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September 27, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Fundamentally flawed funding?

Salient feature writer Paul Comrie-Thomson investigates some of the issues facing music funding in New Zealand, and the steps being taken to rectify the dire situation facing New Zealand musicians.

At the end of last month, Simon Sweetman, a writer and reviewer for the Dominion Post, North & South and TV One’s Good Morning, attacked New Zealand On Air (NZOA) in a blog entitled ‘The joke that is NZ On Air funding’. Sweetman specifically raised concerns about the huge amounts of money being allocated to fund commercially viable New Zealand music, and the lack of spread of that money.

It is undeniable that NZOA, among other organisations, has fundamentally increased the appeal of New Zealand music in the mainstream, and helped foster a number of New Zealand’s most well-known musicians. As Scott Muir, a lecturer in ‘Music Industry’, from Otago University points out, “we have moved over the years from little or no notice being taken of New Zealand music to a point where our music is now an acknowledged part of the overall cultural fabric. We now have an established music commission and bodies such as Independent Music New Zealand (IMNZ) and the Music Managers’ Forum (MMF), who also work to grow New Zealand music both culturally and economically.”

Sweetman has a point though. Using the example of Autozamm he reveals, “in 2003 the band received $10,000 under the New Artist Recording funding allocation. Since 2004 (and including one just granted this year) the band has had 11 video grants—that’s $5,000 a pop to make a video. And since 2005 the band has had three injections of $50,000 to make albums.”

So keeping in mind the important role NZOA plays in helping cultivate some of New Zealand’s top musicians, is there a need for a significant overhaul of the system in order to stop some bands receiving more than they arguably deserve?

“There is no money in poetry, but there is no poetry in money either”—Robert Graves

In a conversation with Salient, Sweetman asserts, “I personally don’t actually think that musicians deserve funding. I know this probably isn’t a popular point of view, but I think we are a little bit too soft and a little bit too kind.” Personal views aside though, he recognises that the problem with NZOA funding doesn’t lie in the existence of funding, rather “there are problems with the spread of that funding. We are just rewarding the same people over and over.”

Sweetman doesn’t appear to be alone in this opinion either. The 197 comments on the blog—as of 20 September—overwhelmingly supported Sweetman’s criticisms, and many commenters call for more accountability within the system. However, it’s difficult to encourage musicians to speak out against a system which could still potentially serve them. Who wants to cut off their nose to spite their face? Sweetman comments: “I have had quite a few musicians write to me and basically say thanks for putting that out there. They wrote to me privately so I won’t mention any names, but a lot of people in the industry did contact me to say thanks for creating a bit of a debate, and a forum. And a lot of people were actually quite vocal about their support for the angle I was pushing; that they didn’t really believe that these same bands should be able to get this money where it is almost an abuse of the system.”

Jane Wrightson, CEO of NZOA concedes that “there is a legitimate policy question over where there should be a maximum to an individual artist”, but she rejects the notion that there are musicians ‘feeding from the trough’. “There is never a problem with some musicians taking advantage. I would reject that really strongly.” Unfortunately, even if these bands don’t personally feel as though they are taking advantage of the system, evidence from examples such as Autozamm certainly doesn’t lead the public to feel enamoured with the situation.

One of the key reasons the ability to take advantage of the system exists is simply because certain bands and artists have learned the formula, so to speak. The funding criteria for both the ‘New Recording Artist Funding’, and ‘Music Video Funding’ require that ‘the submitted song must exhibit potential for commercial radio airplay’. Similarly ‘Album Funding’ requires that the artist must have ‘a track record on commercial radio’, and the ‘potential for at least four more commercial radio hits’. While it is important to recognise that there is a huge subjective element to music, Sweetman complains that “part of the problem with a lot of samey, safe, soft music that has come from this country and gets hyped up, is actually because we have got this funding system where these bands get to exist.”

“With a band like The Feelers—whilst I don’t like their music, I’ve got nothing personal against them. But there is no need for them to push anything extra or different into what they are doing because they’ve had this safe little safety net created for them where if they keep pushing out the same benign product, they’ll keep getting the advances from the record company, and that will be matched in funding. These guys make a nice, comfortable living, and they’re not actually doing that thing of pushing the role of the artist in society, and contributing in any way. They’ve got a nice cushy job that is being propped up by a soft funding model.”

