Sounds Like Us Part 2

22:40, Aug 09 2010

A version of this story was published in Your Weekend magazine a few weeks ago.

Sometimes, because of lack of space or because people like me just write too darn much to fit the space, some things can sometimes be lost in translation.

Thus, here is the original, unsubbed version of the story I wrote about New Zealand On Air….

What does New Zealand sound like?

During May, New Zealand Music Month, it sounded like industry backslapping.

May is but a distant memory now but the resentment amongst musicians of funding body New Zealand On Air lingers on like a bum note.


Our music industry is diverse and unique yet there is rising anger that the bulk of Government funding goes to predominately commercial artists leaving out all the other genres which actually go towards making New Zealand's music diverse and unique.

 Through the Government's Culture and Heritage arm, NZ On Air devote $5.4 million per year on a mix of music funding schemes and promotional strategies.

New Zealand On Air Music Manager, Brendan Smythe - ``BS'' to his detractors - is the face of the organisation.

We meet in a cafe on a rainy May day in Christchurch. The 60-year-old braced against the cold in a black bullseye Music Month hoodie and trendy thin-striped scarf.

``Music month is always a problem for me,'' Smythe says. ``It's duck shooting season and I'm the duck.''

He's been in the funding role for 21 years but says he is still affected by the animosity his role attracts.

``You'd think I'd have developed a thick skin but I never have, I still feel it very keenly.''

The first week of May was a bad one for Smyth. As well as an article I wrote for The Press titled Sounds Like Us, questioning the role of the funding body, Real Groove magazine published an analysis of the organisation written by the former editor, Duncan Greive.

We both asked why the organisation has seen so few changes over the past decade. A time which has seen global record business decimated and its local market shrink by over 50 per cent.

However, Smyth, who agrees to meet after I contact Minister of Broadcasting Jonathan Coleman, is critical.

``That Real Groove article from my point of view was a negative article, attacking but in a way that's par for the course. For me the kicker was the cartoon. That was when I thought that `this is out of control'. It's not about NZOA and policies it was about me personally. The cartoon was done by Tourettes who was the one having a real crack in there, he's got a beef anyway and the cartoon was, I thought, particulary vicious. It was like a real kick in the guts. That was why this music month seemed to be harder than usual, it's gone one step beyond the debate which is fair enough and it's gone to this personal attack.''

Not that he hasn't been parodied before. In Auckland band The Sneaks video for I'm Lame, they depict themselves receiving a giant cheque for a video grant for $5000 from Smyth and spend it on a horse race.

The horse wins and their video ends with them dressed as giant sausages amidst a grandiose pyrotechnics display.

``I'm fairly sure they couldn't have bet their grant on a horse,'' Smyth says. ``We don't give it all out in one lump sum like that, they get $4000 to make the video and $1000 upon completion. I was most offended that they portrayed me in that video, handing over the cheque, wearing a suit. I don't wear suits.''

Fairly sure? Shouldn't he know if a band bets taxpayers' money on a horse? Aren't grants audited?

``No, they're not all audited. We do have checks in place, though,'' Smyth says.

This is disputed by a number of musicians contacted for this article who did not want to be named.

Smyth has also been verbally abused and physically attacked a number of times including one incident after the bNet Awards where a female musician leapt on his back, tackled him to the ground and loudly berated him for not giving her band any funding.

Smyth makes light of the incident but some close to him confide that he couldn't leave the house for a while after the attack.

``I've had two or three physical attacks. I don't drink at any industry events because you have to be aware 360 degrees at all times. That attack was particularly ugly. I made a new rule for myself after that. Turn up for five minutes before the show starts and leave 15 minutes after it finishes. The sad thing is that the purpose of those events is to network with people and I felt at that stage I couldn't do that any more, it was too dangerous.''

Why the animosity? Opponents of New Zealand On Air say the funding body is flawed, funding only songs that will be played on commercial radio stations and ignoring the development of our nation's musical culture.

They also claim that the organisation is little more than an old boys' network, propping up record companies and even contributing to urban drift.

NZ On Air spends $5.4m annually over four areas: the distribution of so-called `hit discs' - CD compilations of local artists which go to radio; funding of broadcasters; direct funding for artists to make albums, singles and videos; and the funding of Phase Five projects to take New Zealand music to the world.

The organisation's approach to the funding of videos and the recording of music, remains largely unchanged since it began in 1989 following the deregulation of broadcasting in 1988.

Cantabrian James Milne aka Lawrence Arabia won the inaugural Taite Music Award and New Zealand's most prestigious songwriting award last year, the APRA Silver Scroll Award, yet Milne didn't fit the criteria for funding for many years.

The NZ On Air logo only plopped onto his videos once he had already established himself overseas on his own terms. Although he has been acknowledged as this country's best songwriter right now, you still won't hear his music on commercial radio.

``Commercial radio is a complete write-off for artists like me. If you listen to The Edge, you realise that the music that gets played on there is so far removed from the music I make, it wouldn't make sense for it to be played,'' Milne says.

