Tuesday, April 22, 2008

welcome to my world

Grumpy old men are everywhere, it’s a part of growing old and I guess I’m one at times. However the music world seems to produce them in extraordinarily large numbers. Witness George Harrison, bless his guitar-weeping socks, complaining that Oasis was not real music.

And then we have Gray Bartlett in the New Zealand Herald yesterday. Gray is trekking around NZ celebrating 50 years in the business, which is quite an achievement. Not only 50 years, but in that period he’s done pretty well, selling a bunch of records in China before anyone else did, and, in recent years, having a fairly major input into the early career of singers Hayley Westerna , Yulia and a bloke called Will Martin. Hayley, of course, had a burst of success in the UK a few years back, although her star seems to have fallen a little since then, which may be because she’s more or less, because of the nature of what she does, condemned to repeat herself. Will Martin has an album out there of a similar sort of granny friendly songs like Danny Boy. I hope he does well.

So, hats off to Gray, and well done. But why does he need to sour the occasion and belittle both himself and the industry he’s been a part of for five decades by lashing out in such an unnecessary way. By whinging:

Why should someone who wants to finish an album in Hokitika get taxpayer funding? It's great for the community interest, but let the councils look after it.

It all sounds like sour grapes doesn’t it, as if he is pissed off because he didn’t get the grants he applied for or thought he should’ve been offered. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps its not, but reading through he certainly comes across as a sourpuss and to my mind his arguments don’t even stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny.

I have my own issues with New Zealand on Air’s funding, mostly to with the way it’s been diluted and compromised by the perceived need to keep radio happy..It’s followed commercial radio rather than led it.

But that aside, thank god it’s there and thank god a man like Brendan Smyth has been there to guide it so devotedly. And thank god for the likes of Mike Chunn, his work at APRA and with his Play It Strange trust, working with the young writers and musicians. Gray takes a swipe at Chunn for doing just that for heavens sake.

So, lets go back to the world that Gray longs for, since he says, of government funding:

they've missed the boat over the last six or seven years

Really? Before the current government music funding was a fraction of it was and most of us in the industry felt fairly much forgotten. Aware of the fact that the music industry was craving a change of government, and a positive arts regime, National tried to rush out a youth radio network at a very embarrassing launch at Auckland’s Shortland Street Studios where the minister concerned was clearly out of her depth and unable to name any NZ recording artists beyond Split Enz when asked, although she was able to mention OMC in her speech (they’d returned some 10 million dollars to the NZ economy, but it was clear from the speech she didn’t know what or who an OMC was).

How have they ‘missed’ the boat..is it because they’ve funded dozens of grass roots level acts, writing and recording their own music…Gray says it should be about the artist, not the songs which:

New Zealand can't hope to compete on a world market with

Tell that to Neil Finn whose had several million plays of Don’t Dream Its Over worldwide, or to Alan Jansson, who has two US BMI Million Play certificates on the wall of his office for a song he wrote with Paul Fuemana in Freeman’s Bay. To my mind, where NZ on Air has fallen over in recent times is because it no longer encourages the sort of individuality these songs represent…it doesn’t go far enough.

So, stuff creativity says Gray (at least that’s the drift I get) because the implication is that Gray is upset that the likes of Hayley, Yulia and Elizabeth Marvelly have not had funding he feels they so richly deserve, above and beyond these creative bods. He says at the end of the story after all, that the government should just give him the money to do it properly. And perhaps there is an argument that these people should be funded by NZOA but it’s really not strong. These people, with acceptable voices, generally provide pleasant cover versions of songs that others write. They could come from anywhere…there is nothing really ‘of us’ in what they do. NZ on Air’s brief, through successive governments is to provide a reflection of ‘us’.

It’s hard to argue that future generations will look back on Hayley or the others as seminal to NZ’s cultural development, as we now look back at, yes, Split Enz, Hello Sailor, The La De Das or Johnny Devlin (and incidentally, both of the last two also worked with covers, but added a little extra obviously enzeld that Hayley does not..or maybe that is a subjective judgement) defining just that. Nope I think in 2030 the name will elicit a Haley who response…

And I’m happy that he can say he has proved right his declaration that she would be bigger than Kiri. But I think there are greater forces at play than ‘bigger than Kiri’. There is little doubt that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be remembered by the ages, regardless of who is ‘bigger’ than her, as her achievement is bigger than mere sales figures. Kenny G has probably outsold both John Coltrane and Miles Davis too.

