Though most Kiwi artists who rack up big numbers on Spotify are chart-topping stars, some remain stubbornly unknown. Gareth Shute investigates the odd paths NZ acts have taken to get to a million Spotify streams.
In a small country like New Zealand it’s difficult to get to a million streams on Spotify unless you’re a local chart-topper (think Six60 or DRAX Project) or an act who’s made a significant impact overseas through touring (like Aldous Harding or Fazerdaze). Yet there is still the odd unknown act that gains traction simply through having a particularly catchy or unusual song – and it’s a method that can take them surprisingly far.
A perfect example is the humorous (if offensive) rap crew from Whanganui, Machete Clan. Their breakthrough track, ‘On The Rark’, is an ode to partying for days straight, filled with references to every drug under the sun and jokes about sheep shagging. Its rise to 1.1 million Spotify streams caught beatmaker Murderbeats by surprise. “Machete has never had a feature or anything to boost it, apart from the relentless party scene and close youth of Wanganui taking the rark everywhere they go.
“I guess the first time I realised ‘On the Rark’ was blowing up was hearing stories from people outside of our network asking friends about us like we were infamous.”
Muderbeats says the song’s success was propelled by the mystery of Machete. “Are they five crack-heads? Is this a pisstake or is this a new wave of careless music? Is hip-hop dead? Machete Clan is all produced and recorded in my bedroom, so we have a filthy, homemade and home-killed taste to our music. The songs are full of Wangaz slang and references which really capture the binge drinking sessions and rarks that take place every weekend.”
As the song was shared across the country, a small but passionate Machete Clan fanbase formed in every major city; the crew embarked on a nationwide tour in February this year, alongside Whanganui metal band DRXNES which features Murderbeats on guitar. Rapper Coach Smoke was stunned by the reaction. “I literally can’t remember a third of this year because of that fucking tour,” he says. “We have a song that is so absurd that all it takes is one listen for you to figure out we rark so hard you’d be an idiot to miss the show. The rark is a magnetic force that holds New Zealand together and brings people from all walks of life to our show 24 bottles deep and we are more than happy to keep the fuel pumping. We also had a loyal contingent from Rotorua who followed us around in a house bus and got kicked out of every city.”
Being hometown heroes also gave an early boost to the bands profiled in The Spinoff’s story about the ‘new Dunedin Sound’, notably Gromz and Marlin’s Dreaming – the main difference being that it was overseas streams that eventually pushed their songs past the million mark. Getting overseas streams via popular playlists has now become a common aim of local musicians, one that is often achievable even without major label backing.
Take for example Auckland audio-engineers-turned-pop-act The Map Room, whose ‘Hold Me Up To The Sun’ is at 1.3 million streams after being featured in the ‘Chilled Roots’ playlist (48k followers) and a long run in ‘Chilled Afternoon’ (22k followers). Meanwhile Christchurch husband-and-wife duo The Terrible Sons have had their track ‘Tears Don’t Fall’ reach 6.6 million (they’re still on the ‘Your Favourite Coffeehouse’ playlist, which has 169k followers).
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find there are plenty of other genre-specific playlists that can help propel you to a million streams, even if the music you make is far outside the pop world. Spotify is always in need of new ambient tracks (it’s even been accused of manufacturing its own) and so local composer Levi Patel’s dreamy track ‘And She Translated Into The Sky’ has filled this niche (reaching 1.5 million streams via playlists like ‘Sleep’). Kaylee Bell, the pop-country star originally from Waimate, has also had an extended life online. Her track ‘Next Somebody’ is currently on ‘Fresh Country’ (24k listeners) and looks certain to join her 2013 track ‘Getting Closer’ in surpassing a million streams.
One of the most out-of-the-blue placements was Roy Irwin’s appearance on an official playlist created to coincide with the series Stranger Things called ‘Jonathan’s Outsider Looking In‘. Irwin’s first indication that his track ‘Demon’s Cave’ was taking off was when his distributor emailed to say he’d been added to the huge playlist ‘Ultimate Indie’, with its 1.8 million subscribers.
“It was fun watching the numbers go up by 10,000 or more on a daily basis,” he says, “but it didn’t affect me in any way creatively. By the time ‘Demon’s Cave’ was going crazy on Spotify, it was already four years since it was written and recorded. So by that time I was totally done with that song. Another reason it didn’t faze me too much was the fact that, yeah it’s got 2.2 million plays – but 1.5 million [of those] plays were probably just background noise in some annoying cafe. Digital music is really disposable for that reason.”
