In a few hours' time, the Apra Silver Scroll Awards will be held at Vector Arena in Auckland. It's a big one – the 50th anniversary of the awards – and I'm greatly looking forward to being there.
If you're not going to be there, you can still see what will be a complex and remarkable production put together by Hugh Sundae at 95bFM. The stream below will be viewable on desktop and mobile (but I'm not so sure about your smart TV) from 7pm:
I woke up to some shitty news this morning. Chris Bourke and I have been working hard on some special 50th-anniversary Silver Scrolls content for Audioculture. But it's not there on the site because our CMS has been broken by a software update (it happens) and it does not seem it can be fixed in time. So while the site is fine, we currently can't publish anything new.
So what I've done here is publish the two stories I've written, which explain firstly how the Silver Scrolls were reinvented by Mike Chunn and secondly about the fascinating role played by the event's musical directors. There will be authoritative versions, along with a major Apra history by Chris Bourke, published on Audioculture when the technical problem is fixed.
Mike Chunn and the big change
The big, inventive annual production that we now know as the Silver Scroll Awards was not always thus. It was born loud, live and jostling for space at the bar in 1993. And things would never be the same again.
Apra, the Australasian Performing Right Association, was going through changes on both sides of the Tasman in the early 90s. The New Zealand office had transferred from Wellington – the home of Apra's local champion, Douglas Lilburn – to Auckland, the country's capital of popular music. In 1990, Brett Cottle became chief executive of Apra's head office in Sydney – a post he holds to this day.
Not long after he took the job, Cottle met Mike Chunn at the 1990 Silver Scrolls, a modest event where Guy Wishart's resonant, if traditional, 'Don't Take Me for Granted' was named the top song. The two men saw each other again at an industry seminar in Auckland the following year. They clicked and Chunn, then working for Sony Music Publishing, was offered the role as Apra's director of New Zealand operation. In 1992, he took the job – and nothing would ever be the same again.
The arrival of Chunn, a respected musician in his own right, signalled a new era of openness and visibility for Apra. Chunn himself beat the streets to explain to small business owners why it mattered that they paid their performance right fees. But the big change was to the awards themselves. Did Chunn come in with an awards revamp on his agenda?
"Yes," he confirms. "But I didn't tell anyone."
Chunn had been to four or five Silver Scroll awards, "mainly in the early 80s, and it was more of a social occasion, a soiree. The only reference to the top five songs was to have them playing quietly on a stereo in the background.
"I think we'd all known that big awards shows overseas had live music. So when I got the job, I thought 'let's have some live music'. So [in 1993] we booked the Powerstation to give it a rock 'n' roll feel. Brett Cottle won't mind me saying that I didn't tell anybody, I just did it. But he was there. And he was very happy with it."
Chunn's awards were very definitely not the restaurant affairs of yore. A bigger crowd than ever before – one that, significantly, included many musicians – was squeezed around tables on the Powerstation dancefloor. Because the venue had no kitchen of its own, the food had to be cooked outside. A fire alarm sent everyone out in to the street. And the drinks flowed like a river. If memories of the event are a little hazy, that's because more of those present were more than a little tipsy.
"There was a lot of drunkenness," Chunn confirms. "And that still maintains to this day.
That year also saw the introduction of the key element of a Silver Scroll ceremony: the interpretations of the finalists' songs by other artists.
"I don't know why I thought 'let's get interpretations done', but I didn't want to have those who'd written the songs up there performing," Chunn explains. "The one I went to the year before, when I was poised to become the boss, was held at Hammerheads restaurant. You didn't really know most of the songs and they lined them up a bit like a beauty pageant. It kind of looked weird, these five guys standing up on stage looking like they were about to be shot.
"It's all about the song, so rather than getting someone to imitate the original track, you can have different interpretations of the song."
Chunn was the musical director himself that first year. He recalls Nathan Haines and the Jazz Committee performing the Headless Chickens' 'Choppers', "which completely divided the room because it seemed to have nil references to the Headless Chickens song – it was just a beautiful, crazy contemporary jazz rave."
Jan Hellriegel's 'The Way I Feel' was performed by Bush Beat from South Auckland.
"They were very funky with it and it sounded bloody good. And I remember turning around and the look on her face was 'holy shit – that's better then me!'. It's an enlightening thing to listen to good musical interpretations"
The following year, Eddie Rayner was drafted in as the awards' first outside musical director. But something else happened. The Silver Scrolls gradually became a kind of rallying point for a cultural campaign around New Zealand music.