This is unlikely to change, Wrightson explains. “We are at the professional end of the music spectrum, and we are unashamedly commercial and broadcast focused, so there are patches of the music world that we don’t serve, or will never serve very well. We are the first to say that. We are looking for commercial music that large amounts of New Zealanders are going to like.” Perhaps it is New Zealanders that are to blame?

“If the NZOA think the quality of the song is good, and is radio-friendly, and will be popular with an adequate sub-section of the New Zealand audience, then we will back it. We look at radio airplay. We look at album sales if we’ve invested in an album, because we take a share of that money back, but we are not in the sales business. We are in the broadcasting business.”

The internationalisation of New Zealand music

As one person commented in reply to Sweetman’s blog, the Broadcasting Act 1989, under which NZOA operates, specifically outlines a primary function “to reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture”, and “to encourage a range of broadcasts that reflects the diverse religious and ethical beliefs of New Zealanders.” The level to which this is achieved is debatable, and there are certainly people on both sides of the fence.

Roy Shuker, an Associate Professor in Victoria University’s Media Studies Department, makes a crucial point in an article entitled ‘New Zealand popular music, government policy, and cultural identity’. In the article, he exemplifies New Zealand’s strong garage rock scene, headed by bands like The Datsuns and The D4, as well as the urban Polynesian sound of the likes of anyone from Katchafire to Nesian Mystik, to clarify what now constitutes truly New Zealand music. He comments: “It is necessary to avoid any straightforward dichotomising of the ‘local’ and the ‘foreign’, and the relationship between popular music, national identity, and cultural policy in New Zealand and, indeed, internationally. The global and the local cannot be considered binary categories, but exist in a complex interrelationship.”

The NZOA mission statement is: ‘Champion local content through skillful investment in quality New Zealand broadcasting’ and their focus is to ‘provide a diverse range of New Zealand voices, stories and perspectives to local audiences’. As a specialist in the New Zealand music industry, Scott Muir believes “that they are really not too far off the mark here in trying to achieve these aims,” and he thinks it is important that we don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are damned lucky to have funding support at all regardless of how misdirected people feel it is.”

He does concede that “part of the problem is that we are seeing a commodification of our culture, and indeed lifestyle, across the board. Those who seek to imitate their American cousins in a musical sense are, for me, not really reflecting our culture back on us. The ‘diverse range of New Zealand voices’ is what we should be seeing and hearing more of, I think.”

Matt Mollgaard, Head of Radio at AUT University explains that this commodification of musical culture results directly from the deregulation of broadcast media. “The main issue is that NZOA is required by the legislation that set it up to ‘get more New Zealand music on New Zealand radio’. As New Zealand radio is so commercial for reasons of deregulation, the only music it can fund that fulfils the requirements of the legislation is music that will compete with big overseas artists for very limited airplay spots on tightly formatted radio stations aimed at small consumer niches. Think Green Day and Elemeno P.”

Mollgaard points out that this feeds into the international role of NZOA, namely the export of New Zealand music to earn overseas money for the New Zealand economy. “This is very difficult. For every Autozamm there are 20,000 bands targeting the same audience in the United States alone. If Autozamm can get that one big song on US radio—think Steriogram and ‘Walkie Talkie Man’—they could be a significant ‘beach head band’ for New Zealand alt-pop and rock music,” he says.

“The main issue is that NZOA must operate within the most commercial radio environment in the world. They are charged with using taxpayer money to get New Zealand content on New Zealand broadcasters and to help build a sustainable music industry. The reality is that they must target the most commercial bands in New Zealand and export bands that will fit into overseas markets.

“Their job is really less about ‘culture’ and more about cutting through the commercial pap to get at least some New Zealand music on the radio and therefore allow at least some New Zealand bands to make a bit of money out of it, and hopefully develop further. It is a big ask.”

A timely review

“For 21 years I think we have done a hell of a job in music,” Wrightson notes. “I think most people in the sector will acknowledge that without NZOA, things would have been considerably different,” she says. “We have had the same piece of legislation governing us since 1989 though, and we can’t go outside it.” However, NZOA is now in the process of administering a number of reviews across its various interests. This year, former EMI New Zealand managing director Chris Caddick is in the process of completing a review of NZOA’s domestic music funding.

“I authorised Caddick to start in March/April this year. He is interviewing over a hundred people in the music, broadcast and commentating sectors, and there has been an online survey open for about three months, which just closed last week. I think we had about 650 contributions to that, which is quite enough to get a sense of what people think,” Wrightson explains.

