How Record Labels Are Ignoring Australian Music History On iTunes

To mark Australia Day, Lifehacker’s Streaming column has looked at the 25 best-selling albums and singles for every year since 1970 and checked whether they are currently on sale in the Australian iTunes store. The results are slightly disturbing, especially when it comes to the availability of Australian hits.

Online music: theory and reality

In theory, digital music distribution should make it easier than ever for older “back catalogue” material to be made available to anyone who wants it. Unlike the situation with physical releases, there’s no risk or cost involved for a retailer in stocking a (relatively) obscure title. Anyone should be able to simply search and download what they want. Hit recordings should have become profitable for labels many years ago, so any digital sales should essentially be pure profit, even allowing for digitisation and upload costs. In other words, we should have more choice than ever, whether we want the latest releases or the hits we remember from our teenage years.

When the work of the Beatles finally became available on iTunes in a welter of publicity last year, it was common to make the observation that virtually every major pop music act now had their back catalogue available in purely digital format. There are some very notable big-selling exceptions — AC/DC, the Eagles and Garth Brooks immediately spring to mind — but the general assumption is that if it’s popular, it will be on there.

Trawling through the Australian best-seller data for the last 41 years suggests a slightly different outcome. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff available — but there’s also quite a few exceptions amongst best-sellers of the past, especially when it comes to Australian music. The proportion of hit Australian music from the past available on iTunes is also generally lower than the overall percentage.

This week, Apple has been running an ‘Australia Day Rocks’ campaign, promoting special prices on material released by Aussie performers. It’s not all stuff from the last decade either, and a casual glance might suggest that iTunes has most eras covered. An in-depth search shows there’s still prominent holes — some almost as big as AC/DC.

Don’t shoot me, I’m only the statistician

A couple of important points to note before we hit the actual numbers:

  • Yes, I realise iTunes isn’t the sole source of legal music online. But by every available measure, it’s the largest, so availability here matters far more than anywhere else right now.
  • Conversely, before anyone starts with a bias rant, let me emphasise that I’m not saying these absences are Apple’s fault. In this context, Apple is merely providing the mechanism whereby songs can be made available digitally. It’s up to the rights holders — in this case the record companies or the artists themselves — to actually put that material out there.

The methodology

Since 1988, the Australian Record Industry Association has issued its own official lists of the best-selling albums and singles each year. For 1970 through to 1987, I used the lists presented by David Kent in his book Australian Chart Book (1970-1992). (You can access that data on Wikipedia, incidentally.)

For each album and single in the top 25 for 1970 to 2010, I checked its current availability in the Australian iTunes store as of January 2011. I also noted how many Australian releases were in each list (giving the benefit of the doubt to Australian artists who have long since shifted overseas such as the Bee Gees, since that’s how ARIA does its own counting). For an album to be counted as available, it had to be on sale under that title and with that track listing as a basis — as a result, many early compilation albums get counted as not available. (I did count as available two Australian albums which technically don’t go on sale until January 28 this year — Ol’ 55’s Take It Greasy and Uncanny X-Men’s Cos Life Hurts.)

A similar rule applied to singles — and re-recordings or live versions didn’t count (unless the hit was a live track originally). The version that was a hit is what matters. Songs that can’t be purchased as individual tracks were also excluded. This only became an issue for three titles: Carole Bayer Sager’s ‘You’re Moving Out today’, Natalie and Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, and Meat Loaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’. (The latter was the biggest-selling single of 1993, though.)

Using these best-seller lists is helpful for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a structure for searching and comparison. Secondly, it means that we’re unquestionably looking at music that has already proven popular, and which record companies generally own the rights for — we’re not getting caught up in an argument about obscurity.

Of course, prior to the widespread introduction of barcode scanning and then of digital music sales, it is fair to say that tracking methods were imprecise. They often involved the use of sales diaries, and record labels could bombard retailers with product in the hope that items on the shelf might sell. So it’s fair to assume that figures for (say) 2010 are much more accurate than 1980. Nonetheless, the chart data is the best available metric we have for popularity, so that’s what we’ve used.

