NZOA has been an organisation plagued with lacklustre results and dominated by a single-minded approach for the entirety of its existence. Smyth’s exit offers the opportunity to reflect on the mistakes made and the path forward to a better and more rewarding cultural environment for New Zealanders.
A career civil servant, Smyth spent his years prior to NZOA guiding the QEII Arts Council’s music funding before morphing into his roll at NZOA. His tenure has been marked with his single-minded approach to commercialising culture, and he’s been the man behind most of our music funding policy for over 30 years.
NZOA, funded by the taxpayer through the Ministry of Culture & Heritage aimed to address the imbalance in local broadcasting where, for the previous nine years, a flourishing local music culture receiving international recognition for its originality and individuality was largely missing from local airwaves. Commercial radio insisted on not playing material that broke with its overseas-based commercial music formats. NZOA was supposed to address ‘getting more of our music on air’ with the bold requirement of the Broadcasting Act (1989) “to reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture”.
NZOA’s 1st CEO, Ruth Harley, true to her Rogernomics origin, decided to concentrate on shoehorning commercial objectives onto the culture for TV, Smyth went along with that vision for music, a direction immediately at odds with the requirements of the Broadcasting Act, especially in looking to ‘reflect’ the landscape of NZ Music. As the organisation’s one and only Music Manager to date has stayed singularly true to that mindset, even as the nation discarded the ever so dated 80s mistakes of Rogernomics.
For musicians this meant that if they fell outside the gambit of international sounding Commercial Radio then they could either modify what they were doing to make it fit, or they could stay out of the game, get no support, or funding. This conundrum for musicians was the equivalent of someone suggesting they bending the truth to fit a situation.
“NZOA’s philosophy in only funding music that will get commercial airplay is akin to an organisation set up to promote NZ cuisine, that will only support items that McDonalds will put on their menu” – Ian Henderson (Sounds Like Us Facebook Group)
Smyth and Harley were able to chart their own course for NZOA because NZOA was created as an Autonomous Crown Entity (ACE), ostensibly to keep subjective parliamentary opinion from influencing the direction of the organisation, but this also meant the organisation could and did operate largely at it’s own discretion, creating it’s own measures of success, and it’s own subjective view of what the broadcastable NZ music landscape should be. In Smyth’s case he chose a passive course toward whatever commercial broadcasting deemed playable.
There has never been an independent outside assessment of NZOA and its policies by a respected specialist authority such as consultancy/research firm MartinJenkins as used regularly by Creative NZ.
Over the course of his career Smyth largely failed to change Commercial Radio, but did manage to change New Zealand music by establishing funding guidelines that favoured artists who fitted with overseas trends, channelling money to those who were prepared to create music that fitted with NZ commercial radio formats.
In the mid 90s Max and Cry TV made NZOA look good riding an easy wave of support for local original content. Likewise the creation of the Channel Z stations, (3 connected stations with a local focus in three main centres) bolstered support and love for local music on a community level, and allowed NZOA a further easy ride for the later part of the 90s.
By now well versed in bureaucracy, Smyth was able to spin these parallel successes into NZOA’s own success story.
The demise of Max and Cry and a compromise of the three Z stations local independent focus resulting in a single networked channel from Auckland, (ironically involving future NZOA employee David Ridler), and then a token ‘Kiwi’ station scuttling the headway made and compounded the commercial focus factor once more. Despite the high quality passionate staff at KiwiFM the station limped rather than ran, soaking up resources and attention but delivering little toward the original stated goal.
Smyth, known for his likable persona utilised an affable low-pressure ‘lunching with the labels’ approach in dealing with commercial broadcasting and the music industry. This approach did not yield the promised results. With pleasant relationships in place stations continuing to make little to no concessions to give a platform to local content on its own terms. Many of Smyth’s lunch appointments and grant recipients testify to the good nature of the man but few if any can point to any real success from the policies of the organisation outside of the financial benefits to them personally. It was undeniably great for some individuals, but did little in addressing the original issue of the relationship between NZ citizens and their access to and following embrace of their culture.
While other countries with local content broadcasting issues such as Australia and Sweden saw massive upswings in support through initiatives such as Australia’s quota system, NZ airwaves still struggled to embrace its distinctiveness. In place of a solid quota system Smyth negotiated a voluntary quota, sacrificially scuttling plans for an ads free youth radio network in lieu. Since the 80s Australia has had a vibrant, successful, identifiably Australian music culture, where New Zealand has haphazardly stumbled with sporadic success, usually independent of any NZOA involvement, interrupting large portions of imitation and conformity to overseas trends, often backed by NZOA.
From 1997 onwards Smyth was consulting directly with the broadcasters for what they thought they might like to play in their existing formats, essentially abdicated control and influence to them. Smyth continued opting for viewing the mission as a commercial one, rather than a culture and heritage one, which would have looked at what NZ was producing and working to secure broadcast outcomes for that. This approach proved to be divisive and disastrous for an increasingly diverse music culture, forcing musicians to consider how to modify their output to match the overseas based formats in order to get funding.
