Will The Next Molly Meldrum Please Stand Up?

24 February 2016 | 3:14 pm | Brynn Davies

"The problem isn’t that the audience has lost interest in music. We’ve lost interest in TV music shows."

Towards the end of the 1970s, an Australian band changed its name — a move that had, and has, the potential to send any rising artist into obscurity. The fate of that band was secured for the next four decades by one man, and one show.

On July 12, 1981, Molly Meldrum sat on a low stone bench in the Victorian snowy mountains, donning the infamous Stetson hat for the very first time. He held in his hand a record by Sydney band Flowers.

“This album was released about three weeks ago and has now become the biggest add-on on radio stations right across America, which assures that this album already is going to be a monster in that country,” enthused Meldrum in that rambling, stuttering way of his. He took the record and flung it into the snow behind him, announcing to the world for the first time: "As from this week, Flowers are officially known as Icehouse."

Until recently, Icehouse went on to become the highest selling debut album of an Australian band, ever.

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I just got off the phone with my Dad, who shared this story with me as a way of explaining to someone who missed Molly’s era what the Countdown phenomenon was all about. His name is Iva Davies, and he’s the frontman of Icehouse. I told him that Australia has just found out that Channel [V] is closing its doors, downgrading to the point of obscurity to a run of film clips on the Internet. We’ve come a long way away from a time in history where one show and one critic had the power to make or break an artist, who defined record sales and disk jockey playlists and brought bands — Australian or otherwise — onto the international stage.

"In terms of exposure, Countdown was absolutely pivotal," he told me. “Two artists you might know… ABBA: Molly pushed for Mamma Mia to be played even when it wasn’t intended to be a single. And Madonna: he saw her when she was just a young girl in New York and all he said was ‘She’s going to be huge.’"

"Molly would tell Australia about a band and a single, and the next day everyone ran to buy a copy."

That’s what the Australian music industry is missing. We need a new Countdown. We need a new Molly Meldrum. We need a music critic who has the influence, the integrity, the industry knowledge and the sheer velocity as a presenter to break through every other good looking social media star reading a script about the latest pop release on TV.

We don’t sit down on the weekends and watch Hey Hey It’s Saturday any more. Rage is just a series of video clips that we can YouTube on our smartphones. It used to be that the only way to get a song was to either buy the record or wait poised over the red button of your tape player until the exact moment the film clip played on the TV. We’ve got Spotify now.

But it’s not that music is free these days. It’s a little to do with the overwhelming amount of platforms at our fingertips — every kid with a computer can be a music critic on their blog/vlog/Twitter/Tumblr/website/Facebook/YouTube etc. etc. etc. to infinity. The overwhelming nature of choice is throwing some incredible critics into obscurity because unless you’re a direct fan of their page, no one really knows about them, or their opinion. And as a result the music industry is now riddled with an overflux of artists who all want to be rock gods and think that they’re going to get there by singing about their butt.

The industry would benefit from once again having a critic who sifts through the shit and unearths the gold, because with so many voices saying absolutely everyone is the next big thing… we don’t have a next big thing.

There’s no career defining moment for artists anymore — a call to be on Countdown — when they know that 'this is the day we hit the big time’. The role of the disk jockey has shifted — commercial radio programmers choose playlists, and they themselves don’t have an authority that they trust. Someone whose recommendation determines which new singles get a spin that will subsequently launch a band onto the world stage. Audiences need to find their fire for music again. It used to be that Molly would tell Australia about a band and a single, and the next day everyone ran to buy a copy. It’s this cycle of success that we’re missing — a mega critic who says a band is where it’s at, whose records and show tickets are subsequently sold out overnight.

The Australian music industry needs a figure like Molly and a platform like Countdown to give us a powerhouse for Australian artists to aspire to be recognised by. One who has the ability to send careers skyrocketing. Countdown was crucial to the success of Aussie bands like AC/DC, Kyle Minogue, INXS, Sherbet, Skyhooks, The Angels, The Choir Boys, Icehouse and Mental As Anything, just to name a few. Although it’s not widely recognised, Countdown had a strong international influence that can partly be attributed to becoming one of the first TV shows in the world to use music videos as a major part of its programming. Madonna, Blondie, ABBA, John Mellencamp, Meat Loaf, Boz Scaggs and Cyndi Lauper achieved their first hits in Australia because Molly took note.

We don’t have an ultimate source any more — one that provides unknowns with a space to jump from a Spotify playlist and a back-of-magazine review to the forefront of public consciousness because half the country saw them on TV on Saturday night.

The problem isn’t that the audience has lost interest in music. We’ve lost interest in TV music shows. We need to work with the new convergent media environment and embrace the platforms available to us in the digital age. And we need to sit someone ground-breaking on the edge of that springboard who will tell the world to "do yourself a favour". It’s the value of a critic, after all.