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New Zealand Music Features

MEET THE NEW INDIES: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A RECORD LABEL IN AOTEAROA?


Gareth Shute investigates four new record labels that have emerged over the past five years - Noa, Garbage, Sunreturn, and trace/untrace - and discovers the different approaches they are taking to pushing their artists out into the world.
New Zealand music record labels

by Gareth Shute

Gareth Shute is a writer and musician, who writes regularly for pop culture websites such as Audioculture and The Spinoff. He has also published five non-fiction books about music and the arts, including Hip Hop Music In Aotearoa which won a national book award.


Leao at Whammy Bar: David Feauai-Afaese (guitar) and Navakatoa Tekela-Pule (bass). Two thirds of the trio behind NOA Records. Photo: Gareth Shute

The past two decades have upended the structures that labels traditionally relied upon. Up until a couple of decades ago, recording costs were high so labels would front this cost then try to recoup this expense and (hopefully) make a profit from physical album sales. This business model no longer makes much sense.

The costs of putting out music has dropped steeply, while the concurrent decline of physical sales has meant there’s a much smaller income stream for labels to take a chunk of. The rise of streaming is far more helpful to existing major labels who have a huge back catalog of work that they can receive passive income from. However it’s unlikely to be a decent income stream for a new label, unless one of their artists breaks in a major way.

This has seen a number of new labels being formed by the artists themselves, rather than being created as a separate entity. Dunedin’s trace/untrace was started in early 2017 by Julie Dunn (Kai Tahu / Kāti Māmoe), who at that time was bassist in Mary Berry, and Richard Ley-Hamilton, who was playing guitar in Space Bats, Attack! and Males. Their initial aim was to create DIY cassettes of bands from their scene to sell at shows but Dunn says they’ve never really lived up to the standard definition of a record label:

"Maybe a better word for our kaupapa would have been "collective". We are a relatively small group of people who over time have connected with others through a mutual love of DIY and the Noise ethos (two things that always seem to go hand in hand!). I remember going to my first Going Global conference in 2017 and leaving with major imposter syndrome haha. Engari, I think the beauty of each band maintaining their own agency and process is that they are the ones who decide how much time they want to put into the Business side of things, and I just support/advocate/connect them where I can."

Initially trace/untrace worked primarily with friends from the noise rock scene, but their roster now extends from established acts like Kane Strang (who previously released an album through Flying Nun) and Night Lunch, though they also work with more unconventional acts like Bediquette - an indie act who has sworn to never play a live show. Yet in all these cases, Dunn thinks of it "more as a friendship than a business partnership!"

Another label from Ōtepoti Dunedin that is based on friendships rather than purely business relationships is Garbage Records. One of the main people behind the label is Damin McCabe, who releases music as jack berry. 

"The core of it has been centred around a friend group who all operate in different capacities in the industry. The push for us to become a label was the structure that running it as a “label” would bring to our creative pursuits. For a long time I've had an interest in the music industry, more specifically the independent labels that manage to carve out their own space. Drawing inspiration from them has been empowering, not being afraid to learn as we go and figure things out the “hard way” ... I think we are lucky to have a roster of artists who have created their own space in the NZ market. With them we are acting more as Promoter / PR. Handling the graphic design and video aspects is a way for us to bring attention back to the label aesthetically."

Unlike trace/untrace, Garbage doesn’t release physical product, but has had breakthroughs via streaming sites. McCabe’s work as jack berry has seen him produce his own track with 500k+ streams (PSYCHO and LUV); he has featured on the 870k+ streaming track Honey, by his labelmate, the tongue-in-cheek boast rapper wax mustang (who also has a 1.5 million-streamer BONES). There was even a jack berry feature on the Benee track drifting which has nearly 7 million streams.

This might sound a million miles away from the Dunedin sound of the Flying Nun days, but Garbage is a broad tent and also includes the post-punk onslaught of Three Quarter Marathon and the Mac DeMarco-esque chill sounds of Nic and Reuben.

Some of the Garbage crew: Hamish Borland, Damin McCabe (jack berry), Tane Brooks (Kevin In Luv), Theo Baumfield (Togo), Reuben Scott (Salt Water Criminals/Nic & Reuben/Three Quarter Marathon) and Hamish Calder (wax mustang). Photo: James MataioSome of the Garbage crew: Hamish Borland, Damin McCabe (jack berry), Tane Brooks (Kevin In Luv), Theo Baumfield (Togo), Reuben Scott (Salt Water Criminals/Nic & Reuben/Three Quarter Marathon) and Hamish Calder (wax mustang). Photo: James Mataio

Having such a wide variety of acts on the label doesn’t bother McCabe:

"Creating a “genreless’’ label hasn’t been intentional. The majority of artists we work with use laptops to create, with that approach there's flexibility to try different things and find your own space. We promote all of our artists under the same aesthetic, sonically they may be different, but we try to make that the glue that sticks them together … Only over the last few years have I started to dive into the history of NZ Music (thanks to great sites like AudioCulture!). With 1980’s Flying Nun, it's difficult to have opinions on something you weren't alive to be a part of, but creatively it's inspiring. Having artists from such a small isolated part of the world reach a global audience shows that it's possible."

