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Huge and true: The Spinoff is launching a music section

Next week The Spinoff Music launches, thanks to the support of Spark. Duncan Greive explains what it will be, who will edit it and why it’s such a big deal to him.

Last night I watched with a slightly queasy feeling as a group of eight or so musicians stood on a stage off to one side of the entrance hall of the Auckland Museum. They were about to play 25 New Zealand singles in 26 minutes to cap off a party celebrating the launch of “Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa”, a new exhibition of New Zealand popular music.

The queasy feeling came from both the sentimentality of the occasion and the degree of difficulty on just selecting those 25 songs, let alone playing them with any kind of edge. It seemed near-impossible that it would be anything but a well-meaning train wreck.

And yet from the first moment – “Blue Lady”, from memory, though the 25 quickly became a blur – cynicism became unsustainable. The unruly, thrown together and nameless band played these songs which have spent years, often decades, fading into a kind of amiable sonic sepia and shot them full of colour and life.

As for the performance, so for the exhibition: it brings together these threads previously isolated by eras and sensibilities, sometimes outright hostile to one another and weaves them into a cloak which fits, which seems to elevate the whole enterprise. Seeing Anika Moa’s multiple drafts of the lyrics to “My Old Man” cascading down, or the stark and serene outfit Lorde wore for her Grammy’s performance, or a cache of beaten up guitars, or that iconic Dawn Raid t-shirt or Chris Knox’s four track – all these moments and scenes and objects made a sense together, finally.

I came away from the night soaked in the memory of what this community has accomplished, the body of work created and coiled potential it will always contain. And I could think of no better time to announce that on Tuesday November 1st we launch The Spinoff Music, a place which will dissect, critique and celebrate all this work.

It’s been a long time coming. The first words I ever wrote for an audience were about music (a snarky review of the b.Net awards for Craccum, hopefully long gone), my first writing gig and editing job were in music (both for Real Groove, the magazine whose spirit we’ll try and recreate here) and it’s been the single creative force which has brought me the most joy over the years.

It’s also a form which has gone from having a vibrant critical conversation to a much more muted one. Here is an incomplete list of New Zealand publications covering music in 2006: Pulp, Pavement, Real Groove, Rip It Up, Groove Guide, The Fix, The Package, A Low Hum, Capital Times, Planet. The common thread there is that none of them are around anymore. And while there are still a number of very good sites and publications in and adjacent to music, it’s undeniably a smaller number than a while ago. And even in this era, when musicians can and do speak directly to their audiences every day, I still believe that the role of the critic in sitting between artists and an audience and trying to unravel the mysteries of pop music is a vitally important one.

So I knew we always wanted to cover music on The Spinoff. But I also knew we had to wait until we could do it properly. When it was properly resourced, and with the right partner. We opened up section after section, with Music always just out of reach. But I’m glad we waited, because doing it with Spark (and here I’d like to thank Spark’s Lizzie Havercroft and Richard Llewellyn, who helped drive this partnership through) at this point, feels right.

When Telecom became Spark a few years ago, there was some cynicism around the decision. Some of this was just garden variety anti-corporate sentiment, some of it a kind of collective traumatic response to having seen this kind of thing done for no real good reason a thousand times before. But Spark feels so different to Telecom today that the change now appears the only possible move. The shedding of a skin.

It was a gesture to say that the business wanted to transform itself from a telco and its pipe, into something which aspired to much more for both itself and for New Zealand, with time horizons to match. And music, for Spark, isn’t just a campaign they’re throwing on over summer to sell a few data packs. It’s a pillar of what they want to be for the long term, according to Clive Ormerod, Spark’s GM of Customer and Marketing.

“For Spark, our work in the music space is not a badging exercise or a fly-by-night ambition,” he says. “We are truly committed to being an authentic supporter of New Zealand music, so that our customers can keep experiencing it in even more intimate and exciting ways. We collaborate with a range of music industry partners, including Spotify and Live Nation, and next April we’ll be launching the Spark Arena – an exciting eight year project with music at its heart. So for us, teaming up with The Spinoff on this ambition is a no brainer.”

That the Spark Arena is an eight year deal – three elections into the future – gave me so much confidence in partnering with them on this. It says that they’re here to watch it grow for the long haul. And from the conversations we’re having, I think their commitment to music from top to bottom is only likely to grow in scope.

Which is to say that we’ll be working together with them on this a long time. And together build a place where the critical and sometimes difficult conversations around New Zealand and international music can happen. The few occasions we have covered music on The Spinoff to this point – like this, this, this and this – will give you an idea of how we think it can be one of the best windows we have into this society we’re all living in. At the same time, Pop on the Couch, our long-running music video show, indicates that we’re deeply aware of how joyously ludicrous music can and should be a lot of the time.

The critical thing for any music publication is its editor. They set the tone, play point guard with their writers and need to be able to examine and understand both the music and its place in the wider culture. Which is why I’m so happy to say that our music editor will be Henry Oliver. I first met Henry when he played bass for Die! Die! Die! Over a decade ago, and was struck by both the force with which he played and the breadth of his musical consumption habits.

He was also a deeply cerebral dude, and when an interview came up with legendary photographer/mouthy vegan Glen E. Friedman I sent it his way, just assuming he’d be able to write. He captured the guy in all his complexity, and he’s been writing on and off ever since.

After leaving Die! Die! Die! he trained as a lawyer and opened DOC, Auckland’s most fun bar, before ultimately quitting both to write full-time. He comes to us from Idealog, and the breadth of his background – musician, critic, business journalist – has him perfectly placed to examine all the forces acting on music in this era.

As I write this he’s just gone on paternity leave, so the first week or so will be me piloting it in his stead. But anyone who wants to harass him – writers, musicians, labels, promoters, whoever – can get at him on henry@thespinoff.co.nz. Just give the guy a few days to welcome his baby first, though, OK?

The section opens on Tuesday, November 1st. We want it to be the most energetic, challenging and passionate music section going. We’re so grateful to Spark for making it happen, and look forward to bringing you the good sound long into the future.

Cheers!

Duncan

Editor, The Spinoff

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