New Zealand Music Month has been running for 17 years. Alex Behan asks some of the people who were there from the start to tell its story: how it began, what it's achieved and where it's going next.
Chances are you've heard of NZ Music Month. It happens every May. You might even know someone who's got the t-shirt. You know, the ones with the black and white Target logo on them?
As far as cultural awareness campaigns go, NZ Music Month has been a success. It's been running since 2001, and in that time it’s lifted the profile of local music immeasurably.
But there are, of course, detractors - those that question its relevance: Does the campaign need refreshing after so many years? Is it doing a good enough job at promoting NZ artists? Do we even need it at all?
This is the story of NZ Music Month. It's the story of the promotional campaign that could.
Full disclosure – I was there: 20 years old, working for NZ on Air Music, promoting music to radio.
My boss was the founding head of NZ On Air Music, Brendan Smyth, who retired from the role at the start of 2016. He wrote the book on New Zealand music policy, helping to shape the way this country fosters its local music talent.
Brendan is a man of detail. He takes notes incessantly in the most detailed and perfect handwriting you have ever seen. He uses standard lined refill paper and writes two lines to every ruled line. I've never seen anything like it. He also has an excellent memory - which he allowed RNZ to mine.
Joining us were NZ On Air Music head David Ridler, NZ Music Commission chief executive Cath Andersen, music scene veteran and former NZ Music Month campaign manager Mikhal Norriss, and current NZ Music Month campaign manager Rodney Fisher.
The late 90s: the birth of NZ Music Month
Brendan Smyth: Before NZ Music Month, there was NZ Music Week. That goes back to 1997. It came about because a person who was involved in commercial radio at the time – Josh Easby, posed the question, "Why don't we play more New Zealand music?"
Out of that, he said, "Why don't we get everybody together: radio people, music people, record company people, and ask that question, 'Why don't we play more New Zealand Music?'" Of course, this was music to [NZ on Air Music's] ears, because that was our mission – trying to get more New Zealand music played on the radio.
Now's probably a good time to clarify what NZ On Air Music's job is.
David Ridler: It's part of NZ On Air – it's one of its main four funding streams. The four streams are factual content, scripted content, music, and platforms.
I'm fortunate enough to head up the music side of what we do, and yes, there is a distinct difference, because in the music side of NZ On Air, we engage in promotions, as well as just funding content.
That's quite distinct, so we have a little promotions office in Auckland, and we promote music to streaming services, to radio and all sort of things like that, which doesn't happen with the rest of NZ On Air.
So TV shows and documentaries get funded through NZ On Air, but then have to promote themselves in association with a broadcaster, but with music, you get funded, you also get promoted.
Brendan, let's go back to 1997.
Brendan Smyth: There was this conference at the Centra Hotel in Auckland. Out of that conference came a thing called the Kiwi Music Action Group. We didn't want to call it a committee, because it sounded too bureaucratic, it was going to be an action group.
This action group consisted of some record company people, some radio people, like Mike Regal who was programme director at Radio Hauraki at the time, NZ On Air, APRA, the musicians union and so on.
One of the initiatives we came up with was – let's have a music week, where we say to radio, "Hey let's go the extra mile and play some more NZ music."
The real agenda wasn't just to get more NZ music played, it was to break down barriers that existed amongst [commercial radio] programmers about NZ music ... prejudices, to expose people in radio to what was out there by giving them a kind of celebration of NZ music to latch onto.
It was ostensibly about getting more NZ music played on the radio, but the subtext was to try and increase awareness – a consciousness-raising exercise for commercial radio people, about NZ music and how good it was, and how much of it there was out there. That was the agenda.
It's hard for us to imagine, but there was a reticence at that stage from commercial radio to play local tunes. But the late 90s, early 2000s, really saw a turnaround in terms of perspective.
Brendan Smyth: Yeah, well that was right. I mean, you've got to go back to those mid-90s, when NZ music content on radio was down around two percent, max five percent.
There were horror statistics that came out at the time that said that there was less than two percent NZ music being played by commercial radio back then.
In that context, the challenge was obviously getting the numbers up, but also to try and break down those barriers that existed. The Music Commission didn't even exist back then in those early days. When the Music Commission came into existence in the year 2000, by then NZ Music week wasn't enough.
That's when it changed to NZ Music Month. The Music Commission took it over and became the kind of organisation hub for the promotion.
Cath, what even is the Music Commission?
Cath Andersen: When the organisation started, there was an organisation being supported by government to look after NZ music in a commercial sense – in a broadcasting sense, which of course was NZ On Air.
Then there was someone to help New Zealanders create art, which is more for a cultural benefit – that was Creative NZ.
There was no one specifically charged with the role of helping people make a living out of music. The NZ Music Commission’s job is to help grow the music industry both culturally and economically at home and abroad.
When the Music Commission started we had … a broadcasting sub-committee. Mike Chunn [former member of Split Enz] led that particular sub-committee and he had this idea that we should have a NZ Music Month.
