Hard News by Russell Brown


Changing Times

That New Zealand On Air's 22 year-old music funding system is showing its age is received wisdom. But I don't think any commentator has written such a serious, methodical assessment of the system as Duncan Greive does in the new issue of Real Groove magazine.

Update! The PDF of the story is here. Many thanks to Duncan and Real Groove for permission to upload.

Rather than laying blame on individuals, he has spoken to a range of stakeholders – including NZ On Air music chief Brendan Smyth – to try and work out what any necessary change might look like. He's also crunched some numbers:

Since 2000, NZ On Air has spent a shade over $10,000,000 funding the recording of around 200 local albums. While their remit is to get New Zealand music played on radio and TV, it’s useful to take a look at the sales of a random sampling of New Zealand albums which received album and video funding, and see what the taxpayer contribution was to each album sold. This isn’t a metric the organisation uses to judge success or failure of a project, but it is useful in ascertaining the true popularity of a project, because it shows the number of times a consumer paid full price for an album.

UPDATE: The information on Donald Reid's album in the paragraph below is wrong. Donald Reid received no NZ On Air funding for his album, In A Taxi Home, which has sold about 2000 copies. I don't think the graphic is very reliable.

The subsequent infographic – based on leaked information -- is fairly alarming. Each of the 500 copies of Jonny Love's self-titled album bought at full price by consumers cost the taxpayer $140. Paul McLaney's Edin album sold a similar number at a cost of more than $120 (although Duncan makes the point that his count doesn't include the likes of direct sales at gigs, where McLaney probably sell more albums than anywhere else), and albums by Donald Reid, Chong Nee and Luke Thompson came in at more than $60 per unit sold. At the other end of the scale, Gin Wigmore sold 46,000 records, bringing the marginal cost of her recording grant down to only a few dollars.

It's worth noting that this is not the metric NZ On Air applies to measure success -- or even the one it's allowed to employ.

Duncan observes:

Much of the criticism of NZ On Air boils down to radio’s role in the process. As C4 and MTV have become more youth-oriented lifestyle channels and shied away from playing music in prime time, so the centrality of radio to NZ On Air’s existence has risen. Ultimately, the organisation bases all its decisions on the remit woven into its fabric, which is to get New Zealand music played on TV and radio. There is no quality component, no critical judgment – it’s just a numbers game, and one run by radio stations whose programmers would rather die than lose listeners and the advertising dollars they represent. Which means that NZ On Air’s gaze is effectively trained by commercial radio to a very large extent.

This isn't a new argument: people have been pointing out that what is acceptable to commercial radio isn't necessarily what will succeed in the market, and it's certainly not necessarily what is good. But I think Duncan is right in saying that the system is now in drift mode.

… there have been no meaningful alterations to the way NZ On Air operates since the year 2000. This despite the myriad changes which have impacted upon the music industry over the past decade, predominantly driven by the internet and file sharing. NZ On Air remains largely the same organisation, behaving in the same manner as it did when it first started funding music nearly 20 years ago.

But at the heart of the problem is that, even though it has edged in that direction over time, NZ On Air is not a music funding agency. It is there so that we can see (and hear) more of ourselves on air. The name with which it was officially created – the Broadcasting Commission – makes its role pretty plain.

Brendan Smyth is acutely aware of the peril of entering what he has described to me as "the ultra vires void" – that is, his operation doing something it has no authority to do. This isn't trivial – the agency is monitored by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and it could bring down a power of trouble on its management by heading off and spending taxpayers' money without permission.

On the other hand: a change to NZ On Air's enabling legislation late in Labour's reign allowed the creation and funding of NZ On Screen, a website devoted to screen culture (disclosure: I'm on the trust board there), but it hasn't produced much of anything in the music sector.

One problem with a move to take account of the times is that many of the most important means of music discovery now operate in a grey area. Hype Machine, the MP3 blog aggregator, is a wonderful marketing tool, but it pays no performance rights fees (by contrast: even the short song previews on the iTunes store attract such fees) and not everything is there with even the tacit permission of the copyright owners. It's a hard place for a government agency to go.

Ruban Nielson of the Mint Chicks offers another way forward: break down the $50,000 recording grants – deemed necessary by the industry when the scheme was introduced – into $10,000 chunks, and spread it more widely. The sentiment is echoed by the rapper Tourette's – a lively creative presence who can't get a $5000 video grant to save himself.

Last month, the highly-touted local hip hop crew Home Brew – denied a video grant in the most recent funding round – got together with award-winning video producer Chris Graham (working for free) drafted in a bunch of mates for a fund-raiser and produced this:

Whether or not you agree with Duncan's characterisation of the agency's "strange, uncoordinated muddling through the mists that lie between art and commerce," his placement of the debate is spot-on. The music industry does lie in an odd place between the poles of art and commerce, and our public sector practices have long been an ill fit for that. I hope and trust Duncan's work here will help navigate a way forward.

PS: The Real Groove website has full transcripts of interviews Duncan conducted for his story, with Ruban Nielson and Isaac Promotions' Mark Kneebone.


As a side note, Real Groove music and film reviewer Aaron Yap is raising money to treat his father's oesophageal cancer. I think it's a remarkable thing for a son to do, and you can read more about it and perhaps give a little here.

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