Editorial: In praise of NZ Music Month - and quotas

Christchurch's Marlon Williams, currently enjoying a rapturous reception overseas, is among those to have played in NZ ...
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch's Marlon Williams, currently enjoying a rapturous reception overseas, is among those to have played in NZ Music Month.

OPINION: May is New Zealand Music Month, and what a great autumn harvest it is. It's difficult now to remember how little our music was heard when music month made its debut. Now our music is flourishing; there will be hundreds of shows and events to celebrate it. But it's worth reflecting how new all this really is, and how music quotas helped us get here.

In 1995 only 1.6 per cent of the music on commercial radio consisted of New Zealand songs. A movement grew to impose a local music quota, although opponents said our artists had to stand on their own merits: quotas wouldn't produce a culture.

New Zealand Music Week was born in 1997. Many people added their weight to the movement, including David Beatson, head of New Zealand on Air, and the new Labour Government in 1999. 

Labour's quota was only a "voluntary" one, although the Government made it clear that it would be imposed if necessary. The result was a rapid rise in the amount of New Zealand music heard on the radio. It was up to about 10 per cent in 2000 and 23 per cent in 2005.

So music quotas have proved a success. Nowadays radio stations put on a healthy amount of local music without having to be forced to do it. That's because there is an eager audience for it. What's more, it's arguable that the quotas have helped raise the standard of local music as well. New Zealand music grew more popular as more of it was produced, and it grew better as well.

Did the quotas produce the culture? No, but they helped foster it. History suggests that quotas can encourage the growth of a plant that already exists, but their power has its limits. France has a French-language music quota, but lately there has been  a strong backlash against it. More and more French musicians want to record their songs in English, for the simple reason that that is the language of the huge international pop music market.

New Zealand musicians are lucky to belong already to this market, but they also risk being swamped by the behemoth of American and English rock. In effect this was largely what had happened by the mid-1990s, although for decades a distinctive New Zealand sound could regularly be heard. 

The post-war history begins perhaps with Blue Smoke, a song written by soldier Ruru Karaitiana which in 1949 was a smash hit sunng by Pixie Williams. Pop music in the 1960s produced a slew of cover songs and a smaller but precious trove of original pop music, and this tradition has never stopped.

New Zealanders always wanted to hear the best overseas pop music – the 1960s is unthinkable without the Beatles – but they also liked hearing their own songs.

The quota has helped that voice to thrive. Now we have a depth of local talent that has made its way across international borders. Local singers no longer even feel called upon to perform in American accents, thank heavens. That tell-tale sign of the cultural cringe has finally departed.

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 - The Dominion Post

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