There was this vision that if we made it a month then we could have one week to focus on commercial radio, one week to focus on print, one week to focus on television, and one week to focus on all the other great broadcasting, like community radio, National Radio and student radio.
One of the early tactics was to hold a local music showcase at the Radio Broadcasters Association Conference. Just get the media gatekeepers in a room, and show them a performance.
Brendan Smyth: You had all of these radio people from around the country in the one spot at the one time. You kind of took over their time for an hour or so, and gave them a good dose of New Zealand music.
I can remember we showcased Brooke Fraser, a couple of weeks before her first single.
The idea of that was – when the Brooke Fraser single arrived on the desks of the radio programmers, there would kind of a bell ring, a recognition: “Yeah, I saw her play at the conference.” That sort of thing, to make that association, to try and break down those barriers again that were keeping NZ Music in a box, or off the air waves or whatever.
Cath Andersen: Standing next to a radio programmer watching a band for the first time, and him saying, "I'm going to play that." That's really cool, because that's exactly what the whole genesis of it was.
David Ridler: I feel like the late 90s, early 2000s, in hindsight was a real boom time. Because there were a lot of younger radio programmers coming through, who had potentially gone to a lot of local gigs in their teens and 20s, so local music was a lot more ingrained in them than perhaps the last generation of radio programmers.
I guess a lot of things [contributed to that]. Obviously NZ On Air came in in the early 90s to start supporting, which lifted the quality of music that was being made.
Record companies had been investing through the 90s, and NZ music had big hits like Supergroove’s album; Bic Runga came through; the Feelers came through with a massive record.
Like eight singles. Eight singles off the album.
David Ridler: Just huge, absolutely.
It didn't just happen though – nobody flicked a switch and everything just happened, it was a culmination of things, and then in 2001, when NZ Music Month launched, it sort of felt quite natural, it didn't feel like, “Oh this is weird?” It's like, “Yeah, this is the point at which we're at now.”
The mid-2000s: NZ Music Month's evolution
Brendan Smyth: By the mid 2000s New Zealand music content on radio was up around the 20 percent mark, so the focus [of NZ Music Month] shifted to music-making in the community.
Cath Andersen: We've changed over the years from having a primary focus on commercial radio and media output in New Zealand, to an event which is really about celebrating music made in New Zealand and the people who make it.
So, the call to arms and great charge of why local music is good, that point is moot now. We've moved on from that. That's just a given that some great tracks, some great records, and some great songs are written in New Zealand.
We definitely had a patch, probably halfway through the life of the project, where we become very community focused, and it was all about what our communities want. How can we work in more regions?
How can we make sure it's not just the main centres who are getting to benefit from extra gigs, or extra promotions or other things going on? So, I think it's gone from mass media across the country into more community and also school environments.
Mikhal Norriss: We sent posters to every single school in the country that wanted them. We had the libraries involved. We wanted everyone that had music as part of their life to be involved in it. That's a big undertaking, but it's pretty easy if you like local music and you're a fan of it.
And who were you targeting – radio? Or was it aimed at the public? Or both?
Mikhal Norriss: It was aimed at all media and the public, through marketing, events and just good stories about New Zealand musicians.
What kind of events did you organise? I would imagine you'd have to target different types of music lovers.
Mikhal Norriss: For sure. Before I worked at NZ Music Month, Shihad did an epic gig at Aotea Square [to launch Music Month in 2005], and it was amazing. 7000 people came, it started raining, but was still amazing.
David Ridler: I was near the back, and unfortunately the weather was a bit dicey, and it was a little bit rainy and stuff, but I have this amazing memory, and it will never, never leave me.
This guy, pretty hardcore looking dude, was at the back with his little daughter on his shoulders, and his little daughter was in this pink sort of jumpsuit, she would have been all of about three years old, and they dropped into some riff, some meaty Shihad riff, and her little hand stuck up with the goats, you know the little rock symbol.
And she just stood there kind of pushing her arm out to the riffs with her little rock symbol on her hands, and I was just going, "Man, that is amazing. I'm never gonna forget that moment." It was very cool.
Mikhal Norriss: That was my model of what I wanted to do. But, I also didn't want to just do it in Auckland. So, the first year I organized [NZ Music Month], we did it in Wellington. And Deja Voodoo and Bleeders were really popular at the time, so we were going to do a big outdoor event at Waitangi Park. But, it rained.
So, that wasn't gonna work. So, very last minute we booked the Wellington Town Hall, and put everyone in there, and it was a really awesome gig. Lots of people came along. Jono from The Rock was the emcee. It was just amazing.
Was this a free gig?
Mikhal Norriss: Yes, 100 percent free. And you know, when you do a gig for NZ Music Month, the coolest thing about it is there's a really big percentage of the crowd that are wearing NZ Music Month t-shirts. People love the brand, and love to support New Zealand.
So, NZ Music Month has changed. It's gone from being targeted solely at industry gatekeepers, to being a public facing campaign, and it's incredibly popular. Of course, you still have to target the industry.
