Music video program Rage made its debut on ABC TV 30 years ago this week, on Friday April 17 1987. At the time of its debut Rage was one of five similar music video programs on Australian TV including Video Hits and a local version of MTV. As the others slowly died, morphed or were replaced, Rage has continued with an unwavering commitment to giving Australian audiences access to the weird and wonderful world of music videos.
One of my most enduring discoveries via Rage was You Am I’s “Berlin Chair” in 1994, at the time (and still) a low fidelity gem that despite the odds remains charming, exciting and just the right amount of strange. It also captures something particularly Australian in its grit.
Importantly Rage has kept music, and music video art, as its focus. Unlike its competitors, Rage has never had a regular host. This has meant that audiences have a direct line of communication with musicians, exemplified by the “Rage guest programmer” segments where artists explain their influences and own fandom by selecting a playlist.
The Australian music scene
Histories of music video television tend to be dominated by the early 1980s American story of MTV, however beyond the US there is a different story. In Australia, outlets such as Countdown had been exploring music video-like segments since the 1970s, so by the time Rage emerged in 1987, audiences were more than ready.
Rage’s influence on the Australian music scene is undeniable. The ritual of watching, listening, learning and exploring our culture through the program is one that fans across the country have done for decades at weird hours of the day and night. Rage is also often the first place that Australian artists are able to reach a national audience by submitting their videos.
And as John Safran proved in his 2002 music industry doco series Musical Jamboree, even an enthusiastic canine director can get a go if the conditions are right.
Jokes aside, there is now a solid generation of Australian musicians who have developed their careers as strong music video artists as well as audio musicians. Adelaide-born and now Hollywood-entrenched Sia breaks records and norms by writing for a range of pop icons while holding back much of her identity in performance. Her choice to hide her face initially baffled American listeners in particular, but her style has since drawn much praise.
Before she took over America, she was featuring in her own videos for over a decade in Australia, albeit still with a strong visual style that challenged US-centric ideas of female performance.
Similarly, triple Grammy award-winning Melbourne boy Gotye (aka Wally De Backer) gained attention by collaborating with amazing visual artists to bring his music to life. The video for Somebody That I Used To Know first debuted on Rage after the program had solidly supported his earlier work. The video’s success was fundamental to his gaining support beyond Australia, and parodies of the visuals just added to the song, and the artist’s appeal.
Legacy and future
While Rage goes to air outside traditional ratings time frames, the show is still an important part of the ABC’s TV viewership and website traffic.
In an industry that often seems obsessed with the newest and shiniest stars, Rage has also been a place for older music and histories. One of its most popular features, the annual Rage goes Retro season of classic Australian music television repeats, drew nerds and enthusiasts well before the internet. It was the only place where Countdown had been replayed since the 1970s, and since then other ABC music icons like GTK and Recovery have also been added to the “Retro” mix.
These repeat sessions are also where the next generation of bright young things first learned about their legacies. The repeats, coupled with guest program segments that often favour classic clips and styles, remind us that today’s passion pop would be nothing without its 1950s and ‘60s precedents. Today’s soul queens like Adele couldn’t exist without the Arethas and Dustys; and today’s local indie folk and political anthems have their origins in country, indigenous crossovers and minority music.
While these nostalgia trips are what make headlines (and continue to fuel further spin offs like Molly Meldrum specials), on a weekly basis Rage’s core business is still the promotion of new music. Current Rage producer and programmer Tyson Koh told me that about 40 new videos are added to the program’s lineup each week, with a substantial proportion of these new Australian artists often at the very beginning of their careers. As well as getting broadcast on the show, these new finds are also featured on the Rage YouTube channel as part of the regularly-updated “Wild Ones” playlist.
Rage still regularly appears as a notable outlet for TV viewers and subsequent website visits as part of the ABC annual reporting process.
The biggest possible threat to Rage’s future is the international music industry’s move towards algorithm-driven music selection. Streaming service Spotify has famously built a business model on this automated process, as while it is arguably becoming more and more nuanced, the idea of a computer being able to predict a listener’s mood and taste remains somewhat suspect.
At the moment, Rage remains 100% driven by passionate music curators and programmers making editorial rather than business decisions. Their considerations include classification, genre and origins of the artists, as well as advertising (which all ABC programs need to strictly avoid).
This extends to product placement in the videos featured on Rage too. For instance, Koh described how the show’s team will, “Swap shots out if there’s just a hero shot of a product, or we’ll blur it.”
“But on a couple of occasions where the whole thing was basically an ad, we just elected not to play it.”
Importantly, there are questions of taste and that certain X-Factor (to use a commercial music cliché) that the show’s producers have honed over many decades and with a nuanced understanding of the Australian market. Surely there’s no amount of computer programming that can account for that.
Dr Liz Giuffre is a lecturer and researcher in Media, Music and Cultural Studies at University of Technology, Sydne, Australia. Her work focuses on music and television in particular, including audience studies, fandom, cultural history and cultural industries in transition.
This post first appeared in The Conversation, 11 April 2017.