How Like A Version Became One Of The Biggest Platforms In Australian Music

What started out as a light-hearted Friday segment has grown into one of the most sought after press opportunities in the country.

like a version feature photo

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Early last year, Floridian rapper Denzel Curry was running up the East Coast as part of the Laneway line-up.

Underneath headliners Courtney Barnett and Gang of Youths, and alongside acts like Baker Boy and Cosmo’s Midnight, Curry was a solid international booking for the festival, but still a fairly unknown quantity for mainstream Australian audiences. He’d been around for a while of course — his debut album Nostalgic 64 dropped back in 2013, and his most recent album, Ta13oo, his critically acclaimed breakthrough, was released the year before he swung by Australia.

His shows at Laneway were energetic, gripping, and by all accounts quite sweaty — Double J’s Dan Condon noted in his review of the Brisbane leg that the crowd had to be hosed down.

The festival wrapped up, and in the week that followed Curry was putting the finishing touches on his Like A Version cover, which would be broadcast on the morning of February 19. He’d chosen Rage Against The Machine’s thundering anthem ‘Bulls On Parade‘, which takes aim at craven and warmongering political leaders.

To call Curry’s rendition good is to make a dreary understatement: It was completely ferocious, with Curry hurling himself through the song with a white hot intensity.

“We started the song, it was sounding heavy as shit, and then Denzel screamed, “Come with it now!!!,” bandleader Michael McGlynn wrote in an article reflecting on the cover earlier this year. “I still get shivers thinking about hearing that for the first time. We all knew it was going to be epic. Denzel powered through the song like a man possessed, and he just smashed it out of the park. The energy was crazy.”

After Denzel dropped the mic and the cover was over, McGlynn “collapsed” on his keyboard. His neck was sore for days afterwards.

“We thought we’d done a fucking kickarse cover on national radio and that was enough. It wasn’t until a couple of the crew came up and said, ‘That was literally the most energy we’ve ever seen in a Like A Version,’ that we thought maybe we’d been a part of something out of the ordinary,” he recalled.

“Then we listened to the performance with Greg Wales, the outstanding engineer at triple j, and heard it back for the first time. Normally when you listen back to a take straight away you hear all the things you wish you could do again, but this time we were gobsmacked. The performance was undeniable. We headbanged some more and high-fived, laughed, danced and loved it. It was a really magical moment in my life.”

When the cover was broadcast on the Friday morning, the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Triple j’s textline was flooded with ecstatic listeners, and the cover was written up by every music media outlet in the country — including this one — and beyond. Suddenly, Curry was hot property.

Now beloved by local audiences, he came back to the country a few months later as part of Listen Out’s line-up, and became a hot favourite to take out the Hottest 100 — which would have been an historic win. In the end, he landed at #5, setting a record for the highest ranking ever by a Like A Version.

“The first time I saw the finished video of Denzel’s performance I knew it was going to be a monster,” triple j’s music director Nick Findlay told Music Junkee. “Denzel and his band had done some intense rehearsals in Sydney in the days leading up and arrived at the studio with huge energy before the mics even went on. At the end you can see Denzel drop the mic, and not in a corny way. I think he realised something special had happened.”

It was perhaps the best example yet of how powerful a Like A Version slot could be. Since it landed on the airwaves over 15 years ago, the segment has evolved from a fun and frivolous Friday exercise to one of the biggest publicity opportunities in the country.

From Drive To Prime Time

The first tentative iteration of LAV appeared back in 2003 during triple j’s Drive slot, when hosts Mel Bampton and Charlie Pickering ran a segment called ‘Wrong Way To The Top’ — which, if you can’t guess, was all about covers of ACDC songs. Bampton moved into the breakfast slot a year later, bringing the segment with her and repackaging it.

“The idea [was] of a stripped back, no frills, live music segment where artists would play an original and a cover of a song they loved,” Findlay says. “Craig Schuftan, her producer with a knack for puns and a keen ear for music, came up with the name.”

It proved a hit with listeners, and from 2005 triple j began releasing compilation CDs featuring the covers. A glance over the first couple of volumes reveals a wealth of goodies: Grinspoon covering The Verve’s ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, Tegan & Sara taking on Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’.

There was a lean towards covering acclaimed classics — the first two compilation CDs contained tracks from Fleetwood Mac, Split Enz, Neil Young, Nina Simone, Prince, Elton John — and not that much in the way of contemporary hits. Volume Three changed that somewhat, with covers of Beyoncé, Green Day, Wolfmother, and The Postal Service.

The segment moved to Drive with Robbie Buck in 2008, and then back to Breakfast with Tom Ballard and Alex Dyson in 2012. The station also started to film it and share it online, offering listeners the chance to see an entire band sometimes comically crammed into triple j’s small Sydney studio. It gave the segment a feeling of fun chaos — that it was all just a bit of fun on a Friday morning, which it was.

“While it has always centred around the principle of great song writing, video content became a more and more important way of consuming media for triple j’s audience and so it made sense for Like A Version to mirror that,” Findlay says.

alt-J in the triple j studio in 2012. Photo via YouTube.

Covering contemporary hits became — and remains — the new norm: Bluejuice took on Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’, Josh Pyke covered The Jezabels’ ‘Endless Summer’, Thundamentals performed Matt Corby’s ‘Brother’.

Eventually, the production began to outgrow the studio, and more and more LAVs began to be filmed into larger studios with much greater levels of production, gifting the segment air of importance and occasion that it hadn’t had before. The light-hearted banter the artists had with the hosts before and during the segment disappeared, replaced by more considered interviews.

