Hard News by Russell Brown

Quite the Party

The little driver display in my co-op cab was alerting the drivers to the night's likely fares: "Awards ceremony … Civic Theatre … 700 people …" So far so good.

But the message concluded: "Finish approx 10pm."

"Don't count on it," I warned the driver. "It's never happened before."

No, the APRA Silver Scroll Awards did not - and will never - finish at 10pm. And yes, it's become something more than an awards ceremony. Under APRA boss Mike Chunn, the Silver Scrolls has been worked into a significant gathering of the culture. Every year, I tell myself I'll take it easy, and every year I ignore my own advice, because everywhere you turn there is someone you need to have a yarn with, not to mention another drink that needs attention. And there, amongst the massed muso bums (sorry, valued members of APRA) is the Prime Minister.

She probably has no great personal affinity for the music on the night - or for the musicians, who inevitably behave badly and smoke like buggers - but Helen Clark must find these music industry affairs enormously affirming. This is an industry acutely aware of its unprecedented recognition by the government.

Every year, she gives the same speech (and possibly wears the same pantsuit) and is granted the same delighted ovation. Less well-loved, apparently, is the Leader of the Opposition, Bill English. He was left altogether out of the VIP greetings in James Coleman's introduction, and then APRA board member Arthur Baysting managed to welcome "Bill and Nancy English" in his speech. Sheesh.

The Silver Scrolls format sees each of the five finalist songs performed by someone other than the original artist. Sometimes this can brilliantly illuminate another side of the song (I'm thinking of a folk-acoustic version of Shihad's 'My Mind's Sedate' by Bic Runga one year) and other times it doesn't. The versions this year were nothing special - and giving the Goldenhorse song to Paul Ubana Jones was, frankly, a stretch. (Performer of the night for me was the young fa'afafine Linda E later on in the evening. She should be a star - and not a drag star, a pop star.)

The most interesting aspect of this year's contest was the fact that three of the finalists - including the winner, Che Fu's 'Misty Frequencies' - came not from the strummers of guitars, but Auckland hip-hop acts. I believe a grand new tradition of New Zealand songwriting is on the roll.

It wasn't all beer and skittles and more beer though. Neil Finn's long and impassioned speech in favour of a public youth radio network (addressed as much to the Prime Minister as anybody else in the room) raised a few eyebrows.

But, then, the Wellington culture crew is a bit edgy all round right now. A whole clutch of agencies - Culture and Heritage, Creative New Zealand, the Music Industry Commission, NZ On Air and Industry NZ (which is quite the cool place to work these days - must be the espresso machines) - has a stake in this week's World Series showcases, which are being performed for a group of promoters, pluggers, journalists and record company people from the US, Europe and Australia. The fact that the local acts had been asked to pay either $1500 or $3000 each for their opportunity to impress emerged, rather than being announced, and it will be important now to demonstrate that everybody's investment is worthwhile.

Word so far is that while the majority of the invited foreign guests are taking their duties seriously, there are a couple for whom it is just a junket. That's probably not a bad strike rate. But really, you'd think the senior vice president from Def Jam Records would have managed to spend a bit more of his time at Monday night's hip-hop showcase watching the talent - and not in the bar trying to meet ladies.

The local hip hop crews were certainly turning it on. Funniest moment: DJ Neumonic from the Decepticonz' shout-out to the Prime Minister "who is in the audience right now!" Cue a ripple of applause and a lot of craning of necks to try and catch a glimpse of the leader who was not in fact there at all. Shame, really: she missed a good gig.

The showcase overlapped with a seminar called Music Business Legalities and Realities, a block up Queen Street at the Classic. It came under the wing of World Series week - the local panelists were Malcolm Black (A&R consultant to Sony and owner of the Heart Music label) and Campbell Smith (manager of Bic Runga, Garageland & Stellar) - but it was really more of an Aussie roadshow.

Industry commentator Phil Tripp, founder of Immedia, and New Zealand-born music business lawyer Shane Simpson, author of the large and quite useful book Music Business
and Madonna's legal representative in Australia, stage these events together across the Tasman.

The three-hour Auckland event wasn't entirely devoid of merit, but at times (especially when Tripp had the floor) the full house of aspiring rockstars got something more like an infomercial than a serious seminar.

Among the failings was a failure to acknowledge or discuss the changing environment for the music industry both in New Zealand and worldwide. Here, a new generation has entered senior management at the major labels. The new faces have often themselves played in bands (Black at Sony, Adam Holt at Universal Music) or come through student radio (Mark Ashbridge at Festival Mushroom). They're keen to work with indies and do pressing and distribution deals - and they're more likely after business partners than indentured serfs.

All of the commentary on the sudden international success of The Datsuns has mentioned their deal with the Virgin Records offshoot V2. What hasn't been covered is exactly what kind of a deal The Datsuns did - and it's anything but the traditional major-label contract. The band recorded their debut album for their own Hellsquad label (thus, they own it) and then licensed the finished product to V2 for the UK and Europe - even managing to get an advance for the recording costs.

These deals not only suit the artists - who keep both copyright and creative control - they cut the cost and the risk to the record labels at a time when the music business is tight, and likely to remain so. It's not your dad's industry any more …

Quote of the night: Smith on Internet file-sharing: "As a manager, I don't really object to it. It gets our music heard. Frankly, in some territories it's the only marketing we have."