"That was the influence of Arthur Baysting on me," says Chunn. "He was brilliant at seeing the gaps in the backline then scoring."
Baysting was the New Zealand writer representative on the Apra board and after he saw Australian airplay statistics at the Sydney head office, he realised that another significant change – the move to computerised logging of radioplay – could be harnessed to make a case. In 1994, the first year the numbers were done, the rate of local songs was pitiful: 1.9%
Some radio owners – notably Josh Easby and Steven Joyce – came on board with the Kiwi Music Action Group. But the pivotal moment politically may have been the 1998 Silver Scrolls.
"I got my tits in a tangle in 1998 when Brian Edwards on his Saturday morning radio show had a guest from the radio industry who said 'bring on these quotas, because then everyone will have to play low-quality music'. So I just quoted that from the stage at the Silver Scrolls and it seemed to have a nice … gelling effect on everybody."
Judith Tizard and other Labour MPs in were in the room and Chunn believes Labour's white paper on the creative industries gained momentum that night.
"It was a serendipitous time, because there were issues they could embrace. I remember the good Dr Cullen taking myself, Malcolm Black and Paul Rose aside and saying 'what do you guys need?'. That was a good day, that one."
The wild Nathan Haines performance on that first night at the Powerstation remains one of Chunn's favourite awards moments. He also enjoys the newer tradition of tributes to artists like the late Mahinārangi Tocker.
"The first one we did was for Mike Farrell, and that just seemed to have so much relevance for everyone in the room. Because 60 or 70 per cent of the people there are songwriters."
The event's new profile encouraged a wider range of songwriters to try their luck. In the 1980s, such prominent writers as Dave Dobbyn and Jordan Luck were Apra members, but didn't enter.
"There weren't a lot of entries back then," says Chunn. "Well, there were, but they had this weird thing where you could enter any number of songs you liked. In the archives you'll see albums with every track ticked as a Silver Scroll entry."
Until the late 1980s, publishing was poorly understood even among successful artists, and, Chunn notes, big publishers weren't seeking local writers: "What they were after in the main was signing people to record their repertoire that came in from overseas. So songs like 'I Feel Good' by Larry's Rebels, that came from a publisher here and was handed over to Larry."
The way winners were found also changed in the Chunn era.
"The way they used to judge it was that the judges gathered on a certain day and played out the songs. But I guess as someone who's always been playing with, working for or representing songwriters, you know that songs need a few spins. So I introduced a system of five anonymously-chosen judges for the Silver Scrolls who would have had the songs for three weeks and got to know them."
The awards themselves also grew to reflect Apra's work and members' interests. In 1994, the "Most Played Work" categories, reflecting radioplay in New Zealand and internationally, were added – with both categories going to Neil and Tim Finn for 'Weather With You'. (Neil's 'Don't Dream It's Over' subsequntly won the international category 13 times – without once being the most-played song on New Zealand radio.) The Sounz Contemporary Award, reflecting Apra's continuing links with "art music", came in 1998, and the Maioha award for Maori compositions in 2003. Categories for feature film and television music were added in 2014.
Since 2007, Apra and Recorded Music New Zealand have also annually inducted one artist each to the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at their respective awards. (In recent years, their cooperation on musical legacy has extended to day-to-day operations, via the One Music fee, which combines their respective rights levies on businesses that use music.) The Hall of fame is not (yet) a physical place, but it offers yet another set piece to look forward to each year.
For those of us who attend, the Silver Scrolls have developed into a celebration of the culture itself. The revival feel of the 1990s has given way to a more relaxed atmosphere, as if the argument (if not the battle) has been won. If the staging has become more sophisticated, the key to it remains that Apra members (those who remember to swiftly RSVP) attend en masse. It's a rare musician who doesn't enjoy a free meal and drinks and a yarn.
One down-home feature, the "second stage" where various musicians could get up and take turns to knock out a couple of songs after the official programme ended, has come and gone, but it remains a soulful evening, one about music and its creators – and one which has transcended many of the old divisions in the musical community. Artists who in the 1980s might never have been in the same room now share a table. The top award, now voted on by all members, is as likely to be won by a rapper as a singer-songwriter.
