May/June 2021

by Richard Thorne

Delivering NZ On Air Music’s $7M Plan

by Richard Thorne

Delivering NZ On Air Music’s $7M Plan

On May 29 last year the Prime Minister (and Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage) announced details of an arts and music sector recovery package. Part of a bigger initiative to aid the creative sector in riding out the disastrous economic effects of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, it included an additional $7.1 million to ‘boost NZ On Air’s New Music programmes over the coming two-year period’, intended to help ensure Aotearoa’s popular music makers successfully ride out the global crisis. That amount equates to a doubling of what the funding agency had to spend in the year prior – and along with opportunities, inevitably brought with it expectations for ensuring results. The NZ On Air Music press releases have come at a steady clip over the last year, a reflection of the enhanced funding throughput in combination with several new initiative developments. With the first 12 months almost done Richard Thorne talked with David Ridler, NZ On Air’s Head of Music, to look at the organisation’s rapid Covid response.

In a sense it must have been like having a blank sheet to start from – how did you go about allocating an additional $3.55M per annum?

This sounds kind of geeky I know, but over the summer holiday before Covid hit I had actually free-flowed a $6M budget plan. (And being a child of the ’70s and ’80s that of course amused me!). Our annual budget at that point was $3.5M and I just banged out some thoughts on how a budget of $6M might be used. So when the challenge/invitation came from our ministry, asking how we might deal with extra government funding, I kind of already had some plans and ideas.

I’ve gone back to that document since and much of what we’ve done is not far from those thoughts. So while tweaked, they weren’t really created in any kind of panicked response to Covid.

The key focus for us was augmenting or increasing funding to things we already had launched. In terms of perhaps ‘having a blank sheet’ this was not the time to be starting from scratch, it was time to acknowledge what was working, and seeing where any gaps were.

In March/April none of us (NZMC, CNZ etc.) knew if there might be another live show in 2020, so all of us had to look at sustainability of artists without that option, and for me, it was obvious that they should be creating and writing, and hopefully given the resources to be able to do that.

One of the other things, that had been percolating for me over the last couple years, was seeing what was going in with Songhubs, and seeing what was going on with the Producer Series, and being utterly invigorated by witnessing those processes and listening to the results. So the New Music Development scheme was already there as a concept. Boiled down, the core of great songs is the songwriting and production, so to me it makes sense.

Within a fortnight of the PM’s announcement NZ On Air announced that New Music Single and New Music Project fundings were each doubling to $2M/year. Was there already that much demand evident?

Yes, in Single absolutely there was that much demand. Averaged across the year we might have about 170 applications per round, and pre-the Arts Recovery we had enough budget for about 22 grants each time. Now we have capacity for around 40.

I think the main difference that has made is in terms of the broadness of genre diversity, reaching into niches and styles of music that might not have got through before. I think it’s been really exciting.

But I also have the attitude to our funding that you can’t expect every single song we fund to be a roaring success – because the public doesn’t have that bandwidth. That’s not how music works. The industry understanding is you really can’t tell if a piece of music is going to be huge or not. Some good music will explode, like a Benee or Drax Project, and some will just be appreciated by 5-, 10- or 15,000 people and put on their playlists. And that’s great too…

I feel that this year the New Music Project funding has met a really good demand/supply equilibrium. The Project kaupapa differs in that it requires a third party company involvement, to handle a lot of the planning and organising. That means the creatives can then just focus on making the best music they can possibly make.

Do you have any misgivings that those increased volumes have meant a ‘lowering of the bar’ and led to songs/artists being funded to develop music that really have little chance of wider media attention?

I don’t think so. We [NZOA] used to be seen as very mainstream radio-focused, whereas our focus over the last years has been broadening and broadening, and our support for student radio continues because we are not just concerned with big hits, but with supporting a broad range of contemporary popular music across a wide range of genres. The extra funding has allowed that.

We had already started an exercise of redesigning the criteria for New Music Single, expanding the options to make it a bit more fit for purpose in 2020. The key questions really are about what signs of audience engagement there are already, are you building momentum, because we’re not here to start you from a standing start out of your bedroom. That’s an impossible task – and we’d get 20,000 applications a month!

