It was a year in which virtually no international acts toured, where the money which might have been spent attending gigs of local acts went unspent, where a lot of major artists around the world held back releasing new music. And yet, Australian artists still struggled to sell their music to Australians.
The release by the recording industry peak body, ARIA, of end-of-year charts for 2020 presents a sobering picture to an industry still unsure who and what will survive the wreckage wrought on the arts by Covid-19.
Before we go further, a note of caution. It’s never wise to take one year’s statistics as the final word, especially in a business as cyclical as music. For example, so much can depend on which big name artists release, or don’t release, music in the year: is there competition or an open field? Much can turn on whether radio, the arse end of the industry, has decided it has “enough women” or “too many foreign sounding names” or “all the Australians we need”.
And of course, an absence in one year can be followed by a flood the next as albums or songs finally come on line.
But sales are still sales and everything from future signings and touring schedules to Christmas bonuses and airplay can be influence by them, so we’re gonna look and we’re gonna talk and we’re gonna make some assumptions.
As for 2020, the one thing we can be sure of is that British pop star, actor and fashion plate, Harry Styles – with the top selling and 54th best-selling albums, and the sixth, 11th and 78th most popular singles – is surviving just fine, thank you very much. Elsewhere? Well …
In the top 10 singles of the year, only one Australian artist, Tones And I, featured, and there was only one Australian act, AC/DC, in the top 10 albums. Pedants might even quibble at that given most of AC/DC are not Australian or live in Australia.
If you go beyond the top 10 albums, there were only 11 Australian artists in the rest of the top 50, and 19 in the rest of the top 100, which even numerically challenged musicians and arts writers can see is only 20 per cent of the total.
And of those, four were greatest hits compilations of acts whose heyday was more than 30 years ago (Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly and INXS) or whose market is the under-5s (The Wiggles); one was a Christmas record (Delta Goodrem); another was a remixed version of a 2016 album (Hilltop Hoods); and one was a still-selling 2015 record (Currents) from Tame Impala, whose most recent album, The Slow Rush, was the second highest selling Australian album of the year, at #19.
These would be worrying statistics even without considering the industry has claimed it has yet to see the full benefit of a mid-year Federal government announcement of help for the arts industry, and may yet encourage a new leadership at ARIA to take up the argument made for many years now to lobby for an increase in the quota of Australian music that must be played on commercial radio, and a stricter enforcement of the quota.
Incidentally, alongside the prime minister for announcements at that arts industry assistance press conference was Guy Sebastian, who had the 23rd most successful album of 2020, T.R.U.T.H., though it is yet to sell more than 35,000 – which would earn it a gold record - since its October release. But then neither has Lady Gaga’s much hyped Chromatica. Still, Scott Morrison has not offered to take her to the footy. Yet.
How about the more specialist areas, there must be better news there? Australians like Australian country music, don’t they? There’s a strong electronic and dance base here, isn’t there?
The best representation by Australians can be found in the dance charts where 15 of the top 50 albums were Australians, including Hayden James at #3 and Rufus Du Sol at #6 and #8 (though #8 is a remix version of the album at #6). Noteworthy too is that one quarter of these albums come from the one label, Future Classics.
As for country music, there were 10 Australian albums in the top 50: three of them from Keith Urban, whose newest record was the best-selling local release, coming in just behind the top two, both from this year’s breakout act, American Luke Combs. Apart from the consistently strong northern New South Wales sisters - and only local female artists represented - The McClymonts, whose new album was at #12 just behind Taylor Swift’s 2010 Speak Now, there were two compilations from Slim Dusty, who died in 2003, and a John Williamson favourites collection, alongside new records from Lee Kernaghan and Adam Brand (at #45 and #46 respectively) and Morgan Evans’ Things We Drink To, one spot behind the McClymonts, two years after its release.
As the McClymonts’ result may suggest, it’s best not to ask about Australian women, unless you’re related to Tones And I’s Toni Watson, who had three singles in the top 100, and an EP at #39.
Apart from her, the only other Australian female artist in the singles chart was Vera Blue, guest vocalist on a track by Flume, while Delta Goodrem and Kylie Minogue trailed well behind Watson in the album charts.
Let’s end on some good news – vinyl sales. Thanks to direct selling to fans, a surge in interest from consumers who don’t necessarily own a turntable but like the idea of owning another artefact, and bundling of merchandise such as T-shirts with them, not only was Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush the bestselling vinyl album of 2020, there were another four Australian acts in the top 10 (the long defunct Powderfinger, AC/DC, Tame Impala again, and Kylie Minogue) and a further 13 in the top 50.
Mind you, if the future of Australian music is in vinyl, things may be scarily worse than we realise.
A version of this story was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.