It’s New Zealand Music Month, an event started in part to encourage local radio to play local music. Did it work? Is it still working? We assigned Gareth Shute to take a sample of the most popular stations to find out.
The battle to get homegrown music on local radio goes back a long way, so before we start it’s worth undertaking a brief history lesson. Things began back in 1986 when the Kiwi Music Action Group was formed to lobby the government to introduce a New Zealand music quota. Eventually, a bill was introduced to parliament in 1989 but it failed, though the movement did help the development of NZ on Air’s music funding.
In 1995, APRA estimated that still only 3% of music played on local radio was made by New Zealand artists. So in 2000, after much lobbying, the radio industry agreed to a voluntary quota of 20%, with the proviso that the target might be difficult to meet on their classic hits stations. New Zealand Music Month was started that same year, with the hope that it might support radio in keeping to its target.
Fast forward to the present. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that New Zealand Month doesn’t have the cultural impact it once did. And, some say, one of the reasons is that New Zealand Music Month has “worked”. There’s so much good local music out there that the job must be done.
But, regardless of how much good music is being released, how are we going on the quota target these days? To find out, I picked out the most popular local stations (according to key demographics) and unscientifically listened to an hour of each, with the idea that at least during New Zealand Music Month some of the stations might be making an effort to hit the 20% local music target. Did they bother to make any effort or are they sliding back to their old ways and simply playing safe hits from overseas? Let’s start with the most popular station with all listeners 10+ years old…
I listened to The Edge during their breakfast show and felt like I might’ve put them at an unfair disadvantage since this is primetime radio and the pressures to get listeners would be at their highest. There was also a lot of time spent with Dom and his homies yarning on, so slightly less music than an average hour. And whaddya know? Out of eight songs, they played two local ones (Drax Project and Sons of Zion). That’s 25%! Good start!
I’d always thought More FM played contemporary music but it turns out this isn’t really the case. More than half their songs were old hits and so we were already veering into the dreaded “retro hits” category. For some reason, radio programmers don’t believe that our local acts are legendary enough to have retro hits and have always argued classic hits stations should be excluded from any quota. (Hello! An entire documentary was made about a classic New Zealand hit just a couple of years ago and there are three goddam volumes of those safe but hit-filled Nature’s Best compilations). But jeez, the hits on this station aren’t that old – surely we’ve had some hits since the 1990s that could match up to Third Eye Blind and Maroon 5? Apparently not. More FM played no local songs during the hour I listened. 0%
More classics, none local. Another 0%
I hit upon an hour when DJ Raw was doing a half-hour DJ set, which I figured put the station at a bit of a disadvantage. Then again, Raw has a long history in local hip-hop (alongside King Kapisi in the early days and then in The Footsouljahs) so maybe he’d be sympathetic to local artists? Unfortunately not in this case. On the upside, Stan Walker did get a spin just after and Mai FM also ran an ad for the Volume exhibition at MIT, a history of South Auckland music put together by Auckland Museum, which Mai FM seems to be supporting. Total local music: 6.7% but possibly deserving of a few points more due to the shortness of the overseas tracks played and the local tracks (OMC, Scribe) included in the Volume ad.
The Rock was another station that I thought played contemporary music, but apparently not. I would’ve thought we had enough big rock bands over the past few decades (Shihad, The Datsuns, The D4, HLAH, etc) to provide fodder for a retro-rock station. But no, another 0%
While it’s true bFM didn’t make the radio ratings listings I used to decide which stations to look at, I decided to throw it in to provide a bit of contrast. Initially, I listened to bFM directly after The Rock in the afternoon, but the amount of local music they were playing was over the top! Three songs in a row, then they announced they were having a live-to-air for New Zealand Music Month at the end of the hour, with fuzz-folk act Vincent HL playing three songs. Interestingly, the DJ played some Golden Harvest and it struck me that this would be perfect for classic hits radio if only they’d make the effort to push it to their audience!
However, to make things more challenging I listened back the next morning to their breakfast show, thinking that Mikey might slip under the pressure to do the most commercial show possible. No chance – even without a live session he coasted to 56% local music.
