Two minutes fifty / it’s a 45 single / oh yeah

This post, orig­i­nal­ly from August, 2006, in reply to a ques­tion from Rob­bie Siata­ga on an ear­li­er post, linked, still seems to work for me. I thought I’d repost it for NZ Music Month, and because of the ongo­ing dis­cus­sion on Pub­lic Address:


This was a ques­tion I received from Dub­mug­ga;

where do you see New Zealand music going and what mea­sures would you imple­ment to ensure it’s con­tin­ued rel­e­vance in the stan­dard­ised glob­al media market ???

This is not some­where I real­ly want­ed, as I said, the pre­vi­ous two posts about this top­ic, to end up. I don’t want to dig myself a hole here I can’t eas­i­ly get out of, but I sus­pect I’m about to.

So a qual­i­fi­er again: this post is not try­ing to offer defin­i­tive answers, rather it’s a series of ran­dom thoughts, writ­ten as they occur. My opin­ion is just that and I don’t pre­tend to have any answers or pre­tend to be able to pre­dict any­thing. I’m no seer, and I’m no self pro­claimed expert.

DM…you expressed your fair­ly strong­ly held, feel­ings about NZ on Air and the way they admin­is­ter the brief they have from the peo­ple of NZ, via the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, to pro­mote the nation’s music across the broad­cast­ing spec­trums. Your opin­ions are not uncom­mon­ly held and are reg­u­lar­ly expressed on var­i­ous forums and elsewhere.

Whilst I have my prob­lems too with some of this they’re not near­ly as pro­nounced as yours and oth­ers’ are. It is a top­ic, how­ev­er, that a lot of peo­ple, musi­cians espe­cial­ly, feel very strong­ly about.

Myself, I think NZ on Air is trapped a lit­tle between the need to pro­mote some­thing with a strong indige­nous flavour (i.e. the cul­tur­al side of its brief) and the com­mer­cial radio sta­tions who, despite lip ser­vice have no desire to play any real per­cent­age of New Zealand music and would, if the polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment was right, drop most of it as fast as they pos­si­bly could. It’s a tough place for Bren­dan to be and for this rea­son, and a few oth­ers, I am of two minds about the con­cept of a quo­ta. On a clear down­side, and evi­denced in NZ recent­ly, the quo­ta (and I’ve said this many times) strips the music of its iden­ti­ty, espe­cial­ly its cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, in the mad dri­ve to get songs on a radio sys­tem that is oblig­ed to play a per­cent­age but only wants to play songs that fit easily.

They don’t want songs that quirk­i­ly stand out, they want songs that bland­ly sell ads, songs from acts like Breaks Co-op, the new Stel­lar and Brooke Fras­er which are face­less­ly unthreat­en­ing. I’m not say­ing they’re bad…Breaks Co-op are quite pleas­ant. But that, sad­ly, is not what the NZ music indus­try, if it is to thrive and sur­vive, needs. It needs raw and rough orig­i­nal­i­ty, music that sounds dif­fer­ent to that glob­al mass released dai­ly. I think Scribe had that, it was so won­der­ful­ly Newzild despite its pre­ten­sions to being otherwise.

How­ev­er, I have to say, it’s an omi­nous sign that his new, mas­sive­ly over­due, album is being record­ed (par­tial­ly with DJ Pre­mier, a bit of a hero of mine) in NYC. But that’s what the soul­less bull­doz­er that is Aus­tralian A&R (which has had a shit­ty record in recent years) does I’m afraid, as I know from per­son­al experience.

The US music indus­try is in mas­sive trou­ble and yet these acts strive to sound like it, where the hell is the log­ic in that. The most influ­en­tial NZ music in recent decades, the music which has had an inter­na­tion­al pres­ence (with the excep­tion of Haley, but that’s anoth­er whole thing) is music that sound­ed dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to every­thing else out there, and was, with the excep­tion of How Bizarre, deemed to be decid­ed­ly radio unfriend­ly (and HB was deemed to be unsuit­able for radio in NZ by every pro­gram­mer but one orig­i­nal­ly). I’m talk­ing about ear­ly Split Enz and the Fly­ing Nun cat­a­logue of the eight­ies. Noth­ing else out of NZ has had the musi­cal influ­ence of those three out­side the country.

