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Why Zan Rowe's Take 5 Is What The Music Industry Needs Right Now

20 October 2023 | 9:25 pm | Stephen Green

Take 5 is the modern music TV show the industry has been searching for.

Zan Rowe

Zan Rowe (Supplied)

As a child of the 90s, the music industry for me has been punctuated by endless calls to bring back Countdown. It’s like the entire fabric of the industry forgot how to do business when it was axed and never let it go. For me, I had just entered primary school, so I get the historical significance, but I could never understand why the ‘next Countdown’ was the holy grail that would save the industry.

In the 90s, Recovery took up the baton. Fuck the old people; we’ll have our own few hours of chaos on a Saturday morning that would define our generation. We’d listen to awesome new stuff. Hear about new music we needed to check out at the record store. Kinda Countdown 2.0, but in a form that was not palatable to the masses. The triple j generation’s Countdown and it was what we needed at the time.

But then the dollars came rocking in. Recovery was ok…. but what we REALLY need is the next Countdown to sell even MORE records! What about Ground Zero? Trot out Ugly Phil and get it sponsored by the record companies! Hmmm. That didn’t work. Let’s try another thing - House of Hits came along and even got Molly back…. funded by the record companies. Hmmm. Ratings aren’t awesome. Let’s try Pepsi Live! That’ll get funding from the record companies!

Nope. Not enough ratings. Ok. By now, you get the drift. We can keep the cycle going right up to The Sound as recently as 2020 (as nobly intentioned as it was). The industry has again and again been trying to crack the TV bubble by serving up artists miming their songs to a supposedly adoring public that should be accepting what we give them and then heading down to Brashes, Sanity, and Spotify the next day to purchase or consume what we told them to.

Not only has the cycle failed, but it has failed worse with every outing. Why? Because the industry has not been looking to the past for the seasoning that created the taste. They’ve been just trying to replicate the whole recipe. And time moved on.

In Take Five, Zan Rowe has created a thoroughly modern TV show that understands its audience. It’s not trying to be bite-sized clickbait headlines to deliver news; we have TikTok for that. Socials fill a need, but it’s on-demand and not exactly destination content. Take Five understands that the television medium needs more. She also understands that the modern music fan doesn’t want to be told what to listen to. They don’t need to be. It’s all there when they want it. They don’t want to be told. They want to be inspired.

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The genius and value of an organisation like the ABC is that a concept like Take Five can be worked up over years…. decades even. Rowe knows what works because while the TV show might be just two seasons in, the concept has been bouncing around on the radio for a very long time, being refined over a decade, and it shows. Even the step up between seasons one and two is a testament to the team’s continued striving for better.

Watch this week’s episode with Natalie Imbruglia, and what you will see is a masterclass in music storytelling and inspiration on a level that label-funded Countdown rip-offs could not even begin to understand.

The irony is that the commercial benefits of such a show are actually exactly what the industry needs right now. The care in the production could only be created by a team that understands the value of music. The empathetic and careful treatment of the artist. The reverie of placing the needle on the record. Equal weight is given to the artist she’s interviewing and the artist they are listening to as a muse FOR that artist. It’s an industrial gift.

On the surface of it, it’s a simple interview program. Parkinson did it for years. But the nuances of Take Five creates an experience that not just lets you into the world of the artist but lets you into the mysterious world of listening to music and not just bopping along to Taylor Swift while waiting for Kyle and Jackie O to return from the break. Really listening.

Rowe does it in such a way that it is inviting. We’re not snobs here. We’re inviting you to experience the joy that WE feel when you put the needle on an important record. We’re not telling you you SHOULD love it; we’re showing you the experience you can have when you find YOUR song.

And she’s doing it in 2023. The magic of the television medium is that you assume you’ve got someone’s attention for half an hour. This is the luxury that only podcasts are afforded. But with the added benefit that you’re staring at it. You’re not driving the kids to school. You’re not on your morning jog. You’re fully engaged.

And she uses every minute of the half-hour to drag you into her world where music is important. We don’t need a man in a hat to tell us what to listen to. That was really important when you needed to know what to look at when you got to the record store. Now? It’s important to stop and really listen to hear what it’s saying to you. That’s the gift music can bring.

Take Five also puts the artist in the centre of the frame. A place that they weren’t for decades. Some would argue they haven’t been until VERY recently. The industry was defined by dick-measuring power lists and gatekeepers who defined what an artist could create and how.

In Take Five, Zan never goes for the jugular. She never asks the “awkward” questions. And in doing so, she gets the real stories. She manages to stay in the background but somehow still steer the conversation to poignant and important things.

While interviewing Imbruglia, she says:

“When I was researching for this interview, there were some choice articles. One from the Washington Post particularly stood out from a male journalist, and this is how the article began - ‘Her lips are lush, her skin porcelain smooth beneath the short stylish burst of black hair. There is, in Natalie Imbruglia, a synergy of vulnerability and availability’.

“Wow. It’s just so cooked. Like, I read that and was like, ‘Are you freaking serious?’ It’s just so undermining. I can’t imagine how that would make you feel as an artist who’s been striving towards this with absolute ambition your whole life, and then you hit it. You become a worldwide star. You’ve got this incredible voice, a brilliant record full of hits, and you’re dealing with this shit.”

By calling out the very culture of the 90s and 00s music industry, Rowe opens the gates to the conversations we could have been having but were too busy trying to keep the corporate line and desperately hold on the to fig leaf that we needed a TV show to tell people what to watch.

Instead, her version of music television treats her viewers like they are intelligent and gets Imbruglia to open up about body dysmorphia, not just in the music industry but in society in general. It’s important. It’s relatable.

And then we delve into a Rickie Lee Jones track, not just talking about what it meant to Imbruglia but exploring what Jones was going through at the time. You walk away from the conversation, feeling smarter than you were before. Feeling part of a conversation, not being spoken down to. And most importantly, you’ve been shown a pathway into the amazing world of listening to music.

Really listening to music.

You walk away wanting to revisit that Carpenters song you always liked, wanting to dig out that Rickie Lee Jones album you haven’t heard. And importantly for commerce, you want to properly listen to that Natalie Imbruglia album that came out recently that you were too busy to check out.

Around 300,000 people watched that episode on Wednesday night. By the time they add in catch-up and repeat viewings, that’s going to hit over half a million people. Who sat down and spent 30 minutes connecting to music. Really connecting.

We reported on MTV offshoring their operations this week. Is music TV dead? Zan Rowe shows that it’s not. It just grew up while the industry wasn’t looking.

Take Five airs at 8 pm on Tuesdays on ABC TV and anytime on iView. Binge it all. You should.