``I think it would be great if NZ On Air adapted their focus to be not predominantly on commercial radio, which seems to me to be a total artistic dead end. The media landscape has changed almost unrecognisably from NZ On Air's beginnings 20 years ago, and I reckon it would make sense to make some changes to recognise this.''

Other musicians say that their music doesn't fit NZ On Air's criteria but, if they're "arty'' enough, they can get Creative New Zealand funding, claiming to be visual artists.

Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop records, the label which first signed Nirvana, had this to say about the so-called `Dunedin sound': ``Records were intercontinental semaphores, a way of conjuring up a place or a region. I had a conception of what Dunedin must be like: beautiful, remote and crawling with great bands.''

Yet Dunedin-based Chris Matthews, of Headless Chickens, says that Dunedin and South Island artists in general are ignored in NZ On Air funding decisions.

``They are obviously very Auckland-centric and a bit with Wellington, too. The fact that they're not funding bands from the South Island much at all in any capacity is dubious and quite worrying, I think. It's that that bugs me more than anything else. It smacks of a boys' club network where there's a handful of people running the industry. If you're in the know then you get the money. Musicians feel and are openly told they have to move to Auckland,'' Matthews says.

Smyth disagrees. `` We're not discouraging musicians from living in the South Island but the fact of the matter is that the large part of the industry is based in Auckland. Our music mandate is Section 37(d) of the Broadcasting Act, which says that in our funding for radio audiences, we should have regard for the broadcasting of New Zealand music. We have interpreted that to mean get more New Zealand music played on the radio. We define New Zealand music as music made by New Zealanders.

``We have concentrated on commercial radio audiences because commercial radio is where 80% of the radio audience is listening, where the level of New Zealand music has been the lowest, and where the competition for airtime is the hardest,'' Smyth says.

The organisation started funding ``radio friendly'' music in 2000 and still fund more music videos than anything else - 170 last year. They still pay exactly the same amount for each music video, $5000, as they did in 1991. NZ On Air say that they have achieved their mission to get more New Zealand music on our airwaves and during May bandied around the figure of ``21% local content'' on New Zealand radio.

However, the average figure seems to vary wildly between 17.8 and 19.27% on all radio and it pays to note that Kiwi FM is included in the mix.

If Dane Rumble or Midnight Youth have four hits in the charts played on regular rotation then commercial radio stations can tick the box that yes, they are supporting New Zealand music.

``It's the funding game, infinite demands with finite resources and inevitably you are going to say no more than you say yes. The more you say no the more angry people you have. In a way music month brings that out. We are in the broadcasting business,'' Smyth argues, before adding, out of the blue: ``Rob Mayes and I don't see eye to eye on this subject.''

This may be the understatement of the year.

Mayes, of Failsafe Records, arranges to meet me to discuss his views. Almost three hours later my tape recorder runs out of oomph.

He is so unhappy about NZ On Air's attittude towards our music culture that he started a page on Facebook, Sounds Like Us NZ Music ``Our NZ on our Airwaves''.

``They've singlehandedly ruined the New Zealand music scene. They are creating a divide between those that get grants and those that don't. They are forcing South Island musicians to move to Auckland to `get ahead'. The original intent of the NZ On Air body was to: `reflect and foster the development of New Zealand culture and identity through broadcasting' and `to fund programmes and broadcasts, not otherwise provided in a commercial market to reflect New Zealand's diversity'. Instead they are just funding songs that fit the commercial format so we are creating a nation of American imitators, a generation of Kiwi Nickelbacks,'' Mayes says.

To get funding for a song it gets played before a panel of commercial radio programmers, he adds. They don't care about developing our culture and it's the same acts that get the funding all the time.

``Why are they playing the radio hits game? Why does NZ on Air music think it can do its own thing contrary to the stated aims of the organisation by providing content for the extremely narrow and in, no way identity reflecting genre, of commercial pop radio, and fund artists which are quite clearly being provided for in a commercial market?''

When faced with this question, Smyth gives me a reply that lasts for five minutes, full of political weasel words, culminating in: ``We are not in the culture business, we are in the broadcasting business. Our mission is to have more New Zealand music on air and we have achieved that, statistics show we now have over 20% airplay,'' Smyth says.

Mayes asks: How is having more commercial music on air fostering and reflecting the development of New Zealand culture which is part of NZ On Air's mission statement?

Country music and folk music are parts of our cultural heritage but are not played on commercial radio.

``We are in the culture, airplay game but the fact is whenever you invest in an artist and that artist is played on the radio, which is our mission, our job is done,'' Smyth replies.

Some might say that funding songs to be played on the radio or music TV is a severely outdated approach, considering that the majority of people get their music online.

``Regarding online, we commissioned a report by Russell Bailie and Andrew Dubber in 2008 called We're All In this Together and we started talking about doing a top to tail review of the whole music strategy then,'' Smyth says.

