Alan Perrott meets Kiwi teens who were making a name for themselves before they even left high school. Now they’re taking on the world.
Lorde was inevitable. It's just how teenagers are these days. They're no more obsessive or smarter than previous generations, it's simply that in their eyes there has always been an internet, they have always used social media and the world is as accessible as the corner dairy.
If the 60s vintage was born to be wild, this latest crop was born to share, as widely as possible.
Which means the age of sullen, disengaged teen lying alone and perma-suffering in a dank, dark bedroom is over. Yes, that bedroom may be just as dank, just as dark and the occupant just as moody, but they're never alone if they're online, an arena where all their maudlin poetry and homemade beats can be instantly shared with any number of likeminded souls.
It's a powerful force when you can not only swap feedback and artistic endeavours with the world at such an age, but to also know you are far from alone in thinking the way you do and in loving the things you love. From there, the shift from hobbyist to branded artist is an easy leap.
And, sure, the internet already has a record for breaking serious stars going back at least to Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom (not to mention Justin Bieber), but the difference now is that teenagers not only consider such success achievable, it can be obtained on their own terms - a surety which, when matched with a forum completely reliant on newness, creates a potential for fame that would have blown Andy Warhol's mind.
And, sure, the list of child prodigies stretches from Mozart to Shirley Temple and Lydia Ko, but it isn't just confirmation bias telling us that new candidates are popping up at an increasing rate because the odds of making it are more in their favour than ever. Especially when they can become internet-fluent at an age when former generations were struggling to write the letters they would forget they had sent by the time they got a reply.
For certain age groups, their teenaged accomplishments got no more complicated than building a trolley. In contrast, information, connection and cross-pollination are now a click away and life has been accelerated to the point where, as we shall see, teens can launch a career and approach burnout before they're even 20.
This is the Lorde generation.
Eddie Johnston got his start the old fashioned way. His dad handed him a guitar when he was 8 and prodded him into just enough lessons to be able to jam Beatles and Crowded House songs. Then he discovered the internet. The Wellingtonian learned enough to start writing songs by 11 and play them publicly at 12. It wasn't in the lounge to Mum and Dad, either - under the name Shipwreck he played solo support for Die! Die! Die! at an all-ages show.
At the same time he was posting tracks online and collaborating as much as possible until, in 2013, he was invited to join the Kerosene Comic Book, a cross-genre collective of young musicians such as Totems, Career Girls and Skymning. Their intent isn't just to offer mutual support, it spawns a fair degree of internal competition and encourages everyone to expand their tastes.
Still only 18, Johnston is now well established on the national music scene under the aliases Lontalius and Race Banyon and, having attracted interest from an American label, will head to Britain later this year to complete his next album.
"I'd say that what I've been able to do has everything to do with the internet," says Johnston. "I don't know what gave me the confidence, but from the start I was putting my stuff online and then it just sort of became the norm. It would feel weird keeping them to myself or only playing them to friends. I found that people were really supportive and I felt I was part of something. I'm not a really social person in real life, but I was making friends on Twitter even when I was 12. Now some of them are doing really well and have a lot more followers than me, so to see other people my own age following their dream and pursuing whatever it is they want to do, it's inspiring."
It was his age that encouraged him to adopt different names. They not only allow him to perform wildly different genres (Lontalius is guitar-based, Race Banyon is electronica) but, like Lorde, they also muddy his identity.
"Yeah, age has been a problem. There was a while when all I was hearing was, 'This is great for a whatever-year-old.' I can't stand it, I guess because I really believe in my music and I think it holds up against my peers, who are 10 years older than me. It's disparaging, so I guess having the aliases does help stop having the attention focused on my age."
It's no surprise he sees Lorde as an inspiration. The two met before her single Royals went ballistic and he was struck by how similar they were. So, with school finished, he's decided against university and with his parents' support is going to have crack at making it in music.
"That decision didn't feel like much of a step for me. I know it isn't what they tell you you should do, but I'm really happy about it and that I started so early. I've done a lot already - I've played all the major festivals and, this might sound weird, but I feel like I've just about done everything in New Zealand I want to do. I have international goals now and if I'm playing European clubs by the end of the year, that's fine, but, you know, there's no rush."
Then there is Tristan Pang, a bona fide child genius who uses the internet to take his message to the world. He was only 9 when he received the top mark in the country for the Cambridge international maths exam, a test usually sat by year 11 students.
At 11 he delivered a TED (Technology, Enter-tainment, Design) talk at Auckland Museum to a live audience of 500, with another 8000 watching online and also won a science award for testing Fonterra's claims around their light-proof bottles. At 12 he kicked off a website, Tristan's Learning Hub, providing maths, science and English lessons.
This worked, he says, because most people didn't realise they were being taught by a pre-pubescent boy. He also launched his internet radio show "Youth Voices with Tristan Pang", which as a podcast can be picked up and be shared anywhere and later this year will be appearing at a book festival in the United Arab Emirates.
Still only 13, he's also into his second year at the University of Auckland. He's also a relative newcomer to the internet - he grew up the old fashioned way with books - and is still revelling in how the world has been opened up to him, by which he doesn't mean swapping cat pictures. To his mind, the internet not only helps him stand out at a very young age, it's helped him realise he can do more than simply ace exams.
