The joke that is NZ on Air funding: III

Last updated 10:42 23/08/2011

Around this time last year I wrote a piece called The joke that is NZ on Air funding. It looked at how inferior bands like Autozamm were milking the available funds to make rubbish music. We were paying for music we were not consuming.

There were quite a few comments on that post - and several musicians wrote to me privately, thanking me for putting it out there. It seems that musicians in New Zealand have a hard time speaking out about the funding hypocrisies because, well, they do still all want to be considered. Well, most of them do. And so they can't be seen to speak out about the funding bodies. Not publicly.

Just before the end of last year I served up The joke that is NZ on Air funding: II and, you guessed it, loads of comments again. Funding is an issue we all feel strongly about. And rightly so. We're the ones paying. Our money is going off in the direction of music we do not support, never heard of, or wish we had never heard.

The target, if you like, for the second blog-post about NZ on Air's fumbled funding was Annabel Fay. She received a bunch of money to make a video for an awful song (click here if you need a reminder of how dire the song and video are). People were heated about the fact that Fay came from a well-off family. But the real issue, to me, was that Annabel Fay's music is terrible. Just ghastly. People started writing soft-ish reviews suggesting that for pop music it wasn't that bad. A strange approach. These same reviewers never seem so keen to defend it when someone from another country has a go at it.

The only reason Fay's family wealth deserved to come in to the story was because it had been reported that Sir Michael Fay had flown 10 radio programming executives over to the family's Great Mercury Island holiday hideaway. This was before the album had been released. And there was talk that Brendan Smyth, NZ on Air music manager, went for the (proverbial) ride.

So that was poor form all round - Brendan should not have got on the plane. Something a NZ on Air employee agreed with me about. And Michael Fay had to figure that people would latch on to this story and hold his daughter's music up to tough scrutiny.

I stand by my comments that her vacuous pop music was insulting regardless of the perceived manipulation of flying the radio programmers away to be wined and dined. But add that information and it's horrifying to think that she was able to get funding - and willing to try. Never mind being entitled to - it just looks bad.

So, here we are - and you've seen the title of this post. And most of you will have sensed a connection. This being a part three to the story.

Well, this one is a little different. This time around I kinda like the music in question. But I'm not sure that what we're seeing is all that fair - or all that wise.

First, it's worth reminding that NZ on Air had an "independent review" - aka The Caddick Report. It's not for us to complain that Chris Caddick is an industry insider and far from independent. The report that he was paid handsomely for has been tabled. It's in effect. NZ on Air stopped funding albums - a few years too late. Though again, I'm personally not sure that funding albums was ever so wrong. But funding the wrong albums was not right.

Anyway, we're into the new rules now: albums are out and NZ on Air is running a programme called Making Tracks where it's about funding singles and videos - sometimes you get the combined money for both (up to a whopping $10,000) and sometimes it's just the money for the video (up to $6000). The artist has to put in $2000 of their own money.

And Caddick, former managing director for EMI and, according to the story I'm about to link to, "prominent cheerleader for local artists", is now the head of the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ). So that's his new post this year.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra is Ruban Neilson's new project. You may remember him from The Mint Chicks.

Neilson's UMO released a song called Ffunny Ffriends over a year ago. It was uploaded to Bandcamp, the online music delivery service; a chance for people to preview then pay for a track if they like it. He wanted to see how it would do. People liked it, and he made an album.

I think the album's all right, actually. I don't quite get the buzz from it that some do. But it's not bad. It's certainly far more to my taste that Autozamm or Annabel Fay - or for that matter Opshop, Midnight Youth or Fat Freddy's Drop. And there are some tracks I really like (Little Blu House) and sometimes when I play the album through I think it's pretty neat. Other times I end up thinking it's only half of an album. And that maybe it's being hyped for the fact that Neilson has decided to stay in Portland, America - he had been over there toward the end of The Mint Chicks' career.

And so this has arrived in New Zealand via some hype from Pitchfork and with the announcement that The Unknown Mortal Orchestra has signed to a cool American indie label. In fact a few of them were gathered around to bid for the group. In the end Neilson went with Fat Possum.

I seem to be hearing more in the album each time I listen to it - as of course is the way (or at least you hope so). So I'm confident that it will continue to grow for me. I still don't see it as any kind of five-star classic but it's interesting and yet still accessible. That in itself is no mean feat.

So I was excited when I received a copy of NZ Musician in the post yesterday. I saw that there was an article about The Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

I was a baffled to read the whining attitude of how it's harder touring America than New Zealand ("I love playing but it's not like I enjoy sitting in a van for eight hours a day"). Presumably he chose to live in America - it's a bigger pool to fish in and from. And he's managed to be paid for his album from a label. He even boasts that Fat Possum "were competing against all the other big indies, so they wouldn't get anything if they weren't aggressive".

And then to contradict the touring whinge, the article concludes with Neilson announcing, "I don't want to be living in New Zealand at the moment because I want to be busy. I was getting bored in New Zealand. I am too restless for it, so it's good to be here."

So he's too restless for New Zealand but also too restless for the eight-hour van trips that allow him to play far more frequently and (potentially) to far more people. Well, you can't have it both ways, can you?

Ah, but with NZ on Air you can. This artist, bored of New Zealand, living abroad, whose latest project arrived via the hype of the blogosphere and particularly the American websites (such as Pitchfork), managed to receive a $6000 video grant in July of this year for the song he wrote and released in America last year; a song that appears on an album paid for by an American label.

