Music Business in Wellington: Startup Capital
Author: Robyn L. Walker...Rockgirl & NZM
With reasonable justification, some say the problem with the music business is musicians. But in truth, the tricky word is... business.
If musicians want their play to pay more than the rent then they have to consider both their talent and their music to be 'products', and treat them as such. Unfortunately, the greater proportion of musicians of course, are not particularly business minded.
Being the capital city, Wellington has long been the home of significant government arts support agencies, most notably Creative NZ and NZ On Air. Increasingly importantly too, the business-oriented organisations, headed by the recently renamed NZ Trade & Enterprise. As the earning potential of New Zealand music is increasingly recognised at a political level, even more funding avenues seem to be opening up.
Wellington also has Positively Wellington Business, events like Whopper Chopper, the Music Video Awards and Handle the Jandal and enjoys mayor Kerry Prendergast's active arts support.
And the city produces great music. The prime rib rock era that brought us Shihad, HLAH, Fur Patrol et al may have passed but the capital has lately become the centre of an influential electronic/urban music groundswell.
The capital's music scene has also become inundated with musical acronyms. Well okay, hardly inundated - but in reality it is a very small industry dealing with what, a couple of hundred serious players, max? Why then so many fledgling support groups?
MIDI, ARMS, Urban Music Collective, The Windys - is there a correlation between proximity to government and the growing array of infrastructure-building within Wellington's music industry? Does this array of businesses, organisations, and trusts represent an exceptionally creative environment requiring financial assistance to advance, or does it simply reflect the cynics' truism that where there is easy (government) money to be had - there too will come the fast spenders?
ARMS (Artist Representational & Motivational Services), the brainchild of Mark Cubey and Michael Lockhart, was the first of the new acronymed initiatives and also enjoys an alphabetic jump on any others. Founded with a $130,000 grant commissioned by the Royal Society of NZ, and administered by Industry NZ, the aim of ARMS is to help artists (not just musicians) create sustainable long-term careers, and assist in development of the necessary artistic infrastructure.
ARMS called a meeting of the Wellington music community in June 2002 to show there was a Wellington music scene and prove their point to the funding partners. It was quite a novel idea really, and no one turns down a free feed of course, so 200 or so turned up. It was agreed that it would be nice if the industry could work together.
The business plan emphasised 'practical outcomes' and 'ongoing follow-up', however their first trial seminar espousing ARMS philosophies went down rather like a plastic grenade and little has been heard from the organisation since. According to the partners ARMS has been taking this time to build the technology they need to fulfil their mission. The idea of a 'portal' seems to have morphed but education via the internet (www.arms.org.nz) remains the key focus.
"Musicians have three main problems," says Lockhart. "Attitude, lack of knowledge and lack of support. ARMS is tackling all three issues. The message is that you can make a sustainable career out of your art, but only if you start acting professionally, like a business.
"We're doing this by supplying information and configuring on-line learning to better a musician's business skills," Cubey adds. "$300 [the cost of an ARMS on-line course] should be seen as an investment. It will be about how not to waste money, how to make more money, and how to do things smarter and better." Both men obviously hold very strong views about what is keeping the music industry from gaining success.
"80 - 90% of all artists are the same," says Cubey. "They don't understand that they are entrepreneurial businesses, how to then market themselves and how to keep customers, or fans, happy and supporting them, or how to develop income streams."
Apart from setting up their soon-to-be running online learning and informational website (www.arms.org.nz ), ARMS is also hoping to establish a Wellington Music Association.
"This will include everybody. There are no agendas, it's about information sharing, and collaboration - there will be an online questionnaire which will lead to the growth of an online database for everybody who wants to be in there. And everything the Association does will be decided by the members. The killer thing is that there will be a database that everyone can access. You have to have that, and people still don't fuck'n get it. It's keeping people in a loop - and the only way the industry will work," says Cubey.
The ARMS lads do seem at odds with MIDI, a non-profit trust currently developing and organising the inaugural Wellington Music Week, and the latest organisation to arise from the local government funding pool.
"They jumped on Wellington Music Week and good on them - it's a great idea. But the demand for infrastructure has to come from the musicians," says Lockhart. ARMS is involved in the seminars which are part of WMW.
"Our point is that no one is going to gain unless everyone gains. It's better that everyone gets a tiny slice of a million dollar pie, than one lot getting $10,000," finishes Lockhart.
The emphasis on developing the actual business skills of musicians as opposed to developing business structures for them highlights the difference in how these two organisations want to lay down the foundations for growth of the Wellington music industry.
MIDI (Music Industry Development Initiative) have converted the $17,000 of funding they received from Wellington City Council, Positively Wellington and the NZ Community Trust into the inaugural Wellington Music Week (19-26 October), which includes The Windys Music Awards. Brainstorming for MIDI (www.midi.org.nz) has been going on behind closed doors for nearly two years says Ashley Owers, one of four trustees, also a key instigator behind the weekly urban survival kit The Package. The other MIDI trustees are Indigo Bar manager/owner Stephen Upton, Moko Management's George Nepia and Jed Thian, manager of Firm FM.
An earnest bunch with plenty of business-speak, MIDI seem determined to make inroads towards building up the local industry for musicians, and they're going to start right away, thank you.
