Aboriginal musicians doing it tough

Aboriginal musicians had a tough start: with 98% of their music traditions lost, they struggled to get airtime. Can this improve?

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Selected statistics

Percentage of Aboriginal acts at the 2019 Big Sound Music Festival. Aboriginal population: 3%.

An Aboriginal musician's challenges: Distance, race and history

While there are plenty of Aboriginal musicians playing the entire spectrum of music, only a fraction of them get the rewards and airplay they want.

Attitudes, physical distance, training and education are among the significant barriers that prevent Aboriginal artists from reaching wider audiences, but also Australia's history.


"If I knew you were Aboriginal, I wouldn't have booked you," a promoter told musician Dr Mark Bin Barker.

Race was – and still seems to be – central to popular music in Australia because of the White Australia policy, introduced in 1901 and abolished in 1972.

''The effect of having an almost completely white population drawn predominantly from Britain and northern Europe meant that there was little knowledge of, or impact of, music that was not drawn from white sources,'' says Jon Stratton, a professor in the school of media, culture and creative arts at Curtin University in Western Australia.

While Aboriginal musicians feel empowered to make their struggles known through their songs, many comments left on social media sites by fans are racist and misogynist. "There's no shortage of straight-up boneheaded racism in our audiences," laments hip-hop MC and producer Tim Levinson, also known as Urthboy.

No airtime

Anglo-Australian is still the default norm for the Australian music industry. ''The music industry gatekeepers, which includes radio, used to say Aboriginal performers didn't produce high enough quality recordings,'' notes Dr Tony Mitchell, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Technology Sydney. ''Now they can't say that, [so] they just ignore them.''

Little to virtually no Aboriginal music is broadcast in Australia. Volunteer-run community stations play 4% Aboriginal music, the ABC less than 2%, and commercial radio only 0.14%.

In 2019, music channel Triple J broadcasted 168 hours per week, but couldn't play even one hour per week of First Nations music.

Consequently Aboriginal musicians are disenfranchised at every stage—training up, playing live, recording, airplay, distribution, equipment access, production and touring.


With 27% of Aboriginal people living in remote locations, the distance to gigs and the costs associated with this mean they rarely reach the spotlight.

We need to work with broadcasters to open the airwaves to more quality Indigenous content.

— Mark Bin Bakar, Aboriginal musician

98% of Aboriginal music traditions lost

Aboriginal performance traditions, among the oldest in the world, are also among the most endangered.

According to a Statement on Indigenous Australian Music and Dance in 2011 by the International Council for Traditional Music, around 98% of Aboriginal music traditions have already been lost.

Australia’s traditions of Aboriginal music and dance are "in crisis".

Without urgent action, those remaining are at risk of disappearing within a generation or two. The loss, the Statement suggests, comes from “[m]odern lifestyles and the ongoing devastating impact of colonisation”, which are “affecting the dissemination of cultural knowledge between generations”.

“Many senior composers and performers,” it continues, “have passed away leaving limited or no record of their knowledge.”

The Statement blames insufficient financial support for protection and preservation efforts for the dire straits Aboriginal music is in.

Deadly Sounds

In 1993 Gavin Jones founded Gavin Jones Communications Vibe out of a deep interest in Aboriginal music which still carries him today.

"Back then about the only Indigenous band people recognised were Yothu Yindi, and I knew there was so much more. So I bit the bullet and started the radio show Deadly Sounds," he reveals. ('Deadly' in the Aboriginal context means 'great, wonderful'.)

For the first anniversary of the radio program he awarded the best musicians, a celebration which became the well-known Deadly Awards, for which 29,000 people voted in 2010. The first Deadlys was at Boomalli, an art gallery, in 2010 it was at the Opera House with live SBS coverage.

In 1995 Gavin started publishing about Aboriginal music with the Deadly Vibe magazine (ceased in 2014 due to lack of funding).

I never thought [Deadly Sounds] would go as far as it has. It just underlines how much our own people—and the rest of Australia—have been starved of legitimate positive images and stories about Indigenous peoples.

— Gavin Jones, founder of Deadly Sounds

Explore the many Aboriginal musicians in my resources section!


View article sources (4)

[1] [1a] 'First Nations inclusion in the music business should be more than tokenism', The Guardian 5/9/2019
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] 'Odds stacked against Indigenous musos', Koori Mail 478 p.63
[3] [3a] [3b] 'Hip hop a poor cop in a white man's world', SMH 13/7/2013
[4] [4a] [4b] 'The Man behind the Deadlys', Koori Mail 485 p.21

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, Aboriginal musicians doing it tough, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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