Thursday, May 06, 2010

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……


Rich W said...

hi Si, another fascinating post. can't argue too much, except maybe to say that lots of artists have never taken any notice of the whole grants/govt involvement anyways, and just got on with it. maybe the growth in independent labels, despite a sales downturn, is evidence of a return to the underground? only a few can sell many units here in NZ anyway, offshore's always the way, as ever.
can I ask though, what are your thoughts on the iPod?
I don't have one and don't really want one, as I regard it as a retrograde step in sound quality. why are people compressing all their CDs/LPs and biffing/reselling them while keeping cassette or worse quality copies in a non-transferable format?
Apple seems intent on trying to sell Beta to a VHS world - only this time VHS is better (MPEGs)...
the iPod's best feature is its organisation and ease of use - the rest is a step back (and I've read some interesting stuff about Apple working with old-world record contracts for their much-lauded web sales system, screwing the artist just as much as any major label)
just wondering how you find it and if you have any reservations?
Richard Wain

Simon said...

Hi Rich,
I have an iPod (and a Creative thingy too) and its a great delivery mechanism at the gym, in the car and on a plane. But thats about it. Its not a replacement for me for anything else. I won't trust my collection to a hard drive. That said, I still have 15,000 bits of vinyl!

I think the Ipod and itunes are interim anyway. Already the writing is on the wall for the ipod. Here in Asia phones are surpassing them as units of choice and the one ting that itunes has in its favour is the ipod connection. Once that goes. The MP3 has long been seen as interim.

As far as contracts go, Apple contracts with master owners who are the ones that perhaps deserve more scrutiny with their digital royalty rates. Its not a new situation..for years major labels massively reduced CD royalties to artists as a levy for "new technology". It was a massive con as are the terms of many artist / label contracts. Why the artist should pay the hardware manufacturer for developing technology is beyond me.

dubmugga said...

great post man... use a down home kiwi analogy you can use them posts to fill in the holes you dig then string wire between them to make a fence that will either keep things in or out

once you electrify it though you'll probably not want to piss on it...

...Back onto some sort of point though. It's a shame the 'powers that be' aren't setting the standards for promoting our soundz in the digital age merely enforcing the status quo through tired traditional models and still pandering to the broadcasters format

it makes me wonder if they even have anybody with the vision in their organizations to radicalise their outlooks...

...workshops seeking public feedback written into a report that gets put to a sub committee before landing on the CEOs desk and given a cursory glance after which the bean is counted, the box ticked and the buck passed just doesn't cut it anymore

beaureaucracy seems more about arse covering than anything else but if you look close enough you will see that underneath all the flash talk they're naked...

...looking to take cues from the great unwashed, clean them up and make them presentable rather than get down and dirty with them

Here's a case in point...

A friend of mine wanted to start an online DJ booking agency a couple of years ago. She approached some DJ's, got a sort of exclusivity arrangement from them for her to act as sole agent for a percentage of course. Got a 20 minute mix of their style of music, a bio etc and set about creating a website with profiles and links...

...BOOKIE it was to be called. Great idea eh ???

Wanting to do it right she contacted RiANZ (i think) about the copyright issues involved with broadcasting trax in a DJ set on line and was told she would need to contact the labels request apra forms and pay a fee to use the trax...

...not only that but she was virtually hounded by e-mail and put on some watch list which basically scared her of the whole idea

and the advice given to her was by some crusty old bat who'd been working there prolly since the 50's ??? WTF does she know about digital pimping ???

fast forward 2yrs or so and we now have podcasting and myspace... what is the official position on that ???

BTW Rich W

I know lots of friends me included who after submitting a tune worthy of release to NZ on Air in 3 funding rounds didn't get a look in. It doesn't take much of that to dampen your spirits and not even bother trying to access the funding rounds anymore as by the time you get a decision your tune is past it's use by date...

...Independent digital collectives of like minded artists might work. A bunch of artists combined with a bunch of cyber geeking bloggers and spammers hitting the forums to pimp shit hardout by word of mouth could, I reckon make an impact if you can then drive that traffic towards a reputable digital download site

The problem with digital download sites and using a foreign agent is, by the time you get your percentage of profits from sales after the site and agent have taken their cut and then split whats left up between your group members. You've made the least of all the people involved yet put the most in...

...funny that, it's like the games changed but the name remains the same or should that be the other way around

A quick question though...

...does anyone know how to get brendan smyth out of his job ???

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pollywog said...

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.