"MIDI was formed and motivated by a perceived need to develop local music industry infrastructure and assist economic development, enabling all those who aspire to make a living from the music industry to succeed," quotes Owers. "We want to create an environment in Wellington that promotes investment, employment, and business opportunities and we can do this by providing an industry framework for local and international success."
Wellington Music Week (www.wmw.co.nz) is just a first step in MIDI's plans to overhaul the industry. Announcing the week's plan less than two months out certainly raised plenty of eyebrows. Upton says that while there will be no bells and whistles this year they are nonetheless aiming for a high quality week in order to impress potential future sponsors.
While acknowledging that musicians are the content creators, Owers feels they rely on the services of others to manage, sell and market that 'content'.
"Yes, some [musicians] can undertake this role themselves, but it is important to acknowledge that the business and the music are still two different sides of the same coin. The musicians are the blood that flows through the body of an entire industry, but better organs mean better blood."
The MIDI troop are doing what they are doing because they see that the success of the music industry is constrained not by musicians or the abundance of talent, but by the absence of a framework to support and service those musicians.
"However, it's very important that a non-commercial entity advocates for industry development. We can build on current success and create and harness new opportunities."
And they've got Wellington's workaholic Mayor Kerry Prendergast on their side. Ms Prendergast has given her personal endorsement to MIDI in regards to their Wellington Music Week initiative.
"I like to give my support to projects I believe will encourage the development of a local music industry that is in concert (if you'll excuse the pun) with Wellington's vision - Creative Wellington - Innovation Capital," she affirms with that marketing glint in her eye.
"A celebration of Wellington music and musicians is long overdue. The Windys is a revival of the Wellington Music Awards [last staged by David Greer in 1999], and is a fantastic way to champion and celebrate the musical talent of the Wellington region."
Owers doesn't feel that ARMS, MIDI and the Urban Music Collective will step on each other's toes.
"Having different voices to promote areas of specific focus can only enhance the ability of the music industry to build itself into a thriving economy. Strengthening the skill base of musicians and enhancing opportunities for urban music overseas are just two areas that require development. These and other areas will be promoted during Wellington Music Week," he declares enthusiastically.
Ahh, the elusive overseas market. This is the primary goal of the Urban Music Collective (we'll call them UMC for convenience). This sexy group of mostly Wellington artists plus music oriented businesses, have recently returned from Europe after jumping on the current bandwagon of government funded initiatives to impress overseas markets - World Series, SXSW, SummerStage... and for UMC, PopKomm in Germany.
It is hardly surprising that the irrepressible Michael (Mikee) Tucker from Loop Recordings Aot(ear)oa is the driving force behind the Urban Music Collective. Although he is not sure that he is allowed to disclose the amount of funding they received from NZ Trade & Enterprise, as well as from Brand NZ, we understand it was about $70,000.
Working together (in friendly competition) was a crucial mechanism on which funding for the collective proposal hinged.
"We work together in many different levels in Wellington, but to effectively break overseas, working as a cluster on one stand [funded and organised by the NZMIC], was absolutely invaluable. We were a combined force - 500 bags of 15 CDs each were given to high profile industry people. Everyone made foreign income although it wasn't part of our mission," he says.
Capability building was also a key aim, "...to learn, to research, to develop and initialise a platform."
The collective included the city's artistic cream with the likes of The Black Seeds, Fat Freddy's Drop, Twinset and Rhian Sheehan involved. Some of the participants would however be harder pressed to justify the tax payer investment.
As part of their funding agreement, the collective has produced a 'blueprint' document from their trip, which will be available on the MIC website www.nzmusic.org.nz. This blueprint should help any artists thinking of heading to Europe who can learn from their beaten path of tips, tricks, contacts and shortcuts for hopefully other, more successful forays into the overseas markets.
Tucker is irascible yet crafty. His cockiness turns heads, but he is doggedly on the path to prove his business and the collective will succeed.
"The international market is flooded with quality product. The fact that your music is good doesn't matter. You need a solid promotional plan and in some cases, a touring plan, because you need to create a hype about your product that proves to your distributor that they can move it through the HMVs and big stores, or small stores even."
"Overseas distribution companies and labels are so full and the market is in such decline, it's really depressing. Even if you are the most shit hot label and you're the best sales person like me and you can talk them into it, they probably still say no. Because they're full and they can't simply take on any more and in a declining market they don't want to take on the risk."
"But it is worth [doing] it - you just have to find new ways to get into the market. Like the distribution deal Loop has just signed with Select Cuts, there are many tactics to get into them."
Tucker is convinced that the government is now doing everything right by "... funding individual things like World Series, the NZMIC, plus all these little side projects like SXSW and Urban Music Collective". No surprise - he does have a nice European tan.
So, a quarter of a million dollars later... is it that the industry behind Wellington music is particularly worthy, or is the business acumen behind the capital's music just pushing the right political buttons?
Maybe it is financially fortuitous that business-minded music-oriented cohorts reside in the creative capital, just down the road from the Beehive. Great cafes do allow for profitable networking. But will this current provincial targeting of government funding achieve gains for the industry as a whole? And are other regions idly jealous or are they just workshopping their own proposals...