Up against that is the need for hits. Pop music is dri­ven by hits which tra­di­tion­al­ly are dri­ven by radio and video, hence the two main tar­get­ed focal points for NZOA. And I agree with that focus gen­er­al­ly. With­out hits, under­ground or over­ground, no sales. You can’t sur­vive on cred­i­bil­i­ty, as Fly­ing Nun found, being forced to bring in Mush­room as a part­ner (which start­ed the process where NZ’s most impor­tant cat­a­logue dis­ap­peared into an Amer­i­can cor­po­rate which will inevitably even­tu­al­ly for­get it exists).

But that formula…radio, video, hits…is chang­ing and will change in future years (and not too future…very few pre­dict­ed Youtube five years ago, although the point­ers were there) in ways we can’t imag­ine yet. How the hits will come will change and that change has already begun. Dig­i­tal access to every­thing, unbe­liev­able inter­ac­tiv­i­ty in our enter­tain­ment and the sheer amount of mate­r­i­al avail­able to each and every one of us is inevitably going to force a sea-change in musi­cal enter­tain­ment as rad­i­cal as the one the plan­et endured when record­ed music first became wide­ly avail­able about 90 years ago.

Already one thing is obvi­ous. The album as such is more or less in its death throes. It’s going to take a while but it’s inevitable. The song, which is where this all start­ed, is where it’s all going back to, and the deliv­ery medi­um is a form of dig­i­tal or the such­like. It’s easy to for­get that the album as a force is less than 40 years old. And there are very few suc­cess­ful albums that haven’t been dri­ven by one or two key songs. Even the iPod and its equiv­a­lent is just an inter­im step…already music capa­ble phones are deal­ing to stand­alone MP3 play­ers in the more tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced soci­eties of Asia.

This inevitable step makes the major record com­pa­nies large­ly redun­dant. All they real­ly offer now is the means of dis­tri­b­u­tion and the mon­ey to record and make videos. The last two require­ments have more or less already slipped out of their hands as the means to do both are to a releasable lev­el are with­in the means of vir­tu­al­ly anyone.

The video deliv­ery process too is in the process of being democ­ra­tised. The means of dis­tri­b­u­tion offered by the majors will still be a strength as long as peo­ple want to buy CDs from brick and mor­tar shops, but the end of that is in sight too, per­haps not in the next cou­ple of years but soon­er than most peo­ple realise. And any require­ment for phys­i­cal CDs will be ful­filled by cen­tral ware­hous­ing linked to shops that are lit­tle more than order­ing and lis­ten­ing booths, most­ly in Wal-mart / Ware­house type oper­a­tions. Already the hard­core artist fan­bas­es are almost exclu­sive­ly catered for on-line.

The only oth­er thing the big boys can offer tra­di­tion­al­ly is mar­ket­ing mus­cle. Once again the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, right now the likes of MySpace and the p2p sites and MP3 blogs are remov­ing that from the domain of the majors and plac­ing it in the hands of the artists or their switched on man­age­ment. Ever won­dered why the big boys are so vio­lent­ly against the P2P shar­ers. They’ve been screw­ing peo­ple for decades with­out a con­scious eth­i­cal mur­mur, so the right­eous­ness of their posi­tion is ques­tion­able. No it’s because it removes anoth­er lay­er of con­trol, of need for their ser­vices. The majors will soon be reduced to lit­tle more than cat­a­logues to be licensed, and a few mega acts that can’t sur­vive out­side the machin­ery of those companies.

In 2006 over 20% of the music sold glob­al­ly now comes from sources out­side the majors. As that creeps more and more on-line it means that a larg­er per­cent­age of the return from the sales of music will return to the mak­ers. A record or CD will no longer need to have a mas­sive com­fort zone in the pric­ing (about $10 per CD on a full priced NZ disc) to cov­er the majors’ bloat­ed costs, or the “ware­hous­ing”. The artist will, hope­ful­ly, no longer have to suf­fer puni­tive record­ing con­tracts. Even the role of the pub­lish­er is reduced to lit­tle more than a bank and a sync nego­tia­tor as the dig­i­tal age and var­i­ous per­form­ing rights organ­i­sa­tions pro­vide all the ser­vices a writer real­ly needs. The bal­ance shifts.

So what has this got to do with the future of NZ music. Every­thing, actu­al­ly. It’s a rea­son­able assump­tion that in the medi­um term multi­na­tion­al labels will cease to invest in local music. Aus­tralia has already seen a huge drop in local sign­ing in the past cou­ple of years and the same is evi­dent in NZ.

