Are the ARIA charts putting independent artists at a disadvantage?

Photo via @poisoncity/Instagram

Independent acts are kicking major goals at home in Australia. Bands such as Camp Cope, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Luca Brasi are making impressions on the ARIA charts. But as major label album sales decline to similar numbers as independent acts, it’s still not a level playing field. LACHLAN KANONIUK investigates.

The numbers aren’t good. Compare the charts of recent times to those of the glory days of physical sales and you’re left with a pretty grim picture, no matter which way you look at it. Bands are clocking up number ones on the ARIA album charts with paltry numbers, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any brighter, with “Lowest selling number one of all time” articles becoming more frequent. What this should mean is a more level playing field between major label international acts, and local independent artists punching above their weight. But as it stands, Australian independent artists are currently at a huge disadvantage when it comes to the ARIA charts.

The way the ARIA charts have adapted to the digital-led climate has inadvertently shunted DIY artists to the wayside.

There’s no hiding that physical sales from brick and mortar stores have hit all-time lows, and they won’t ever recover to the glory days of blockbuster CD rollouts (though there can be outliers, such as Adele’s 25 landing just in time for Christmas). This affects both major label giants alongside independent acts. But the way the ARIA charts have adapted to the digital-led climate has inadvertently shunted DIY artists to the wayside.

If you’re an active music fan, aware of upcoming releases, preordering direct from the band, or picking up a vinyl from the merch desk at a gig the ARIA charts probably aren’t on your radar. Hell, you might not even remember they exist. Even the passive music fan would more than likely be oblivious, with in-house charts from their preferred online marketplace or algorithms from streaming services, nullifying any need to keep an eye on the official ARIA list.

So why do the charts still matter?

Look at the music industry at a certain angle and you’ll see a complicated web. There are a lot of decision makers who don’t have the time to dig through what every single budding independent band is doing. If a band manages to land a top five position on the national charts, that can stand out.

To put it simply, it’s ammunition for bands (or labels, or publicists) to say “here’s why you should give a shit about us” to those who might not otherwise. It all helps in terms of grants, tours, and support slots – directly, or through the ripple effect. A music industry insider told FL that charts are used to measure success in the same way that an employee’s performance is judged on key performance indicators, or KPIs. Some labels have even been known to promise them to artists to lure them into a contract.

On a simpler, emotive level: it’s reward for the artist. Albums are hard work, and there are fewer and fewer reasons to make one. It’s pretty much a case of musicians making music for the sake of making music, and seeing their work pay off with an arbitrary number on a chart they have no aspiration to conquer is still a potent bonus.

How are charts compiled?

ARIA counts the following digital services for its charts: Deezer, Google Play, Guvera, iTunes, Music Glue, MyPlay Direct, Spotify, and YouTube. Let’s disregard the streaming services, as the numbers needed to make an impact don’t really affect independent albums, and Music Glue and MyPlay Direct don’t cater to independent acts. That leaves niche music, merch and ticket platform Music Glue, and iTunes and Google Play – two massive marketplaces, fairly easily accessible to independent bands through reasonably priced distribution platforms or independent labels. But the fanbases of independent bands are usually more inclined to purchase physical stock. You can stream music on Bandcamp, but don’t call it a streaming service. It positions itself as an online marketplace – with vinyl and merch accommodating for 30 per cent of sales on the site.

Bandcamp reports its sales to Nielson SoundScan for the US and Canada, but doesn’t report to ARIA charts yet. “We’re working now on reporting to ARIA and also to official charts in the UK,” says Bandcamp Head of Strategy and Growth, David Dufresne. “We have a growing number of established artists and labels in the UK and Australia that are focusing on their Bandcamp presence, so chart reporting is a request we’ve had more often recently.”

Where to from here?

The independent alternative to the ARIA charts is AIR (Australian Independent Record Labels Association). Each week they post charts of independent label singles and albums, with separate “100 per cent independent” and “independent label” (with distribution through majors) editions. Still, the distinction of 100 per cent independent means that smaller acts still go against the likes of Sia. But what is most surprising is that the AIR charts source their numbers from ARIA charts, meaning that it uses the same reporting from the same outlets, just with major label and international artists removed. Even the independent charts put independent artists at a disadvantage due to the carry on effect of the ARIA charts.

It’s not impossible for independent artists to make an impression on the ARIA charts, just unnecessarily hard work. Sales through Poison City Records’ store contribute to the ARIA charts. Camp Cope, who are signed to Poison City, clocked in at number 36 on the ARIA charts for their excellent self-titled debut, while labelmates Luca Brasi recently debuted at 18 with their third album If This Is All We’re Going To Be. But they also sold their albums through Bandcamp, which would have boosted their placing if those sales were counted.

King Gizzard hit the top 20 with Nonagon Infinity, despite their thousands of Bandcamp sales not registering. Let alone the myriad of established independent record stores who aren’t registered to ARIA due to bureaucratic hoops, or an apparent failure for ARIA to reach out. “Surprisingly I’ve never been approached, working here since 2003, co-owning since 2010,” says Nate Nott from Fitzroy’s Polyester Records. “I wouldn’t be opposed to it provided I didn’t have to change a single thing about the shop.”

It’s a critical time for independent musicians. Funding is being stripped from key bodies. But it’s not just a matter of giving independent musos a fair go, it’s also about keeping the ARIA charts relevant when it comes to championing the album format. Clocking Bandcamp sales for the charts is a major, and ostensibly easy, first step.

ARIA were contacted for comment but are yet to reply.

UPDATE: An ARIA spokesperson has stated that “ARIA has been liaising with Bandcamp over the past couple of months and Bandcamp are now developing the protocols and the software to report to ARIA. Once that is done ARIA will accept Bandcamp as a chart contributor” and referred to section 3.8 of the ARIA code of practice .

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated Music Glue do not cater to independent artists. Music Glue cater to a broad range of artists, FL apologises for the oversight.