No More Country For Old Men

In our in-depth cover story for TMN’s Country Issue, we look at how a younger market can save Australian country music.

The late Slim Dusty set the bar exceptionally high for Australian country music. During a career, which spanned more than half a century, the prolific artist smashed every barrier there was to a slouch-hat wearing Australian country singer.

The trailblazer recorded upwards of 100 albums, collected countless awards and he even cracked it abroad, his 1959 hit A Pub With No Beer reaching No. 3 in the UK.

The Slim Dusty Movie from 1984 enshrined his legacy in the Silver Screen. And right there is the problem. Many music fans both here and overseas still associate Australia’s country music scene with Slim and his veteran class. The country music scene in Australia is currently at a juncture. Its fans are growing older (with a few notable exceptions), its young talent continues to be ignored by the mainstream, and the big stars are more famous in the US than they are at home.

“As an industry,” explains ABC Music’s A&R and Label Manager Tim Holland. “We haven’t really acknowledged that the core profile of country music fan has changed. We’ve been much too slow to change our mentality.”

The quality of Australian artists isn’t an issue. Australia’s current crop of country talent is arguably as strong and relevant as the market has ever produced. Caboolture’s golden boy Keith Urban opened at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 with his 2009 Capitol Nashville album, Defying Gravity. While two rising stars Adam Brand and The McClymonts are carving out their own paths to the U.S., striking deals with Arista and Executive Music Group respectively.

The Country Music Channel (CMC) is beefing up its live dimension while at ABC Music, the label has invested heavily in local country talent in the four years since Holland came on board. The Corporation’s recorded music arm has more than doubled its stable of country music artists to 12.

However, to the ordinary Facebook fixated Australian teen, Urban is best known as the other half of Hollywood star Nicole Kidman. And without such famous partners, the likes of Brand and the McClymonts are largely ignored outside country circles.

Smashing the time-worn perception of Australian country music will take some time, and some doing. It’ll require a retooling of the business. Australia’s country scene must tackle the online space and network TV, say executives, but save its biggest shakedown for the traditional Tamworth Festival and the annual Country Music Awards of Australia Awards.

The long-running Tamworth jamboree in regional New South Wales has come in for some stick in recent times. Out of touch with new fans and out of the general public’s mind are typical of some negative sentiment bubbling up from within the community. Tamworth has come to epitomise the issues facing Australia’s country scene.

“If the Tamworth festival had any mind to grow the festival, it would make it appealing to young people and restock the fanbase,” argues CMC Program Director Tim Daley. Currently, more than 44% of the core audience of the festival is 55 year of age and over. According to Daley, only 14% of the CMC audience is over 55, whereas 42% is 24 and under. “It’s pretty simple,” says Daley, “you make it appeal to young people, and you restock the fanbase.”

Daley crystallized his comments in a controversial online “blueprint” for the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which was initially pitched for Country Update magazine, but was spiked before it could hit the newsstands. “Fix the number one marketing tool for both country music and the Tamworth Festival. The Country Music Awards of Australia need a complete reboot,” he wrote. US-born Daley goes as far as blaming Tamworth Festival for country music’s image problem. “

Speaking to The Music Network, Daley explained. “The imagery that comes out of that festival in January on mainstream TV is line-dancers, people with chickens on their shoulder and buskers playing really bad music. It’s the colour of the festival, but that reinforces the perception that country music sucks. There has to be a communications plan coming out of Tamworth.”

Should the festival shift the focus back onto music, artists and fans and get the communication-message right, he argues, Tamworth “will regain momentum and be around for a long time to come”. But until that time, the Tamworth Festival will continue to lose relevance. “A strong Tamworth will be good for the business,” he says, “but it’s not crucial.”

Organizers of Tamworth acknowledge some of the criticism, and they’ve taken strides to safeguard its future. The Tamworth Council recently released a “strategic” plan for the festival, following consultation with the likes of Peer Media Group, owners of TMN.

“The industry is changing, the artists are changing, and the audience is changing. We’re conscious of that. But it’s very difficult to change years of tradition,” admits James Treloar, the Mayor of the Tamworth Region and Chair of the Working Group which currently includes Tourism Tamworth, Tamworth Regional Council and the Country Music Association of Australia.

Among the new recommendations is a targeted-program to attract new audiences, which would be developed and implemented for the first weekend of the January fest. “We’ve come up with a host of excellent ideas,” notes Treloar. Daley, however, argues that the plan is engrossed with country’s “heritage” acts and largely misses the youth market.

Tamworth isn’t the only country festival with a view to the future. The Gympie “Muster” is a mainstay on the country calendar. But in recent years, the Queensland event has reshaped its program to introduce a mix of mainstream artists into its bill. With telecoms network Optus as its headline sponsor; this year’s line-up puts alternative rock acts Spiderbait and Thirsty Merc alongside the likes of country acts Troy Cassar-Daley, John Williamson and Sara Storer.

While Tamworth looks to reestablish its footing as Australia’s bastion of country music, some country executives are looking at opportunities in the non-traditional playing fields.

ABC Music has launched the Hitcountry.tv music portal, which casts its spotlight across the wider country scene. “It all starts with the marketing of country music, and accepting that music has evolved. A lot of people struggle with that,” says Holland. Until now, he explains, Australia hasn’t hosted a website that presents country music as “fun and now.” The new site can “help sell the story of great Australian country music,” he comments, “but we have a long way to go.

Eminent country producer Rod McCormack has no doubt as to who holds the power in Australian country music. “The spikes in our market over many years have always been to do with breakthrough artists and songs,” explains McCormack, whose new label Core has partnered with Sony Music Australia.

“We saw that in the early ‘90s when James Blundell, Lee Kernaghan and Gina Jeffreys came through, and we saw that followed-up with the likes of Kasey Chambers. When those people hit, there are spikes in our sales and it does great things for country music.”

 

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