Saturday, August 05, 2006

There are no sheep on our farms

A rather respected name in the NZ music industry said to me, in the middle of a conversation the other day, about the commercial potential of a record, that sales of NZ music are in, and I quote, “complete freefall” and unlikely to improve in the near future. That, coupled with other informed comments on National Radio recently mentioning drops of some twenty percent or so this year, raises one big question. At least from where I’m sitting, several thousand miles from the action.

Namely, what in gods name happened?

Of course I’m absolutely aware of the on-going global downturn in sales of compact discs and the inevitable flattening out of digital sales.

Especially from acts represented by the major industry organisations such as the RIAA, or their equivalents.

But the percentage drop in sales, from labels represented by RIANZ (and that is a major qualifier) of NZ music, far exceeds the global trend and the word why flashes in neon rather brutally.

Two years ago the country was feting the rise of New Zealand music, and the media was full of it as was the radio. I have no idea as to breakdown of radio figures now , and the sad irony was that the music was always there, just ignored by those that happily leapt all over it when it seemed wise or convenient. It was only the work of more than a few unstinting believers over several decades coinciding with the threat of quota legislation from the Labour government that forced the sea change of the past six years or so. And what can be embraced so easily, with such little real belief, can, I imagine, be discarded just as easily.

Having been away from NZ more or less for 18 months, I have an odd, skewered, almost half baked perception of what is happening there I guess. You get little news of the gilded isles outside the country itself unless you actively search. I’m only vaguely aware of what is happening politically and socially, even with the casual, but now irregular, look at the Herald. It used to be my browser’s homepage but has since been replaced by a personalised Google news page, which is both handier and more relevant to where I am now. Much of what I do get comes from the odd look at Public Address and the stream of valuable emails I still get from the nest.

But, having been intimately involved with New Zealand indigenous music (and I mean the stuff made by or in NZ, not music of the Tangata Whenua) for close to thirty years I’m still keenly wanting to know what is or is not happening in an industry that I know, and I suppose, love, so well. It’s in my blood. Most of my information, as detailed above, comes from arch cynics, both inside and on the side lines of the industry. All of them have been or are players in recording the stuff that we like to puff our chests out about and say “this is ours!”

And so to them too, I genuinely ask, what happened. True, this week sees twelve NZ albums in the Top 40, many admittedly in the lower regions where retail bias and negligible real sales are the rule rather than the exception. But that said, they still exist in, what, until a decade ago, was a very rare place to find any NZ albums, especially independent releases.

But you look closer and note that The Black Seeds, who’ve been at number one for two weeks, is still not certified gold, and that Bic Runga’s rather highly regarded current album is only, after all this time, triple platinum whereas its predecessors had sold, at a similar distance from their release dates, three times that figure. That coupled with the relative failure (dare I say flop) of more than a few albums by hitherto major selling artists or acts with huge expectations placed on them in the past year or two, bodes ill for an industry that sits on knife thin margins for their local music in a tiny, tiny market. A market where major record companies only release local music because of a personal passion one or two people at the top of a company may hold. I hate to think how much Universal have put into their local repertoire in recent years, often with mixed results, but that they continue to do so says more I imagine about the absolute and laudable belief and vision of the MD, which goes far beyond the relentless bean counting so often required of the big four in their drive to survive, than commercial realities. Then again, having signed the only two real domestically signed international success stories of the past two decades, I guess the potential returns are more evident at that company than elsewhere.

So, to the current scenario, I’m really not putting forward answers, although I have my theories, most of which I’ve gone into before here and elsewhere. One factor though is evident. Sadly New Zealand seems to have been somewhat left behind in the digital rush. The psychology of the digital world is ingrained throughout the rest of the developed and, even, the third world, where online booths in stores (not just record stores either) and the digital culture are a long established reality. Where the CD is an increasing aside aimed at the aging consumer rather than new generations.

But not in New Zealand.

The rise of such a culture in the NZ mainstream has been, and is, stifled by the lack of access to online services; the non penetration of wireless hotspots which are a lifestyle necessity to so many; and a host of other factors. But pass NZ by, it most clearly has despite the best efforts of the likes of the wonderful Amplifier, which still remains the only real option in-country to access digital indigenous music.

There are other things I could easily mention, such as they damage the drive to fulfil radio quotas at the expense of the artist and an indigenous identity, the time wasted trying to blame blank CDs and ruminating about format shifting, and such like but I’ve been there before and see no need to repeat what I see as obvious.

I don’t for a moment think all is doom and gloom. Look at the IMNZ newsletter or the chart percentages I mentioned earlier and tell me that there is not momentum. It’s just that right now the momentum seems to have a reached a crucial place where what it is, how it is defined, and who by is being decided. And there is a thought that the place the industry was in two years ago was perhaps somewhat unrealistic and this may just be, in the scheme of things, a natural correction process.

I guess this post really was more of a question to myself, rather than a desire to look at try and analyse too much, especially as I am doing it from afar, as more of an interested observer than a day to day participant now. The next twelve months will be interesting.