As I stickered a box of Bic Runga, Brooke Fraser, Natures Best, Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn albums for ‘NZ Music Month’ (NZMM) in the record store I work at, I felt the vomit rise.
NZMM is a month to give more credit to the artists already signed and pushed by major labels. It’s a chance for politicians to bask in the light the major labels have created in pushing this music onto the airwaves and the charts. A month where we are meant to pat our backs and feel validated due to the fact that our music is apparently as good as, if not better than the influx of American and British tunes that dominate our radio stations. A month where mainstream media outlets can feel good for further pushing the NZ tunes that have been played a hundred times before, or suddenly discover and play ones that have not. But it’s only for one month out of twelve.
A month where music stores like the one I work at can put up the target posters and further squeeze money out of the chart topping, platinum selling, NZ On Air funded albums. Outlets such as Salient and the Victoria Broadcasting Club (VBC) are committed to exposing readers and listeners to worthy local and New Zealand music year round. In these pages we feature at least one local live review a week, and nearly every week, review at least one New Zealand CD, and often profile local bands. The VBC has a huge play list of amazing, often unheard of New Zealand music.
Yet mainstream media is not like us, and so we have to have a month – May – set aside in the year to remind them about ‘New Zealand Music’. Steve Newall, Executive Coordinator for the NZ Music Industry Commission (NZMIC) informed me that NZMM was initiated seven years ago in an attempt to increase the content of NZ music played on the radio. “The idea was to focus on giving people a good reason to lift the local content levels. The focus spread from commercial radio to public radio and print and television as well.” At its inception, NZ music made about six per cent of total album sales and the airplay was just hitting 11 per cent. Now NZ music is at 29 per cent of albums sold and airplay regularly sits in the 20s.
Newall likens NZ Music Month to being “an umbrella over the industry as it ties in all these different activities that people may have already been doing, or may want to tailor their plans to NZ Music Month by putting a record out – or maybe its a good time to go on tour. It’s really about trying to get out there as much as possible.” He goes onto state that “it’s much better to promote an artist that has just released an album than one that it’s been a year or two since, so they haven’t been doing much. It might just be a good time for them to just play a show.”
Which NZMM will promote, if the band is lucky, such as bands like Fur Patrol who played the launching of NZMM in Christchurch, or the industry show in Auckland.
NZMM is allocated $50, 000 to promote, market and stage events – the same amount of money NZ On Air give out to successful applicants who want to record an album. The most obvious thing about this month is the posters; they cover billboards everywhere, simply stating it is ‘New Zealand Music Month’.
However, as the precious billboard space is filled with these posters, ones that are actually promoting a tour or gig of ‘New Zealand Music’ are pushed out. Ironic really.
In Wellington, NZMM kicked off with a (presumably funded by NZMM) private Matterhorn party attended by Helen Clark. Here Clark reiterated the value of New Zealand music, listing Adeaze as one of her Kiwi favourites. Too bad their record label Dawn Raid Entertainment has just gone into voluntary liquidation.
New Zealand Music Month, like the NZMIC and NZOA is based on commercial imperatives. The month is about promoting bands that are commercially viable, it’s about getting the New Zealand public more familiar with what is in their own backyard by getting them to purchase more NZ music. While the majors happily jump onto the bandwagon and promote their signed, safe, mainstream artists, they actually have the money and resources to further push them. While the record stores, labels and distributors may all benefit from this month, when it comes down to it, the main bands that benefit have been secure in the music industry for the past few years as New Zealanders are already buying their album, they have already made their cash, meet targets, and topped the charts.
More often than not, New Zealand Music Month does not see the independent artists that miss out on the above funding schemes suddenly thrown into the public eye, and as I found through talking to a few of my favourite artists in New Zealand, there is a general feeling of disdain about the whole month within independent music scenes.
While the Deadly Deaths have been receiving rave reviews over a variety of media (including Real Groove) for their self-funded CD, they have not received any special attention over NZMM . They have just released a self funded music video, made with no help from NZ on Air or Creative NZ, and had it played on C4 recently. They have tried in vain to get funding from NZ on Air, but artists such as major-label-signed Brooke Fraser just keep winning out over bands like The Deadly Deaths.
Veteran promoter and record label owner Blink is bitterly opposed to the month.
“NZ Music Month is a joke. Most NZ media just use it as an excuse to put a NZ artist on the cover for one month of the year and feature a large percentage of stories on New Zealand artists. All that happens is you flood a small market with large amounts of averageness and then the very next month NZ media can go back to ignoring what’s happening here, cause they have 11 months where they won’t feel guilt at not championing incredible local talent. I find it heartbreaking to see suddenly one month a whole heap of new local music being playlisted on commercial radio/TV (even though I hate most of the artists) and then as quickly as it was added, it drops off the radar.”
