Hard News by Russell Brown


Friday Music: Not Dead Yet

The New Zealand Herald's website recently published Joanna Hunkin's fascinating well-researched, if a little nostalgic, look at the profound changes in the commercial environment for New Zealand music artists in the past 15 years.

She correctly identifies the early and mid-2000s as a remarkable period for  New Zealand music sales, and sums up what happened then and what's happened since:

Between 2000 and 2010, a staggering 324 New Zealand singles entered the top 40. By comparison, the seven years since have seen just 141 Kiwi tracks reach that same milestone. This year to date, only seven local songs have made it into the charts – and six of those were by Lorde.

So what changed? The answer is long and convoluted. It involves changing music tastes, consumer behaviour, funding and, most significantly, the rise of streaming.

I think that although funding – via the Clark government's Cultural Recovery Package – was a significant factor in the boom era, changes in that funding are probably the least important reason for what's happened since. Basically, by 2010, nearly everyone thought NZ On Air's $50,000 Phase Four co-funding for albums was past its use-by date.

The grants were delivering an increasingly narrow range of music and one determined too much by the needs of commercial radio programmers. They had become, if you like, a system for the perpetuation of Autozamm albums. And moreover, while only five years before Nesian Mystik had multi-platinum sales, albums weren't selling any more. Record companies couldn't justify the matching investment and the chances of NZ On Air's half being recouped slid towards nil.

Since then, music streaming revenue has exapnded quickly enough to reverse a long donward trend in industry revenue. But that has created another problem: it has made the charts all but irrelevant for New Zealand artists. Sales charts that used to reflect active consumer behaviour – fandom – now reflect passive listening. It makes money, but it's not very interesting and important to anyone but the major record labels collecting most of that money.

Ironically, the worst take on Hunkin's story came from someone who worked with her on it, Herald entertainment writer Karl Puschman, whose column about it begins with the words: "Our cultural identity is pretty much dead."

Puschman not only ignores his colleague's careful explanation of why we don't have many local singles chart hits any more, he brandishes that fact as evidence of cultural demise.

A decade from now who will be remembered in the wider context? Lorde, deservedly, and... um. Genre pockets will remember genre artists. Perhaps that's just a sign of the times.

But wasn't it great that you didn't have to be into dub to know Fat Freddy's Drop, or into rap to know Scribe, or into guitars to know Elemeno P? It truly felt like the genre was "New Zealand music" and further clarification was just nitpicking.

To be honest, I think that the fate of Kiwi FM demonstrated pretty well that "New Zealand music" is not a genre. And Fat Freddy's Drop only ever had one hit single ('Wandering Eye', which peaked at #6). No, Bays didn't sell as many copies as the nine-times-platinum Based on a True Story. But no one, anywhere in the world, sells as many albums as they used to. On the other hand, the launch gig for Bays was at a sold-out Auckland Town Hall, last January they sold 10,000 tickets for their gig at Villa Maria winery, and they'll sell another 10,000 next month. It's not like we've forgotten them. 

When we look for cultural resonance in the 1980s, we often as not alight on the Flying Nun catalogue. Those artists had some chart success, but in the history of the label and its hundreds of releases you'll find but one #1 single. And it's simply not the measure we talk about when we talk about why that music matters.

My guess is that when we look back on the present era, we'll see it as the time when Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding and Anthonie Tonnon made deep, amazing records. This is the year that Nadia and Aldous both played live on BBC TV. The year that the finalists for Best Album in the New Zealand Music Awards were Aldous Harding, David Dallas, Fazerdaze, Leisure and SWIDT. That's a strong and diverse lineup, and one that reflects the rise of Māori and Pasifika artists.

Look at this year's People's Choice award. Yes, Lorde won, but the other finalists were Kings, Maala, SWIDT and Theia, who are all making songs that fit contemporary radio formats.

In the long view, the boom of the 2000s looks like a happy anomaly, during which a few artists made good money. I think that its enduring legacy will probably be the opportunity those commercial returns created for the development of an industry infrastructure.

The economics are different now and in response we've seen the rise of the solo artist as an economically viable unit. There has been a decline in the past decade in the number of people getting out to see music played and the shrinking (both in size and number) of venues doesn't help. But as Ladi6 said in her wonderful acceptance speech at last month's Music Awards, "this life we've chosen" in music involves sacrifices, "but we wouldn't have it any other way."

So no, I don't think our cultural identity is "pretty much dead". In some ways, it's richer now than it was in the good times.


Speaking of the changes, Digital Music News has published an up-to-date report on which streaming service pays what. Somewhat confusingly, Napster is the best per-play payer – and YouTube is by a long stretch the worst. But, in practical terms, it can be complicated: Napster is small and YouTube is huge. And while everyone in music would like YouTube to lift its payments, Lil' Chief Records and Jonathan Bree made more in the past three months from the 1.3 million YouTube plays for this video (which Jonathan directed himself) than from sales of his album:

NPR has a nice and pleasingly correct (they use macrons!) interview with Northland's Māori metallers Alien Weaponry.

Since I Left You blog interviews Nadia Reid on the eve of her US tour.

The gentlemen of Unitone Hi-Fi did a RNZ Music Mixtape.


Heed the Call co-compiler Alan Perrott has written an Audioculture backgrounder to the music and the era in which it was made and had a yarn with Graham Reid at Elsewhere.

And if you're up for hearing our heritage soul, funk and disco spun, you're in luck. Alan and John Baker are playing songs from the record and related treasures from from 8pm to 2am tomorrow at Golden Dawn. See you there.


Also on Audioculture: the story of "psychedelic pranksters" ?Fog, Renee Jones covers the determinedly non-conformist Powertool Records, and, in a running series on album sleeves, Chris Mousdale appreciates Pacific-themed covers like this:


And finally, if you've ever liked Neil Young, you'll want to spend some time – like a weekend, maybe – with the Neil Young Archives.

Young hasn't just put a few tracks online, he's put everything there. And, true to his feelings about digital compression, there's there not only as 320k MP3s, but as full-quality masters that stream for me at 4Mbit/s. You'll need a decent internet connection to get the best of it, but good on him.

The only odd thing – especially after what Neil says in his first-time-visitor message – is that if you click "Buy" on any track you're bumped over to Amazon to buy an MP3 file. I presume that's because free access is for a limited time only, before a subscription model is introduced. Anyway, I'll be experimenting with AirPlaying those maximum-quality streams to the big stereo on the deck this evening. I'll let you know.



Just the one this week, because it deserves to stand alone. I've noted the Auckland DJ crew DiCE for their kiwiana remixes in the past, but now they've taken on one of today's key voices – and remixed Aldous Harding's 'Horizon'. It's very, very good – and it's a free download.

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