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NZ Music Month: Time for a remix, not a repeat

Tuesday 3rd May 2016

Local music is having to work harder than ever to get noticed. There’s less of it on the radio, fewer people at gigs and massive competition on digital streaming services. But sticking with New Zealand Music Month might not be the answer, writes Hussein Moses.

Illustration: Toby Morris

It’s 2016, but the story reads like it’s over a decade old.

“Shihad's crazy plan to open NZ Music Month,” says the headline. The band is “about to kick off New Zealand Music Month in the best possible way,” we’re assured.

But this isn’t about their famed 2005 performance in Aotea Square.

Shihad, up for some fun and “an awesome challenge”, opened this year’s NZ Music Month by playing three shows in one day. In three different cities around the country.

You may ask why, but the answer is simple: Every city has been “extremely important” to the band’s career, says Jon Toogood. Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, we’re informed, rocks hard when given the opportunity.

The time has come to rock again.

No wonder that NZ Music Month is almost met with an eye roll these days. Dragging out the same old acts, critics argue, is one of the reasons the event should’ve been overhauled long ago.

This year marks NZ Music Month’s sweet sixteen, but local music’s passage into adulthood is well behind us. Shouldn’t we just accept that it’s time to move on?

Duncan Greive, founder and editor of The Spinoff and former editor of local music mag Real Groove, believes that it’s probably time to examine whether or not that should happen. NZ Music Month isn’t something Greive thinks about a lot anymore and that’s a problem that likely stems from the fact that local music just doesn’t struggle like it used to.

“There are pretty large bands now - from Six60 to Home Brew - who have largely built their success outside of the industry and they feel like a model of what bands are likely to be in future. Which is ironic given a more - I don’t know if capitalist is the right word - but it’s certainly a more individualist style of audience acquisition and growth.

“And if that does become the dominant paradigm, then those unifying events maybe do cease to have as much meaning.”

During his tenure at Real Groove, Greive decided that to showcase the diverse and exciting range of underground local talent, they would release a compilation, Awesome Feeling, every May during NZ Music Month. It was, in his words, an opportunity to capture the breadth of local music that was actually out there.

But today, he argues, people regard NZ Music Month in a totally differently way.

“It feels like bands look at it and go, ‘do I want to participate in that’? And oftentimes the answer is no, that they’d rather have their own moment. So you get this kind of horrible eroding effect, where those who do participate are the ones who maybe you don’t necessarily want to, and the bigger artists will leave it alone.

“Street Chant just released Hauora and if New Zealand Music Month was such a pull, they would’ve held it a month.

“Shit, they’ve already held it for like two years.”

Local artists would often schedule their album release in May but ask Street Chant’s Emily Littler and Billie Rogers whether it crossed their mind to hold their record back and you’ll get a pretty emphatic answer.

“No - because I forget New Zealand Music Month exists,” says Littler. “I was only reminded of it because I saw a Jordan Luck poster in Hamilton that was promoting New Zealand Music Month.

“And that’s what it is: it’s all full of - and not that I’m calling bands like Shihad or whatever ‘legacy acts’, but they are a bit.”

So, would it have ever been an option to coincide the release with NZ Music Month?

“If anything, I think it would be a bad idea because the market is saturated with New Zealand music in that month,” says Littler.

“But then also, is it? I don’t reckon. Like what, maybe JB Hi-Fi - if you were stocked there - would put it up the front and then put that target logo on it. And what? Somebody’s going to see that and go ‘oh cool, I want to support New Zealand music’. As if.”

Back in the day things were different, says Littler. Alternative radio station Channel Z was around to bring us acts like Fur Patrol and Elemeno P, but with the mainstream options that we’ve been left with, it’s hard for a band like Street Chant to actually build their audience.

“Nowadays, it’s like ‘you’re already on CRS - do you really need New Zealand Music Month’? Or you play at Whammy Bar and nobody gives a shit because New Zealand Music Month isn’t applicable to you.”

