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All I want for Christmas is more New Zealand music in the top 40 chart

What’s the deal with the lack of local music in the Top 40 this year? Robyn Gallagher looks at the handful of songs to make the grade in 2016 and asks – has the general public simply given up on New Zealand music?

A strange thing has happened in the New Zealand top 40 chart this year: New Zealand music has barely made an impact. With 2016 almost at an end, only three new songs by New Zealand artists have charted in the top 40.

This is unusual. Last year a low but acceptable 14 songs by New Zealand artists made it into the top 40. In 2014 it was 23 and in 2013 it was a decent 39. Three songs is so low that we have to go all the way back to 1976 to find the next highest number – seven.

It’s certainly not the worst thing to happen this year, but as far as New Zealand music goes, it’s pretty bad.

The year started with two songs from 2015 finishing up their runs. Six60 had their feelgood track ‘White Lines’, while Lorde had the sultry ‘Magnets’, her collaboration with UK production duo Disclosure, which is really only half local. At best. But what would 2016 offer?

Broods – ‘Free’

The first New Zealand song in the top 40 didn’t show up until April, but it was worth the wait. ‘Free’ was the first single off Broods’ second album Conscious. They delivered an attitude-laden piece of electropop, with an especially compelling middle-eight. And it helped fill that Lorde-shaped hole that’s just waiting for new content.

Kings – ‘Don’t Worry Bout It’

Suddenly, out of the blue, came Kings with his super chill but undeniably catchy track ‘Don’t Worry Bout It’. It was a proper viral hit, peaking at number 5; it hasn’t left the top 40 since its July debut. The low-key but positive message of ‘Don’t Worry’ seems tailormade for the troubles of 2016, a sonic interpretation of the Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. And it didn’t even need NZ On Air funding – the song’s video was a DIY iPhone job.

Dennis Marsh and Friends – ‘Christmas in New Zealand’

It wasn’t until December that the third and final New Zealand song turned up in the top 40. This time it was ‘Christmas in New Zealand’, a charity single in aid of Kaikoura earthquake victims. With extensive promotion from TV3’s Story show, the single features country music legend Dennis Marsh, a few MediaWorks faces, some actual singers, and Peter Dunne and the Briscoes lady. It only appeared in the top 40 for a single week before disappearing from the chart as Mariah Carey’s 1994 seasonal hit ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ started its annual multi-week chart appearance.

Umm… we’ll take it (we have to, right?)

Then just this week the charts threw in a song that doesn’t quite qualify as a New Zealand artist, but comes embarrassingly close. In ‘Summer Wonderland’, Irish crooner Ronan Keating covers the classic American seasonal song ‘Winter Wonderland’, but with a corny Kiwi twist on the lyrics. And of course it’s for an Air New Zealand promotion. It’s not great, but at this stage it’s all we have.

So what’s causing this massive decline, leaving only a cool pop single, an unexpected viral hit and a charity single as the sole representatives from Aotearoa in the charts?

The blame can partly be put on the impact of streaming on the charts. Since November 2014, streaming data has been used to determine chart positions, along with digital sales and the rare sales of physical singles. This means that it’s not just enough for local bands to get fans, friends and family to buy their music. These days people have to actually listen to the song – and listen to it a lot. Could it be that – with the exception of Kings – New Zealand musicians aren’t making the sort of catchy, energetic but chilled-out music (preferably with nods to EDM and dancehall) that stands up to binge-listening sessions on streaming services?

Music commentators have also noted the decrease in New Zealand music getting played on local radio. Radio is still hugely influential, so if New Zealand music isn’t being played as much on top 40 stations, it’s not getting heard by New Zealanders.

This year we’ve also missed the boost of an X Factor type series, which could previously be relied on to get New Zealand music – from both contestants and guest performers — into the charts.

It’s sad. A major part of New Zealand’s cultural identity is withering. It seems a bit too much to dream of a return the golden years of the mid-2000s when the charts overflowed with local music, but we’ve got to have more than three New Zealand songs in the top 40.

So what’s the solution? Like a lot of media, the music industry has been shaken up by digital changes. Maybe it’s going to take a few years before the New Zealand scene adapts to the current stream-based music environment.

It’s encouraging that NZ On Air have moved away from focusing solely on funding the increasingly less essential medium of music videos and will now fund other types of “visual representation” and promotional costs. And while this could be the big help New Zealand music needs – promotional funding to ensure that songs without a big label, the backing of a current affairs show or being featured on an ad soundtrack can still have a shot at chart popularity – we might also have to get used to New Zealand music competing on an even playing field with the most popular acts in the world, where listeners increasingly find and enjoy music on streaming services where there aren’t any borders let alone quotas.

But still, three shouldn’t be hard to beat. Surely.


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