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WAS THE PAST YEAR GREAT OR TERRIBLE FOR NEW ZEALAND MUSIC?


When the first Covid-19 shutdown took place in 2020, it threatened to wreak havoc across the local music scene with shows cancelled and venues struggling to survive. However now that a year has passed, local acts seem to be doing larger shows than ever and breaking records for radio airplay. Gareth Shute talks to some of those in the industry to weigh up the positives and negative from a disruptive year.

WAS THE PAST YEAR GREAT OR TERRIBLE FOR NEW ZEALAND MUSIC?

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.


Princess Chelsea playing in Prague, Czech Republic, 2015 (Photo: Ben Howe)

The last year has seen many local acts taking their live shows to new heights. Marlon Williams outdid expectations by selling out six consecutive nights in Auckland. Meanwhile at the top end of the scene, L.A.B. played Spark Arena in July 2020 and then an even bigger show at Mt Smart Stadium in Feb 2021, while Six60 became the first musical act to book Eden Park for a gig in its 118-year history. 

These events took place around the same time that the announcement was made that airplay of New Zealand acts on commercial radio in 2020 had hit a record high of 20.95%. These achievements would’ve seemed shocking a year ago, when the decline of the local music scene seemed an inevitability. To take an illustrative example, let’s consider the roller coaster ride of Auckland promoter Reuben Bonner.

In May of last year, Bonner was about to launch a new series called Strange Universe but the announcement of the first lockdown brought this plan crashing down:

"It hurt because it was the first show Matthew Crawley and I had put on together, though we’d spent so long with the tension and stress of not knowing what was going to happen that when it finally got cancelled it was almost a relief. I’d been through this massive period of stress - because we had local tours going on too - but after that there was this sense of relaxation, it was almost like time stopped. It provided a brief respite before I dove into the Save Our Venues campaign which was like a freight train that I was holding onto with my fingernails."

Save Our Venues eventually raised hundreds of thousands of dollars across the dozens of venues who took part, and was followed by the New Zealand Music Commission’s Music Venue Infrastructure Fund. Once the lockdown ended, Bonner found there was a huge appetite from the public to attend live shows. 

"It was like nothing we’d ever seen for the acts that I worked with. The first shows we came back with were these level two shows at San Fran with Reb Fountain, Finn Andrews, and Nadia Reid. Admittedly we only had 100 capacity because of the restrictions, but they all sold out within 20 minutes. Jacinda Ardern went to Nadia Reid’s show as it was this big musical moment of things coming back to life."

Reid and Ruins Tour (photo: Ebony Lamb)Reid and Ruins Tour (photo: Ebony Lamb)
The absence of gigs had apparently made people realise the importance of live music. There was also the fact that many successful acts who would’ve otherwise been touring overseas were now trapped at home. For example, Nadia Reid and Reb Fountain were booked to play the SXSW Festival in Austin Texas, while Tiny Ruins had a tour planned through France. Instead, Bonner arranged the Reid and Ruins tour that took in 20 shows throughout New Zealand, including smaller spots like Nelson, Oamaru, Onekaka and Waiheke Island. 

Meanwhile, Reb Fountain was initially intending to downsize her Auckland album release show to the Wine Cellar due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, but then reverted to the original venue and did three packed nights at Mercury Theatre. Yet the threat of further lockdowns on the horizon meant booking sizeable shows was still a risky endeavour. Fortunately the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s New Zealand Music Recovery Fund kicked in and the New Zealand Music Commission set up the Aotearoa Touring Programme. This allowed artists to claim back 50% of the costs of touring, provided they fulfilled certain requirements, such as having shows outside the main centres. 

It was this reassurance that saw acts pushing beyond their previous level, whether it was Anna Coddington doing a seven-date tour that included Paekakariki, Mt Maunganui and Raglan or an established act like L.A.B. booking Mt Smart Stadium for a show (as part of a wider tour). Mikee Tucker from label and live agency, Loop, was excited to have the backing to open a new area of Mt Smart (the upper field) as a venue for the L.A.B. show and he’s also enjoyed seeing an invigorated regional touring circuit:

"The New Zealand regions have come out in droves so the NZ Music Commission strategy to get acts to the regions has really worked. Anna Coddington played the Little Theatre in Picton last week and last night Carnivorous Plant Society were there. So even a small venue like that is getting some great shows and the people of Picton are supporting them."

