IN STORES THIS WEEK!
The website, according the pre-release publicity, “is designed to give NZ music lovers a central place to listen to, and discover new NZ music. Music fans can create playlists, search new music by genre and vote for their favourite unreleased song which will contribute to theaudience.co.nz Chart. On each artist page theaudience.co.nz centralizes all of the artists’ social media pages to one simple page view. Fans can search bands and musicians by genre/ 'sounds like' etc.”
So far, so good. This all seems worthy and commendable, and, more importantly, potentially useful to a broad range of musicians. It is a big advance on the pre-2012 NZ On Air focus on funding a small elite of bands and artists to record radio-friendly pop, many either well established or on major labels. It sounds like a hybrid of the sabotaged MySpace platform, Facebook and the playlist functions of the likes of Hype Machine or Spotify. I can't say I'm looking forward to uploading dozens of WAV files for the umpteenth time on another new music platform but I'll get over that.
What troubles me, however, is NZ On Air’s ongoing fixation with turning making music into a winner-takes-all popularity competition. Unlike sport, where it can be argued (at the professional level at least) that it is all about winning and not just taking part, surely music (not to mention NZ On Air’s statutory purpose) is more about reflecting diversity, and connecting with individuals with widely varying tastes. Do we really want to only reward popularity and give the message to our musicians and songwriters that popularity is the only sign of their success and for them to potentially be influenced by popularity to this extent? It’s like the whole X-Factor/ Idol/ Talent winner-takers-all psychopathy has taken over. There is already enough of this with YouTube views (and likes/ dislikes), Bandcamp plays, and Facebook “likes”, all of which are already used in fairly blunt and inappropriate ways to ration access to the scarce resources of NZ On Air funding for recordings and music videos. It saddens me to see so many established and up and coming musicians begging for Facebook “likes” in the hope it will help them get NZ On Air funding.
My worry is heightened further when I read that theaudience.co.nz “is also an alternative place for NZ bands to get funding from NZ On Air. Each month the unreleased track with the most public votes will be awarded 10k from NZ On Air. As you can imagine, many bands are really excited about this alternative funding aspect.” Are they? I can’t really explain the feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it’s not excitement, that’s for sure. And surely this is all spin and hype. How can bands be “really excited” when very general details were only just released to Independent Music NZ members late last week and embargoed until 31 May? I don’t know of any bands who are even aware of it, let alone “excited”. If anyone reading this is in a band, knew about this and was excited, please tell me!
What other functions does theaudince.co.nz competition serve? On the favourable side it does at least provide the NZ On Air video/ single funding panel process with reality check of sorts in that there is a chance something they overlook will still get funded by “peoples’ choice”. But is funding by popular vote really the answer? Surely voting can be rigged by those with the resources for massive publicity campaigns (ie: the major labels/ promoters with the artists who don’t actually need the funding).
The monthly chart and vote could mean a genuine grassroots hero like Homebrew coming in from leftfield. I guess that will depend on the people who adopt theaudience.co.nz as their listening post for NZ music and vote on these things. Sadly, I suspect it will mean a lot more bands coming in from populist centre-field. I’ll get accused of being an elitist snob for saying that. I am and I’m proud of it. I believe passionately that NZ musicians can do much better than produce disposable and safe generic commodity pop for commercial radio stations to sell advertising around. But my point is that the kind of bands who attract the huge popular followings in NZ and can sell out large-venue tours will get their music made, released, played and heard with or without a windfall of $10,000 of taxpayer funding.
The other aspect of this competition where I smell a rat is that I suspect it is really a thinly-disguised attempt at a free A&R service for the vested interests in commercial music in NZ. The big labels looking for financial certainties to sign and harvest profits from, the commercial radio stations looking for free radio-friendly produce to sell advertising around, and the funding agencies that want to look good (and effective) by “backing winners”. It’s brilliant really. Imagine if your band’s unreleased song wins that month’s popularity contest. There’s probably going to be a bit more to follow than $10,000 from NZ On Air. That will be great for some, but I don’t think it is going to make anything any better overall, and may well make the state of NZ music worse. Here’s why.
A truism from the world of human resource performance management is “be very careful for you reward people for, as that is what you they will do”. Another is: “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely! They motivate people to get rewards.”
· Reducing risk-taking and innovation – the casualty of rewards is creativity. For example, what is popular now may influence the output of those who are seeking funding. Recreating successful overseas formulas might make commercial radio happy but does little for creativity of
Are these really the effects we want to have on our music “industry”? Don’t we really want to increase creativity and innovation, improve the quality of our music, make more musicians feel valued regardless of how many votes they get, and increase the co-operative and supporting nature of much of the music community? I do. That’s why I don’t like this part of theaudience.co.nz.
I know I should just ignore NZ On Air. It ignores me and I get by just fine without it's help as do most of the bands and labels I know. It's almost completely irrelevant to my life and label and bands, although I do annoy them most months to try to get songs onto the Kiwi Hit Disc (unsuccessfully). OK maybe there's a bit of funding for the bNet from them. I'm not sure, I never read about that. All I know is that they were silent when Radio One looked like it could be sold off and closed down last year and don't appear to have done anything to help widen the bNet stations to other major centres like Hamilton, Napier/ Hastings etc. If I ignored it, it would save a lot of time, and sleepless nights on my part and I could think about far more pleasant and productive things. I've tried hard, but I just can't ignore it. Mainly because, if Government (ie taxpayer) funding is to be put into music at all, then I'm sure it can be done more effectively and fairly than it is at the moment.
Rather than the pre-occupation with money and turning the business (or art) of making music into some kind of lucky windfall Lotto-winner for a few, how about we try to deal with some things that really matter for the majority of musicians. In particular, for those musicians who makes music that falls outside what stands for “commercial” in this country (ie: won’t get played on our narrow-focused, conservative commercial radio stations).
The problems many of our most talented and creative musicians face are many. It may not be obvious to those running our music funding agencies, but many musicians in NZ are struggling to pay rent and eat reasonably, let alone make music, and especially record it to a reasonable level, release it and then promote it. Anyone under 30 (and many over 30) seem to me to be under attack from both the economic recession (unemployment, rising cost of living) and the Government (recent cuts to student allowances for post-graduate students, increased student loan repayments, increased tax burden on the lowest wage earners).
The focus needs to be much broader than making a few stars for consumption by commercial radio in
NZ On Air are focused on supplying radio-ready pop to commercial radio stations to sell advertising around and use millions of dollars of tax-payer money to do this. NZ Music Commission are ready to give money to a few bands and artists who have already made it to a level that they are commercially viable but don't appear to have anything to offer the rest of musicians who may not be considering touring overseas but are releasing music people overseas are interested in. Where is the support for the “grassroots” development of independent music in NZ that helps get artists to the level they can compete for NZ Music Commission funding?
It is telling that the most support for small scale independent artist development appears to me to come from private individuals and innovators like Blink (Ian Jorgensen of A Low Hum), Scott Muir at Dunedinmusic.com, small enthusiast-run record labels, self-funded industry groups like Independent Music NZ, and publications like NZ Musician magazine, rather than from Government funding agencies with various responsibilities for helping develop NZ music. If I am wrong about this someone please tell me.
The web-based platform offered by theaudience.co.nz (the bit without the popularity contest) may be the first attempt by one of these agencies to provide something broadly useful in this area to a wide range of artists, provided it is also promoted and accessible to those from overseas as well as within NZ. On the basis of NZ On Air’s narrow statutory focus, and the competitive chart side of the website, this is unlikely to be something the web platform will consider.