But what happens when the band wants to go and make a video? Well, that's where you and I, Joe and Jill Kiwi, come in. You know, the people from the place that Ruban Neilson is bored of. We come in with our taxpayer dough and the NZ on Air people decide it will look good if we channel some in the direction of The Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

It's not just Ruban Neilson who's having it both ways though. His success will be claimed, retrospectively, as being assisted by NZ on Air. Who's more at fault, do you think? Neilson for milking the funding because it's (still) there? Or NZ on Air for seeking to capitalise on an artist who's done the legwork, made the breaks, and could be seen as some flag-bearer for NZ on Air and New Zealand in general? (Don't worry about how bored you are, Ruban, just wave the flag will ya. That's a boy!)

The whole system is still a joke. Well that's what I think.

Incidentally you can read the whole NZ Musician article right here (to check the quotes I've used). And see here for the latest list of NZ on Air funding decisions from the July 2011 round.

So is it just me who thinks this is deplorable? See, I reckon that guy should have to put up with how boring it is here if he wants our money. What do you think? And why are NZ on Air still looking to pat themselves on the back for the hard work done by anyone else?

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And follow Off the Tracks to read 'The Vinyl Countdown' - an album-by-album review of my record collection.

52 comments
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Dave   #1   10:51 am Aug 23 2011

Well said yet again Simon. The move from album to track/vid funding is a reasonable move, but given that albums and vids can be made on your iphone these days (well, sort of) I wonder if they shouldn't can the whole thing and pump more money into music education.

Nick Braae   #2   11:03 am Aug 23 2011

Interesting post Simon, fascinating topic. I read the Caddick review and I think some of the changes to come out have been positive, i.e moving towards a more even split of funds between 'commercial' and 'indie' music. Hopefully this will encourage a greater range of artists to record music and will help to develop a musical culture in NZ that is not centred upon lightweight pop. And fair enough that Ruban is off in the States - as long as everything in life costs money, then we cannot expect artists to forego income on the grounds of 'loyalty' to NZ. Whether or not this should be funded, I'm not sure - I mean, we still get access to the music and to the video right? Would it be any different if Neilson got funding and remained in NZ but somehow managed to get the song some air/videoplay in the US? Still reaching the same audiences, so I'm not sure if his particular country of residence at any given point is a problematic issue. It seems that the main problem here is his attitude - NZ's not good/big enough for me (but p.s. I'll take the money). Could NZoA force artists to remain here while they are receiving funding or is that just plain counter-productive?

PK   #3   11:09 am Aug 23 2011

Would it be rude if I said that most centralised funding schemes end up in wasting money - or at least supporting funders "pet projects"?

Cancel the NZ on Air funding completely.

Peter McLennan   #4   11:11 am Aug 23 2011

Interesting that you single out Ruban Neilson, but overlook other Kiwis based overseas who have got funding in that latest round, like Tourettes and Kimbra (both living in Oz, I believe). Why?

Teony   #5   11:12 am Aug 23 2011

NZ on Air should fund upcoming artistes with lesser financial means, rather established artistes with greater financial means. Note: "artistes" is a subjective term, so in fairness in the NZ on Air funding context, Simon, you can't make too big a deal just because you don't like a certain band.

steve w   #6   11:14 am Aug 23 2011

I think the problem is the music, to be funded, has to be played on radio, and ALL New Zealand radio stations are rubbish, mostly high rotate- easy listening- its popular in US rubbish, hence why Fay was given dosh. Perhaps the Money could be spent setting up and running a nationwide NZ music radio station, that plays all NZ music, from HLAH, to Fuser, to Annika Moa, even Dobbyn or the feelers cos they are NZ music (just tired and lacking imagination)then all NZ music would meet the criteria, and I wouldnt have to listen to rubbish all day long on the Radio...

sounds like us nz music   #7   11:15 am Aug 23 2011

You raise some excellent points for consideration, not the least of which was NZOA's push to attach itself to success rather than creating it and the visibly compromising position it puts itself in by doing so. NZOA is there to perform a task, that of changing Broadcasting in NZ's resistance to playing NZ content. This whole money scramble thing is a side tracking distraction they've got themselves wound up in and it's mismanagement continually undermines focus on the real task at hand. Changing attitudes at broadcast level. Many of the issues we highlighted in our discussion paper are still there. The battle for reasonable change in this broken organisation is still in progress. http://www.mediafire.com/?uqg11bmvvvem426

Te   #8   11:18 am Aug 23 2011

I dont always agree with you Big Sim, but i think you have opened an interesting can of worms here. When does a NZ artist no longer qualify as a NZ artist? If a band with a kiwi drummer and singer, an ozzie gat man and a sweedish pianist start out in NZ releasing a single before jumping the ditch, are theys till able to claim funding? Even if they would prefer to be big in ozzie?

Also whats with Stan Walker being hailed as a NZ musician. Does that cat get funding from Australia's version of NZ On Air, potentially called OZ On Air? Then reap the rewars here? do you think they are pissed off at that?

Zamm Fan   #9   11:21 am Aug 23 2011

Not this old chestnut. Well and truly over you waaahing on about Autozamm simply because you have a personal beef with one of the members. That's not blogging, that's being a 15yr old schoolgirl. Go the Zamm!

Jonny   #10   11:29 am Aug 23 2011

If the company wants to bask in the reflected glory of Neilson and UMO, then I have no problem with the artists accepting money being thrown at them. And he can disown New Zealand and keep taking for all I care. But it's a dopey move from the funding body. They need to rewrite their mission statement so it reads simply 'Be Opportunistic'.

As for the album, I think it is slight but promising. Surprised how easy it is to listen to that short album on repeat all afternoon, like Remain In Light or There's No Place Like America Today. But am I going to be listening to it in five years? We'll see.

I wrote to NZ On Air about the Fay fiasco, and they said one reason Fay was given all that moolah was because she had a proven fanbase. Must be why she's playing HAPPY IN WELLINGTON. For those of you from out of town, it is a dank, subterranean bar where such luminaries as me, my mate, and the guy who writes this blog have played.


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