In my pre­vi­ous post I talked about the dig­i­tal divide between New Zealand and the rest of the plan­et. On the NZ Radio list I was lam­bast­ed a while back by some­one for say­ing that NZ has no hotspots. The argu­ment was that NZ did not have the pop­u­la­tion of sup­port such tech­nol­o­gy. That, of course is non­sense. Here in Bali, with a pop­u­la­tion of 3.5 mil­lion, they are every­where, in the tourist areas, in the domes­tic areas, in the malls, the food halls; and it’s the same across much of the world. That’s a lit­tle thing but it’s impor­tant as it sig­ni­fies the gulf that has devel­oped between New Zealand and much of the world. I now reside in a third world coun­try but I feel that, vis­it­ing New Zealand reg­u­lar­ly, as I do, I’m going into a tech­nol­o­gy vac­u­um there. The tech­no­log­i­cal gulf has tem­pered the music buy­ing habit that we took so much for grant­ed in pre­vi­ous years. And for kids to buy music, espe­cial­ly NZ music it has to be two things, excit­ing and acces­si­ble. The quo­ta has large­ly removed the excit­ing bit, and the dif­fi­cul­ty of get­ting local music beyond the tra­di­tion­al means (which means buy­ing an album, not the songs you want) has damp­ened accessibility.

As the dig­i­tal move is made away from majors and multi­na­tion­als, so NZ on Air’s role will have to change. How exact­ly I’m not sure, but a return to their grass­roots seems obvi­ous, sup­port­ing the small­er, cut­ting edge, more inno­v­a­tive music being made at that lev­el. I think the export dri­ve, the fund­ing of such and the relent­less talk­ing, com­mit­tees, and reports are and were a waste of space and time. Unless of course you have some­thing viable to sell. No one was doing Fat Fred­dies abroad but there are 200 Brooke Frasers. Which one makes more sense to push. And yet the whole NZOA sys­tem has been ded­i­cat­ed to the likes of that lat­ter because it made our radio hap­py and worked for the quo­ta. FFD on the oth­er hand were made by the fans, both in NZ and abroad, and, like Split Enz, in 1979, dri­ven to radio by the public.

So as I said ear­li­er, the mad rush to radio removed the things that made so much music iden­ti­fi­ably ours. The indus­try got caught up in the whole “kiwi music” thing and “kiwi music month” so much that it lost track of what was spe­cial in the first place. I think we do our best musi­cians a dis­ser­vice too by putting all “kiwi music” on such a pedestal, for­ev­er say­ing that we have so much tal­ent in NZ, imply­ing that it is some­what more advan­taged than the rest of the world.

Of course we have tal­ent, but no more so than a city of four mil­lion peo­ple any­where else in the world. There are some, no make that, many, tru­ly awful musi­cians and bands in the coun­try too. Being “kiwi” doesn’t make the 50% of stuff on most “Kiwi Hit Discs” that is un-lis­ten­able, any bet­ter than it is in the real world.

Our edge and the abil­i­ty to sell New Zealand music else­where doesn’t rely on where we come from, to most of the world, it mat­ters lit­tle. They don’t care and don’t want to care when they hear Six Months in A Leaky Boat or How Bizarre, on the radio, where it was record­ed. Lets not be parochial and arro­gant about this. Our edge comes from the fact that these songs sound­ed com­plete­ly, rad­i­cal­ly, dif­fer­ent to what­ev­er else was on the dial. A dif­fer­ence that the quo­ta has dulled, with tan­gi­ble results now.

Ok, that’s enough from me…I’ve said my bit, prob­a­bly a bit too much. Some of the opin­ions expressed are prob­a­bly rather crude­ly put and need flesh­ing out some­what but I think I need a Bintang……

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

May 12, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Wow…i cant believe that was 4 years ago. it real­ly is a sad state of affairs that the same stuff is being said now albeit by occas­sion­al­ly dif­fer­ent faces !

and i can’t see that the sta­tus quo that sees Nz on Air dic­tate art and cul­ture to us via main­stream broad­cast­ers wont still be in effect for years to come.

If they ever had a vision or a vision­ary lead­ing it its now become cloud­ed and shroud­ed in BS.(Brendan Smyth)

Time for a change in per­son­ell and focus. we all know the truth of this to be self evident.

10 years of most­ly crap on the tv and radio on his watch amounts to a miss­ing visu­al and artis­tic record of what it is vision­ary NZ music and video mak­ers could have pro­duced or in the case of music, did pro­duce but was nev­er heard or seen by the pub­lic at large.

That is inex­cus­able and unfor­give­able because it’s not like we can ever get those miss­ing mem­o­ries back.

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