This genreless approach also applies to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland label Sunreturn. Founder Zac Arnold was working at Flying Out record store when he started it, which happened to share an office with Flying Nun. Through this, he noticed that there were far more great acts coming through the door than there was room on the label roster. At the same time, he also heard a barrage of other great local music as the host of Freak The Sheep on 95bFM (the longest running Aotearoa New Zealand Music Show) and through working on an NZ music show for the NZ Radio Trust.

The impetus to create his own label came when Arnold was approached by Durham Fenwick who wanted him to listen to a then-unreleased album (Machine Music) from his group Green Grove. The other-wordly instrumentals caught Arnold’s imagination and led to him creating Sunreturn as a vehicle for releasing it. Since then the label has released a wide spectrum of music: catchy indie guitar music by Dateline and K M T P; the dance-able beats and sugary hooks of Amamelia and Baby Zionov; the atmospheric electronica of Karl Steven with its ‘post-human’ singing; and the 80s sci-fi vaporwave of Power Nap.

Zac Arnold from Sunreturn. Photo: Simon WilsonZac Arnold from Sunreturn. Photo: Simon Wilson

Sunreturn’s latest release is a hip hop track by Dbldbl - the longtime moniker of Liam Dargaville (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi). Arnold is unfazed by the ever-broadening sounds on his label:

"By playing in different bands, and organising D.I.Y. shows and festivals, working as a broadcaster, and working in music (currently as Creative Director at Naked PR), I've ended up meeting some amazing people who make a really diverse range of music. Every label has parameters, for some it's genre, for others it's location, or new artists - there isn't a wrong way to do it. For Sunreturn my framework has been about working with the creative communities I've engaged with over the last decade. Ultimately I need to like the music."

One side benefit that can come through having a label with a broad range of music is that it can also lead to a diverse bunch of musicians being involved. This is certainly the case with Sunreturn which has only been going since 2019 but already has artists from a range of backgrounds and gender identities.

The aim for artist diversity was also something that inspired Julie Dunn when she started trace/untrace, but it was something that took a while to put into practise:

"Heoi anō tika tāu, trace untrace has been through a major transformation in terms of female/non-binary representation. And that's so good because wāhine need to see and hear other wāhine in order to imagine that they might participate too. In my first band Mary Berry we had so many women come up to us and say that we had made them think that they could and should be in a band. Te pai mai hoki!!  It's awesome to now have released an album with Bathysphere given that when we started trace/untrace I was just starting to learn guitar via Cat Power covers. 100% of the music we released in 2017 was made by men, and so that was on my mind in the beginning. Now the label has released the work of Calla, Neive Strang, Shlee Nicholls (Dale Kerrigan), Hillary Faul (Koizilla), Jayde (Fazed On A Pony), Adelaide Cara, Lucy Pollock (Porpoise), Rosa (Pieces of Eight), Deidre (Pieces of Eight), Tommy, mātou ko ahau hoki. And we aren't done yet!"

Dunn now feels like the label is matching up to the mission statement she wrote when they first started, with a list of things they wanted to achieve:

"Empowerment of women and non-binary people. Increase the amount of DIY activity going on in Dunedin, and educate young people about why this is so vital! Foster a healthy and vibrant community in which people are nice to each other and happy. Increase avenues for bands to be financially supported. Foster tuakana-teina relationships with older and younger musicians. Put as much distance as possible between music and the alcohol industry. Protect and nourish authentic creative activity."

