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June/July 2016

by Richard Thorne

NZ On Air Changes Music Funding Structure

by Richard Thorne

NZ On Air Changes Music Funding Structure

Review-led changes to NZ On Air’s Making Tracks single/video funding scheme were flagged well before David Ridler took over the agency’s Head of Music role earlier this year.

david ridler

David Ridler

One of the architects of the Making Tracks scheme back when he was last employed by NZ On Air five years ago, and closely involved in radio programming since, Ridler was uniquely well-placed to jump straight into the review consultation process from February. He met with more than 50 labels, managers, artists, producers, broadcasters and other industry people in his first few months on the job, getting a handle on the wider issues and what NZ On Air might do to improve their offerings.

On June 9 the results of this review were revealed with a media release spelling out that the single-purpose Making Tracks scheme is no more, replaced from July 1st by a pair of new funding schemes to be known as New Music Single and New Music Project.

In a nutshell, New Music Single (NMS) is a whittled down version of Making Tracks, with very similar application criteria and the same panel evaluation process. Making Tracks grants were either for Recording and Video (up to $10,000) or Video Only (a generous $6,000). With NMS up to $8,000 remains available per track, and recipients must still contribute $2,000 of their own funding in addition to the grant amount.

Key changes rung with NMS are that there is no longer the video option split, and that the $2,000 artist contribution can now be applied to promo, publicity and marketing. That’s the good news for acts in general. The bad is that the number of funding rounds is halved from 10 to just five, with approx. 25 grants likely per round – 125 singles-related grants compared to the 217 made during 2015.

NMP, or rather, New Music Project, looks more than a little like that old (and much criticised) NZ On Air Album Funding music scheme, wherein $50,000 was available to labels for recording and marketing an album.

Rather than album- or EP-based, it is for ‘multi-single projects’ recorded by acts that have the backing of a ‘professional music company’. That doesn’t mean just the big labels, but includes NZ-registered music management businesses. Applicants will have to cough up 40% of the actual costs of the project, but in return NZ On Air is offering grants of between $7,500 and $30,000, which can be spent on pretty much any aspect of the overall project.

The goal of NMP is to help a number of singles from each ‘project’ reach audiences via airplay and online. There will be four rounds of NMP funding each year with decisions not made by independent panels but instead assessed internally by NZ On Air staff.

It was a tight squeeze between the scheduled announcement and NZM’s publishing deadline, but David Ridler, NZ On Air’s new Head of Music, found time to respond to some questions with answers that might better explain some of the whys and wherefores for grant applicants.

So, the obvious one first, David – do these changes represent a reduction in NZOA’s new track spending budget overall?

The New Music funding schemes utilise the same $2 million budget we had for new music spending under Making Tracks, so no change there. For the 2016/17 funding year we are allocating $1 million for New Music Single funding, and $1 million into New Music Project funding.

There will be just over half of the singles funded under the New Music Single scheme when compared with Making Tracks, but if you add in the songs that will emerge from New Music Project funding we’re thinking the amount of supported songs will be quite similar – approximately 240 or so. Possibly more.

It seems Making Tracks barely had a chance to bed itself in and now it’s gone. Is that just symptomatic of the ever-faster evolution of the music marketplace or were there always gaps in the scheme?

Making Tracks began in July 2011 so it’s actually five years old now. I wouldn’t say it’s gone – more that it’s morphed and changed name.

The New Music Single funding scheme retains many aspects of Making Tracks, from the eligibility criteria through to the panel making funding decisions. It’s still fundamentally about funding support to record singles and make music videos. But we’re opening up a bit of flexibility to spend some money on promoting the song so more people can discover it.

It’s necessary to adapt to what is an ever-changing music landscape. Look at things like the exponential growth in streaming in the last few years. Spotify hadn’t even launched when Making Tracks started. The music ecology continues to change rapidly, so we’re aiming to provide effective and flexible funding options that reflect what is going on.

What were considered the main strengths of the Making Tracks scheme?

Making Tracks had a focus on broadening the types of artists and music that were receiving funding support. Pre-2011 there was a lot of criticism that NZ On Air was funding a small pool of mainstream artists most often. Making Tracks was very much designed to improve the diversity of artists receiving support and broadening the NZ On Air music funding portfolio. The scheme succeeded in that aim. The panel system also brought a wider range of voices and opinions into the decision-making process which was quite a radical change at that time.

Which of alternative or mainstream radio has Making Tracks enjoyed better results with?

Making Tracks overall had good success with alternative radio – namely the Student Radio stations and others like Base FM, The Most, Pulzar etc. A lot of Making Tracks-funded songs found their way to the alternative radio airwaves.

It was a bit tougher on mainstream radio for various reasons. One of the things we’ve identified with mainstream radio is one-off singles with no timely follow up doesn’t work so well. Mainstream radio like to break an artist and have at least one or two strong follow-up singles to back up and bed the artist in with the audience. Hence the New Music Project scheme looks to support that kind of roll out in a more robust way.

Overall, what have the panels’ evaluation of submitted songs revealed? Has it proven a challenge to balance the mainstream vs alternative radio appetites for instance?

The demo quality has generally been pretty good, in fact the quality of the music overall has been mostly good.

