October/November 2014

by Richard Thorne

Brendan Smyth: 25 years behind the desk

by Richard Thorne

Brendan Smyth: 25 years behind the desk

Brendan Smyth may typically wear a black T-shirt and jeans, but he is a civil servant and master of government bureaucracy, with responsibility for the small packet distribution of $4.7M of taxpayer’s funds into the local music economy annually. At the same time he is an avid music fan. In fact he reckons that for most of the last 25 years his role has been about half and half – bureaucrat/fan. Thirty-something when he became the new NZ On Air’s Radio Manager, he is now an impressively youthful 64-year old Kiwi music industry veteran who is widely held in extremely high regard, in both the local music community and internationally. In 2011 he was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to music. Pedantic about accuracy, he is by any measure a musicologist, has a degree in Philosophy and a deft sidestep, a couple of tattoos and a disturbingly good memory for names and faces. Brendan is by now NZ On Air’s longest standing employee, the last of the ‘Class of ’89’, and no doubt has answered numerous student questionnaires over the years – but in the spirit of marking ‘the firm’s’ quarter century, kindly agreed to face up to some more from NZM.

NZM: Many internationals are surprised by the NZ Government’s direct support of our popular music. Do Kiwi musicians in general realise how lucky they are to have access to such funding? 

NZ On Air is pretty much unique in the world. There’s something similar in Canada but most overseas music people are astonished by the progressive and generous support for music in NZ. Not just NZ On Air but the Music Commission, Outward Sound, Creative NZ. We are blessed. It is a rare and special thing and something that musicians shouldn’t take for granted.


What aspect of the NZ On Air’s music funding do you think is most invisible or least understood by the public.

Probably the most common misunderstanding is that NZ On Air is in the broadcasting business more than we are in the music business. Our mandate is broadcasting, which these days means online as well as on air. Our playground is the airwaves and online and our mission is airplay – more of New Zealand on air.


brendan young nzm157

Your position demands an enthusiasm for and understanding of new music – which you’ve been exhibiting for the last quarter century. There must have been periods, genres and certainly specific acts you really didn’t get or enjoy?

Not really. I have dabbled in most and I like some and some just doesn’t click. That’s okay – that doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just means it’s not for me. Right now I love alt-country and folk music. Like I am loving Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, Tami Neilson, Tiny Ruins, The Tattletale Saints, Aldous Harding, Lydia Cole. At the moment!


What does a busy week’s diary look like? Say the end of September for example? 

Okay, the week 24-30 September: Wednesday 24.  Fly to Auckland for planning meeting with the NZ On Air Auckland crew. To Sony to present Stan Walker with his NZ On Air Radio Airplay Award from the Waiata Maori Music Awards the other day. To the Long Room to farewell Petrina Togi-Sa’ena from APRA.

Thursday 25:  It’s Making Tracks’ panel meeting, which takes up pretty much the whole day.

Friday 26:  Fly Auckland to Christchurch. Team up with Recorded Music NZ, APRA, the Music Commission, Creative NZ and IMNZ to present the Navigating The NZ Music Business seminar for tertiary music students. The opening of CHART’s BeatBox music hub in the evening and then dinner with the RDU crew.

Saturday 27:  Back to Auckland for the RockQuest Finals.

Sunday fly home in the morning.

Monday 29: Lunch with Adam Holt from Universal. To the Michael Fowler Centre to see Sol3 Mio in dress rehearsal, with Trieste from Universal and Amy from Saiko.

Tuesday 30: Paperwork and prepping for the NZ On Air Board meeting on Wednesday October 1st.


NZ On AIr staff and even Making Tracks panelists have talked about the challenges of dealing with those left disappointed. You’ve faced the frustrations and anger more than anybody, including some quite personal confrontations. How do you cope with that sort of criticism?

I’ve been subject to a fair bit of abuse, particularly in the online world, and that is incredibly hurtful. After 25 years you’d think you would have a thick skin but attacks on NZ On Air, or us, or me, still hurt. ‘Brendan bashing’ is a bit of a sport with some cynics and the job is difficult enough as it is, without having to deal with that degree of negativity. On the other hand, I know that we have helped amazing artists achieve amazing things and that puts it into perspective.


Have you joined in the new vinyl revolution? What’s your music listening set up at home?

I’ve got a big vinyl collection and a functioning turntable. The CD player broke about two years ago and we have never bothered. If it’s not vinyl these days, it’s Spotify or iTunes and so the CD player stays broke. CDs in the car though where I do most of my listening and learning. I have got the original 12-inch ‘Nesh Bailter Space’ EP and the Lorde 10-inch limited edition ‘Love Club’ vinyl, both of which I treasure.


