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Erny Belle
Erny Belle

Pop CultureNovember 27, 2023

The sound is off for New Zealand music 

Erny Belle
Erny Belle

Despite a surge in popularity for big live shows, the vibe is bad for many artists – and in the business more broadly. Duncan Greive listens in.

A shorter version of this story ran in The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up here.

In mid-2021, Troy Kingi should have been feeling omnipotent. He was a year on from winning the Taite prize, New Zealand’s most prestigious award for a musician, and had just released a punchy, genre-bending single in te reo. And yet when I spoke to him he seemed glum. He’d come off a long run on Three’s cheap-and-cheerful game show The Masked Singer, and wondered if he’d betrayed his mission as a result. “I’ve had a creative block,” he told me. “Maybe I’m feeling shame or something?” 

It was a microcosm of the life of a modern musician: as the gravity of tech platforms becomes ever more powerful, they’ve unleashed a volley of interlocking challenges for many New Zealand musicians. The streaming era has diminished artist revenues, while also massively increasing the volume of music being released. The associated decline of music journalism has increasingly forced musicians to promote themselves, effectively becoming glorified content creators in the process. And the concentration of attention on a tiny handful of platforms has made music often just a backdrop, where once it was the main show. Sometimes that means you have to put on a funny outfit in primetime just to get noticed, regardless of what it does to your soul.

Erny Belle

I was reminded of Kingi when I spoke to Aimee Renata recently. It was days before the release of Not Your Cupid, her second album under the name Erny Belle. It’s a record that fulfils the promise of her debut and elevates it to someplace haunting and new. Yet her mood was not positive. “I’ve just been feeling really overwhelmed by the whole music industry in general,” she said. “Wondering where it’s going and feeling really uncertain. Just feeling strange about being an artist in New Zealand right now.”

Renata finds herself operating in a different world to the one she grew up in. “When I first set out to be a musician, it was just before the era of everyone doing everything through Instagram and Facebook,” she told me. “So I didn’t expect that a big part of my work would be staring at an iPhone screen, and creating posts for Instagram, which is just actually pretty soul destroying.”

I meet her in the basement of Flying Nun Records, a music shop that also houses the venerable label, on Karangahape Rd, long the epicentre of alternative music in Tāmaki. It’s across the road from Whammy Bar, and surrounded by musical ghosts. Apartments stand where the Kings Arms once hosted bands like the White Stripes and Sleater-Kinney. Not so long ago the Mint Chicks played different dive-y venues up and down the street; MTV had a big office nearby while Crawlspace records sold the weird stuff just down the road.

Kings Arms listings in gig guide The Fix, 2003

Renata is one of an increasingly large cohort of artists who seem like the embodiment of what we have loved and valued in this country, yet cannot figure out how they fit into this strange, tech-dominated new era. Having made her album, she’s now tasked with explaining it to the world – a job which was formerly done by a large and vibrant music media which has now largely vanished. 

That means she has to promote her music on the same platforms where everything happens now: TikTok, YouTube, Instagram. And she’s doing it during a time when those platforms are transfixed in horror at atrocities on the other side of the world. That’s the backdrop to a line that dissolved me into a puddle on the floor. 

“It’s just full on, you know? Sharing that space with everything in the world,” Renata said. “I’ll go on to do a post about selling T-shirts. And then I see a kid with blown off arms on there. And I start crying.” 

That’s the conflict at the heart of music as a cultural force in this era. The new system really doesn’t work for many artists, who want to make music, rather than be wholly responsible for selling it too. Yet they feel they have no option but to participate.

She’s hardly alone in this. Now though, it feels much harder. Over the past few months I’ve spoken informally to musicians, publicists, people at major labels and working at industry bodies. The unifying sentiment in these disparate parts of the recorded music universe: everyone thinks we could do things differently, and almost nobody thinks it’s going great.

Troy Kingi

Despite an explosion in live music, there’s a near-existential dread among many who work in and around the recorded music sector. That conversation with Renata exemplified it: the sense that to be an artist today means strategising for the largest tech companies in the world, regardless of whether your interests align. She describes Spotify as “evil”, and expresses wistful admiration for Neil Young’s abandonment of the platform. Social media to her is just another form of unpaid labour. “It feels really strange to be an artist and to do the Instagram shit. I can do it, and I’m good at it. But it’s just work.”

