While the rest of the world’s live music is on hold, the local scene is thriving in New Zealand. The Ones To Watch programme is helping up-and-coming homegrown talent make the most of this moment.
When the pandemic hit Aotearoa last year, 20-year-old Raglan musician Muroki found himself planting trees to make extra cash to keep his music career afloat. The music industry was shaken hard when our borders closed; live shows were cancelled, the gig economy completely shut down and musicians suddenly had a very uncertain future.
But a year on from the first lockdown, Muroki’s about to embark on a tour with The Butlers, has two singles in the national charts, and brought his smooth vocals to Benee’s track All The Time, which has over one million plays on Spotify.
Muroki’s success isn’t an isolated case. Though our economy shrank 2.9% last year due to the effects of Covid, the end to international travel was an unexpected positive for local musicians: suddenly all eyes were on them. The buzzing summer festival season – a parallel universe to the lockdowns and social distancing still endured by much of the rest of the world – featured lineups filled almost entirely by local acts.
New Zealand ushered in 2021 with jam-packed shows all over the country. While Six60 made global headlines performing in front of 50,000 people at Eden Park, budding artists were also getting gigs they couldn’t have imagined a year ago. Now Live Nation and Vodafone are launching programmes to help NZ musicians make the most of their moment in the spotlight.
Muroki, and up-and-comers like him, have been basking in new opportunities and taking summer festival slots that would have normally gone to international acts. Gisborne music festival Rhythm and Vines had its largest ever gathering of Kiwi musicians this year, while Splore, near Auckland, went with a a fully local lineup. And for the first time since 2005, commercial radio stations in New Zealand collectively played 20% homegrown music last year.
The creative momentum that grew out of our closed borders created the perfect environment for Live Nation’s Ones To Watch music discovery platform to launch in New Zealand. Founded in the United States in 2017, it has helped musicians such as Halsey and Dua Lipa rise to fame by giving them exposure to audiences and media alike. In October, backed by Vodafone New Zealand, the live entertainment company expanded its horizons to host Kiwi artists alongside American up-and-comers. Every year, 12 local artists will be featured on the platform. This year Muroki was picked as one to watch.
Reflecting on the last 12 months, Muroki says he couldn’t believe how quickly his success has come.
“I’d come straight out of the last lockdown and found out I was going on tour with Benee and getting signed [with her record label]. It was the biggest tour in the world at the time,” he says, disbelief still in his voice. “Playing my own shows and having people sing back the songs… that’s something I can’t get used to. It’s such a weird thing to watch people blurting out my lyrics.”
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Although some big-name international musicians made their way to New Zealand to play live shows, Splore’s festival director John Minty decided that the much-loved music and arts festival would be a fully local affair this year. “I made a commitment back in June last year to stick to 100% Kiwi, whether the borders opened or not,” he says. “I made that commitment to New Zealand artists and I just worked really hard to get a good cross-section of eclectic artists. I think the world’s sitting up and taking notice, because we’re the only country in the world able to do mass gatherings and events.”
While lockdowns around the globe have been draining and near-constant, New Zealand’s have been short and sharp, allowing artists to take time to rejuvenate, before stepping out into the world, new ideas in hand. They’ve been able to create, then connect directly with their fans.
During the first lockdown digital gigs provided artists with essential access to their audiences. Lounge Jams, a series of live streamed gigs facilitated by Vodafone, was designed to help artists retain that access and connection with their fans. Just like the many businesses whose staff were all suddenly working from home, Lounge Jams let musicians do the same. Over the course of the series, fans could watch artists including Tiki Taane, The Beths and Dave Dobbyn perform from home.
But while virtual shows are great, they just don’t have quite the same energy as a live gig. And since venues reopened, the support for local artists has been immense. The willingness for New Zealanders to support local talent has fostered a nurturing environment for artists to thrive.
“Around the world, New Zealand has been getting a lot of praise,” says Live Nation promoter Renée Hermsen. “And that’s thanks to literally every single person in this country.”
Of all New Zealand music pandemic success stories, the most remarkable is that of Benee. She was picked up by the US Ones To Watch programme in 2019, and her international fame has skyrocketed since. While the borders have been closed she’s toured New Zealand, playing to sold out venues.
“She’s a great example of someone who can’t wait to get a big global audience, but while she’s here, New Zealand has given her equal love and shown her so much support over the past year,” says Hermsen. “She’s still been able to tour and still been able to develop her live show, which is just phenomenal and surreal at this time.”
Now, with the long-awaited travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand finally open, our local talents’ horizons are expanding. Home audiences have been supportive, but opportunities across the ditch beckon, and Kiwi musicians are now able to hop on a flight to play to new crowds. New Zealand bands such as The Beths and L.A.B will play Aussie tours soon, and New Zealand venue owners will sigh with relief when Aussie acts come our way, as most have suffered severely without international acts and their sky-high ticket sales.
But despite worldwide vaccine roll-outs offering the promise of new travel corridors and eventually looser border restrictions, the impacts of our year without international acts will remain. Splore festival director John Minty is among those in the music industry who have experienced a real paradigm shift as a result of the pandemic. In normal years, he’d be frequenting festivals the world over trying to lure in international talent. But the success of the latest, all-local Splore has him thinking differently.
“I’m making a conscious effort to keep it pretty strongly Kiwi next year, even if the borders open,” Minty says. “I think it’s worth nurturing what we’ve discovered this past year. That I can put a local artist who’s not necessarily a massive ticket seller on the main stage and they can pull a crowd of four or five thousand people and perform right up there to international levels. It’s a good lesson for a lot of promoters, I think.”
Although we still have no clarity on when our borders will fully reopen, it’s become clear that we have an almost endless supply of fresh talent right here on our own shores. The Ones To Watch website offers a valuable avenue to discover new tunes from the best new Aotearoa artists, including Paige, RIIKI and Park Rd. They’re talents who seem certain to have their names in international lights some time very soon. The platform offers each hand-picked artist the chance to perform live at showcase events. The third gig will feature newcomers Molly Payton, Balu Brigada and Daily J.
While Covid-19 may have made our remote land even more remote, it’s also built a really loyal bubble. We’re resilient when we have each other, and with a soundtrack as good as this, we’ll be ready to rock when our bubble finally bursts.
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