Oli Wilson1


Though not a special issue, all four article contributions to this edition explore elements of Australian popular music. These elements are increasingly being viewed as ‘ecologies’, and therefore it is a fitting coincidence that these contributions feature as parts of a singular edition. The articles featured here cover three major urban centres in Australia, namely Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. The articles each apply different approaches to the study of popular music, and include sector-engaged ethnography, as well as semiotic and text-based analysis.

In the first article, Martin Cloonan explores perspectives from ‘grassroots’ live music venue representatives in Sydney. This article contributes to a growing discussion around the importance of live music venues to local, national and global economies. The article carries particular significance in the Australian context due to recent controversies around Sydney’s ‘lock out laws’, and Melbourne’s Save Live Australia Music (SLAM) movement. Cloonan’s research is funded by the City of Sydney Council, and establishes that venues are viewed by practitioners, specifically venue owners, managers, bookers and programmers, as sites of cultural activity, rather than exclusively as sites of commercial activity. The art/commerce divide is explored through questionnaires and interviews. The results highlight the view that policy makers are disconnected and misinformed about the nature of the live music industry. Cloonan frames the sector as an ‘ecology’—a series of interdependent components that are not exclusively income-driven, but are an interaction between commercial and artistic endeavours. The components of the ‘passion-driven’ live music industry are interdependent, meaning that issues in one part may have knock-on effects in other areas. In other words, Cloonan argues that artistic endeavours may be negatively impacted by the City Council’s regulatory frameworks. The holistic view of the sector frames the article’s recommendations, which identify five important themes for venues: cultural value, the difficulty of running a venue, the relationships with government, outsider perceptions, and notions of a live music ecology.

The following article explores another sector within the Australian music ecology, and also points to tensions surrounding creativity and commerce. Here, Marcus Breen critiques the 2013–2014 exhibition, ‘Music, Melbourne and Me: 40 Years of Mushroom and Melbourne’s Popular Music Culture’ held at RMIT. Breen critiques the exhibition’s inference that museums may offer new ways of engaging with the complex world of popular creativity and commerce. This exhibition was notable for a number or reasons, and serves as a pertinent case study into the complex relations between public institutions and the commercial music industry. The objectives of public institutions, such as universities and museums, seem to clash with those of the commercial music industry, which Breen sees as predominantly profit-driven. The exhibition was also notable in that it attempted to go beyond static displays to include an audio-visual invention designed and built at RMIT called Morphos. Breen identifies conflicting narratives concerning the representation of popular music that is uninformed by the history and political economy of the place in which it is located, and the perceived role of museums in deconstructing and foregrounding industry-driven rhetoric, or ‘bullshit’ as Breen terms it. The article concludes by discussing academics’ role as critics of ‘bullshit’.

In the third contribution, Jon Stratton examines imaginations of Perth, Australia through song lyrics. Stratton suggests that representations of Perth are ‘mythic’ in nature, driven by its isolated geo-locality on the western coast of Australia. Stratton applies a text-analysis method on a non-exhaustive sample of songs that mention the city in their title or lyrics. These songs are mostly written by white men who perform in predominantly singer-songwriter, indie and rock/metal styles, and therefore point to a particular mode of cultural coding. Stratton divides lyrics into two categories: those that are written by artists from ‘within’ the city, and those that are written by artists from elsewhere, some of whom may never have visited the city. While both groups agree that Perth is isolated, their narrativization of isolation manifests in different forms. For example, those who write from ‘within’ Perth express a feeling of being trapped, whereas those from elsewhere romanticize the city as exotic and strange, and ‘on the edge of the world’. The ‘unreal’ qualities of Perth have accumulated over time, and serve to frame popular desires concerning otherness. This is despite the city’s steadily increasing accessibility through developments in online and air-transport industries.

The fourth and final article explores the success behind Hillsong Music, a major contemporary congregation music company based in Australia. This company has disproportionately high success in the Australian album sales charts. This is significant to the Australian music ecology, as over 40 per cent of Christian music consumed in Australia is locally produced, in contrast to mainstream popular music, of which only around 9 per cent is locally produced. According to the article’s author, Daniel Thornton, this anomaly is driven by extra-musical, as well as musical and lyrical factors. Thornton applies a semiological approach to the study of Christian music, and provides additional insider perspectives to the significance that congregational songs hold among consumers. Thornton’s critical analysis also highlights tensions around the commercialization of Hillsong Music. In particular, Thornton observes that specific music is embedded within church-led worship processes and events, and then commoditized as part of an extension of this process.

This issue was compiled by Oli Wilson, who is Acting Editor while Shelley Brunt takes a year’s maternity leave. Shelley will be rejoining the editorial team in 2017.


1. Oli Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Music and Creative Media Production at Massey University, Wellington. His main area of research is music in Oceania, and he specializes in the recording industry and popular music cultures in Papua New Guinea.