This weeks’ blog is brought to you courtesy of Bruce Russell, sound artist and musician, and Manager of Art and Design at Ara. Russell offers his view on New Zealand Music Month.
I may well be the worst person imaginable to ask to write about NZ Music Month. As someone who has devoted a large chunk of his life to promoting NZ music, I have always found the idea of having a month each year where we pay lip service to music from our own country more than a bit redundant and possibly a little patronising. I’ve always associated it with my distaste for film festivals. Why can’t we have good movies in cinemas all year round? Which month is a bad month for listening to NZ music? A decade ago such a view was seen as more than a little curmudgeonly (trust me, I know – because people have told me), though now I think the whole music month concept is more generally seen as past its use-by date. Perhaps that’s why this year NZ Music Month has an exciting theme – newness! As Music Commission Chief Executive Cath Andersen has apparently put it (according to the Commission’s own online press release): “This year the focus of NZ Music Month is music discovery – most people now have a favourite local artist, so we think May is the perfect time to try and find your new favourite New Zealand band.”
Leaving aside the bigger question – is 2017 really the year in which novelty is much on show in popular music anywhere on the globe – is 2017 really the year we should all espouse not one but two New Zealand Musical Artists? Mother of God – be still my beating heart! Excuse me if I find this aspiration less than inspiring. What other country so undervalues its own culture that a paid public servant should feel it is part of their mission to whip up the population’s enthusiasm to leap such a pathetically low bar: like arthritic sheep in a conspicuously retarded rodeo? Leaving that rhetorical question to hang – like strange fruit among the poplar trees – and putting to one side my impatience with the whole ‘Month Concept’, how (you are probably wondering) do I actually rate our music?
Being of a certain age (born in the year NZ got TV, sixteen in the year the world got the Sex Pistols, and 21 in the year Flying Nun records was “launched”) – I am firmly of the opinion that in the last three decades our popular music has been as good or better than any in the world. During the later 80s, and through to the Datsun’s global explosion of 2002, our rock music was the most critically influential per capita of any nation. The influence of NZ ‘post-punk’ was deeply felt in America and Europe from 1985 (the release of the first Flying Nun export compilation Tuatara) onwards. Yes, Split Enz may have been the gateway drug, but their influence was limited by their singularity. By the 1990s our music was being seen by many as a template in Australia, and its influence, though explicitly denied through effusions of post-colonial angst, was evident even in that most culturally resistant of markets: the UK.
Some of my assertions may be outlandish to those acquainted only with the official narrative, but the influence of our music and our musicians was globally established well before the creation of the NZ Music Commission in 2000, or the first NZ Music Month in 2001. Our artists were playing SXSW in Austin by the mid-90s, well before most people in our music industry even knew what it was. What was not well established was the NZ music industry, so the successes of the earlier period could only be attributed to the artists themselves, and a few under-capitalised and quite unprofessional labels. As such, they were not much heralded in NZ itself, by our ‘follow-the-leader’ media, which had consistently failed to see the real story unrolling from 1981 onwards. In a game where everything important is by definition the business of capital, it was in no one’s interest to trumpet achievements that were not, in any meaningful way, those of capital. But now this state of affairs has been comprehensively remedied by the public sanitisation of New Zealand music into ‘kiwi music’, made safe for the media (primarily radio), and safely stage-managed by our public servants at the Commission, the ones who think that 2017 is a good time for us all to have two favourite NZ artists.
So three cheers for newness, for state-authorised culture; but most of all for NZ Music Month, and all who sail with her. Better far too late than never.