“New Zealand artists are flourishing at home with government support — but international breakthroughs remain hard to come by.”
That was my opening line to an article I penned for Billboard just over 10 years ago when I was the US magazine’s NZ correspondent. With the launch of my new online music industry magazine, NZ Music Business, I thought it might be interesting to delve back into some of the pieces I had previously written about the local industry and just see how much things had changed (in recent years I have been involved mainly on the consumer side of music journalism).
In the 2008 article, the then minister responsible for music Judith Tizard believed the framework was in place for local acts to thrive on the global scene, although everyone was still waiting for the local industry to deliver a new Crowded House, who at the time was our best known music export.
Of course, since then Lorde has now arguably taken from Neil Finn’s outfit as our biggest global star and a growing number of NZ artists now command a significant international following. Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid’s most recent LPs made a number of leading music publication’s ‘best album of 2017′ lists, while Marlon Williams is garnering similarly enthusiastic reviews for his latest. Fat Freddy’s Drop are a fixture on the European festival circuit and artists as diverse as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Robinson, Tami Neilson, Drax Project, Kimbra, Connan Mockasin, Matthew Young and, most recently, Alien Weaponry have all been making waves internationally. Let’s not forget, too, that Neil Finn remains an iconic international star – Fleetwood Mac, who would have thought it, eh? – while Flying Nun pioneers such as The Clean and The Chills continue to gather new generations of fans.
On the surface, the industry is also lot better off in 2018 than it was in 2008. Between 2001 and 2009, the value of the NZ market fell by more than 40 percent, with physical sales plummeting and a digital download market still in infancy struggling to make up the gap. Compare that with the latest annual report from Recorded Music NZ, which saw revenue rise 14 percent to $98.8 million, the third successive year of growth. Almost two thirds of that is from digital streaming, cementing its position – as it has all over the world –as the dominant force in the local music market.
But let’s not crack open the champagne just yet. The decline in the physical market means many areas of the country no longer have a music store and while the likes of JB Hi-Fi and the growing number of vinyl specialists ensure that there are still places where music fans can browse the latest releases, we no longer have a national chain of record stores (though to be fair, specialist music chains are pretty much an endangered species all over the world these days).
The number of music labels operating here has also shrunk and those that do exist are forced to run pretty tight ships. Part of that is down to the fact that many artists these days self-release, opting instead for straight forward physical distribution deals, and in many ways that is a good thing: artists now have much greater control of their works.
On the flip side, homegrown acts struggle to gain chart recognition because the all powerful streaming platforms tend to be dominated by the big international names– it’s estimated that NZ music only accounts for around 6 percent of streaming revenue. It’s ironic in a way: the streaming revolution makes it much easier for local groups to build an international profile, but making a living from music on their home turf is a much harder task. The royalty rates paid to artists by the big streaming operations also remain a bone of contention, both here and abroad.
Similar contradictions exist in the live arena. The touring market has never been more buoyant with a constant flow of big name acts arriving here for shows at the major indoor arenas and outdoor stadiums. However, there remains a worrying lack of smaller music venues for new and lesser known NZ artists to perform at on a regular basis, and the closure earlier of this year of the iconic Auckland venue the Kings Arms is a big blow to the local live scene.
So, 10 years on the local music industry clearly has undergone massive change – some of it good, some of it bad. And in some areas, things aren’t too different at all. Many of the execs and artists I interviewed back in the 2000s for Billboard are still around, some in the same job, others in different areas of the business. And with a Labour-led regime back in power and a new copyright review on the way, I am experiencing a bit of déjà vu about some of the issues facing the music business.
However, there is still a lot for me to get up to speed on, so I welcome any feedback. What are the issues you would like NZ Music Business to explore? Who are the people, companies and artists you would like to more about? And what sort of analysis and research would you like to read on these pages?
I look forward to hearing back from you…