Russell Baillie: Flight or fight?

By Russell Baillie

A month ago I ended this column pondering why Flight of the Conchords weren't up for consideration at the Qantas Film and Television Awards.

It seemed a bit of an oversight, an extension of the burghers of New Zealand TV ignoring their small screen potential, only to see them picked up by the BBC and HBO.

But now that the results are out, I won't be the only one wondering why they got considered so very much at the NZ Music Awards, aka the Tuis.

True, we did put them on the cover when the nominations came out. Today that might seem prescient. Though it was because it made a good angle, best summed up as: "Huh? Really? Why? Er, why not ... ?".

It never occurred that the pair would then go and win everything they were up for. That included: a) best album; b) best group; c) best breakthrough act; d) international achievement.

Surely sanity would prevail in the voting and the awards would go to those who: a) had made a terrific album whereas Flight of the Conchords is merely brilliantly hilarious and almost defies the rule about how many repeat plays a comedy album can sustain; b) were a group of more than two people and more than one beard; c) had broken through with a cool single and were under the drinking age; d) achieved something internationally. Oh right, fair enough then.

There are some simple reasons why they won.

They are popular because they were on TV. They have got lots of coverage on their US breakthrough from the likes of us here at TimeOut, despite being ignored by major networks.

So it's no wonder from the large pool of judges - I am one and I rudely ignored them despite loving the show to bits - that the awards' organisers, the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand gets to decide these things.

Here's a theory: many of the 200 or so judges are commercial radio guys (and the musicians tend to pick their mates). The likes of FOTC's Business Time has been on high rotate across many a playlist, as it sure perks up the morning show.

So when you are presented with a list of virtually all the New Zealand albums released in the past year - most of which are never likely to cross your desk - the names of all the groups that made them, all the acts that are claiming a breakthrough, it sure is easy to tick the familiar and keep ticking it.

You didn't even have to have heard a copy of Flight of the Conchords to know the songs. Which is another problem with the album - it might have come out this year but those songs sure felt old, albeit brilliantly hilarious, etc, etc. Especially the Bowie one.

I've long thought there's something amiss in the Tuis voting system too.

There's only one voting session for the main awards. Those finalists are basically place-getters one to five or one to three.

If there was a second vote - and this is how the Academy Awards do it - it might allow all those judges to make an informed choice, not a knee-jerk one where, in the words of Bjorn and Benny, the winner takes it all.

That's not a mainstream versus alternative argument either. The Mint Chicks' dominance last year would have been because of a vote split among the mainstream acts they were up against.

And then there's the really hard argument about FOTC: Because it's comedy first, is it music? Or indeed, NZ music?

Well it walks and talks and smells like music - all sorts of music. It's a good thing they didn't enter Hip-Hopopotamus vs The Rhymenoceros or Boom in the hip-hop category tonight or there really would have been trouble.

Thankfully, that happy-go-lucky pillar of local music, Gray Bartlett MBE, provided me with an answer to that vexed question the other day.

His people had sent out a press release saying his upcoming Highway of Legends tour of the United States was the biggest live New Zealand "brand" [sic] since Crowded House.

Mischievously, I replied, saying actually Flight of the Conchords were now an even bigger live drawcard Stateside. Because they are.

Gray rung to say, well, many things about my callous treatment of his promotional efforts.

He also said that despite really liking FOTC he didn't think they're music. I found myself arguing back. I had my answer: if he doesn't think FOTC are music, then I can only but disagree.

And another thing... The New Zealand Herald Legacy Award went to Straitjacket Fits.

I must admit I had some qualms about RIANZ's selection of a band in my living memory. It made me feel a bit senior.

Despite the award name and some initiation of the idea, we're not a part of who deciding who gets it.

Leaping from the 1950s from last year's legacy award winner to the early 90s would seem brave. But the choice of the Straitjacket Fits also reflects the generation who now run what's left of an ailing music industry - and it reflects the sort of great band that got them passionate about music in the first place.

And that's what the award is about really.

Many of our past stars have already got the old Lifetime Achievement awards - some, like Dave Dobbyn a few years back, while some of their best work was still in front of them.

I've heard one complaint from a music industry household name - made in confidence - about the award going to relative whippersnappers.

But the Legacy Award isn't about giving a gold watch to a faithful servant of the industry. As I said in a piece for the awards' programme, it's about resonance - recognising the echoes of an era which refuse to fade. Straitjacket Fits' music sure does that.

Some other points about the Flight of the Conchords' Tui winning debut album ...

* It was recorded mostly in Los Angeles and released through American indie giant Subpop - home also to Kiwi acts the Brunettes and the Ruby Suns - and picked up for distribution in New Zealand by Rhythmethod. So they aren't signed to a NZ label, as such.

* In New Zealand the Flight of the Conchords album has sold some 20,000 copies, which puts it slightly behind Tiki Taane (21,000) and Anika Moa (23,000).

* All the songs on the album featured in the first series of their HBO show and many have been in their pre-TV live act for some years.

* The last time a comedy-theatre act crossed over into the music awards was the Front Lawn for album Songs from the Front Lawn. The duo which featured Don McGlashan received three New Zealand Music Awards in 1989 - most promising group, best film soundtrack/compilation and international achievement.

- NZ Herald

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