Founders of trace/untrace - Julie Dunn (guitar, vocals) and Richard Ley-Hamilton (bass) - playing in Bathysphere with Peter McCall (guitar) and obscured at the back, Josh Nicholls (drums). Photo: Fraser Thompson  from https://dunedinsound.com/ Founders of trace/untrace - Julie Dunn (guitar, vocals) and Richard Ley-Hamilton (bass) - playing in Bathysphere with Peter McCall (guitar) and obscured at the back, Josh Nicholls (drums). Photo: Fraser Thompson  from https://dunedinsound.com/

The idea of a label being partly an instrument of cultural change is also behind the aims of Noa Records. Co-founder Larsen Winiata Tito-Taylor (Ngā Puhi/Ngāti Whātua/Tainui) makes music making as WhyFi - creating genre-bending tracks that span from raw electronica (Can I Help U? feat Jy Lee) to solo vocal/guitar numbers (Follow Your Heart). He met his two co-founders via Karangahape Rd collective, The Grow Room:

"I met David [Feauai-Afaese] at the tail-end when we started working on one of his solo projects together, a project which didn’t end up getting released through Grow Room. I feel that space was planting seeds of relationship for the LEAO project that would come later and also for our whānaungatanga through Noa Records. Navākatoa [Tekela-Pule] came into the picture in late 2018 through one of our dear mutual friends Eli (Eli was also helping with recording David’s project that I mentioned before). I was blown away by his Schofield Strangelove tracks - at the time it reminded me of Michael Seyer, and Sun Araw and I’d never heard anything locally like that."

The trio work on the label as a team, but also collaborate musically. All three of them play in LEAO and the group’s debut EP Ghost Roads shows their ability to seamlessly introduce a Pacific feel into their music. An undiscerning listener might initially peg it as indie rock, but the double strumming on guitar and the swaying rhythms of the drums and bass soon make it clear that something else is going on. The vocals are reverb-heavy and switch effortlessly between Samoan and English, like a song echoing out of a David Lynch movie set in Savai’i.

The core trio behind Noa Records have also recorded a live improvisation album as Suns Alibi along with other experienced musicians such as Riki Gooch (Trinity Roots) and multi-instrumentalist composer, Jeff Henderson. Tito-Taylor says that the Suns Alibi project was made possible through the trust and respect that the musicians showed to one another:

"Improvisation helps to bring the process back to something unfolding, being spoken in the present moment rather than presenting pre-scripted moments. We feel it helps with re-connecting to the more rehearsed performance work and allowing things to perhaps take a different course in some aspects rather than trying to control where something goes."

The Noa Records website goes beyond just representing the music on the label, since it also has an articles section and ‘work in progress’ page for a radio station, which is an area Tito-Taylor hopes to expand upon in future:

"We’ve been thinking a bit more about the media space and reflecting on the need to document the present times and have material to preserve for future generations. The lack of exposure and access to what our musical ancestors here in Aotearoa have done has made this area feel vital for nurturing. Also being able to broadcast our native creativity to the world is a welcome idea, and a space that has been somewhat avoided here I feel through some collective limits we currently experience."

Beyond the labels mentioned above, there are plenty of others that are new on the scene and worth investigating. In some cases, it has been established artists using their followings to direct attention towards other local acts - as in the case of Nadia Reid’s Slow Time Records which has released The Broken Heartbreakers and Anthonie Tonnon or Coco Solid’s Kuini Qontrol which is a "a club night, podcast channel, DJ Mix hub and today apparently an accidental record label" (which has worked with acts like Samara Alofa and KŌTIRO).

There have also been labels started outside of the two cities focused on here - Melted Ice Cream in Ōtautahi Christchurch being an obvious example. While for listeners who want to delve deeper into experimental sounds, Grace Verweij from Audio Foundation has started Related Articles.

It’s also a good sign that the previous generation of new upstart local labels are still around and a number of them are now reaching their ten year anniversary - whether it’s garage rock vinyl label 1:12 Records, hip hop label Years Gone By (previously Young Gifted and Broke); now-located-in-England MUZAI Records; Wellington label Sonorous Circle (home of Glass Vaults); or the label run out of the Wine Cellar dive bar, Arcade Recordings (though owner Rohan Evans says the arrival of so many great new labels means he’s letting it "fade into obscurity"). 

Yet if new labels are going to survive and continue promoting the work of young acts, then they need the support of listeners. So check out some of the links/playlists below AND if you like them then consider purchasing some music via bandcamp, catching one of the acts live or buying a cassette/vinyl/merch. Aotearoa has always been a place where local musicians and labels took music overseas with a level of success that belies the country’s small size and Tito-Taylor believes this will continue to be the case in future:

"I feel the state of music in Aotearoa is ripe for new growth and new forms, and that everything we’re experiencing is and has been setting the conditions for new potentials here. This is true of the land, and it’s true of our collective wairua; we’ve got insights and creativity here that are on the cutting edge, and these creative forms will provide much inspiration and perspective for the wider world."

Explore trace/untrace on bandcamp or have a quick listen to a couple of their acts:

Noa Records playlist:

Garbage playlist:

Sunreturn playlist:

 

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