***

NZ Music Month, as we know it, grew out of NZ Music Week, a promotion that was established by the Kiwi Music Action group (a collaboration between NZ On Air, APRA, the Radio Broadcasters Association and the Recording Industry Association), which ran for two years in the late ‘90s.

To foster music from our corner of the world and to help to promote it here and overseas, at the turn of the millennium the Labour government established the NZ Music Industry Commission. In May 2001, the Commission launched NZ Music Month to raise the profile of local music and to encourage commercial radio to get on board.

The thing is, it actually worked. NZ Music Month’s impact on getting local music onto commercial radio is unquestionable and there was a time when the event held some real clout for both those inside and outside of the industry too.

You’ll no doubt remember the t-shirts and hoodies that were stocked in Hallensteins. If you were one of the lucky ones who got to go, you probably even have some hazy memories from the launch party booze-ups. The industry was truly thriving in those early years and local acts were seeing mainstream success both here and, at times, overseas.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the heyday of NZ Music Month came to end, but by 2010 when Opshop signed on with Air NZ's grabaseat promotion to play 10 gigs around the country in one day, it all felt a bit tired. By that point, much of the criticism boiled down to the fact that the event had ceased to help the musicians out there that actually needed it. To put it simply, NZ Music Month had reached its use-by date, at least it had in the eyes of Christchurch-based journalist Vicki Anderson.

“I've come to the conclusion that the problem with music month lies largely at the feet of those in the ‘industry’ who suck an income from musicians,” she wrote in 2014. “Music month needs a makeover. It needs to have the ‘industry’ around it surgically removed in order to survive.”

Simon Sweetman, the oft-targeted Wellington writer, took it a step further.

“We should really end it. Call it quits. Stop the madness. Get rid of it. For once. For all. Forever,” he said.

A few days later, in an interview with Wallace Chapman, Sweetman would point out that the event only serves to be a token gesture for New Zealand musicians.

“The concern for me is that it’s become the Valentine’s Day of music,” he begins. “Here’s a guy that buys a dozen roses for his wife, but the rest of the year he’s having an affair.”

So how exactly did we end up at these crossroads?

One reason might be because NZ Music Month’s brand has simply eroded over time.

When Greive interviewed Lorde back in 2013, she made a point of arguing that the NZ On Air logo held a “negative power” for her generation. He thinks it’s possible that there are artists and fans who feel like a similar cringe factor might exist around NZ Music Month too.

“It had a power,” says Greive, “but like any logo, any brand, it needs reinvention lest it goes stale in people’s minds. The fact is it’s really, really difficult to create a powerful brand, otherwise more people would do it more often.”

Is NZ Music Month past its use-by date?

Illustration: Toby Morris

David Ridler, the new head of NZ On Air Music, says he totally understands the criticism that Lorde threw their way, but says at the same time there needs to be a formal acknowledgment of taxpayer-funded videos.

Still, things are changing. The agency is making moves to remove the logo from the start of music videos, “not because of Lorde”, but to encourage people to have an open mind with no preconceptions while they’re watching. The logo will still show at the end of every video.

It’s Ridler’s third stint with NZ On Air and he returns after spending a couple of years at Radio Hauraki. He says his former experience has given him a realistic understanding of what commercial radio is truly about, and looking at what needs to change inside the government organisation is his one true priority now that he’s back.

NZ On Air is one of a handful of NZ Music Month’s support partners. Their role is to help get more local music on radio and they do it by working with stations to talk through ideas for spike promotions and the like. Last year, they also celebrated NZ Music Month by launching AllTracks, a website which hosts curated playlists from musicians and “industry experts”, with the aim to help fans discover new local sounds.

The site was heavily criticised by writer Karl Puschmann, who labeled it a disappointment for being meaninglessly compiled and essentially working only as a “portal” site - in that you’re still listening to the songs on Soundcloud, YouTube or Spotify, you’re just doing it unnecessarily via another platform.

Ridler admits that the site has not been performing as well as they would like, but it won’t be going anywhere just yet. Changes will roll out sometime in the coming months.

As far as the criticism of NZ Music Month goes, Ridler says he gets it but kind of doesn’t either. Overall, he really likes what’s on offer and he especially enjoys seeing how the public respond to it every year.