``They were paid $10,000 for their report.'' Still, it's easily 10 years too late. Studies show radio loiters behind social media, online audio and smart phones as a music discovery venue.

``Up until March 2008 NZ On Air had no legal jurisdiction over online broadcast. They changed our function under Section 36 of the Broadcasting Act, our primary function is radio and television but now we can secondarily have regard for online broadcast. When the broadcasting act was written in 1988 the internet was just a gleam in somebody's eye. That aside, I think that radio is still a good way of connecting the music with the fan,'' Smyth says.

NZ On Air was also, he says, caught up in the royalties dispute between the Radio Broadcasters Association (MediaWorks and the Radio Network) and Phonographic Performances New Zealand, dominated by the big four multinational music companies, and couldn't move to make changes until the deal was finalised.

After 18 months delay, the Copyright Tribunal's decision was announced recently, leaving radio bigwigs singing the blues, issuing a decision that meant a 58% rise in the royalties music stations pay record companies and performers.

The bulk of the monies will go to multi-national record companies but local independent musicians will also benefit. The performance royalties paid to PPNZ match but are distinct from an agreement with the Australasian Performing Right Association.

Under a voluntary agreement APRA collects 3% of gross revenue for songwriters. Now the decision has been made, NZ On Air can move to make changes, Smyth says, and in March, Chris Caddick, former NZ head of label EMI, was appointed to oversee a review of the organisation.

Comments on Caddick's appointment have been mixed, a typical example on Facebook reading: ``Great, another industry mate to offer an `impartial' report.''

 However, Smyth feels ``he's an excellent candidate'' and cites Caddick's comprehensive and largely critical review of the organisation's Phase 5 scheme, which is in the process of being wound up, as proof of his impartiality.

Although he may not like Tourettes' cartoon of him, Smyth says he doesn't hold grudges or `black list' anyone and that if Tourettes applied with a good song they would still fund it.

``I think he's applied 20 times and hasn't gotten through. If he applied for music video funding and we put it out to C4 and Juice and they said `great song' I wouldn't say `no that's Tourettes we can't do it'.''

In May, Avondale's biggest selling boy band, rising stars Home Brew applied for a music video grant for their song Underneath the Shade.

Unsuccessful, their humorous nine-minute video, A Little Boy Waits, showed the rap crew's attempt to get enough money to make one anyway.

``We definitely had Home Brew on our radar. They only applied once and they didn't get through but they were close,'' Smyth says.

Rapper Tom Scott said they had applied ``four times'' and were yet to hear any feedback of where they stood in the selection process. ``Obviously we weren't radio friendly enough.

Kiwis singing songs about being on the benefit just aren't right for commercial radio, I guess,'' Scott laughs.

Home Brew chose to self-release via independent distributor Rhythmethod rather than sign with either of the two high profile labels courting them.

When asked for his opinion of NZ On Air, Ian Jorgensen, aka Blink of respected independent label A Low Hum, is succinct.

``New Zealand On Air is f......'' However, Jorgensen has been in to NZ On Air offices offering his own solutions.

For his part, Smyth's ``litmus test'' of an album is still to play it in the car for his wife and family.

``I don't say what it is, I put it on and off we go to the supermarket but if Janet says `what's this?' I go `whoa, there's something happening here'. She's got good ears.''

Smyth cites Brooke Fraser as his major success story.

``We did a showcase in Auckland and it was the most embarassing thing. They talked all the way through, Brooke was in tears. Wind forward three or four years and I went to her show at the Opera House in Wellington and it was standing room only, jam packed and you could have heard a pin drop. Watching people give her respect, that's when I thought `this is a good job'.''

I ask Smyth why South Island musicians are under-represented in the funding allocation. This year, 83 grants have been awarded, only four of which went to South Island-based artists.

We pay taxes too. `

`Perhaps their songs just weren't good enough?'' Smyth says.

We stare at each other for a moment or two. For a fleeting second I can understand the urge someone else had to wrestle him to the ground.

My two and a half hour interview with Smyth ended in an animated fashion with each of us quoting segments of the broadcasting act at each other ad nauseum, much to the amusement of other cafe patrons.

Smyth: ``We are in the broadcasting business, our mission is to get more New Zealand music on air.''

Me: ``How is that an accurate reflection of our culture?''

Smyth: ``We are in the broadcasting business, our mission is to get more New Zealand music on air.''

Me: ``No, you've interpreted the act to mean that it's to get more commercial music on air and that's an entirely different thing.''

Smyth: ``We are in the broadcasting business, our mission is to get more New Zealand music on air.''

Me. How can you not see that you are contradicting the Broadcasting Act? Letting down taxpayers?

Smyth, like an automated robot, just kept repeating: ``We are in the broadcasting business, our mission is to get more New Zealand music on air.''

Eventually I left the cafe as politely as I could.

In the rain, I walked across the road and thrashed around a bit to live New Zealand music in the Christchurch Town Hall while wondering what price there is on accurately reflecting who we are, musically, as a nation.

New Zealand music. It sounds like us - all of us.


The Press