Mike Chunn: NZ the new Liverpool of pop music

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Lorde has propelled our small country on to global radars - now let's make the most of it, writes Mike Chunn.

There must be young New Zealand artists ready to follow in Lorde's (top) footsteps. Photo / Sarah Ivey
There must be young New Zealand artists ready to follow in Lorde's (top) footsteps. Photo / Sarah Ivey

When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York in February 1964, the world was watching. A global phenomenon was born with the songs of four young men from Liverpool, a town most Americans had never heard of. The Beatles topped the singles charts in the US, the UK, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Belgium and Italy, to name a few. And history unfolded.

In 1963, the number of British records to appear in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart was nil. In 1964, it was more than 30. The tried and true artists of the early sixties like The Everly Brothers and Cliff Richard watched this avalanche and a cold chill went through them. Many vanished in a couple of years. And the contemporary popular music of Western civilisation embraced a whole new population of singers and songwriters who followed in the Beatles' path.

There were two other people who played key roles. Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, and George Martin, their record producer.

When Lorde walked to the stage in Los Angeles to receive her two Grammy awards for Royals in February, the world was watching. Her assault flew out from Auckland, New Zealand, a town most Americans knew nothing about. Royals topped the singles charts in the US, the UK, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, Iceland, Israel, Belgium and Italy, to name a few. It had been 16 years since a New Zealand record (How Bizarre) strode the Billboard Hot 100. The likes of Lady Gaga and Pink watched Lorde perform at the Grammys and a chill went through them.

The landscape of global contemporary popular music shifted again.

We now have an artist who is the voice of her generation. New Zealand is the new Liverpool. Co-writer Joel Little is the new George Martin and Scott McLachlan, Lorde's manager, is the new Brian Epstein. And the Northern Hemisphere music industry is shining torches inquisitively down on New Zealand to unearth more of our special talent. Where is that poised to emerge? Well, most of it is at school.

In January last year, the US website Pigeons and Planes posted a "Get To Know Lorde" tip page. A few weeks later Royals was the No1 viral track on the US and UK Spotify charts.

In October last year, Pigeons and Planes ran an "Introduction to NZ synth-pop duo Broods". Broods' debut single Bridges was the US iTunes Single of the Week in February and they recently played shows in the US while securing record deals with Capitol Records in the US and Phonogram in the UK. Georgia Nott, one half of Broods, was on her way while still at Garin College in Nelson. She won the David Richwhite Lyric Award in the 2012 Lion Foundation secondary schools songwriting competition for the sublime words to her song Better. Her band The Peasants won the 2011 Smokefree Rockquest.

On February 12 this year, Pigeons and Planes posted another tip page, headed "Daily Discovery: Thomston, a Teenage Pop Artist from New Zealand". Thomston is the stage name of Thomas Stoneman (Avondale College, Auckland last year) who was a co-winner of the 2013 Lion Foundation songwriting competition. The next day, the A&R director at Atlantic Records in New York emailed the Play It Strange office asking if we know how to get hold of one Thomas Stoneman. We oblige. On February 18, Thomas emails with news that his homemade EP which Pigeons and Planes picked up has had 35,000 plays on Soundcloud since the post and he had inquiries from 11 record labels. Presumably Atlantic Records in New York was one of them.

What is this all about?

One: The distribution and exposure of contemporary popular song around the world has been completely reinvented. Two: New Zealand's young original talent must have every opportunity for their songs and recordings to stand up in bright lights so the rest of the inquisitive world can see and hear them.

Revolutionary young artists achieve distribution through the technology of sharing. In June last year, Scott Maclachlan was relishing the news that Lorde's Royals was the No1 viral track on Spotify's US and UK charts. When asked what mechanics he and Universal Music (Lorde's record label) had put into play to achieve this he said: "None. It happens of its own accord. For me, when I first got the American one (No1 chart position), that was the biggest news I'd had, cause it meant that kids were sharing it, because they wanted to share it. The Spotify thing is completely unhypeable. There's nothing you can do."

But there is work to be done. Songwriting, performance and recording must be encouraged, respected and celebrated in our schools - all of them. Primary, intermediate and secondary schools all have within their boundaries a community of imaginative, musical and lyrical students who want to be heard; students who have the determination and resilience to forge a career.

It is foolish to abdicate the future development of a pool of contemporary singer/songwriters to the quick ebb and flow of television talent shows. There the rise is fast; but the fall is faster and usually fatal. It might be reality television but it is not reality.

As in the culture of sport in New Zealand, it will be the gradual and purposeful programme of stimulation, infrastructure, guidance, feedback and administration that merge together so that the flow of great songs by young New Zealanders continues to come into the light. Where will the guidance and stimulation come from? In the short term, school principals and parents.

It will be that collective grouping of connected people that will ensure that songwriting and recording are brought into their school communities; that a proactive stance is taken and the resulting tracks are shared around the world.

School principals like Ngaire Harris. As the principal of Hauraki Plains College in the small town of Ngatea, Ngaire has an acute awareness of their HOD of Music, Stu Green's, songwriting and recording programme. Ngaire ensures that their community knows about their students' successes in programmes like the Play It Strange songwriting competition, the Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme and the Smokefree Rockquest.

Parents like Diana Good. Her daughter Grace Brebner has taken huge strides in the last 12 months, winning the Play It Strange Peace Song Award, being placed on the Play It Strange Who Loves Who CD and taking a place on the Lion Foundation songwriting competition annual CD with You're Not Alone.

Says Diana: "Grace has a real desire to take her songs to the world. At the age of 16 she is still at school of course but, in many ways, the time she has to develop and evolve her songwriting, performances and recording is of benefit. It is all about a focused drive to build a repertoire and secure performance opportunities but also, to seek feedback and guidance from mentors and professionals."

There's the advance. As more principals and parents focus on the contemporary elements of a vibrant songwriting activity in their schools, the students writing and performing will gather and grow in numbers. The future stars will emerge.

The question now is not what will Lorde do next, but who will follow her?

Mike Chunn is chief executive of Play it Strange Trust, an organisation helping develop songwriting and musical talent among young New Zealanders.

- NZ Herald

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