“I don’t think Music Month was created to engage the real music cognoscenti, if you like. I think it was to engage the nation and I think it does that and I actually really think that’s really healthy.”

That’s a sentiment which is shared by NZ Music Commission Chief Executive Cath Andersen. She believes that the relevance of NZ Music Month is probably relative to where you’re approaching it from.

As an example, she points to the celebrations going down in Levin this year, which will see about 70 acts play across a dozen stages at the end of the month. It’s a rare instance for the small town to be host to something like this, Andersen says, and the same goes for other areas that NZ Music Month reaches too.

“If you’re a student, May is the one time of year when New Zealand schools will have local music in the classroom every day. Over 1000 of our NZ Music Month classroom resources were downloaded last year.  Or you might have had one of our 38 musician mentor visits in your school last year, and got to spend time with someone like Maisey Rika or Iva Lamkum.  And that connection becomes very relevant for how you feel about music reflecting where you are from.”

These days, NZ Music Month’s emphasis has moved away from commercial radio and onto a general celebration of local music overall. People are championing New Zealand content year round, says Andersen, and that means the Commission has become far more hands off. They’re not holding any large events, at least not this year, and instead they get behind things like the Shihad launch (which is sponsored by Vodafone and iHeartRadio) by simply offering a promotional push where they can.

Unsurprisingly, money’s as tight as it’s ever been. This year the Commission will spend about $35,000 on NZ Music Month, most of which will be sunk into promotional material like the posters you see around town, at schools and in libraries (the postage to get them there is a significant cost too). In recent years, that number has been sitting between $42,000 - $57,000, but Andersen says that like many other arts organisations, they’ve had to reduce expenditure wherever possible.

The Commission measures the success of NZ Music Month on the volume of live events, the level of media coverage, and the amount of social media engagement. They’ve also dropped the industry showcases they used to put on and no longer chase corporate sponsorship, partially because their preference is for sponsors to support bands directly, but also because it’s tougher than ever to actually get sponsors to commit.

“Actually, ever since the Rugby World Cup [in 2011], it’s almost like New Zealand hasn’t recovered sponsorship-wise. Everyone has struggled with getting that money since then and it just doesn’t feel right for us to suck $30,000 out of the local music economy when somebody might take that money instead and sponsor three tours,” says Andersen.

There were 1300 gigs on last May, a healthy number any way you look at it, but what worries Andersen is research that showed that there was a significant drop in the amount of people who said they attended a live event by a New Zealand artist. According to NZ Music Commission’s annual report [PDF], that number sits at 16 percent, a huge drop from 24 percent in 2014 and 25 percent in 2013.

Last year saw a significant drop in the amount of people who went to a live show by a New Zealand artist.

Illustration: Toby Morris

Those figures are in line with what Karyn Cullington, co-owner of Lucha Lounge, has observed over the past few years. She’s made the decision to close the Auckland venue this month, the main reason being what she refers to as “certain financial realities”.

It’s an unpredictable business, she says, and it’s important to decide who you’re actually here for. For her, that meant keeping below the radar so they didn’t attract - “for want of a better term, suits and douchebags” - while also getting enough people through the door so they could pay the rent.

But there’s still way fewer people going out at the moment, and those that are simply aren’t buying drinks like they used to, says Cullington. She reckons it could be the changes to drink driving laws that are causing the drop, or just the fact that everyone is so broke that they’ve preloaded at home first.

NZ Music Month doesn’t help to bring in people either, at least from Cullington’s perspective. For her, May is just business as usual.

“Every weekend is NZ Music Month. If people really care about supporting local music and keeping venues open, just go. Regularly. It really is that simple! Buy some merch off the bands or buy the band some drinks. Everyone wins,” she says.  

But the fact that these sort of problems begin to link together and point to much bigger issues is not something which is lost on the NZ Music Commission.