I had thought the Single funding application numbers were coming down, but the latest round just closed was back up to record numbers – over 180 applications. But the music is just so good too! The comments I get from regular panellists is that the calibre of applications and quality is just getting better and better, which making their decisions harder.

With NewTracks submissions we’re finding the same thing. The number we’re choosing for inclusion has gone up from 30 per month two years ago to 45 now.

The extra New Music Project funding has meant we could increase the max up from $30,000 to $40,000 per grant. Plus the minimum co-investment required was halved to 20% – and obviously we can fund more per round. If you unpick everything that we are doing at the moment it’s about trying to give the artists as much capability or resources as we possible can, to create. Project was purposely named as that and was never set up as album-outcome funding. We’ve always been open to it being that, an EP, or a series of singles released in a campaign. The fundamental change made by establishing Project Funding is that we removed a lot of the bigger, more established artists from that pool, we removed them from the Single funding rounds.

I had already looked at the costs of executing big multi-single projects and thought there needed to be more investment in that – in terms just of the diminishing revenue from recorded music, which becomes especially stark when the artists can’t leave these shores and promote their music overseas. $40k sounds like a lot of money, but when you break that into the individual production components, it’s not. That money isn’t going to the artist, it’s going to the recording engineer, producer, photographer, video directors and so on. And if that’s for a project that is an artist’s content for 12-18 months, then it’s really not that much.

And what new initiatives has it allowed NZOA to implement?

There were nine different things we did… It allowed us to double the funding for Music Pasifika focus rounds and to double the New Music Kids funding – both of which were existing, but developed only for a few years earlier.

It enabled us to launch New Music Development, which is brand new, and it allowed us to launch Waiata Takitahi, with Te Māngai Pāho. (So by this stage we are up to six funding types, when in 2016 we had only one with MakingTracks.) For now that’s enough in terms of funding types!

It also allowed us to introduce the Artist Creation fee and introduce the Professional Services Allowance concept, plus we invested some more funding into digital music features and series.

One of our priority audiences is children and we’re just about to launch the very first NewTracks Kids compilation. I credit a couple of lovely meetings with Arthur Baysting, in my early days in the job, to understanding that encouraging kids music is really important. And now that I’m a parent of a young child I’m even more convinced of how important it is, because the influence of song on young minds, vocabs and accents, is actually pretty strong. We launched a New Music Kids funding scheme in 2017 and it now makes sense to provide a NewTracks service for all those radio stations that want to provide content for kids.

The Waiata Takitahi collab with Te Māngai Pāho has been in the wings for a while, and kudos to Nadia Marsh from TMP for helping get that happening. We were looking for a way to create an opportunity for a genuine bilingual hit song. With Patea Maori Club just celebrated with the Taite Prize you are left asking why that kind of dominance hasn’t ever happened again since? Waiata Takitahi is a co-funding, and we set a mimimum of 25% te reo content, which differentiates it from any funding that TMP do as their normal core business.

With regard to New Music Pasifika we’ve been working with Petrina Togi and the Pacific Music Awards Trust, and also the National Pacific Radio TrustNiuFM and Radio 531PI – to outreach into their audiences.

I do feel that New Music Development has been a collaboration too, because we’ve supported APRA with Songhubs since it began in 2016. We’ve also supported Greg Haver and RMNZ with the Producer Series since 2017, and to me Development is a logical progression from those programmes. The amount of discussion and sharing within the industry over this Covid response period has made it easier to determine if our future ideas fit in well with that more general direction that others are trying to assist with.

The other more macro action that has been important in terms of what we’ve been changing recently is establishing the Soundcheck Aotearoa organisation, and our part to play in that – in that we enable a lot of creative collaborations and with that comes potential risk. We now include a ‘safe spaces’ agreement that runs across all our funding.

What are the Artist Creation Fee and the Professional Services Allowance about? Why were they considered necessary?

Artist Creation Fees are a response to some 2019 research we did with Creative NZ, Profile of a Creative Professional, looking at work levels and remuneration for arts practitioners across the board. Musicians proved to be the second-worst remunerated on that scale – dancers being the worst! That was a stark reality.