She asserts that, despite one of the key areas of review addressing digital options, “we are unashamedly focused on radio, because that is what the Broadcasting Act says we have to do. We won’t change from that, and there is no overwhelming case for us to move from that. Do not think that radio is a dead medium, even though it is terribly fashionable to say that.”

There is overwhelming evidence that radio remains the predominant means of finding and listening to music in New Zealand. A study commissioned by NZOA, to be released shortly, is based around two questions. The first question asked, “Where do you get your daily music fix from?” 73 per cent of respondents answered ‘radio’, while only 32 per cent of respondents indicated the next most popular option, ‘My CDs/DVDs/Vinyl’. On the second question, “How do you find out about new music?”, radio rated highest again with 49 per cent. The remaining 51 per cent was distributed across 19 other options.

While refusing to speculate on exactly what the report might entail, Wrightson has outlined that the results will be presented to the NZOA Board in December, “so I would think we would have either a consultation copy, or an implementation plan out in the first quarter of next year. It depends what it is and how radical it is, it might just be tweaks, or it might be radical.”

Despite Sweetman’s objections to funding in any capacity, he hopes that the review will address some of the existing issues, and provide checks and balances. When money is allocated, he says, “proof needs to come back with what the money was spent on. An itemised account of a video shoot shouldn’t be a hard thing to account for. At the end of the day, this is money that is being given by the taxpayer, so it should be public and disclosed to everyone.”

Furthermore, Sweetman believes it is necessary to implement “some kind of a three strikes policy. The thing that got me to write that piece, the absolute fact that bugged me the most is that I don’t rate Autozamm as a representation of New Zealand music. I was surprised they were still even going. The fact that they have basically received funding every year for about ten years, or they’ve at least received nine or ten individual grants, to me that seems absolutely absurd. They are not actually getting anywhere with that. All they are managing to do is to get their mates to text radio stations at the right time, and the radio stations fill in their reports, and it comes up that they’ve had that song requested heaps so they are clearly getting heaps of radio play. So, we’d better give them more funding,” he says.

“I think, ultimately, this whole idea of radio play being the measure of whether music is good is where we get the problem, because despite any report going into the funding, it’s still going to come down to this disconnect between what is allegedly good music, and what gets radio play, and sometimes the best song in the world gets a lot of radio play, and sometimes the songs that are getting radio play are bloody terrible, but judged a success because they are getting airplay.”

Certainly, capping the number of album grants and videos is crucial. Despite the fact that it will face bitter opposition from the major labels, if they haven’t managed to build a successful self-sustaining artist after five or so videos you really have to wonder.

New Zealand is incredibly fortunate that we have, or at least had, a government which recognises the benefits in funding the art to promote New Zealand culture, and NZOA has played an instrumental role in this. However, there are a number of key flaws in the system, which one would hope will be addressed in the current review, and subsequently rectified.

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Comments (5)

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  1. one person commented says:

    Matt Mollgaard incorrectly points to an international role of NZOA. There is no international role to NZOA. It is purely to do with broadcasting in NZ, to get more of our music to our people’s ears and eyes. What happens internationally is irrelevant to the task at hand. To suggest otherwise (and NZOA does infer it has some sort of roll here but it is not included in the Broadcasting Act in any way) show’s a misunderstanding by all parties. It may be a worth goal to help NZ acts achieve success overseas but it is not the role of NZOA to direct funds towards it.

  2. Matt Mollgaard says:

    Your correspondent is wrong. Even a quick browse of the NZOA music website and the Kiwihits website will explain the direct and deliberate funding of NZ bands to have a go overseas and the support for the export of NZ bands to things like SXSW (look under ‘international’ on the right). Whether or not that is right is a bigger discussion.

  3. one person commenting says:

    It is true that NZ on Air do participate in international promotion of nz music, but the broadcasting act which directs them is specifically to do with funding content for nz airwaves. The people managing NZ on Air have erroneously assumed this direction in their funding and it is at odds with the Act and its intent. They have made up an international objective where there was none and they still haven’t solve the problems with broadcasting in NZ, channeling part what little money there is to address overseas issues.

  4. Matt Mollgaard says:

    Like I said, it’s a big ask.

  5. smackdown says:

    seeya again in six months matt

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