What it boils down to is that as music gets more and more associated with four platforms – Spotify, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram – musicians unavoidably start to resemble content creators, swimming in the same soup as Mr Beast and Uce Gang, even when aspiring to making something more enduring than ephemeral. “Switching it all onto social media, you’re practically just like an influencer,” Renata said. “It doesn’t feel right.”

Why is tech hitting music the hardest?

Music is financially and creatively wired very differently to other pop culture like film and TV. Because a typical song is a few minutes long, it’s natural for it to be consumed alongside other songs, in forums like radio (then) and playlists (now). This is in contrast to books, TV and film, which are typically enjoyed on their own. That meant music rights have always been bundled and compensation negotiated in huge collective deals, rather than piece by piece, reducing artists’ bargaining power. There have been brief exceptions to this, but even stars at the scale of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé eventually caved.

Dick Move

Historically, radio and music television were largely understood as promotional tools which created little income. The big prize was sales of physical media (vinyl, tapes and CDs) along with tickets to live shows. This paradigm – of minimal compensation for much music consumption – has persisted for most artists, even as sales of physical media have mostly gone away. Additionally, because songs are smaller digital files than movies or TV shows, they were the first media to be mass-pirated. 

This made the music business the earliest to adapt (or die) to the reality of the internet. Hence first iTunes, then streaming, then the kind of ubiquitous adoption and availability which underpins music on social platforms like TikTok and YouTube. As a result of some hard legal work, the recorded music industry’s revenues are at an all-time high of US$41bn by one measure

The accessibility of music creation tools and distribution platforms like Spotify (let alone the rise of generative AI music) has turned what was once the hard and holy graft of writing and recording into something else: music as a form of user-generated content anyone can create. Not a great song, but a plausible one. That is impacting musicians like Renata. “Maybe people perceive it differently now?” she says. “They don’t think it’s that great of an achievement to make a record? Like it’s just another bit of content.”

Then there’s Spotify. To a tech platform, what’s the difference between a song and an Instagram story? Both are just data you can sell ads or subscriptions alongside. These two trends mean a phenomenal volume of songs are released: 120,000 songs a day and rising. 

This has pushed more people to give up navigating the overwhelming deluge of new music and just listen to familiar songs. Catalogue (defined as music older than 18 months) has rocketed from 60% of streaming listenership to 72% in just five years. This despite the industry always being geared around, and energised by, the discovery of what’s new. All this means life has almost never been better for the labels and publishers that own music rights, and never been harder for most working musicians wanting to create new work.

This has led to what you could call infrastructural decay. As Chris Schulz has detailed in a brilliant series for Boiler Room, many of the outlets which introduced us to new New Zealand music are gone or in trouble. The six journalists who made the NZ Herald’s Time Out each week are gone. 95 bFM has sold much of its record collection and is fighting for its life. Music reviews have all but vanished from mainstream publications. 

That leads to this strange scenario where an album comes out with all these expectations, but no one’s there to evaluate it. That’s Schulz’s thesis: that the decline of music media has made new music impenetrable to those who relied on that media. People might have hate-read Simon Sweetman, but at least he was there. These trends are all connected – the rise of catalogue listening and the decline in media revenues both chip away at the salaries available to music critics – and all lead one way. 

Lucy Macrae agrees with Schulz. She’s well-placed to assess the state of the independent side of the industry from all angles: she owns Whammy Bar, Auckland’s most important indie venue; plays in punk band Dick Move; and has long worked on events and releases for local and overseas artists through her work at The Label. “There’s a pronounced emphasis and pressure on ‘creating content’ to stay competitive,” says Macrae of YouTube and TikTok. “Artists shouldn’t be expected to be content creators.” Tech is also “killing other parts of the vital music ecosystem, such as music journalism and radio”, she adds. “Artists are expected to be able to tell their own stories and promote their own music. Which in turn is diminishing the role of music media, who play a vital part in artist support and storytelling.”

What does this mean for Aotearoa?

It’s important to understand that music is entirely globalised now. Pop’s current power centres are San Juan, Seoul and Nashville. This is in part what has eroded the system which used to sustain and propagate what we self-consciously referred to as “New Zealand music” – as if it were a genre. Now things have radically changed, particularly for the young audiences who have always driven the cultural impetus of the music industry. “People younger than me don’t even think about New Zealand music,” one musician in their mid-twenties told me.