"I now think social responsibility is something our generation needs to take on," says Pang. "I really like the term 'change maker' and with the internet we can express our thinking to a wider audience and try to change the acceptable norms. But it's a transparent world so we still have to be careful and do things right. I try to be persistent, never give up, and be a responsible person, especially because of the number of followers I have."
Not to labour the age thing, but he won't be 14 until October, a detail to which Pang only sees benefits after having seen how life affects his older classmates. "They have pressure - boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs and family. "I think younger people can afford to chase their dreams more. Like me, I'm free to follow my passion. But every generation has its own challenges. For mine, I believe the competition is greater because, with the internet, we're learning at a faster rate and the average standard has been pushed up, so I think we'll have to work even harder to cope."
They're also working harder to be noticed, says social media commentator and Spark communications manager Troy Rawhiti-Forbes. Now 33, he sees today's teens as taking full advantage of the digital pathways and tools his generation created, and why wouldn't they? It doesn't take much effort to establish a professional looking brand, then "just add Twitter and boom, instant star ... I mean geographical borders just aren't a thing for this generation, they've turned subcultures into global conversations, so it's easy to see why one teen in a bedroom would share the same aspirations as another teen in another town in a different time zone. The playing field for success has never been so even because, digital divide aside, the broadcast opportunities are the same for everyone. If you see a gap, run at it, the world really could be yours ..."
If there's a danger, says Rawhiti-Forbes, it's when the self-generated hype creates an "online echo chamber with a seven-day congratulatory loop". This can encourage an unrealistic expectation of success and in no way prepares them for the demands they will face if they actually do get noticed. Which is why he sees so much to admire in the Lorde story. She emerged with a healthy sense of herself and what she wanted while also trusting her management when it came to dealing with areas she wasn't familiar with. In short, he says, "It's the perfect circle of trust, she trusts and is trusted."
If he has any advice for those looking for a shortcut to fame it's to be careful about what you post - "the number of unknowns touting their brand has gone through the roof, it's hilarious. But it's also the right thing to do, as long as you're not a dick about it - after all, prospective employers may be watching."
But if that sounds like too much hard narcissism, social media isn't the only option, the internet has also spawned entirely new careers such as electronic gaming or eSports.
Since the earliest Space Invaders Championships in the 80s, computer gaming competitions have grown to the point where the biggest brands offer millions in annual tournament prize money. Competitions are broadcast live on dedicated television networks and online platforms such as Twitch, while crowds of more than 40,000 have packed into venues to watch their favourite players hunker over a laptop.
This brings us to Mackenzie Smith, possibly the only pro eSportsman who doesn't consider himself a gamer: "I only play Starcraft 2. Games I don't compete in just don't interest me. It's purely about my competitive drive."
The Aucklander's introduction to the online world came in one-hour bursts as his parents rationed out his computer time. Even when his allowance was extended to two hours during a school holiday, it was still just a time-filler. Then, in 2011, a friend introduced him Starcraft 2 and he bought himself a computer. From there dabbling grew to obsession as the 14-year-old realised how much skill was needed to be any good, "so I started devoting all my spare time to it".
In June 2012 he entered the New Zealand "World Championship Series" and took on a group of players inside a boxing ring in an Auckland bar. He bombed. "That was the first time I'd felt utterly defeated." Undeterred, he entered a local qualifier for a tournament to be held in Tokyo the following month. He won: "Definitely one of my happiest memories and my soul was essentially sold to eSports."
All he wanted after that was to go pro and have a crack at the US$100,000-plus earned by the top players. Well, it was that or try for a job in programming - and that didn't offer the same excitement. Then, just as his 2013 school year was ending, an offer arrived from a team based in California. What to do? Stay home with rubbish broadband connection and no tournament scene or have a crack? Having seen his devotion and seriousness, Smith's parents knew a no-win argument when they saw one and allowed the 16-year-old to drop out of school.
"It wasn't a hard decision or anything," he says, "and honestly I was happy for a change of environment. eSports are so obscure in New Zealand that I feel it transcends tech-savviness, like everyone's reaction was pretty much, 'Hey that's cool and different, but I have no idea what it is'."
His next year was spent in a house with five other gamers, mostly in their early 20s, with everyone going hammer and tongs on PCs in the communal playing room. If the grind of constant gaming got to him at times, it was still all Smith had hoped for, until his visa ran out. Needing to leave the country, he transferred to another team based in Switzerland.
The switch meant even more tournaments but his form slumped and the 18-year-old found himself tiring of living cheek-by-jowl with people he didn't get on with.
"It's weird, because I've felt so adamantly that my stay in eSports would be for a very long time. I still feel I could play my way out of it, but the way it is I'm stuck until I make a breakthrough of some sort. Everything hinges on that good result you probably don't see coming."
The money hasn't panned out either - aside from a $1000 win in one tournament and signing with two of the bigger non-Korean (the dominant country) teams, he hasn't been on a salary. Instead, his accommodation is covered and whatever he's made from from online competitions and live streaming on platforms like Twitch pays for food.
"I certainly wouldn't call it a living, far from it, which is definitely part of the reason I don't think I'll be doing this much longer. But I don't want to be bored or stuck in a job I don't enjoy - I don't think such a concept is appealing to anyone. I don't want to rush anything or waste potential but I also don't want to stick around if I could be enjoying myself more doing something else."
So, no regrets and, regardless of what he decides, still being a teenager means time is on his side. Even if coming home and going to university is looking like a good option, he hasn't given up on his eSports career.
And like the others, he isn't just playing around.