The ARIA Awards 2020 tells you everything you need to know about the state of Australian music

When Flume, Sia and 5SOS look like heritage acts among the nominees, are we entering a new era in Aussie music?

For most of us, time ceased to have all meaning in 2020. Our old routines have vanished and our perceptions of when we last saw a band or went to a club or took a trip to hang out in another city are vague and misty. How long has it been 2020 for? Three years? Forever? I straight up can’t tell anymore.

And it’s not just me. It’s also the ARIAs.

As the entire music industry reels from the shutdown of venues, limits on audience sizes and the complete wipeout of festivals and cross-border touring, the awards night has gone from industry knees-up to pretty much the only event on the calendar.

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And the 2020 edition of the ARIA Awards has stepped up too, going to Channel Nine for a primetime national broadcast even as the need to make the performances and presentations geographically distanced and NBN-dependent creates a tangled nightmare of technical challenges.

With the greatest of respect for Australian music’s night of nights, it’s fair to say that the ARIAs, like all awards, is historically more a celebration of established artists than a beacon for change. Sure, you get the breakthrough artists who own the night with multiple wins: Silverchair in 1995, Savage Garden in 1997, Empire Of The Sun in 2009, Tones And I last year. But they’re typically the outliers among an otherwise pretty staid field of nominations.

It’s weird to look at the nominations and see artists like Sia, 5 Seconds Of Summer and Flume effectively acting as the heritage acts

Things changed this year. A slew of new artists is making their ARIA debut, to the point where the nominations illustrate 2020 as an extinction-level meteor event for the music scene, when all the dinosaur acts stood frozen in horror while the nimble little song-mammals successfully navigated our new and blasted hellscape.

Most of the big names who had albums ready to go in 2020 postponed the release in the hopes that maybe 2021 will allow the possibility of the standard touring and promotional jaunts. Thus a bunch of records that should currently exist do not, which means that the competition has been thinned out. Artists who might otherwise have been relegated to the Independent and Breakthrough gongs unexpectedly find themselves competing in major categories.

Lime Cordiale have scored eight nominations. Sampa The Great has six. Miiesha has five, as do the DMA’S, who seem quaintly ancient among such company. And the flip side is that it’s weird to look at the nominations and see artists like Sia, 5 Seconds Of Summer and Flume effectively acting as the heritage acts to a bunch of up-and-comers.

Take Album Of The Year. Historically, this is where major labels position their biggest acts: their John Farnhams and Powderfingers and Delta Goodrems. This year it’s Tame Impala, Jessica Mauboy, DMA’S, Lime Cordiale and Sampa The Great.

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Miiesha
Miiesha Credit: Clare Nica/EMI

Even the one category you’d think would look normal – Adult Contemporary Album, the category that has always been half “oh sweet Jesus, I don’t know” and half “stuff record company execs put on after being subjected to The Young People’s music all day at work” – has thrown up some 2020 surprises.

Nick Cave, Archie Roach and Josh Pyke would be there any year, but the appearance of cult retro disco hero Donny Benét and, especially, 27-year-old singer-songwriter and 2015 triple j Unearthed winner Gordi suggests that even this category raised more questions than answers in 2020.

What does this mean for Australian music, assuming that a certain current pandemic doesn’t completely wipe the music industry off the face of the Earth? Would it be too premature, too presumptuous to say that the ARIAs is heralding a new era in Aussie music? Probably.

After all, moments of disruption always deliver weird results for those fortunate enough to have a record out at the right moment. For example, there was a tiny weekslong window in mid-2004 during Nova’s national FM rollout when the station played new Australian music during the workday. That accidentally turned Thirsty Merc and Missy Higgins into stars, before the network swapped to its current format of 14 endlessly repeated songs.

And, of course, the same brief pre-TikTok epoch of teenagers watching unthreateningly handsome boys sing covers on YouTube that turned Justin Bieber into a star gave us Troye Sivan.

So we can expect that at least a couple of careers will be transformed by the mainstream attention and commercial television exposure the ARIAs brings. Remember that prediction when Sampa The Great is playing the 2025 Super Bowl.

But the one thing that we can safely predict is that if 2021 looks more normal than 2020, the ARIAs will be brutal, since it’ll follow a geyser of COVID-postponed albums erupting into the noiseosphere. There’s going to be zero Alex The Astronaut-level acts getting nominated this time next year, that’s for damn sure.

So any ARIA-hungry artists planning on hitting the studio for a 2021 release: um, maybe look at the 2022 season instead? The odds will be ever in your favour.

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