What’s actually available?

The table below lists the findings. For both albums and singles, I’ve listed the number of releases in the top 25 actually available on iTunes; the number of Australian releases in that top 25; and the number of those Australian releases available on iTunes. The same figures have been calculated for decades (counted as the years 0-9, e.g. 1970-1979, though for the 00s I also included 2010). A bold figure in a column indicates 100% availability (ie every album or single released, either overall or by an Australian performer, is available).

First things first: the overall numbers are very high. On average, of the 25 hit albums from any year, 21.3 are available; for individual songs, the figure rises to 22.7. So there’s a lot of back catalogue available — far more than you’d ever have found in a physical record store. Then again, as we’ve noted, availability should be better.

As you’d expect, the figures rise to virtually 100% following 2005, which is when the Australian iTunes store opened. There are a handful of post-2005 albums that ranked in the top 25 sellers that are no longer available (Human Nature’s first Motown covers album, Australian Idol alumni Damien Leith’s The Winner’s Journey, and a Robbie Williams greatest hits album that has been superseded.)

Surprisingly, though, there isn’t as much variation in the decade-by-decade averages as you’d expect once you go back past 2000. Virtually anything released in the 1990s would have come out on CD, yet the number of tracks or albums available isn’t notably higher than for the two preceding decades.

Some key facts to note

  • There’s a raft of major Australian acts of the 1980s and beyond who have no iTunes presence: Cold Chisel, Icehouse, INXS (there’s nothing with Michael Hutchence on vocals around), Australian Crawl and Mondo Rock. This surprised me a lot, and it makes the figures for that decade much, much lower, since each band regularly featured on the annual top 25 list. Indeed, Icehouse’s Man Of Colours is still generally reckoned as the second-biggest selling album by a local artist of all time (after John Farnham’s Whispering Jack). Chisel and Icehouse certainly control the rights to their back catalogue, so the lack of presence can’t be blamed on the record companies; I don’t know what the story is with the other groups.
  • Early 1970s albums from Australian artist are also not well represented, with no Australian album that ranked in the top 25 sellers from before 1975 being available. I’m also surprised that Peter Allen is all but absent, with no sign of even ‘I Go To Rio’.
  • 1982 is the only year of the pre-iTunes era where the 25 biggest hits are all available on iTunes.
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  • Many early 1990s Australian albums have never arrived on iTunes, including two that ranked as the biggest seller of their year: Daryl Braithwaite’s Rise and the Australian arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar.
  • Even with artists that appear to have embraced iTunes, there can be odd gaps. Where’s Ray Of Light by Madonna, Cosmic Thing by the B-52’s or Different Light by the Bangles?
  • Aside from Meat Loaf, there are two other cases where the best-selling song of the year isn’t on iTunes: ‘Australiana’ from 1983 (available in a re-recordng), and ‘Candle In The Wind ’97’ from 1997 (a long-deleted charity recording, though the original version of the song can be had).
  • Despite the Beatles hype from last year, their compilation 1 — the biggest-selling album of 2000 — never made it to iTunes.
  • While 2003 might look like a relatively impressive year for Australian singles, five of the six tracks were by one artist: Delta Goodrem.

A quick point about iTunes

A pertinent observation after approximately 2,000 iTunes searches: iTunes is not a very sophisticated (or stable) search tool. In several cases, it said an album didn’t exist if I searched for the title, but browsing that artist’s list of releases showed it was in fact on sale.

On other occasions, searching for an exact title would find that album, but would list have a dozen unconnected results first. If iTunes decides your search term relates better to apps or iTunes U content, you’ll have to filter it down afterwards or use the Power Search option. And I lost track of the number of times that iTunes froze altogether and required me to restart it.

I guess this is an exception of sorts to my earlier comment about Apple not being to blame: if iTunes search worked better, it’d be easier to find stuff and perhaps there’d be more incentive for labels to extend their catalogues. But I doubt that’s the main reason. And on that point . . .