Tucker also says his acts took a couple of other positives from the past year:

"It was a good time to take stock and get creative in the studio, whether they were starting on new work or tidying up old projects. The other benefit was being able to use the vacuum of international artists to your advantage. L.A.B. were already on a massive trajectory and would have sold out Spark Arena last year anyway, but it gave them a lot of international coverage being the only arena show in the world at that time, with big tech companies like L-Acoustics in France and Robe the lighting company using it as an opportunity to do a PR push."

However, Tucker has also seen some serious downsides to New Zealand’s isolation. L.A.B. had already sold 24,000 tickets across Australia when their 2020 tour had to be postponed. Tucker also points to other local acts like Benee and The Beths as having their international aspirations dampened by having to cancel overseas tours - even worse, Fat Freddy’s Drop were in Europe for a tour when they were forced to head home. However Tucker’s greatest concern is those working in the backend of the industry:

"It’s great that NZ bands had a great summer but venues like Spark Arena and companies like Tone Deaf and College Hill survive off 70% international concerts to keep them going, so when you’ve got a handful of New Zealand bands who can do big concerts - like Six60, LAB, and Crowded House - they’re still really suffering. They’ve lost so many crew to Lord of the Rings and the Netflix shows that are filming in New Zealand that it’s really hard to put together a crew at the moment."

One saving grace was that many of the regularly scheduled music festivals went ahead by relying largely on local acts to make up their line-ups. For the most part, this had little effect on ticket sales and saw a successful summer festival season. However things weren’t rosy in all cases - Laneway Festival was pulled after the Australian leg was cancelled and The Others Way Festival was undone by Auckland’s second lockdown, as detailed in this fine piece by Kate Powell

Both were heartbreaking for those involved, but it is amazing that at least one festival - Splore - was able to survive despite its original date falling within a lockdown period. Fortunately Splore Festival organiser John Minty was able to reschedule at the last minute:

"It was obviously nerve-wracking, but I had a postponement date already reserved with Auckland Parks, so in the end it was a relatively simple decision. There were associated costs in postponing but not horrific. There were only around two vendors who couldn’t make the new postponed date and I only lost a couple of DJs who were doing Cubadupa. Fortunately I’d mentioned to a few of the key artists that if Covid did come back we had a reserve date booked, so acts like Shapeshifter were aware of the possibility."

Looking across the festival season more generally, Minty believes that festival-goers realised how lucky they were to be attending concerts given the worldwide situation, so were more likely to be understanding if some festivals had similar line-ups. In the case of Splore, Minty found this was less of a sticking point in any case:

"We sold out Splore before I’d even announced one act, so it's a destination festival. That gave me a lot of latitude to have acts that weren’t playing at the other festivals, especially with our theme of “mother” this year. We had over 60% female or mixed-gender acts across the board. We’ve always had good diversity at Splore whereas it’s been a bone of contention that some other festivals don’t have that many female acts. I managed to book most of the female acts I wanted with very little duplication of other festivals and every one of those artists really stood up and performed really well."

One of the acts that appeared at Splore was Princess Chelsea, who says she’s enjoyed the chance to tour locally after years of focusing on the overseas market. She hopes that the funding available will mean she can tour more widely than before, since she’s previously found touring the South Island is financially risky for an act at her level. In the meantime, Chelsea has also been gaining fans overseas via a uniquely modern route - TikTok. 

Earlier this year, Variety magazine reported on how ‘TikTok’s popularity exploded during the pandemic’ and so there was ample opportunity for local acts to follow in Benee’s footsteps by gaining new listeners via this medium. In December, the 25-year old song How Bizarre blew up by being used in 400k+ videos whose streams reached past two billion. 