The tone had shifted completely by the end of 2016, in large part due to Cher. Sydney band DMA’s took the singer’s pop classic ‘Believe’ and stripped it back into a trembling paean, Tommy O’Dell’s vocals shining out over the ringing acoustic guitars. It was massively successful — it landed at #6 in the Hottest 100 of that year (then the highest ranking LAV ever, before ‘Bulls On Parade’), and has become one of the band’s most streamed tracks. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed nearly 10 million times on YouTube.

“DMA’s cover was a huge moment for the band,” Rhiannon Cook, publicist at Positive Feedback, told Music Junkee. “You can’t go past that [cover],” agrees Dirty Hit records’ Rachel Jones-Williams. “Unbelievable how far it travelled — I believe it was certified gold last year.”

There had been plenty of Like A Versions in the Hottest 100 before (the 2014 countdown featured a handful, including Chvrches’ excellent cover of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know), but the success of DMA’s ‘Believe’ marked a big shift in the perception of LAV. It wasn’t a light-hearted segment anymore — it was a serious opportunity with the potential to launch an artist to success.

A Powerful Endorsement

Denzel Curry wasn’t a new artist, of course, but the lift he was given from LAV was considerable.

“Denzel was already a huge name in the hip-hop scene before this, and loved by the triple j audience — we had featured his album TA13OO six months before and his tracks really popped on air,” Findlay says. “But this cover, the intensity of it and the way he seamless merged his love of rock with hip hop, definitely brought him in front of a new crowd.”

A LAV slot can be seen as an endorsement of the artist by triple j – an endorsement that’s incredibly powerful in the Australian music landscape.

Jones-Williams worked with Curry in her publicity role at Caroline Australia in the months leading up to the performance (she left Caroline in December 2018) and says the LAV was a key moment in the rapper’s Australian campaign. It was also a long time coming, she says, having been pitching triple j his music for two years.

“He landed a feature album a few months prior so there was an awareness starting to build,” she told Music Junkee. “Safe to say this Like A Version was when people really started paying attention…his cover united hip-hop and metal fans, it was saying something incredibly important, people paid attention and it travelled — over 20 million combined streams later.”

“[The] Denzel moment took it to a whole new level,” Caroline Australia’s general manager Tim Janes told us. “It absolutely affected Denzel’s profile globally. Incredibly gratifying that an Australian media moment can have such an international impact. Just the perfect storm of the right artist and the right song.”

Jones-Williams says LAV is a “huge moment” for emerging artists, that carries an “event type excitement”.

“Our generation have all grown up listening to it, we’re programmed to tune into at 8am on Friday morning and then text the group chat with our thoughts and feelings,” she says. “And it’s not just core triple j listeners tuning in either — there’s a much wider demographic that will tune in just for this segment. For a young artist Like A Version means there’s a full hour of airtime where the focus is purely on them — on top of that there’s all the pre-promotion and the wider press and social media attention that comes when the session is released online and it keeps expanding from there.”

Cook agrees: “Like A Version is a huge opportunity for an artist, not just locally where the industry and general public watch the segment but also we know that the industry internationally are aware of it and place importance on it as well.”

An appearance on LAV will always generate press coverage, and if a band really nail a cover, Cook says, there can be a noticeable knock-on effect on ticket sales and streams. Jones-Williams also adds that scoring a LAV slot can be seen as an endorsement of the artist by triple j — an endorsement that’s incredibly powerful in the Australian music landscape.

A Golden Opportunity

Last year, as Curry’s cover emerged as a favourite to take the top spot in the countdown, there was some discussion about whether a LAV winning would be a case of triple j eating its own tail — that its (already considerable) influence over Australian music culture had grown. But Findlay brushes off this discourse.

“I think it just shows how much Like A Version is loved by our audience,” he says. “Bands play them in their sets, they play them at music festivals, they get huge streaming numbers on Spotify, Youtube and Apple Music, it’s a segment that has transcended triple j. The Hottest 100 is about celebrating the music that our listeners loved over the past 12 months so it makes total sense to me that more and more Like A Version covers have popped up in the countdowns over the years.”

“It makes total sense to me that more and more Like A Version covers have popped up in the countdowns over the years.”

As for how to actually get a slot, Jones-Williams and Cook both say it’s primarily about timing. But there are load of factors in consideration — triple j needs to keep the selection varied, they need to chose artists with some history of airplay, and, of course, it has to line up with promotion and touring schedules and the like.

“You will be in a good position if you go in with a strong pitch and evidence to back up why your segment will work, how it’s different from those before it and why you should be considered,” Cook explains. “The song you choose to cover is also important — it needs to be something people wouldn’t expect. Something surprising, creative, outside of their usual genre or sound and of course something that hasn’t been done before.”

“We try and keep it varied week by week,” Findlay says. “In normal times, it’s us approaching acts that we think would work well for the segment. They can be touring at the time, and be either internationals or local acts. We sometimes get pitches from acts with ideas of what they’d cover. And we also chase a lot of artists to see if they’re interested and available. It’s a great avenue for acts to do something a little different and to reach new fans, so we try and spread the love around. And putting it together is a bit like a jigsaw where some pieces fall into place easier than others.”

Of course, like with everything else, COVID has thrown a spanner in the works, with border restrictions and lockdowns wreaking havoc on the ability for artists to come in and record. Triple j paused the segment for two months, but it recently resumed.

The lack of international touring is giving local artists a shot without having to compete with international acts — local emerging acts like Becca Hatch, Azure Ryder, and Annie Hamilton all stepped up recently, and they might not have had the chance this early in their careers were it not for the wild circumstances of 2020.

But for all its weight and importance, Findlay stresses that the segment still maintains its joyous, chaotic heart.

“I don’t think it has lost any of the fun side of it,” he says. “It may be a bigger production then it once was, but at its core it’s still about having a good time and celebrating great music. Just look at G-Flip’s smile during Alex Lahey’s Like A Version last year and tell me that’s not the epitome of fun!”

Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.