Why aren’t these classics available?

There are several possible explanations for these absences, some of them more relevant than others.

Cancelled compilations In the pre-iTunes era, compilation albums were important sellers: they gave you access to the best-known songs by acts you liked, often with extra tracks or hard-to-collect singles. In the digital era, you can easily compile your own playlists, so there’s less incentive to release compilations (or their cousin the soundtrack album), and relatively little incentive for labels to reissue older compilations. If they’re going to offer a greatest hits, it may as well be the newest version.

That means that albums like 1971’s top seller, Cocker Happy by Joe Cocker, or 1976’s The Best Of ABBA — for years one of Australia’s largest -selling albums ever — haven’t shown up on iTunes and don’t count as available. Yes, there’s no shortage of ABBA compilations, and you could reassemble this one yourself with a little research. But I’d argue you’re more likely to sell to a nostalgia freak if you recreate the actual album they remember and save them the effort. That does happen occasionally, but the absence of compilations from the past is one major reason we never see 100% iTunes availability for albums until 2003.[imgclear]

Artists own the rights and want a better deal The Beatles established this pattern, and it seems clear that other acts like Cold Chisel and Garth Brooks haven’t signed a digital deal because they don’t think the terms are reasonable. That’s their choice, but there’s a danger that if they miss the boat, they’ll permanently damage their commercial prospects. Just like its physical predecessors, iTunes won’t be dominant forever — we’re already seeing some evidence of a shift towards streaming and subscriptions — and I find it hard to imagine a better deal is going to get dangled in the near future. It feels a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Alleged lack of interest With older material, labels might argue that there simply isn’t the demand out there. Given the widespread uptake of digital music, however, I’m not sure how much credence we can place in this argument — though I’ll admit that music enthusiasts are often more obsessed with minor chart performers than with mass-market acts, who sell many copies to people whose interest in music is normally much more casual. And for acts which only had hits in Australia, uploading to a global marketplace might not make sense. On the other hand, as we’ve noted before, the costs involved aren’t high.

Labels don’t know what they have Especially for Australian performers, the mass consolidation of labels into a handful of global companies is bad news. Where local specialist labels had an incentive to keep making money from their back catalogue, global conglomerates have so much back catalogue that finding a champion for re-releasing classics might be difficult, especially as music companies have cut their staffing in recent years.

History repeats itself

It’s not pleasing that so much Australian music is missing from what is, right now, the world’s biggest music store. However, this data does show that we can’t blame the current relatively poor showing for Australian music in the charts on anything much other than the cyclical nature of music buying and our own apparent indifference to the country of origin for most music we purchase.

When ARIA released its 2010 bestseller figures, it spun the number of Australian acts in the album listings as good news, since the overall number of performers in the list the best since 2007. That was a shamelessly positive spin: the absence of any Aussie acts in the top 25 selling singles was arguably a bigger issue, especially since digital downloading means it’s far easier to buy individual tracks than ever before. On that yardstick, Aussie music is doing poorly; there has never been a year where that has happened before.

However, a look at the longer term history shows that some years we like Aussie acts, others we don’t, and there’s not much of a pattern. A brief mid-70s boom was followed by a fallow period as disco and American easy listening ruled. In 1987, a record number of Australian songs were in the top 25 (11 — though 4 of those can’t be had on iTunes now). Again, that number dropped over the next couple of years.

On average, just under one-fifth of the songs in our 25 favourites for a year will be Australian; for albums, the number is only marginally higher. There’s major variation, though — in some years, the figure hits zero, in a best-case scenario, it might reach towards a dozen. Our tastes change over time, but it seems unlikely that we’ll see that overall figure change much in the future. What could change, though, is our ability to buy some of those older classics — it’s only an upload away. Record labels, get back to your offices after Australia Day and sort it!

Got any insights on why music is (or isn’t) available? Share ’em in the comments.

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