“You can put a lot of stats next to each other and make assumptions, but it doesn’t necessarily mean any of them are right,” says Andersen. “What I do worry about is the amount of local content which is easily accessible at the moment. When local content on radio is gone down to 15 percent then you’ve got to wonder if people are hearing less New Zealand music. Is it meaning that they’re going out to less New Zealand music shows?”

The number Andersen mentions is far from the “voluntary quota” of 20 percent that has been agreed to by broadcasters and the government as part of the NZ Music Code. The code will be renegotiated this year, though it’s worth noting that - according to annual reports from the Radio Broadcasters Association - numbers for commercial radio have been sitting around 17 percent for the past three years.

There are other issues at the forefront of what the NZ Music Commission do too. How people are accessing music is in flux, and while radio still plays an important part, that’s shifting really quickly to other services. Information on how many New Zealanders use Spotify and Apple Music isn’t released but, anecdotally, Andersen says streaming content for New Zealand music currently sits at around seven or eight percent.

“I think that we’re actually going to be facing harder times for local music than we have in a long time in the next couple of years because accessibility of music from all around the world is omnipresent now. As more people are using streaming services to access local content, then you really are competing against the rest of the world.

“It’s a huge catch-22 for the New Zealand artists. I don’t think it’s ever been easier to reach people all over the world, but the flipside about that is it’s never been easier for the rest of the world to reach you. So you’re playing field has totally shifted.”

For now, major change to NZ Music Month doesn’t seem likely, though the Commission has floated around ideas in the past and even discussed whether it’s time to just call it a day. Shortening the month down to a week comes up relatively often, says Andersen, but there’s concern that people won’t have the opportunity to delve deep enough into local music.

But Street Chant disagree. This way, they say, you could go hard and have shows on every night that were curated by other musicians kind of like what happens with Red Bull Sound Select. At the end of the week, why not have a bigger event at an outdoor venue like Western Park or Silo Park to wrap it all up?

They both still have plenty of optimism about where NZ Music Month can go, but improvement is needed. Overall, says Rogers, it’s a great idea but people do make jokes about the state of it at the moment.

“I kind of reckon it’s needed more than ever,” says Littler. “It just seems like there’s not a lot of culture in this country at the moment. And if there’s funding for the NZ Music Commission, you may as well try and help that.”

There’s also one other option: move the damn thing altogether. The NZ Music Commission says that the main conversation they’ve had about taking NZ Music Month out of May was so it didn’t clash with Mother’s Day. They say it also helps to broaden the sheer volume of weeks in a year where local music is a focus for the media.

But the NZ Music Awards and Silver Scrolls take place in November, the Taite Music Prize is handed out in April, and the Pacific Music Awards now happen in June - why not move it to coincide with one of those events?

Greive thinks we even should take it one step further and just have all the ceremonies together in one month before the end of the year.

“People sort of jealously guard that kind of thing but all of those awards are important for different reasons to different audiences. But there would be an amazing energy to having them back-to-back-to-back and you’d be more likely to get more people from overseas to attend one or more of them if they were pulled together.

“I don’t know if November’s the right time - it’s the fourth quarter when a lot of big artists tend to do their work - but it is relevant that three or four of the other big dates for the industry aren’t in that month, so there is no culminating public moment for it.”

Greive feels like the NZ Music Commission can play an incredible role in helping artists tool up. “It’s like a connective tissue that helps move them from a terrific song or idea to something bigger again,” he says. What they can do is help musicians to release music, tour New Zealand, or head out even further afield.

“Whether Music Month should still be a part of that, I couldn’t tell you,” he says. “But I certainly think the commission itself can do an amazing job of something that is actually really difficult and complicated and, arguably, it’s more complicated and difficult than it’s ever been.”

But it is probably time to reassess what’s happening with NZ Music Month, he says. The music scene it was born into is radically different now on a number of levels and, as with any institution, it’s worth examining whether or not it still retains some sort of currency.

“A bigger brand might say, ‘Let’s just rest it for awhile, bring it back like Georgie Pie, bring it back like the Kiwiburger,” he says. “But maybe that is the thing to do. Actually, just rest it a couple of years - then come back. Because it does feel tired now.

“That is a hard thing to fix.”



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