Unsurprisingly, the awards have also played their part in encouraging composers to join Apra. On that wild night at the Powerstation, Apra had 4000 New Zealand members. In the awards' 50th year, it has 8000 members, all of them eligible to vote on a longlist of contenders.
"Now I would say on a global level the Silver Scroll Award is a songwriter's dream event," concludes Chunn, the man who changed everything. "That's because they're not crowded out by the industry."
Mike Chunn and friends at the 1994 Silver Scroll Awards.
The musical directors
You haven't heard 'Royals' until you've heard it done with a piano accordion, a Korean beatboxer and a Wellington soul diva. Or 'Love Love Love' by a bohemian bordello band. Or The Chills' 'Heavenly Pop Hit' with the full choir it was clearly always meant to have.
Such is the work of the musical director – the key creative role in in the modern Silver Scrolls set-up. As the awards night has grown and evolved, the musical director has become responsible not only for fresh interpretations of the finalists' songs, but the Hall of Fame tributes and the grand closing set-pieces. For, indeed, the look and feel of the whole show.
Mike Chunn did the job himself when he reinvented the awards in 1993, before handing it over to his former Split Enz bandmate Eddie Rayner, whose long run at the helm, until 2002, essentially defined the musical director's role. And, says Chunn, kept the boss guessing.
"Being Eddie, he went crazy and he would bring in acts that sang the songs in different languages, all sorts of ethnicities, but it was great. It kept you on your toes."
Victoria Kelly, who now works in member relations for Apra, took over from Rayner in 2003 and did the job until 2007, the last two years in partnership with Joost Langveld.
"I loved every year I was involved," says Kelly. "I think the key is finding a really interesting perspective on the original song, so you can reveal how that song remains a brilliant song and remains fundamentally intact regardless of who performs it or how it's arranged.
"I think it's fantastic to take a song and reveal unexpected aspects of it to people, and show how an idea can be interpreted in different ways, depending on who's presenting it to you. And to see what remains when you do that, what can be kept from the original presentation."
For Karl Steven, musical director in 2010 and 2011, the most important thing was "really just having fun with it. And I guess unlikely pairings, both terms of song and performer and in terms of collaboration among performers.
"I come from a background where the audience is a very important part of the whole thing. So I was always trying to put on a show for the audience. If it's a Sounz contemporary piece, a lot of the audience aren't regular listeners to contemporary orchestral and academic composition, so I was trying to make it take a step towards them. Whereas with a straight-out pop song I'd try to take a step into an artier direction. So, engaging the brain, but not totally alienating people."
In 2015, the 50th anniversary year, the musical directors are Godfrey de Grut and Cherie Mathieson. It's effectively a repeat of 2013, where, despite de Grut nominally having sole charge, the two, partners in life as well as song, worked together on ideas.
"We each know how the other works, our strengths and weaknesses, and we vibe off each other. And we get to talk about it. Actually, all we do is talk about music …" says de Grut.
"Our kids tell us to shut up actually, most of the time, because dinner conversations always revolve around music or some show," says Mathieson. "We live and breathe it."
The pair had an inkling they'd be asked back when the awards returned to Auckland in 2015, so have effectively been planning for 15 months.
"You'll be having a conversation about some song you heard on the radio and one of us will say 'oh yes, that'd be a cool idea for the Scrolls!' It's been in our consciousness for such a long time," says Mathieson.
"The thing about the Scrolls is our wildest ideas can be realised. We don't get as much pushback as we do on other events. We can kind of just go 'I think we should insert crazy idea here' and Ant Healey will say 'yeah! I can see that!'."
No performance in 2013 was as oddball and as surprisingly effective as the interpretation of the winner, Lorde's 'Royals':
"New Zealand's a small country and along the road you just meet all these fascinating characters," de Grut explains. "For many years, we'd known about this Lionel Reekie character who sang in RSAs with his accordion and was a wonderful performer. He was definitely out of the mainstream. Through our job judging competitions and awards, we knew of Philip Fan, a Korean boy who was an A-grade maths genius – a striking character all on his own – and did rapping and beatboxing on the side. And the trio was completed with our friend Bella [Kalolo]. Things come together in weird combinations."
"Especially with a song as well known in that moment as Royals was, it had to be different but still honour the song," adds Mathieson.
Actually getting the ideas to the stage for the big night is not always straightforward.