Mikhal Norriss: In 2006 we had an industry party at two venues. One downstairs, one upstairs. We closed down a lane at K Road. We had cocktails matching every band. It was ten bands. There was a two-minute crossover for each band, and people were just moving through the venues like crazy, and it was an amazing night.
So, that's well designed because industry people notoriously have very little patience for listening to long sets. So, each band plays one or two songs, plays really quickly, there's a cocktail attached with it, which is going to draw in industry people, and then it's all over quite quickly.
Mikhal Norriss: You could only get the cocktail for the first song. Which meant that you had to move into the next room to get the next really cool cocktail. So, for example, at the very end of the night, we had Concord Dawn, and I’d called their cocktail ‘Tall Dawn’ and it had Red Bull in it. Which was quite cool.
I remember Nesian Mystik decided to name their own cocktail. I had used some kind of play on the album name or something, but they just wanted it to be called 'Sexy Polynesian' so that people came to the bar and asked for a sexy Polynesian. Which was pretty awesome.
The t-shirts: a symbol of NZ Music Month's success
Brendan Smyth: The t-shirt is really interesting. That whole logo is a really interesting side-line to the whole Music Month.
The logo’s a target.
Brendan Smyth: It was really just a symbol really, a rallying point. I think it was – as much anything, meant to look like a CD actually. Although, I mean I may be wrong on that, my memory may be fading on that, whether it was a target or whether it was just a CD.
Cath Andersen: About 2005, we did a retail campaign with a large New Zealand chain store, and sold the t-shirts through them for a few years, but there's only so many times you can buy the same t-shirt.
But the fact there was even demand from the public for those t-shirts, that's an incredible success story.
Cath Andersen: Yeah, and I think actually speaks to the amazing music that was coming out at the time, and people getting to hear it, and New Zealanders feeling like they were connecting with the campaign. You know, it's never been a hugely expensive campaign.
It's not the advertising as much as the connection, and that connection only exists because of music. So, it's really about the people who are putting those songs out into the world, and New Zealanders wanting to be part of that story.
It's about people actually connecting with music. You can't force people to like things. They either do or they don't. And the public decided it liked NZ Music Month. It would proudly express that by wearing its brand.
David Ridler: I think there's a massive amount of truth in that, and I have a really fond memory about three years ago.
I've got a lot of NZ Music Month t-shirts, so I wear them quite regularly, not just in May, but anytime of the year, and I was at the supermarket and this guy – would have been in about his 40s or 50s, he was either on the checkout or he was doing the bags, and he just looked at me and went, "Oh, NZ Music Month."
And I mean that's just a tiny little thing, but that to me is what it's about. The general public engaging with, and being reminded of, the breadth of amazing artists that we have here and the moments that they've connected with those songs that they love.
The future of NZ Music Month
What's the focus for NZ Music Month now? Where to from here?
Rodney Fisher: Encouraging people to share and be active music fans, because fans are the way music travels and grows.
A lot of the time [a song’s success is measured by how] it's tracking on social media … downloads and all that sort of stuff… Our NZ artists are now competing against really big heavyweights overseas.
And you have to go where the consumers are. And increasingly, that is digital. Which means everyone needs to adapt.
David Ridler: The digital revolution has changed a lot. So it's not all about radio.
We do know that radio is still very, very important for connecting music consumers with artists. And from the peak at 20 percent local content on commercial radio, I think we've come down in recent years to around about the 17 percent mark.
Where are we exactly at with radio these days?
David Ridler: It's about 18 percent at the moment. But the good news is, this year's been really, really strong. This year's been probably the strongest out of the last three or four years. And it's tracking upwards at quite a gradient.
What do you put that down to?
David Ridler: There’s a lot of hit records around at the moment: Son of Zion, Drax Project, Robinson, Six60. There's been a lot of big songs, and people are engaging with those songs on those big commercial radio stations. We’re talking The Edge, ZM, The Hits, which are real sort of mainstream big stations that play big hits from all the international artists.
You’re now working with radio, other media, streaming services, so the promotional part of the job is really quite wide-ranging.
Cath Andersen: The days of having one linear plan of what you're going to do with your music to get it outside of your bedroom and into the world, it's completely different.
We've got to be thinking about AI, we've got to be thinking about VR, we've got to be thinking about how New Zealanders are going to have their songs discovered on smart speakers … because [Amazon's] Alexa doesn't have a NZ accent at this stage.
And we're thinking about all these different kinds of strains, and how it can all be pulled together.
What the future hold for NZ Music Month?
Cath Andersen: The future of NZ Music Month is still led by artists who are making things, who are doing things, who want to do things, because obviously we can't do anything without the musicians. And, you know, that's what we're there to support.
It may evolve into something which is more like a ‘buy NZ made’ campaign, so it's very much about everyone supporting their local producers, or it might continue to be something that’s more focused on music discovery and people finding the new bands that they can fall in love with.
I think it will be led very much by technology, and it will be led very much by the different communities who continue to be really active.