And Gray complains that we don’t recognize our country acts…forgive me but I think the likes of The Warratahs, Al Hunter and other original country acts are very well regarded in NZ.

I’m happy he pulls good crowds with Brendan Dugan and Suzanne Prentice, but neither represents mainstream contemporary creative NZ. Neither for heavens sake does John Grenell…in fact I doubt most NZers could even tell you who he is (3 clues..he’s the bloke who sang a Jim Reeves tune in a Toyota ad a decade or two back, was resident on many of those gruesome country shows the NZBC used to love and discreetly changed his name from John Hore many years back after he worked out the rest of the country was smirking).

The other inescapable fact is that, as any record exec or a quick look at the charts would tell you, country may put bums on the seats of country halls but, with the odd exception, mostly to the MOR market, it doesn’t sell records and hasn’t for decades.

So I wish Gray well on his 50 years doing what he so clearly loves doing and making a good living from it, but if he represents the music policy of an incoming National government he’s the best argument that the music industry could provide for NOT changing the government.

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Fraser Gardyne said...

Well said Simon. Generous and well written. I hope somebody shows it to Gray but I suspect his views are too entrenched for him to get it. It's one of life's frustrations that people become so self centred without being able to see it. What's in it for me is sadly the way for the majority of voters but I suspect not you. Good on ya...

Peter McLennan said...

hey Simon,
thanks for a great post, very insightful. I've blogged about it too, on NZ Musician's site, with a link back.

Chris said...

This is a bit tangential but you mentioned that John Grenell was once known as John Hore. What many don't know is that his first stage name was John Denver and he gave the name to the singer that went on to achieve international fame. You can read the story here.

pollywog said...

Are you kidding ? John Grenell is most famous for being dad to, Redford, ace drumer for insanely underrated NZ d'n'b outfit Shapeshifter and Oakley the OG maverick producer and also extremely underated.

Notice a theme of underrated occuring ? And thats the thing with NZoA, the dim view they take of electronica. If they sponsored as many electronica acts as they did shitty indie guitar pop bands and angsty females maybe we'd see the kind of exposure NZ richly deserves. Because on a world scale, our electronica acts are equal to many, in any other genre we barely rate.

I think it's a BS bias. BS being Brendan Smyth, the man of his time who sadly doesn't realise his time has passed.

Don't you just hate it when people don't realise it's time to move on and instead have to be pushed out ? More so in the entertainment industry less so in the public service. I mean one can hide their ineptitude in red tape and rest on their laurels for years before someone realises what a crap job they're doing at the mo.

If only the maxim 'You're only as good as your last gig' eg...Gray, applied to bureaucracy and caused real life effects as it does in the real world.

oh well. I live in hope

Simon said...

I agree about electronica....god knows I've said it enough. Greg Churchill has just had his fourth UK top ten dance record and is a bigger name in NZ than half the acts on the Kiwi Hit Disc, and has been turned down for funding. But that wasn't what this post was about.

pollywog said...

Oh sorry, i thought the post was about people past their use by date...

...but yeah greg churchil, a bonafide kiwi electronica DJ legend

funnily enough we started out together trying to make tunes wayyyyyy back in the christchurch day with hamish from breaks coop and boh runga...

opheliamorgan said...

I tend to agree with the majority of your post. Governmental funding is so important to ensure that NZ artists do actually get to have a go. This is hardly revelationary, but it's an expensive business. You mentioned some of those 'popera' singers, or whatever they're called. Some of them do really deserve the govt support too. I know Yulia and Elizabeth Marvelly write their own music and from what I've heard, there's plenty of 'us' in it. Well, there's a bit of Russia in Yulia's too, but that's understandable. I suppose the most important thing is that all NZ artists deserve access to this funding, regardless of what genre they're in, as covers are more common in NZ pop, rock, etc than you seem to imagine.
Cheers, though. A good read.