Journey of NZ music charted in new book

By Heather Tyler

It's half a century since Kiwi rock 'n' roll was born and the music industry has never looked more buoyant.

Radio plays about 20 per cent local content, the New Zealand Music Commission pumps out incentives, record labels treat artists with the respect previously dished out for overseas acts and the listening public is buying up local music in spades.

But it was not always like this. When veteran music writer John Dix launched the first edition of his encyclopaedic Stranded in Paradise in 1988, it was the first definitive history of New Zealand rock 'n' roll and Chris Knox said "You people will never get your act together".

Up to then, New Zealand music had been a long road of heartbreak and dogged persistence, exacerbated by lack of infrastructural support from the ground up.

The public might have gone along to listen to their favourite singers and bands, but record sales were by and large lamentable.

For decades record companies and radio stations had stared each other down over the quota issue.

The companies refused to sign up more acts because of lack of exposure, and radio was sniffy at being told what to do.

Burgeoning talent jumped the Tasman to survive and realise ambitions.

For every Dragon, Split Enz, Hello Sailor success, there were a dozen failures in their wake. The anecdotes about Misex tell one of the sorriest stories. Led by the reinvented Steve Gilpin, Misex rode on the new wave of punk rock in the late 1970s.

Ignored in New Zealand, they enjoyed a brief period of stardom in Australia. The single Graffiti Crimes sold 500,000 copies worldwide and two of their albums did well.

But that was it. Their dream of making it big came to nothing. Talent still heads to Australia with eyes on Britain, Europe and the United States, but the suffering of the forefathers could not be more different than the current crop of stars.

"There are dozens out there doing it now: hip hoppers, guitar bands, alt-rock groups. Local superstars surface at the rate of three to four a year (Savage in 2005), all intent on global domination," writes Dix.

"The groundwork laid down by Johnny Devlin and Max Merritt, the Invaders and la de das, Fourmyula, Herbs and Toy Love is reaping rewards."

Split Enz paved the way for international attention on home-grown rock 'n' roll, followed by Crowded House, Straitjacket Fits, OMC, Bic Runga, Anika Moa, Shihad, the Datsuns and Scribe just to name a few. Their music is as diverse as their names suggest.

"The music industry has never been as healthy as in the 2000s, and there's never been so many local releases," says Dix.

He marvels at the multi-platinum sales, something the artists of old could never dream of. "The cultural cringe is all but over."

Dix says the establishment of New Zealand On Air in 1989 was a crucial step forward -- its mandate was to increase New Zealand music on radio and television.

In 1991 schemes introduced subsidies for record companies for music videos and funding for New Zealand music radio programming.

In 1993 the Kiwi Hit Disc -- a compilation of all music types -- was delivered to radio stations every two months.

"The multi-national record companies -- BMG, Sony, Warner -- the people who head these are, almost to a man, dedicated to nurturing and promoting local talent," says Dix.

In the bad old days, the companies squarely focused on imported music because they were the surefire profits. There was little money to be made from local music, with only a few exceptions to the rule.

Festivals such as the Big Day Out and Mountain Rock gave some acts their biggest paypackets. However the days of gruelling every-pub-in-the-country tours to make ends meet are over, except for artists who choose to do them.

Savvy marketing, radio exposure and film clips are covering more ground for promotional purposes. Artists can be more selective about their pub and club venues.

Dix praises veteran promoter Mike Chunn. After leaving APRA, he formed the Play It Strange Charity Foundation dedicated to introducing music to schools.

The Smokefree Rockquest has launched the careers of Nesian Mystik, Moa, Runga, Evermore and others.

The Datsuns is one of the most unusual recent success stories in Dix's book. They bypassed the improved climate at home and aimed for the US.

Formed in 1999, the four friends from Cambridge released a few singles which got plenty of student radio airplay but little came of them. After doing a support act for the White Stripes in Auckland in 2002, the American group suggested they go west.

So they gatecrashed a festival in Austin, Texas, and went on to London where they were signed to the Virgin subsidiary V2.

Their debut self-titled album was a hit abroad and back in Godzone, followed by the second, Outta Sight/Outta Mind in 2004.

Dix says Kiwi music, while plugged into the international scene, remains true to its roots. It just shows beyond doubt local talent doesn't have to ape anyone any more. "Rock's come a long, long way since Johnny Cooper fluffed lines on Rock Around the Clock. We're no longer dependent on overseas sounds for inspiration."

New Zealand's Polynesian and Maori population has been responsible for a meteoric rise in hip hop over the past five years, where an overseas genre has been adapted to a significant indigenous sound, says Dix.

That sound has travelled, particularly for Scribe and Savage who are forging international careers with ease. "It's really exciting stuff, I just couldn't imagine their kind of success 20 years ago."

Dix could not have imagined the success of his book either. The first edition sold 10,000 copies and copies have since become collectors' items valued at $200.


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