Which of the various NZ On Air schemes you’ve conceived are you most proud of?

The enduring Music Video scheme, I guess. The music video has been given a new lease of life with online and is now an essential tool in a musician’s toolkit. It’s great because it gives us a broadcast outcome and lots of broadcast mileage but it also acts as a musician’s business card and can open doors. The Album funding scheme in its day – it was big and bold and empowered artists and indie labels.

brendan w helen & akon nzm157

At Going Global this year Sarah Crowe talked about bands making NZ On Air-funded videos then failing to make any effort to promote or monetise them online. What should be done?

It is disappointing when you see a quality music video lost and unloved on YouTube. It’s no good for the band and it’s no good for us. It’s easy to get lost on the internet, as we all know. Easy to upload, hard to be found. We are working much more closely with bands on release plans these days and we are doing our bit to maximise exposure and aid discovery through online playlisting, sharing and social media and through education and sharing tips and tricks.


The inclusion of the firm’s logo on NZ On Air-funded videos has been a bone of contention at times. What’s the current policy/requirement and is it enforced?  

The current contract says the logo – the top-left watermark logo – should be on all broadcast copies of the video – both on air and online – and we follow up whenever we see a logo-less video. It’s an accountability thing.


In a Metro interview last year Lorde said; “You know how much negative power that logo has for my generation?” Was that degree of youth negativity previously understood by NZ On Air? How have you reacted to that challenge?  

That was a surprise and a disappointment. The more disappointing because she is such an amazing artist who has made the most awesome landmark record, which I love and respect. I have talked to a lot of people about that comment but I don’t think I am any closer to understanding it yet, whether it represents a kind of neo-cultural cringe – which would be really sad. Whether it is widespread? It is certainly not, in our experience… we are still inundated with applications for funding from artists who clearly don’t feel like that and are not as lucky as Lorde to have the resources behind them that she has.


You’ve long used broadcasters to guide decision making for pre-funding radio singles and videos. There must have been numerous times when songs your team wanted to fund have been turned down by those panels. Have there been cases when you used the ‘executive override’ button?

I take the integrity of the process incredibly seriously.


In terms of funding applications declined, what have been the biggest dropped catches? 

I wish we had funded Darcy Clay Jesus I Was Evil. At the time, we could get no broadcast interest in the song. Ironically because it went on to be a big hit. Ditto with The Datsuns’ Harmonic Generator. We had funded a video for Super Gyration and Tom Dalton (the band’s manager) later told me it was that video that got them the gig at SXSW, which got them exposed to the British media and opened doors. But The Datsuns were miffed a subsequent application for Harmonic Generator was declined. One of the great dropped catches I think. The system let us down. We had the vibe about The Datsuns but the broadcasters hadn’t picked up on it and we couldn’t get enough interest.


The 2009 review of Phase Five resulted in the USA and UK promotion spends being dropped, with only Australia kept. Did that mean a failure of the scheme to deliver?

Not a failure at all. I am still convinced that export is the key to the future of the NZ music business and that getting airplay action is a means to that end. That’s what Phase Five was all about. But in the end, our priorities shifted and besides, it was mainly the Music Commission’s job and so we left them to it.


What changes were made to the Making Tracks scheme following its first year review? 

Mostly admin and streamlining changes. The main change was the definition of a ‘finished’ recording. We now define ‘finished’ as ‘released’. Making Tracks has been a great success for us. We used to be all about music for commercial radio. Now it’s about diversity – both in terms of the music we fund and the platforms for play. It has been hugely liberating for us from a music point of view. It has opened things up. Before the changes, we funded 50 recording projects a year – singles and albums – but now we fund 140 or so projects a year – all singles.

We were funding 170 music videos a year, now it’s 250 or so. 200 different artists in the last year, 80+ new artists, meaning first-timers. We count commercial radio and also alternative radio. That’s still very important to us because we are still the ‘Broadcasting Commission’, and at the moment radio is still where most people – across the population as a whole – discover new music and get their daily music fix, But online streaming is equally important these days and we are up to 53 million streams after three years across all platforms – on air and online.


Has the Making Tracks requirement of $2000 pre-payment ahead of full funding in return been well accepted or does it cause argument still?  

Most people understand the reasons for it and the principle of co-investment and support the concept even though it is a pain, I guess, to have to find $2000 to access their NZ On Air funding. Those who were funded in the old days… before the contribution requirement came in… have had to adjust, but in our experience new Making Tracks artists accept that it is part of the deal. It’s important to understand too that NZ On Air will turn around an invoice within 7 days if the paperwork is in order and so if the artist plays their cards right, they are not out of pocket for very long.


Will the increasing use of streaming services affect the way artists are viewed for funding via Making Tracks? Do you actively measure YouTube and Spotify etc. plays?  

