Making Top 10 of the Kiwi music charts
Big efforts have been made recently to straighten out the tangled world of how a song wins a top spot on the New Zealand music charts.
When it comes to behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, making the Top 10 of the New Zealand music charts must hold its own high ranking.
It's rumoured that at one time all you needed was a big fat wallet, or someone else's big fat wallet ... oh, and maybe a passable song.
Horror stories abound about the New Zealand music charts. In the bad old days, or good old days depending on your point of view, bands could get their song into the Top 10 with the help of their record label or interested wealthy party who would simply buy back all the albums from record stores and create an instant hit and chart success.
A familiar rumour in the industry is that one beloved Kiwi anthem only got to the top of the United States charts because someone at a record label opened their wallet. It is often cited as one of the last pay-for-play successes of that era.
Another rumour is that some bands found success in the '80s and early '90s when, over a beer or three, someone at a record store bet someone at a record company that a song would make No.1.
The record store CEO reportedly filled in his paper trail claiming his retail chain had sold several hundred copies of the song and the person at the record company found themselves on the losing end of a bet.
One of the best chart stories relates to one Kiwi group's second album. The group had a No.1 album before any of the stock had actually been printed it hadn't left the factory due to a manufacturing hold up, but so many people had been filling in the chart returns that it got to No.1 before the album was even produced.
For most of their history, the New Zealand charts have borne little or no relationship with reality.
It's easy to be suspicious of the music charts just who is buying some of this tripe purporting to be the most popular songs these days?
Paul Kennedy, of Radioscope, the man responsible for bringing the charts into the digital age, laughs at the cynicism.
"It's a lot more trustworthy than it used to be, but there are always suspicions about it. Either people don't know how it works or else they know how it used to be able to be manipulated," he says.
So what's changed? Kennedy took over the whole process at the end of 2004.
He introduced an auditing system and implemented a code of conduct for participants record companies and retailers which is a one-page document they have to sign which says they won't cheat or lie.
"We can check the volumes of albums going into stores and what's going out again so we can see any anomalies.
"It used to be an all paper-based system. Retailers would get it and put in their numbers for how many they'd sold that week, which was obviously open to manipulation and errors.
"Now it's all done electronically right from stock-control systems at the stores so it's more streamlined, with less human involvement."
Every Monday morning, Radioscope sends out a note to more than 60 radio stations (any that play contemporary music and which have a full-power licence) and 25 retailers, including digital and physical retailers iTunes, Vodafone, Telecom, the Warehouse, CD stores and chains. Listings are also taken from unlicensed stations the low-power stations that Kennedy says might not have a huge audience, but which are perhaps more active in finding new music. Each of these "music providers" emails reports to Radioscope detailing everything sold or played in the last seven days and the data is entered into a system.
"There's a lot of different format charts, and the Top 40, and there are a lot of other reports we do, too, which go to record companies and shops, and they use those to see what's working and what's not.
"We collate the information, it is manually checked and entered. Then we run the reports and double check everything, and then we send it to the PR company, who send it out to everyone who gets the chart each week," Kennedy says.
But will a piece of paper saying "don't be naughty" the musical equivalent of the honesty box have much effect. Is Kennedy saying that no-one buys back CDs any more?
"Yeah, it does happen and it has happened in the past. It used to happen a lot more often that it does now, because now we have the checks in place.
"One of the things in the code of conduct is that stores are obligated to tell us if someone attempts to do that.
"The responsibility is on them to tell us. We'll look into it and either discount all the sales or just find out what's happened," Kennedy says.
"It's a lot harder to do that these days. For one thing, it shows up a lot more easily because the number of sales has gone down in the past few years with downloading and what have you it's much easier to see anything unusual. Something that sold 10 copies last week and 100 copies this week stands out.
"The whole system is pretty robust these days. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, nothing's totally foolproof, but it's much harder to do it."
Then there are digital sales the words record companies will not speak. New Zealand is leading the world in music-to-mobile phone sales. A year ago the charts began incorporating digital sales into its figures and now the singles chart is dominated by digital sales.
"With that we have to check how many unique buyers there were," Kennedy says. "If someone uses the same credit card to buy 100 copies of the same song, then we just delete those it's pretty clear something unusual's going on there.
"(Digital sales are) just a reflection of how people are buying their music now. The big thing in New Zealand that's quite unusual is the domination of the phone companies here."
Kennedy isn't allowed to talk about market share, but earlier this year Vodafone issued a press release stating it was the biggest seller of singles, and no-one disputed it.
"In most countries mobile music is a growing market and everyone sees it as having a big potential, but here it's the dominant force, it's already happened."
While those who care about the sound quality of their music will continue to visit boutique record stores, those of a more disposable generation are phone driven. Another possible explanation is that with mobile phones you don't need a credit card, just a pre-paid phone an obviously easier method for those under 18.
Illegal downloads are another matter entirely. International data shows that, generally, for every one legal download there are 25 illegal ones.
While record companies don't want to acknowledge this black economy they, hopefully, have learnt from the mistakes they've made. Their unrealistic initial approach was to try to hold back the tide and ignore it.
In New Zealand, CD sales fell 37 per cent between 2000 and 2007.
Among submissions to the Digital Broadcasting: Review of Regulation, was one from the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ) and Independent Music NZ (IMNZ), stating that much of this decline locally and internationally was due to systematic infringement of copyright by individuals sharing music via online peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. They were keen to see Internet Service Providers (ISP) policing their own backyard more vigorously.
RIANZ chief executive Campbell Smith, whose company CRS Management represents Scribe, Bic and Boh Runga, Brooke Fraser, Dimmer and Elemeno P, and who is behind the Big Day Out, was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Press, but the company's submission cited the Sarkozy Agreement (also often referred to as the Olivennes Agreement), announced in France in November last year, as the most significant milestone yet in the task of curbing piracy on the internet.
The agreement creates a three-way partnership between the creative sector, ISPs and the Government. ISPs are required to disconnect the internet accounts of repeat copyright infringers and to test filtering techniques that can limit unauthorised P2P file-sharing activity.
As the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said: "The internet must not be allowed to become the Wild West, a lawless zone where outlaws can pillage works with abandon or, worse, trade in them in total impunity.
"It must be a medium where we protect our culture."
However, when downloading first hit these shores, instead of opening stores where people could download legally and inexpensively, the recording industry wasted time trying anti-piracy measures such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), which merely alienated people buying legitimate CDs. They suddenly discovered they couldn't play them on their PCs, in their cars or through their MP3 players.
"People got used to getting their music for free for a few years and it's hard to swing people back to the legal channels," Kennedy says. "Now people are in the mode of `I should be getting it for free'."
How are bands making their money these days? Surprisingly, this new technology has seen a return to the good old days when bands toured relentlessly, playing every tiny town in the land.
It's the reinvented way of building a fanbase and, perhaps, getting yourself a legitimate No.1 hit.