Lindon Puffin, one of my favourite independent musicians in the country, who is currently on one of his many tours up and down the islands, did release his album, Show Pony to coincide with NZMM. Yet he has received no help or attention from the NZMIC.
Puffin is the epitome of a struggling musician, hindered by the process the government instigated with its NZ on Air grants. He cannot get radio play that would help him to promote this tour, because he was not accepted onto the NZOA May Hit Disc. The problem lies with the fundamental requirement of music to be ‘commercially viable’ to get funding from NZ on Air, and feature on their hit discs to be played the nation over. According to Puffin, the people that choose what is going to go on these are the programme directors at commercial radio stations who sit on the selection panel at NZ on Air.
On the eve of his current tour, which has cost him “everything I have and more,” Puffin was informed by NZ on Air that the first single off his new album wasn’t going to appear on the May Hit Disc. And what was included? Major label signed tracks, such as Brooke Fraser, Evermore and the Feelers.
The independents miss out, especially when considering Puffin’s claim that the majors employ their own pluggers who have already taken the same songs to the same radio programme directors as the Hit Disc will soon turn up to. Puffin notes that in nearly every case on the May disc, the major label signed tracks would have already been play listed by the radio station, which is a waste of time and public resource.
Local punk-rock band Ritalin has also just released an album, and likewise, has not received any help from the NZMIC or NZOA. Singer and guitarist Niam states, “NZ Music Month does not mean anything to a lot of active bands. For example Ritalin will continue to do what we do which is tour and release music and it will completely fall under the radar of so-called NZ music month.”
Over the past four years, ex-Wellington band, Batrider have been applying for NZOA and Creative NZ grants, only to be turned down each time. When asked on their feelings about NZMM, lead vocalist Sarah Chadwick states she is “ambivalent, maybe I would have more of an opinion if we were included, but at present, it has little relevance to us as a band.” Taking the fact that they have been denied funding and grants in her stride, she states “I am proud that we never got grants though, because at least now we can say that we have done everything we have off our own backs, we’ve earnt every dollar ourselves at our shit jobs, and that makes me proud. It feels good to not owe anyone for what we have done so far.” Chadwick believes that bands should not receive money from the government, as “that’s not what being in a band is about.”
However, my favourite New Zealand Music Industry Commission story comes from local group So So Modern, who recently played at South by South West.
“We did find it slightly amusing that someone from NZMIC came to our show at SxSW, expressing a) surprise and enjoyment of our performance, and b) bafflement as to why she hadn’t seen us in NZ before.” Which basically epitomises where the NZMIC stand in relation to the hardworking, independent artists New Zealand wide.
So before you jet out and buy into the NZMM heavy promotion of a small selection of NZ music, spare a thought for the bands that work year round trying to get their music out there. Don’t just go to shows this month, do it year round, and support independent releases, bands and tours.
I asked some of the Salient music reviewers which NZ albums they think are worthwhile owning, and should be getting promoted over the month:.
Dimmer – I Believe You Are A Star
Shayne Carter. He’s just a dude. I Believe You Are A Star is his obsessively engineered little gem, balancing perfectly between man and machine.
Rhombus – Bass Player
Such a range of moods, captured in such a cohesive way. For a brief moment, Rhombus were a shining light in the murky sea of crap that is NZ dub/roots/electronica. Though their later work is a bit dubious, Bass Player will stand the test of time.
Jakob – Cale:Drew
Featuring wonderfully thick basslines, marvelous sonic guitar melodies and the tightest drummer in New Zealand music, Napier’s Jakob have been a favourite of mine since 2001’s Subsets of Sets. Cale:Drew, their second studio effort, finds these guys at the height of their instrumental rock prowess.
Ghostplane – Beneath the Sleepy Lagoon
A complex and engaging statement worthy of your attention. Combining compelling songwriting, breezy melodies, hazy vocal interplay and driving, low-slung rhythms, this band exudes goodness. Pity the keyboardist is such a hippy, eh?
The Clean – Anthology
Though not really an album per se, Anthology provides a fairly comprehensive…er, anthology, of The Clean’s blissfully scruffy sound. From the early pop sweetness of ‘Billy Two’ and ‘Anything Could Happen’ through to the more mature melodic warmth of 1996’s ‘Wipe Me, I’m Lucky’, Anthology perfectly showcases The Clean as New Zealand’s greatest band.