New Music Single funding is now a $10,000 grant towards the costs of recording, video content and promotion for their single release, including a new 10% Artist Creation Fee. It’s certainly not an amount that will stave off poverty, but it is an acknowledgement of the amount of work and effort that an artist puts into releasing that piece of work.

The name is a little vague, but we never wanted it to be defined – it’s a part of the grant to be used for whatever the artist feels they want to be acknowledged or compensated for, whether it’s administration-based or around their creativity. Again that was already in the mix.

Having been with NZOA for a long while now I still think one of the most valuable things a funding agency like us can offer artists is one-on-one time with somebody who can talk to them about their specific situation, and really help them. There’s no one size fits all. It might be help with accounting, or legal or maybe promotional advice, we can’t all be experts in everything. So that’s why we have also introduced the Professional Services Allowance, which is $500 on top of any Single-based grant – and we pay those service providers directly.

A lot of that came from my $6M plan – which got turned into a $7M plan!

So will half of that $7.1M have been spent by the end of May this year?

Yes! It is a little bit front-weighted, but I’m carefully tracking my Year 1 budget and we’re on target to have spent the additional $3.55M – so the most we’ve spent in a single year since some time in the 2000s, when Phase Five was established.

Doubling the existing funding and adding as many again new grant platforms must have meant a similar increase in office workload, right? How have you adjusted Music staffing to cope, or are you all just working 24/7 now?

I think so… [he answers mockingly]. The whole year has been working to short deadlines, quick turnarounds, and the pressure put on the team over the last nine months has been extraordinary. We are all pretty wrecked, pretty tired. It’s a great team and immensely proud of my staff.

I’m also proud of the industry for how collegial and collaborative and genuinely empathetic the response has been. And very grateful for a government that saw a priority in assisting the arts across the board.

To help cope with all the new funding opportunities we have recruited two new people into corporate services, based in Wellington. So dealing with contracting, service allowances and music payments etc.

Hayley Dingwall who was with us here in Auckland got a great opportunity at Creative NZ, so when she left Ash Wallace, who has been with us for nearly two years, moved into the music funding adviser role in the Auckland office. And with her artist hat on [Wallace is in Foley, Ash has a real-world understanding that’s been especially instrumental in the success of the New Music Development fund to date.

Jeff Newton [Music Promoter] is crucial in his role liaising with the platforms and feeding back to us what’s actually resonating, and spotting early on when there’s excitement about an artist. Casey [Yeoh] is a wonderful intern from the Music Commission, and she has also brought new angles to things. It’s actually a wonderfully balanced team, plus they have been worked to the bone…

The main goal of the NewTracks programme is propelling radio play for new songs. With an increase of about 25% of songs supported are you getting 25% more radio plays?

[Ridler laughs.] Actually to be honest the trajectory of alternative radio plays would allow you to argue yes. You’ve got student radio now playing 50 to 60% NZ music on their playlists, and they have got so much content to choose from. And commercial radio broke the record in 2020 by playing 20.95% NZ music across all the stations included in that data. [The previous record high of 20.77% was way back in 2005, with 2016/17 a low ebb.] So there’s a pleasing balance and momentum across a wide range.

Every single station across the board that contributes to that code had their best year for some time in terms of playing NZ music. ZM in particular have set a really interesting example in playing a lot of Kiwi music and having a good ratings trajectory. It is hard to break a new artist to a mainstream audience – I know, I’ve been in that seat. Increasingly those stations targeting pop listeners are reflecting the NZ that is now, and it’s exciting for the potential of NZ music within that framework.

There’s a great cohort of young programmers in radio at the moment who don’t have any legacy of cultural cringe. Also artists recognising in the streaming ecology that they are on a global platform, not a NZ platform, has made a difference.

Aspirational pathways through exemplars like Lorde and Joel Little have made a difference. And just the volume of people making pop music again. The cold hard fact is that what drives those radio numbers is pop music – that expands out to RnB and hip hop (which is modern pop) – and what happens is that those songs move from the likes of ZM on to the AC stations, and then onto the ‘hits’ kind of stations. That pop lane is giving the biggest heft in those figures.