Over in the world of contemporary Christian music, there’s Auckland ‘folk psalmist’ Strahan whose 2012 track ‘Deliverance’ is now at 1.9 million streams, mainly through listeners in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and LA. Another overseas-based success story is the acoustic duo Beeches from Mount Maunganui, who had a breakthrough with ‘We Don’t Know,’ which has gained 2.1 million streams via fans in Melbourne, London, Sydney, New York and LA.
But if we’re talking acts that are successful while remaining unknown at home, it’s hard to go past Saski. A New Zealander now based in San Francisco, her first break came through 2016 track ‘Faking Bright’ which she released while still living in Auckland. “It began on Soundcloud on the ‘Your Secret’ playlist, which from the onset received a fair amount of plays, then it naturally graduated to Spotify,” she says.
The song was then picked up by ‘Dope: The Playlist’ which had around 400,000 followers at the time. “Then, by fate, at the very start of 2018, Pigeons and Planes featured it,” she says. “I was actually on my own Facebook page, scrolling down and happened to spot a familiar photo on a Pigeon and Planes post, which was of me, and they were talking about ‘Faking Bright’! Then a week later Matt Wilkinson from Beats1 emailed me to feature the song on his radio show. From there the song snowballed onto a bunch of other playlists, landing on some with over a million followers. So pretty neat! And a very organic experience. Especially because when you manage yourself and work full time, it can be hard to chase up blogs and take on that whole side of the music business.”
In 2017, Saski moved to the US both to work and pursue her music career. Despite her fanbase now being based primarily in the US, she credits the New Zealand music industry with supporting her once she’d had her first big breakthrough. “While working in Auckland I began to meet producers and managers, as well as A&Rs for a few different labels. From there, I set up writing sessions for myself with whoever was keen to work with me. It ended up being a very successful couple of sessions, which provided me with two NZ on Air funding rounds. If I didn’t have that support, I honestly wouldn’t be able to continue as I have been. So huge shout out to NZ on Air! People I meet overseas are always amazed when I tell them how our government provides such support for their artists.”
In the meantime, ‘Faking Bright’ has risen to 3.8 million streams, while her latest single (‘Independent’) is already at a half a million and counting despite her having no manager or major label backing (like many of the acts mentioned here, Saski distributes her work through New Zealand’s largest independent aggregator, DRM).
And there are plenty more artists who are sitting at 900k, ready to join Saski in the one million club: ‘Froyo’, the collab between rapper Hans. and US singer/YouTube star Clairo; ‘You’re So Cool’ by Jonathan Bree; ‘Here to Stay’ by 11-year-old singer General Fiyah (who made his name with Three Houses Down), Israel Starr’s ‘Long White Cloud’ (though let’s not get stuck on reggae or we’ll be here all day). Not to mention the run of successes associated with the Cinco Cine Film Production Company – most notably Maimoa’s ‘Wairua’ which is now at 1.7 million streams (beaten in the te reo stakes only by ‘Poi E’).
So what do all of these big streaming numbers add up to? No doubt some cynics will be thinking, ‘So what? Spotify only pay peanuts to artists anyway.’ But the royalty rates in New Zealand are actually higher than elsewhere in the world. The reason for that is interesting: streams from paid Spotify accounts result in a higher payout and New Zealand has a lot more premium members per capita than many countries due to Spark’s relationship with Spotify (full disclosure: our music section is sponsored by Spark).
More importantly, online streams are only one element that make a musician successful; in most cases they’ll also need revenue from other sources (live shows, ad syncs, TV placements etc) to make a living.
Roy Irwin might’ve got a few decent payouts from streaming, but he remains realistic about how far that kind of success can take you: “I get nice messages from fans all over the world which inspire me to continue doing what I love doing. Sometimes they also buy art and records from me. It’d be nice if more people actually bought records directly from me or 1:12 Records because then I get to eat better and make rent and bills more comfortably, and 1:12 Records get to cover their costs for producing the records faster.
“I do get some royalties every so often for digital plays which is nice and helpful, and ‘Demon’s Cave’ was licensed for a Snapchat advert and for an upcoming movie called Hearts Beat Loud. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for these opportunities, but considering the budgets that these companies have and the fact they are worth billions of dollars they don’t really pay a lot in the big scheme of things. I live week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day.
“Sorry to anyone who wants to try to make music for a living for these really uninspiring answers, but it’s the truth. If you’re not making music for yourself, then you are going to have a bad time.”
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.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.