Now Princess Chelsea’s song Cigarette Duet is having its moment by being used in 46k videos, which have sent views of the original YouTube video up to 50k per day (total views: 58 million). Chelsea was particularly surprised to hear her song used in one TikTok video with 13 million views:

"I haven’t downloaded the app but my friend Josh sent me a clip of Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe cosplaying as me and Jonathan on his wife’s TikTok so that’s an indication of the popularity - haha. I take it with a grain to salt - I find it bizarre and amusing but also Cigarette Duet is a triumph of a pop song and I’m proud of myself for writing it. TikTok does make me uncomfortable with the advertising correlation and the idea of artists creating music with the goal of being successful on it makes me feel a bit ill. In saying that, if a bunch of younger people are discovering my music through the app, that is great. Anything that has growth like TikTok and Spotify then major labels and big radio are going to try to tame it. So the fact someone completely independent like me can still accidentally clock TikTok is nice in a way - it means purity and chance is still (barely) alive."

Cigarette Duet on TikTok

While TikTok and YouTube numbers jumped over the past year, the overall trend from the big streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music was less clear cut. One thing that’s certainly clear is that the commercial radio play of New Zealand music reached its highest level ever during 2020. However David Ridler from NZ On Air questions whether this was a result of the pandemic or not:

"The momentum has been pretty steady over the past four years with an increase year-on-year since 2017. There is a theory that a few less international artists were releasing records and that local acts gained publicity from being the only ones touring here, but I don’t know if those really were the case. There was certainly a big push on supporting local, but I think the timing was really fortuitous with the quality of New Zealand music that has been coming through in the last couple of years. Commercial radio isn’t a charity so if a song doesn’t research with its audience, they’ll drop it right away which means it's heartening that these songs have not only been being aired but researching with local audiences really well."

Ridler believes one positive step has been the increase in songwriting collaboration and higher production quality levels, which have been encouraged by industry events like APRA’s Songhubs sessions or Recorded Music’s Aotearoa Music Producer Series. He’s also seen a young generation of radio programmers come through who have never known the ‘cultural cringe’ of believing local music to be inherently worse than overseas music.

One aspect of the current high level of New Zealand music play which differs from the last peak year (2005, which had 20.77% local music) is that there is a greater spread of acts contributing to the airplay, rather than a few huge stars. Not only are local acts like Six60, BENEE, Drax Project, Sons of Zion, and L.A.B. filling the A-rotate slots, but there are newer acts such as Paige, Niko Walters, NAVVY, and Foley filling in the schedule at various other high rotations. It is certainly a positive sign if this development is non-pandemic related, since it will be more likely to survive into the future.

Looking at the music industry as a whole, it's more difficult to say whether the past year on balance was positive or negative, though local musicians have certainly fared better than in many comparable countries. Reuben Bonner points to situation of Chelsea Jade as a prime example:

"Chelsea was right in the thick of it in Los Angeles. I know people had a hard time in NZ, but it was quite dystopian over there. For an artist like Chelsea, her art is her life, so not being able to play shows had an emotional effect. It was great for her to come back, even if there was the stress of the quarantine system to get through. She was able to play some really incredible shows, which included some great festival slots."

The bigger question is whether the gains achieved during the past year can be carried forward into the future. Bonner believes that acts like Nadia Reid and Tiny Ruins have gained new fans who will stick with them in future. However he’d like to see the Aotearoa Touring Programme continue so that other acts can benefit from the wider touring circuit it has created.

Reuben Bonner (Photo: Ben Howe)Reuben Bonner (Photo: Ben Howe)

Nonetheless, Bonner questions whether New Zealand would have another successful summer of festivals and tours if there were only local acts available - a position which is echoed by John Minty and Mikee Tucker. At the same time, Minty does say that this year’s Splore has encouraged him to search harder for New Zealand acts to put on his festival next year and that he plans to keep a heavy weighting of local talent on the bill.

If nothing else, the past year has shown that there are local artists that can successfully take the place of overseas acts - whether on radio or playing live - so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to take these slots in the future. 

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