This has understandably provoked agonies in people whose job it is to get people to pay attention to our music. One working thesis within New Zealand’s music industry is that the best way to get New Zealanders to listen to local music is to have an international hit. That’s not entirely true, as Six60 and L.A.B. prove, but much new New Zealand music is starving for local attention in an era of borderless music platforms.

It’s important to acknowledge that for all the current challenges, the life of a non-star musician was never easy. I remember the guitarist from one semi-infamous local band getting into a fist fight with a magazine editor, because he was affronted that only one of them drew a salary from the music industry. 

Part of what is making it so hard is that what used to be the prize – music sales (as opposed to radio or social and streaming revenue) – isn’t there anymore. Not that everyone got it, but that enough did all could dream of it. As the phenomenal performance of live music, resurgence of vinyl and omnipresence of merch proves, people still love music and identify with it as much as any other form of pop culture. But the costs associated with live, vinyl and merch mean few gain a liveable income from them. As with much of music, there is a tiny group making extraordinary sums, while what was formerly music’s middle class are squeezed until bursting.

This is vexing everybody. A recent independent report commissioned by NZ on Air catalogued the challenges well, and the body has announced some changes as a result. It recognised that it was potentially funding too many projects, meaning quality suffered. It also allowed for artists to take a share of grants given to record or promote music. Yet it is constrained by legislation written in 1989, which still imagines a world of radio and TV.

Still, a veteran music industry figure puts some of the blame at our pop culture funder’s door. “NZ on Air sets the bar too low”, they told me. They believed the body was guilty of encouraging the same kind of “good enough” mentality which fills streaming services with OK-but-not-great music, and discouraging the narrow focus on excellence, which differentiates hobbyists from elite musicians. This isn’t just coming from execs – one artist asked a pointed question: “If the idea is to fund so it can be heard by an audience, are we checking that it’s being heard by an audience?” They believe that we’re still on some level optimising for a vanishing paradigm, one with magazine covers and CDs and labels and radio. 

The exec also said something else. “We need more than music. We need stars.” Stars are a nebulous concept, one which made sense in the monoculture and are harder to define now. They are being made – Olivia Rodrigo radiates star power – just less frequently. Or more accurately, we all have our own stars and almost no visibility over everyone else’s. Still, there are big new stars emerging in K-pop, country and reggaeton, and it would undeniably be good if we could make more of our own.

Is there a different path?

Not everyone feels so down about the current paradigm. I spoke to one artist who came up in the monoculture era but also has embraced the one which supplanted it. Eddie Johnston is from Wellington, and grew up “obsessed with New Zealand music”. He read magazines, went to shows, and started making languid pop songs which caught the ear of Ryan Hemsworth, a then-prominent producer and DJ, who invited him to collaborate. He was precocious, hitting the bFM charts in his mid-teens, and moving to LA before turning 20.

Eddie Johnston, aka Lontalius

He’s now living in Auckland, still just 26. Johnston releases music under two guises, Lontalius and Race Banyon. “It reflects the times that I’ll have a big streaming audience, but no one knows who I am,” he says. Johnston releases music at a higher velocity than most. He has one song with nearly 100m plays and many others clocking mid-six figures, enough to earn a living. “It’s all moving so quickly… I need a feedback loop of releasing things, seeing what works.” He is incredibly thoughtful about the current environment, but views the platforms as like water, not as something which can be resisted. 

He advocates for a blank page rethink of our approach. “New Zealand has an opportunity to be a different kind of industry,” he says. “Why not lean into bedroom recording, iPhone videos?” For him, he responds to the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be, and tries not to get caught in a funding application loop. “I’ve had mid-level success, and I’m going to keep going.”

Johnston is part of an impressive group of New Zealand artists who have figured out the modern environment and achieved substantial and seemingly sustainable audiences through it. These artists have names like lilbubblegum, Sxmpra and Salvia Palth. You might not have heard of them, but they are thriving through the global distribution offered by Spotify. More familiar names like Six60, LAB and Leisure are all likely bigger than they ever could have been in prior eras. 

Still, they’re all exceptions, not rules. Their success contains vital lessons, but isn’t applicable to everyone. To snap New Zealand music out of its malaise, and deliver a dose of hope to artists like Kingi and Renata, will require some kind of step change. At least that’s what everyone seems to believe. The only trick is now to figure out what it is.

Keep going!