Figures show a rise in streaming numbers for NZ music as well, and we also track the streaming and radio plays and views of music that we fund, for quarterly reports. There has been a heartening sense of momentum across all those indicators.

How do you measure that ‘momentum’. Is it in successes or volume of applications?

A whole suite of things I think. Even though radio is not our only focus anymore, one of the key local platform indicators you can still look at to get a sense of what’s happening is that local content figure on radio, both commercial and alternative/SRN stations.

The momentum since 2017 is undeniable when you look at the numbers over the last four years. So that gives a sense that there is genuine public interest on NZ music, and having been in that game myself I know how much research goes into that airplay decision-making.

Volume is an indicator, absolutely. And I think the amount of activity. I’ve been heartened by how many studios have been opening up again, I was around in the late 200s when they were all closing. I’ve been stunned by the interest and volume of applications for our New Music Development grants for example.

Student radio stations must have been particularly hit by the Covid fall out. Has NZOA found it necessary to up their funding?

Yes. We’ve cashflowed them through the last year – in terms of ensuring they would not have to close, or make similar tough calls. We came up with a revised funding mechanism that has allowed them to continue serving their communities. That comes from a different fund.

We’ve brought student radio onto our platform funding scheme, alongside Access Radio. We are, I think, paying more attention to the fact that there’s a broader cultural enrichment they provide for younger audiences and student audiences. They are a community music resource, but also culture and identity resources in that they do a huge amount of interviewing and reporting as well.

Another angle we need to acknowledge is the need to protect our local platforms. Two years ago Pandora just switched off almost overnight, and if we undermine all our local platforms to just chase the global digital dog we lose a bit of self-determination – and that’s something I’m quite passionate about. NZ On Air exists to ensure New Zealanders can access and enjoy a wide range of local content.

Has the landscape for NZ music artists, and the agencies, been changed irrevocably?

I don’t think it will return to as-before. You’ve got to look at the global context of how music is distributed and consumed, and changing audience behaviour.

Covid has been such an era-defining event that it will have an impact on all those things, and the rest of the world is still in a reality where they don’t go to live shows, so their release campaigns, promotional tours and so on has all changed. And what happens in a vacuum is adaptation and innovation right? So I don’t know if things will go back to being the same – but I certainly hope that the extra investment can continue, I think if we can show that it’s building momentum at pace that’s really exciting.

Why haven’t you increased staff in the Auckland office? (Aside from Covid and the fact there’s an underground train station being built just out the front door!)

That is a valid question, and in hindsight, it would have been good to have had another person here in Auckland – but I think our agency headspace overall has been about getting as much money out the door as possible. And this year [ahead] we are not creating anything new. Having said that, at the end of March I said to the team that we had reached the end of the sprint, but three weeks later it feels like we’re still running!

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a pretty precious role in terms of being a specially privileged role. I would not complain about working hard in this role. My wife and child on the other hand…!

Last year we went through a whole lot of changes, and my experience in this role is that when you implement changes you have to leave them for a while and stop messing around. It takes people a little time to catch up, years even. Anyone that has instituted a whole lot of change in an organisation will know that it takes a few cycles to return to optimum efficiency. We’re not at that point yet, but I don’t think we’re far away.

The rest of this year will be about fine-tuning and monitoring the rounds, and working on things like our promotion – and for me personally, pitching to keep the increased funding for the industry.

Can you identify any positives for the local music sector that Covid has brought?

I think a lot. I have no doubt a lot of artists are struggling as a result, but that’s a product of the structure of the global music industry, it’s not a safe bet. In the streaming ecology, it is really hard on artists. Being a music artist in the 21st century is hard and none of us can solve that. But in terms of NZ artists, the funding opportunities that have come about and the recognition of Government around support being important, I think it’s been pretty positive. 

What do you consider the single most important response, change or innovation that NZOA Music has made subsequent to the music sector recovery package?

That’s is a tricky question because I don’t know if there is one single thing, but… we’ve just announced the third round of New Music Development Grants. Alongside some of the work that’s been going on around looking at what key drivers to future success are, I think that focus on creating new works could be the most interesting area. And it’s something we’ve never done before. There have been a lot of changes in that area in the industry at large, but the ability to do that, at this time, has been exciting.