Kiwi musicians no royals

JESS MCALLEN
Last updated 15:42 13/07/2014
liam kiely
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

FOREST PARTY: Liam Kiely and and Carl Naus of Chronophonium Ltd.

ian jorgensen
PUPPIES: Ian "Blink" Jorgensen.

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A florist and a street poster plasterer walk into an Auckland arena and sip free champagne. It sounds like a joke, but it's the APRA Silver Scrolls Awards 2013, the biggest night in New Zealand music.

Comedian Dai Henwood is on stage, decked out in a sequin jacket and making wisecracks about bottled water. Lorde receives the prestigious Silver Scroll Award for Royals and Dave Dobbyn is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"But it was like a eulogy, " says Liam Kiely, the poster plasterer, whose band HDSPNS were hired to perform at the after-party. "This video played in the background and they were talking like he [Dobbyn] had died."

The 24-year-old means no disrespect to Dobbyn, in fact he admires his work, but was annoyed at the amount of money spent on a self-congratulatory event when the backbone of New Zealand music struggles to pay rent.

APRA (the Australasian Performing Right Association) is the only organisation to collect royalties for musicians across Australia and New Zealand. It hosts the ritzy do every year, inviting members, songwriters and up-and-comers, lured by free booze and nibbles.

Three months later, Kiely and Carl Naus, the florist, held their own music event: Chronophonium, a three-day independently funded festival in the Coromandel which contrasts starkly with the Silver Scrolls.

The self-described "party in a forest" celebrated its third anniversary in January with more than 650 punters - a big jump from the 100-or-so friends who attended its 2011 debut.

Chronophonium looks like it could be one of next year's most sought-after live-music hotspots.

Insiders say the fact young Kiwi talent is racing to embrace this underground, grassroots approach to music is because musicians are increasingly frustrated with outdated funding models from APRA and New Zealand on Air (NZOA), the dying live-music scenes in small towns and the growing commercial sponsorship (particularly through alcohol companies - this year's music month added "Becks" to its title).

Lorde's orchestrated rise to the top is not the reality for most New Zealand artists who spend years on self-promotion, failed funding bids and shows in dingy venues before they make an impact.

As Royals was climbing international music charts, the Kiwi music scene was crumbling - with live music venues such as Wellington's Mighty Mighty and Puppies closing and the canning of 2015's Big Day Out in Auckland and Wellington festival Camp a Low Hum.

With a lack of venues for rookie musicians to practice and perform at, and funding becoming more difficult, industry insiders say it is not a matter of when the next Lorde happens, but if.

Ian "Blink" Jorgensen, former owner of the aforementioned Puppies, and founder of Camp A Low Hum, released a book this month voicing these frustrations and causing the suits and ties of New Zealand music to sit up and take notice.

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The Problem With Music In New Zealand And How We Can Fix It and Why I Started and Ran Puppies is a long-player of backstage grumblings and the biggest gripe of all is the way music is funded in New Zealand.

Among its critiques, the book laments:

The $287,460 NZOA spent on a digital game called "Indie Music Manager", which encouraged participants to play the role of a band manager.

The way NZOA chooses who to fund (part of the criteria includes having more than 1000 fans on social media).

APRA's system where royalties for background music played in venues go to the artists that get the most radio play.

At Puppies, Jorgensen tried to tackle the smaller stuff. Bands didn't have to pay venue hire, a common practice used to help pay off licensing fees to APRA. "How can a venue justify charging a band to play? If you are specifically a live music venue, your suppliers are musicians, " he argues.

To cover the fees payable to APRA, he increased the entry fee from $5 to $10. Artists were also provided a backstage toaster and duvets. The bar also sported a pop- up barbershop, courtesy of doorman Brett, who gave customers free trims.

What customers pay to see live music hasn't changed in 20 years, despite the price of everything else increasing.

"We really undervalue music, " says Jorgensen. "Ice blocks used to be 60 cents, movies were a lot cheaper. The industry isn't worse; we just didn't change with inflation. Having four bands play for $5 - it's nuts. A bottle of coke costs $4.50."

Two days after the book's release, APRA's head of New Zealand Operations, Anthony Healey, called for a meeting with Jorgensen and various Kiwis in the industry - including Craig Pearce, manager of The Phoenix Foundation and Black Seeds.

"Blink [Jorgensen] is wrong on many points but we both come from a place that wants music to thrive and grow, and those that make music to be respected and successful, " Healey told the Sunday Star-Times after the meeting.

But suggestions have been made, and Jorgensen will be meeting with Healey in three months to discuss the outcomes.

Part of the problem is all music venues get charged the same amount regardless of whether they're open for 10 hours a week or 100. In October last year, changes were made that saw venues pay a daily set fee to APRA. Rohan Evans, owner of Auckland's Whammy Bar and Wine Cellar, says it was "ridiculous."