"Musicians can be a bit like herding cats," says Steven. "And particularly if you're trying to find some unusual combinations and some acts that people haven't seen before, you get a very mixed bag. Some of them are extremely professional and eager, some of them are reluctant – and some have artistic temperaments, shall we say. And that can be a challenge.
"Also, trying to get a sense of what they're going to do before they do it in front of everybody isn't always that easy. That said, on the night everyone was great for the events that I did. But there were some stressful moments leading up to it."
"The other interesting thing is that you cannot necessarily have control over exactly how they interpret the song," says Kelly. "You have to be mindful of the fact that you're asking creative people to give something of themselves to it – and you can't necessarily control that."
And meanwhile, the finalists themselves sit at their tables on the night and hear their own songs they might never have imagined them.
"There's nothing more amazing for a musician to have their music played back to them in a different way," says de Grut. "To be covered is such an honour – and to have somebody spend time imagining and putting effort into how it might be recontextualised is also a great thrill. It might not be the version of your song that you want to hear, but it's a version somebody has spent a lot of time considering."
Which isn't to say it's always an easy thing for the songwriters to hear.
"One year I organised for Gareth Farr, as Lilith in drag, to do 'Fiji Baby', and I think that Goodshirt were somewhat taken aback by that performance," says Kelly.
"I think that bands occasionally find it quite challenging to have their work reinterpreted and it's particularly interesting when you do it with the Sounz contemporary composers. Often their conception of their work is so very tied to the notes on the page and the instructions that they've given for those notes. There's kind of a sacredness to that work and it's such an unfamiliar thing to have people come and reinterpret it. But the contemporary composers seem to love it.
"There's just no telling which bands are going to love it and respond really positively and which bands are going to feel as if something's been lost from their work that process. But you can't always trust the band to know how people are going to feel about it either.
"In a way, when you write a song and send it out into the world, you say goodbye to it and you have to let go of what people are going to then go and attach to it in their individual ways, as it becomes part of their lives."
Sometimes an interpretation will sharply divide even the audience. Lukasz Buda, the 2014 director, underlined the event's ability to embrace creative risks at which most others would baulk. He drafted in Wellington improv veteran Jeff Henderson, who recast Michael Norris's ‘Inner Phases’, the winner of the Sounz Contemporary Award, as a squall of electronic noise, panning left and right across a darkened room. Some in the crowd responded by clapping their hands over their ears, but all the musical directors we talked to were enthusiastic about it as a standout moment.
"That was about as alienating on one level as you could get – and it was excellent because of that," says Steven.
All the directors have their favourite interpretations, but the most emphatic about it is Kelly, whose crowning moment came right at the end of her five-year run.
"The only band I ever really, really wanted to get to perform was Eight Foot Sativa. Because I love death metal. And I had asked them every year if they wanted to do a song and they declined. And then finally, in the fifth year, they said yes. And so I asked them to do 'Maybe' by Op Shop.
"Once they'd got the song, they really started to worry about getting up and doing it. And they pulled out. They rang up and said look, we're really not comfortable about doing this, we feel like you're taking the piss and we don't want to look like dicks.
"I was devastated and I went away and wrote them this enormous three-page letter that basically just poured out my love for them and said the one thing about Apra and our awards is that it's not about the mainstream, it's not about what's popular, it's about everything and everybody who's making music, of all shapes, sizes colours and styles – and death metal belongs in there as much as anything else. And you guys are amazing and you'll do an awesome version of this song and should get up there and do it. And they changed their minds and did it!
"I was sitting at my table when they did it and I was so beside myself. I screamed until I had no voice left. I screamed so loudly that Helen Clark turned around and gave me the thumbs up!"
John Rowles performing 'Cheryl Moana Marie' with The Vietnam War. Musical director Karl Steven.
You can see video of many more Silver Scrolls musical moments here on the Apra YouTube channel.
The Musical Directors
Godfrey De Grut and Cherie Mathieson (2015)
Lukasz Buda (2014)
Godfrey De Grut (2013)
Jon Toogood (2012)
Karl Steven (2010 -2011)
Don McGlashan (2008 - 2009)
Victoria Kelly and Joost Langveld (2006 - 2007)
Victoria Kelly (2003 - 2005)
Eddie Rayner (1994 - 2002)
Mike Chunn (1993)