Bizarrely, Hauraki now seems to play more contemporary music than The Rock. But I did hit them during a half-hour segment when they were comparing the best songs from 2003 to those from 1996. (Why? Who knows!) I figured that this would ensure failure, but instead they passed with flying colours. Garageland, The Naked and Famous and DD Smash all got a spin PLUS they advertised a section on their website called Locals Only where you could check out new music by Julia Deans and Frills. So an easy 25% for them. And if it wasn’t for Jet, it would’ve been quite a decent hour’s listening.
I got another nice surprise listening to Flava. The hour started with an interview with Rei (who we profiled in March) and they played his te reo tune, ‘Kia Tau’, before going on to play Kings and Six60. They also previewed a beatdown section later in the afternoon which would feature tracks from Mareko and Sid Diamond going head to head. As if that wasn’t enough, they talked about a special competition they are running where listeners can vote for their favourite ‘‘Aotearoa Anthems’; they’re going to play the top 100 on May 31. So they might’ve just racked 23% local tracks, but really they knocked it out of the park.
I think you know the drill by now – retro radio means no local music. No Dobbo. No Moana and no Moahunters. No Finns even. They were doing a lot to raise money for Plunket, but I’m afraid that’s not enough for special treatment. 0%
Back to a contemporary format and at least some hint that we can make our own pop music. Drax Project and Robinson are enough to put ZM at 13%.
More retro hits. Why do I do this to myself? But wait – what’s this? ‘Jezebel’ by Jon Stevens! This is somewhat fitting since Stevens was a huge disco star here in the seventies, but Kiwi blokes kept dissing him on the streets so he moved to Australia and became the singer for hugely top ten Oz group Noiseworks. So nice that we haven’t forgotten him. Overall, 8.3%
0%. I don’t need to explain at this point, do I?
Not only did George play some local tracks, but they were ones I hadn’t heard before: ‘Be Like You’ by Whethan (feat Broods), ‘Stay (feat. Omega Levine)’ by Lee Mvtthews, and ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ by Jon Lemmon. Though I did laugh when they played some Dan Aux, since he’s a drive host on the station. But all good. 27%
Okay, we’re in uncharted territory here. I’d listened to all the big stations, but thought I’d try this slightly newer one since it prided itself on ‘playing the music you won’t hear elsewhere’. Surprisingly they did live up to this label a tiny bit. They actually mentioned New Zealand Music Month and played a Kiwi classic – ‘Island In The Sun’ by John Rowles. It was so Aotearoa-specific that I actually felt a little chill.
I almost fell off my chair when the announcer then mentioned Max Merritt. Oh boy – are they gonna go back to ‘Get A Haircut’ or hit his soul period with ‘Slipping Away’? Sadly neither, they were just previewing something for the next day and then played ABBA instead. Oh well, they still managed 7% which is better than nothing.
Afraid I can’t really give a score on this one since I managed to flick over just as Dylan C’s Native Tongues programme began (which plays 100% Kiwi music). Nonetheless, it was a relief to finally just kick back and hear some local tunes. That track ‘Strong Woman’ by Raiza Biza (production by Villette) is pretty amazing huh? ????
So there you have it. The situation isn’t terrible (compared to 1996), but given that such a vast amount of radio is retro-focused now, it would be great if programmers actually pushed themselves to recognise our own legendary performers. It was all very well back in the ’90s to claim that there weren’t enough classic NZ hits, given that they were talking about songs from the ’50s and ’60s (when local acts mostly did overseas cover versions). These days, retro radio draws mostly from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and even ’00s. So surely we’ve now reached an era when local music was coming into its own?
It was very disappointing to find that over all those hours of classic hits radio, I heard Queen three times but never any Crowded House or Split Enz (though ironically Mikey Havoc played the latter on bFM). Wouldn’t it be great if those airplay royalties went back to some local performers rather than to overseas acts who are already rich or have since passed away? Let’s hope some of the retro stations take this as a challenge to do better.
bFM – 56% (!!!)
George – 27%
Hauraki – 25%
The Edge – 25%
Flava – 23%
ZM – 13%
Coast – 8.3%
Magic – 7%
Mai FM – 6.7%
More FM, The Breeze, The Rock, The Hits, The Sound – 0%
Bonus: Base – 100%
Update 9 May 2018: Jon Lemmon has been added as a New Zealand artist to George’s tally. As a New Zealand-based Californian who is eligible for NZ on Air funding and, therefore, counts, taking George up to #2!
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 for as little as $1 to help us continue our work and cover the stories that matter. Get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.