Fair to say that there are a lot of alternative-leaning artists that have applied over the years, and it was always quite a debate around the funding panel table about which songs would suit which broadcast outcomes and online platforms.

There have been a lot of new artists funded through Making Tracks, that was one of the objectives of the scheme and looking at any given list of funding results there are always a number of reasonably new artists receiving support. That will continue under the new schemes.

What were the main issues identified from the review process that you sought to address with these changes?

Connecting with an audience always starts with a great song, but promoting great music and getting it noticed is a very important part of the process of getting the song to actually cut through to the potential audience. Under Making Tracks we were supporting the production of the music and the video, but often the resources to help get the music noticed were lacking. As a result many projects languished on digital platforms such as YouTube with little support or profile.

It was expected that there would be more investment in the promotion of some of the funded work by the industry and/or artists. But the reality is the music industry was entering its second decade of declining revenues, so investment was even more scarce. So I think a lot of really good songs probably didn’t reach as wide an audience as they could have, just because there was no resource to promote the music and get it in front of people. If nobody can find it, or it’s not promoted, then that can lead to a disappointing result.

Making Tracks had a large amount of back-room administration with its monthly funding rounds. In addition we saw a number of singles that just got no traction at all. The music business can be like that – some songs just don’t stick.

There was also an issue around the difference between the way music consumers listen to music (cherry picking singles/playlist culture etc.) and how artists and music companies still produce music (in clusters/projects). So with the Project funding scheme we’re making some moves back into the more efficient production and presentation of music – in groups of songs.

So what are the overriding market considerations with these two new schemes?

One of the main adjustments is the idea that promotion of the song is likely to have a bearing on potential success. Allowing some of the applicant co-investment in either Single or Project funding to go to promotion is designed to combat that issue.

The other key change is flexibility for applicants on how much they spend on music videos. The nature of the music video has changed and that was a big consideration with the New Music funding schemes.

Was it right for us to be prescribing the market rate for music videos when there are some very successful ‘visual representations’ of songs online that clearly cost a lot less? With more and more content being consumed on mobile devices we had to ask whether spending the majority of NZ On Air Music content funding on video production was right.

NZ On Air has always set the market rate for music video production up until now, first with $5,000 videos and then $8,000 videos under Making Tracks. So this change is quite fundamental. It’s now a decision and a negotiation between the applicant and the music video maker, or the creator of the visuals for the song.

I think we need to look broader than traditional broadcast-quality music videos as a visual way to engage audience, and adjust the investment accordingly. Now that is up to each individual applicant to decide and negotiate with their video-maker.
What kind of issues has NMP been designed to overcome?

Project funding has been brought in to recognise how a large amount of music is still produced and released – in clusters across a planned campaign. Be that album, EP, or some other kind of release schedule. Artists and producers tend to work on several songs in one set time rather than individual single by single. So there’s a recognition of that.

The industry music cycle still tends to work around the traditional notion of releases. And artists still ideally want to work towards a body of work. Even though albums don’t sell much anymore, there are still a lot of albums released. They remain the central focus for publicity, promotion, tours etc.

The way radio breaks artists and work on a multi-song strategy is also an important consideration for us. Radio play is still a huge focus for NZ On Air and there are still a huge number of New Zealanders using music radio on a weekly basis.

Even the major labels are not keen to spend much on marketing NZ albums anymore. Does NMP seek to alter that?

The theory is that a return to co-investment, not just in the production of the content but also the promotion and marketing of that content, will help music companies free up some resource to put more into promoting the songs and artists. The key thing is to get noticed amongst all the noise out there in the global music marketplace. So we will be requiring a marketing plan with applications for Project funding.

NMP does smack rather of a reversion to good ol’ Album Funding and a situation where the big acts and labels will benefit most once again. What new safeguards are there to avoid that sort of challenge?

We are maintaining a balanced funding principle for Project funding, with 60% of the music for mainstream audiences and 40% for alternative or niche audiences. We will be monitoring that balance constantly.

For the Project funding we are partnering with experienced professional music companies who have proven they can successfully plan and manage multi-single release projects. That’s a careful use of public funding and has many precedents in the public sector.  Partnering with professional music companies doesn’t just mean major record labels, there are plenty of professional independent music labels in existence too, not to mention music management companies.

The impetus on recipients of Project funding will be successful outcomes. We want really good airplay and online results from these investments.

Applicants for NMP funding must co-invest 40%. How will that co-investment be monitored?

As we do with Making Tracks, all receipts and invoices will need to be supplied, so each project will be desk audited against the initial budget submitted.

We will also further randomly audit a number of Projects (and Single grants) each year and dig deeper into evidence of what was spent.

We are introducing a revised zero tolerance policy as well, which will see any company or artist involved in mis-reporting on their funding grant subject to a two-year total funding ban from NZ On Air. Details of the mis-reporting will be shared with other music funding agencies also.

Obviously I hope everyone will use public funding in the right way and respect that these are taxpayer funds, but for those who don’t the consequences are now quite career-limiting.

Will there be any tightening of eligibility criteria? For instance already successful overseas-based artists applying?

There will be some modifications and tweaks to all aspects of our funding process. Final details of the funding contracts for example are to be finalised in the coming weeks. But we are not means testing artists as a criteria for funding, the support offered is based around the song, or group of songs, and the potential for those to connect with NZ audiences.