Public feedback on funding choices sweet music to NZ On Air's ears

BY JANE WRIGHTSON
Last updated 14:17 23/08/2010

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As anybody in the funding business knows, having contestable funds available to distribute can make you terribly unpopular. The finite pool of funds is inevitably much, much smaller than the pool of those competing for it.

OPINION: New Zealand On Air has faced criticism over the years about the way we invest in local music. Every once in a while that criticism boils up, and it has again recently.

It's a great time to be having this debate. NZ On Air is in the middle of a wide-ranging review of the way we support music production, prompted not by the cries of dismay from the unfunded, but by changing technology.

To ensure the debate is informed, and to encourage as many submissions to the review as possible, I would like to explain our purpose and try to clear up some of the common misunderstandings about our role.

NZ On Air funds New Zealand broadcast content. Our governing legislation, the Broadcasting Act, stipulates that our focus in the music sphere is on getting radio airplay for Kiwi music (we also invest in television, radio and community broadcasting content). We spend $5.4 million a year on "getting more New Zealand music on air".

This places our focus squarely on popular music for commercial radio because 80 per cent of the radio audience listens to commercial stations - from Mai FM and Flava to Classic Hits and The Rock.

And our 2010 research shows 73 per cent of New Zealanders are still getting their daily music fix from radio. Our radio focus has given us, and Kiwi music, great success.

When we were set up in 1989, Kiwi music received miserly radio airplay - just 2 per cent of all music played on commercial radio. Since then, the proportion has increased to 20 per cent. We're rightfully proud of that. Pride in New Zealand music is now palpable.

NZ On Air is not an arts funding body. Our focus on broadcasting means we are entirely and unapologetically audience-focused. We aim to get the greatest amount of recorded Kiwi music out to the greatest number of Kiwis.

As much as artists may wish it differently, it is not our role to fund diversity for diversity's sake.

There will always be people disappointed that they missed out on funding. Last year, we funded 22 new recordings, 31 albums and 170 music videos. We had 2100 applications.

Funding is decided by panels that include members of the broadcast music industry who run nationwide broadcast networks and are choosing music that will appeal up and down the country. NZ On Air has no regional mandate and it makes no difference to us where the music we fund comes from: we just want audiences to love it.

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And it would be very wrong to conclude that because our focus is on commercial music and audience reach, the music we fund all sounds the same.

Artists we supported last year include Nesian Mystik, The Phoenix Foundation, Bic Runga, Kidz In Space, Shihad, PNC, Concord Dawn, Minuit, P-Money, Fly My Pretties, The Naked & Famous, Annah Mac, Kids Of 88, J Williams and Dane Rumble - a huge range of musical styles and genres.

We haven't tended to fund genres such as popera, heavy metal, or country because there are not enough opportunities for these genres to play on the radio. But it is now easier than it's ever been for musicians to record a song, post it online and find a following. If that following is big enough a radio station will get attracted.

We also support non-commercial and alternative music through our funding of Radio New Zealand, the five student radio stations, and Kiwi FM, which all play other types of Kiwi music - classical, jazz, alternative and new musicians.

But NZ On Air is not standing still - the digital age has brought massive changes to the music industry. The industry is still trying to work out how to catch up, and we too are looking at our role in the digital space.

Until recently, our focus by law was solely to promote airplay on radio. In 2008, we were given a secondary power that allowed us to invest in local content, including music, for "new" platforms such as online or mobile.

So far, we have trodden carefully. We know there is a plethora of music online and it has been unclear to us where a public subsidy would be most useful.

This is why we have commissioned a review, led by former EMI music head Chris Caddick, into our music funding operations and options. He is consulting more than 100 people across the broadcast and music sectors and we are seeking public feedback too.

Is there room to fund more diversity in music? Quite possibly. We have briefed our reviewer to look at how online options might allow us to fund other kinds of Kiwi music on air - and online.

I'm fully expecting that NZ On Air will be announcing a new music strategy in 2011.

What that will look like, I don't know. But I do expect we'll remain audience focused. Kiwi audiences provide the funding, they should benefit. If we can continue to fund music that audiences love, then we're on the right track.

- Jane Wrightson is chief executive of New Zealand On Air.

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