively about our industry and to talk it up to other industries, so that the value overall of our industry rises, so that people in television, film, gaming and tech recognise the value of music in their product. That will grow the pie for everybody in the ecosystem and see us reach the full potential of this amazing industry.

The 2022 ARIA Awards take place November 24 at The Hordern Pavilion in Sydney and will be broadcast on Channel Nine. More info here. Order your copy of NME Australia magazine’s September 2022 issue featuring Parkway Drive, Annabelle Herd and more

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