For us, streaming is broadcast. We talk about connecting songs with audiences via the broadcast media and that means radio, television and online. Spotify is the ‘new radio’; YouTube is the ‘new television’. Sometimes we fund because we think we will get a great radio result but sometimes because we expect a great online result. That’s the beauty of the new paradigm. The ideal is multiple impressions on multiple platforms.

Every year, we do an ‘outcomes’ report where we try to quantify the number of spins or streams a funded song has had on radio, on television and online. We count as much online streaming as we can but it is pretty much impossible to chase every last rabbit down the online hole, so we count what we can. These days that means YouTube and Vimeo streams and Spotify and Soundcloud streams. We don’t have the tools or manpower or the budget to go much further than that at the moment, but it will get easier and cheaper and when it does, our count will get more sophisticated.


On the face of it, providing funding should be a happy happy process. Have you found it hard giving money away at times?

Totally. I sometimes joke that there is no winning in choosing. When you are dealing with infinite demand and a finite resource you are always going to piss people off along the way. It’s hard because you can never satisfy everybody.


Being made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit back on New Year’s Day 2011 – how good was that?

It was wonderful. It came at the end of a tough year. Very humbling.

brendan & whirimako nzm157

NZ On Air has increasing become a sponsor of music events, recently adding The Critics Choice Award. Is that filling a funding void or more an awareness strategy?  

We have been a sponsor of the NZ Music Awards, the Pacific Music Awards, the Waiata Maori Music Awards and the Taite Music Prize for many years. The Critics’ Choice Award is a new one, although we have been involved from the start by providing the prize. It is part to do with recognising the value of broadcasting in the music ecology and part to do with supporting industry partners, and part to do with celebrating success.


The Phase Four album funding scheme probably drew the most aggressive criticism over the years. Was the concept flawed or was it simply that the environment changed?

It was never ‘flawed’. It was progressive and perfectly-formed, in my view. I think the criticism was not to do with the concept but with the eligibility criteria which were based on airplay track-record which sometimes, in some people’s view, did not equate with artistic merit. Anyway, I continue to maintain that it was conceptually sound but… times changed.


Phase Four album funding scheme required a return of $1 per CD album sold locally and 80c per digital album etc. up to the amount of NZ On Air funding received. Which album/act returned the most money?  

It was $1 per album sold advanced in the first place. The maximum you could get was $50,000 and so the most any one album returned was $50,000.  When we marked 1,000,000 Phase Four funded albums sold in 2007, the album that had sold the most – and had paid back all of its $50,000 – was Bic Runga’s ‘Beautiful Collision’, which at that stage was up to 160,00 units. It was always part of the deal and we had good compliance, we pulled in about $180,000 a year at the height of the scheme. We are still getting a bit of money in but it’s phasing out now.


In recent years that much proclaimed 20% local content radio play level hasn’t been met. Is it any mystery as to why and when the figures drop? 

There are myriad reasons – sometimes to do with fashion, sometimes to do with music cycles, sometimes to do with format changes. Alternative is really strong at the moment – 40%+. I fundamentally believe that there is the music out there to sustain 20%+ on commercial, but it does take commitment and faith from the broadcasters.


Lorde’s breakthrough global success would surely have made those two decades of work seem rewarded (your own ‘bedroom to Billboard’ conceit made real), but famously she had received no funding from NZ On Air. How did that feel personally and professionally?

Lorde never applied for funding. That’s okay – NZ On Air funding is not compulsory and it’s awesome when a record company backs itself with a new artist without tapping NZ On Air for funding. That’s happening more and more – not just Lorde but Broods, the latest Brooke Fraser and Naked + Famous, most of Stan Walker, Kimbra. That’s a sign of confidence and belief. And it frees us up to support awesome acts who don’t have those resources behind them.

For every Lorde that we don’t need to fund, it means that there is a Yumi Zouma that we can fund. It’s a positive. And taking a wider view, Lorde is surrounded by artists who we have supported through their careers – Joel Little, of course, Joel Kefali, Jimmy Mac, Ben Barter – and the artists that Lorde handpicks for the local supports – Watercolours, Doprah, Yumi Zouma – are NZ On Air artists, so that helps get perspective.


Without wishing to be flat out rude, you will presumably retire from your role of a quarter century sometime soonish. When will that happen? Has a successor been anointed?

I don’t know yet. And no.


NZ music industry legend Dr Rock, Barry Jenkin, said that he gave up on music when radio gave up on him – he went without for years, burnt out from having listened to so much music for so long. Is it possible you might have the same reaction?

No. I will become a full-time music fan and I will enjoy time out from the business side of music and the politics of music.