He negotiated a lower rate with APRA to return costs their original levels. But other venues have not been so lucky

"It seemed like they were trying to shut down small businesses, the ones that actively encourage live music. We're only open Friday and Saturday night for music."

"The fees for small venues are now so steep that for any small business it's a huge increase and won't go unnoticed."

But APRA isn't backing down. Healey says they will not be changing policy, and do not intend to hurt small businesses.

"We don't take 'hours open' as a factor in determining the license fee, as it simply wouldn't work. We determine the rates payable by the size of the premise, which in most cases reflects the size, scale and number of people that use the business.

"The per-day rate is a result of discussions with many venues. Venue owners wanted to be able to budget for the costs, and a percentage of ticket revenue or expenditure didn't work. The per- day rate is what a vast majority of venues wanted."

In Los Angeles, Auckland-based band Civil Union have started the first leg of their 25-date US tour.

The band's manager Michael McClelland thinks New Zealand music lost its edge when Flying Nun (the determinedly independent label of The Clean and The Chills fame) was sold to Warner Music in 2006.

"It was a formerly DIY, adventurous label with a long history of exciting musicians and it achieved commercial and critical success without support from the state, the industry or even radio, " says McClelland.

He believes labels fuelling creativity like Chronophonium, Muzai and Melted Icecream will achieve real success.

"Flying Nun had little regard for commerce or trends; incidentally, it achieved all that the music industry and government could never follow.

"It was a bunch of people not giving a f... that got New Zealand international attention in the 1980s and beyond. These kinds of people still exist."

The industry's approach is not working, he says. He criticises the NZ Music Commission's Outward Sound programme under which New Zealand bands are given grants (ranging from $1000-$50,000) to tour overseas. Artists are meant to match these grants dollar-for- dollar. McClelland says major labels and public funds operate together to send marketable, bland talent to all the wrong places.

"SXSW (South By South West in Texas) and CMJ (an American music event) are among many industry festivals that cost bands to play when there's no rewarding outcome.

"[They play] isolated 'NZ Showcase' tents to a handful of festival stragglers in the hope a stray industry representative might show up."

McClelland refers to the 2013 photo of Six60 performing to a near-empty venue at SXSW, despite having cleared out most of the prizes at the New Zealand Music Awards that same year.

In 2009 Flying Nun came back under New Zealand control and is now headed by Ben Howe, who also runs Arch Hill record company (in charge of Street Chant and Ghost Wave) and co- promotes Laneway festival.

But even Howe has been criticised by both Jorgensen and McClelland for his work with alcohol companies to fund music. Both say it's damaging to promote the two hand-in-hand when New Zealand has such a prevalent drinking problem.

Howe says our remote location puts us in a tough spot and we need something to fund music.

"I don't think that [alcohol sponsorship] is the root of the problem. If anything, I would argue - well, I wouldn't say it presents a solution - but the thing is people don't buy music any more and artists still need to earn money. Something like Becks' Music Month, they actually invested tens of thousands of dollars that went directly to artists.

"Most of the dollars made around music are siphoned offshore, either by blockbuster stadium artists, big labels or giant tech companies. So, really, the biggest problem for local music is we are left fighting over the crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie."

New Zealand On Air celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and music manager Brendan Smyth has been there since its 1989 beginning.

The music industry is going through a period of transition, he says. Where records were once bought, people now stream on Spotify or Soundcloud (where Lorde initially released Royals for free download).

"These are the most exciting times for music but they are also the most anxious times. It's never been easier to make music and get it out there but now there's so much clutter and cacophony, getting noticed is a real challenge."

Smyth is in charge of the Making Tracks programme, which grants of up to $10,000 for musicians to record a song, video or both.

In the past 12 months 1284 songs were submitted for funding but NZOA could only fund 238.

"There's never enough money to go around. That's the fact of life. You get two shots with one song - if you don't make it through one panel then you can apply for another of the [monthly] rounds but after that you should probably change the song because it's not breaking through or making an impression."

A florist and a poster plasterer walk onto the site of Chronophonium 2014. Instead of suits there are tie-dyed clothes, mud replaces red carpet and bubbles are switched for BYO. An old fire truck sells "special" hot chocolates and the portaloos are decorated with flowers propped inside beer bottles. The farm hosting the festival has a stream deep enough to swim in and the camp ground is encircled by cliffs. Tickets cost around $60 and include accommodation and dozens of artists such as Doprah (who opened for Lorde this year) and Sheep, Dog & Wolf (Wellington artist Daniel McBride, who won Critic's Choice at 2013's Vodafone Music Awards).

It's a refreshing approach, says Kiely, compared with most music events these days which are heavily sponsored.

"It's real, it's raw, there's no advertising. It's just about the music and that's what people want to go back to."

- Sunday Star Times

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