Hard News by Russell Brown


Bean-Counting the Beat

This week's Media7 looks at the debate around the sometimes uneasy blend of culture and commerce that is the local music funding structure. There can be no doubt that the local industry is more skilled and more productive than it was a decade ago, and there have been some wins along the way. But every New Zealand Music Month the rumblings grow a little louder.

The ondemand version of the show is online. There are the WMV clips and the podcast. And, of course, we're all over yer YouTube.

The discussion (preceded by a video backgrounder) was spirited, but civil, and could easily have stretched on for another half an hour. It was certainly worth having NZ On Air's Brendan Smythe and funding critic Gray Bartlett at the same table. Left to his own devices in front of a microphone, Gray has said some rather spiteful and silly things this month (including claiming on Newstalk ZB that the government had spent "hundreds of millions" on music industry funding in the past five years), but our debate didn't really go there.

There is a view in the music industry that the focus on the needs of commercial radio -- an inevitable consequence of NZ On Air holding by far the biggest funding purse, of $5 million annually -- has begun to distort priorities. Exactly how they're distorted depends on where you stand -- Gray thinks that "popera" and country music artists are being abandoned, and the indie sector thinks OpShop and Autozamm are getting all the money.

I agree with our third panellist, Real Groove editor Duncan Grieve, that the system needs to find some way of recognising a new reality: that the focus of music discovery has shifted to the internet. Radio just doesn't matter so much now.

Andrew Dubber and I wrote a lengthy thinkpiece on related issues for NZ On Air last year, in which I noted that the tastemakers are online, and suggested that:

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the concept of NZ On Air's Kiwi Hit Discs -- delivering free music to tastemakers in radio -- could, by negotiation with copyright owners, one day be extended to listeners themselves, via the internet.

Because …

… the traditional opinion leaders for music (reviewers, radio presenters and programmers) have been joined by an army of music enthusiasts who write blogs about music, set up fan sites, share their tastes and preferences and discuss music on social networking platforms such as MySpace, Last.FM, Mog, Facebook, Bebo, and many others. Some of these new opinion leaders have regular readerships that rival press circulation and radio station listenership.

The paper's title is We're All In This Together.

Greg Dixon's story for this month's Metro covers the issue well, in parts: it contains plenty of useful information, and some fascinating quotes. Other parts aren't so good: the intro is excruciating and there's a good deal of pointless snark. The snark intrigues me: there's a lot of passion exercised over a total budget of about $8 million across all agencies. SPARC gives far more than that every year to a small group of elite athletes.

There's a growing consensus that the Music Industry Commission, which has done a great deal on relatively modest year-by-year funding (including developing the very successful music performance curriculum for schools) deserves a better base. We'll see.

Simon Grigg's response to Gray's interview with the Herald is really worth reading. Let's not pretend the present system doesn't need to change -- but let's not be throwing the baby out with the cultural bathwater either. It's great that Hayley, Yulia, Elizabeth Marvelly and Will Martin are prospering, but albums full of popera standards can't represent contemporary New Zealand. It's Johnny Devlin we remember, not whoever your Mum and Dad liked at the time.

Another reason for change: there is no way that the present state of the industry will -- or can -- persist. As Simon notes it seems likely that EMI will sharply cut back its New Zealand operation (along with most other offices in the region). More weight will shift to independent labels, who (generally with the assistance of production and distribution deals with the major companies) already account for nearly half the radio airplay for local artists.

Anyway, that'll do for starters. I've invited the panelists to continue the discussion, and that invitation applies to anyone else who'd like to have their say.

But one thing: in a backgrounder for the show, I noted Kiwi FM's tiny audience share. I should make clear that I actually think Kiwi does a great job (I'm a big fan of both Wallace and Wammo); it's just somewhat imprisoned in that all-local-all-the-time format. Its 31 Bands in a Box project (live to air performances flipped onto YouTube) is neat.

(See also Radio NZ's excellent Mint Chicks live recording, which aired a couple of Saturdays ago.)


My darling and I stepped out last evening and took in the stage version of On The Conditions And Possibilities Of Helen Clark Taking Me As Her Young Lover, which may well be the greatest PowerPoint presentation ever staged in this country. People around us whimpered and sighed and snorted, helpless with inadequately suppressed laughter, as the doe-eyed Mr Richard Meros hunted down his conclusion.

Meros and his close (nay, inseparable) collaborator Arthur Meek deserve great praise for this production. I remember its nascent internet incarnation, and I took the opportunity after the show to purchase the book (now in its third edition -- with a quote from The Guardian on the cover!) which I am confident will come to be regarded as a classic of its kind. It will sit alongside Bookie No.1 by the Nag's Head Press on my shelf.

You could certainly do worse than grab a ticket for one of the last three nights at The Classic Basement in Auckland. And you can also see it next month at the Christchurch Cabaret Festival.

Speaking of endorsements from The Guardian, Chad Taylor, once of this parish, has been named in the paper's books blog as a cult author who deserves to come into the mainstream.

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