The trick to winning, says founder Glenn Common, is to not win at all.
Grunge came and went. So too did nu-metal. Then pop punk, the garage rock revival, emo’s brief but glorious heyday and the rise of Aotearoa hip-hop. In the 2010s, more electronic forms of music dominated, with dance music, DJs and dubstep coming to the fore.
Over the last 36 years, Glenn Common has seen all those musical phases pass through Rockquest, the annual competition that puts school-aged talent in front of crowds on stages around the country and asks them to go for it. The secret to its longevity, says Common, is that it’s been allowed to move with the times.
Despite having “rock” in its title, you don’t have to play a guitar to enter. “You can win with your metal band, your punk band or your pop band,” says Common. “We’ve had electronic winners … singer-songwriters… Rage Against the Machine had a big impact, Florence and the Machine had a significant impact, Mumford and Sons [gave us] some banjos.
“We’ve always said, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what you play, just get up there and do it.”
Common and co-founder Pete Rainey have been at the head of Rockquest pretty much from the start. It began life as a Christchurch radio competition in 1988 before the pair took over the reins in 1989 and, by 1990, had morphed it into a full-blown nationwide event with dozens of shows, hundreds of entrants and thousands of fans.
Together, they’ve been helping hone the next generation of Aotearoa musicians for nearly four decades. It’s been a full-time job for the pair, and several team members, since 1999. Some very famous musicians have graced Rockquest’s stages before anyone knew who they were: Fur Patrol’s Julia Deans was a finalist in 1991, Bic Runga placed third in 1993 with her high school duo Love Soup, and in 2007, Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding competed as a duo, later finding fame individually.
You can scroll through Rockquest’s history on its website as it checks off all the big names: Marlon Williams, The Checks, Broods, Evermore, Nesian Mystik, Kimbra, Kora and Alien Weaponry all started their careers on a Rockquest stage, proving that unlike hit-and-miss TV talent quests like The X Factor and Pop Idol, it remains a reliable stepping stone towards a full-time music career.
From Nelson, Common still heads Rockquest as well as its spinoff talent quests Tangata Beats, intermediate-aged talent show Band Quest, and Show Quest for dance and theatre students. He makes sure any student who wants to enter those events can do so. There’s still no entry free thanks to longterm sponsors like Smokefree and Rockshop. “If you can get up there and do it, you do it,” he says. (To Common’s knowledge, no one has ever tried to smoke on a Smokefree Rockquest stage.)
Common’s about to kick off another Rockquest competition in which budding hopefuls who think they have something special will soon begin performing in competitions on stages around the country. You might think he’d be jaded after so long at the helm, but he still gets chills when he hears a great song, or sees someone special, perform up on that stage.
It happened last year during a soundcheck by Nelson country duo Zac & Maddison before the national final at Auckland’s Q Theatre. “They sang this song and it was stunning,” he says. “It was absolutely incredible. It was emotional, it was powerful, and yes it still affects me even in my elderly and advancing years.”
He still remembers Julia Deans’ performance of an original song called ‘Power’ in 1991 like it was yesterday. “I remember it vividly. You don’t forget these things,” he says. “I could still probably sing it to you if my voice was any good.”
But there’s a Rockquest secret not many people know about. Winning may not necessarily be the best thing for musicians who want to go the distance. For those who really fancy a long-term career, you might want to think about coming second.
“Winning isn’t the most important thing – it’s what happens next,” says Common. “I would say to the band that came second, ‘Look, you’ve got the best spot here, you’ve had the recognition but you don’t have the pressure. Go on and do the work.'”
They wanted it to be for everyone right from day one. So Rockquest designed a poster that gathered every possible genre of music and printed them all in the largest possible font. “It was essential that we didn’t focus on rock, that it wasn’t a one-genre thing,” says Common. Still, it was an ugly poster. “It was one of the worst-designed posters that the art world has ever seen.”
But it worked. From Christchurch, Common and Rainey were working as music teachers when they started Rockquest for a radio station promotion, then took over the rights. They’d seen first-hand how engaged students became when they had instruments placed in their hands. “We saw what happened to our students when we took them out of the classroom and actually onto a stage with kids in front of them to perform,” he says.
Word about Rockquest spread quickly. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a part of it, and at that 1989 final, they couldn’t fit all the fans in. “We had something like 1,300 kids outside the Christchurch Theatre Royal … trying to get tickets,” he says. “We said, ‘If this works here it’s got to work in other places around New Zealand as well.”
It did. Across the 90s, Rockquest swelled to host competitions around the country, whittling hundreds of entrants down to perform short sets at sold out finals. Performers went on to reach levels of fame previously unheard of as New Zealand’s music industry boomed. Bands like the feelers, Breathe, OpShop and Steriogram – who went global after soundtracking an iPod commercial – all included members who grew up playing on Rockquest’s main stages.
Fan bases formed. Kids were into it. “It was pre-social media. The internet was there but kids weren’t there spending all day watching video files,” says Common. “It just wasn’t the thing at that point.” Confidence kept growing. While competitors started out performing covers, by the mid-90s most were singing their own songs. In 2001, rules were changed to ban cover songs, but it was just a formality. “Nobody noticed. That’s what they wanted.”
Rockquest’s popularity never really suffered a dip – until Covid came along. In 2020, performances moved onto Zoom and a new trend emerged as bedroom-based singer-songwriters took over. “Bands were out and soloists were in,” says Common. It was clearly just logistics. Band members couldn’t get into a room together to practice, but “you could write your song, record it and send it in” online.
Common expects guitar-based acts to make a big return when Rockquest’s 2023 competition kicks off next month. Heats will be held around the country, with regional finals whittling hundreds of entrants down to around 90. From there, 10 go through to a national final, with seven bands and three solo-duos making up the mix. The two winners of those finals receive funding for studio time and a music video, as well as access to experts and advice on how to craft a lengthy career.
From there, they’re on their own. “We give them a platform, an opportunity,” says Common. “It’s a stepping stone to get to another level.” If an artists wins, or, as Common says is preferable, comes second, that’s when the work really begins. “It’s dependent on the act to go out and carry on. It doesn’t happen by accident.”