Disregarding the fact that full albums of material were never played on radio Smyth created an album funding scheme, which rode high for many years channelling large portions of the limited resources to artists fitting the narrow definition of radio playable, making the handful of songs from those albums that did get radio play considerably more expensive as they carried the cost of the non played songs.
This continued through the 00s along side a continually swelling pool of discontent from the music community. For Smyth it culminated in controversies over large missteps including an all-expenses-paid-helicoptered-to-a-private-island-holiday (a ‘gift’ from a wealthy musician looking for NZOA approval and support), and an extravagant and expensive ($50,000+) 21st private party for themselves and industry associates bringing much negative media attention on the organisation.
With Smyth weary to a decade of criticism and discontent, and resigned to an inability to find solutions to a now multi-decade old problem, NZOA commissioned a report to reassess the organisation by a long time organisation friend, and ex CEO of EMI records, Chris Caddick. The resulting report was mostly politely uncritical, but did note the public criticism, recommending a restructuring of the funding decisions process to take power away from commercial radio and hand it over to music industry and community representatives. Smyth however was unwilling to pass control to community interests entirely and kept the power to choose the decision panels and put a strong representation of NZOA staff on each panel.
Caddick also recommended a need to address the diversity in NZ music culture to which Smyth responded with a 60% commercial 40% alternative strategy. Alternative to mean everything else except commercial, including traditional folk music and EDM alike, although in the proceeding years ‘alternative’ now strongly overlapped with ‘commercial’.
Smyth still kept the focus of the music program on funding more content, not working with naturally existing content and finding ways to get it broadcast. To this end Smyth enlisted radio pluggers to promote funded content only. Self-funded content fell to the low priority side of the organisations plans, creating, as ex-NZOA CEO Chris Prowse defined it a “new genre of music called ‘funded’ music”.
The scheme championed artists such as Autozamm ($218,250) and Black River Drive ($146,000) while the imperative to archive and preserve the music video produced with funding fell far short as noted by the 5000ways website who tallied up the presence of all the funded music videos produced from NZOA funds, with up to 25% or more videos being lost or unaccounted for in the public record.
At the end of his long term as music manager Smyth leaves a fractured music industry and culture, a climate in commercial radio that hasn’t changed it’s modus operandi to how it interacts with local music culture, other than a superficial and surface acceptance.
The distributed funding pool has gone from a peak of $5 million to sinking below $3 million. Smyth for the majority of his tenure did not grow the funds-pool or the powers of the organisation.
His time at NZOA can be seen as a thorough and exhaustive experiment in how forcing a commercial focus on a music culture developed away from the constrictions of commercial conditions can impact change at a cultural level. His successor will have the opportunity to try and undo those missteps.
This will be an opportunity to give the organisation new blood, fresh ideas and perspective to a stagnant ultimately unsolved problem.
So where to from here?
NZ on Air clearly needs change but just from reading the advertisement for the Head of Music and Radio position it’s looks like they’re looking for the same but different. Desperately seeking career bureaucrat, versed in industry and state sectors to make all the decisions, take over the reign, keep it the same.
But that’s not what New Zealanders and NZ culture need and deserve.
Firstly it should be an informed board and especially an informed CEO that set the policy based on input from the New Zealand community. NZOA should be administrators, not governors.
It’s obvious that even though there are good intentions in the Broadcasting Act it needs to spell out decisively what is expected from NZOA. Define the words Reflect, Culture, and Identity, and how results should be measured. Try surveying some average New Zealanders and see just how much of their culture is reaching them.
The Broadcasting Act needs to be more definite in its wording in section 37(d) to specify that by New Zealand music we mean all styles of music, not just what Commercial Radio and Record companies currently like. Take the focus off supporting commercial objectives and leave that to the ministry of Economic Development.
Move away from being gatekeepers focusing on new content creation through funding as a solution to a broadcast problem, and start being facilitators to help navigate the difficult paths to wider connection with NZ audiences for the content that is already there. It isn’t a govt department’s position to decide what is worthy for consumption.
Interestingly the NZOA CEO who set NZOA on a Commercial success focused course, Ruth Harley, has recently come out in criticism of the path she and Smyth initiated, and that for music at least Smyth has adhered to ever since.
Harley who went on to CEO of Screen Australia believes NZ took the wrong path 25 years ago.
“We lost our moral compass in the process and as a result we do not have an authentic cultural case to make to Government … we have the transparent and low-cost model that is NZ On Air. We do not have the robust market place that Australia has.”
So to an optimistic future, we have the opportunity for change, to learn and move forward. We could quite easily get someone who just fills Smyth’s comfortable shoes and takes us in the same wrong direction. Or we could get a visionary who sees Culture as something more than a way to generate income through advertising, but with the job being as how NZOA define it, it will very much depend on our luck in get someone with the vision to take it to somewhere that benefits the people of New Zealand.
The new Music Manager will have to address a changed landscape where commercial radio no longer control the listening playing field and where the audience now has a voice, making interaction a big factor. The new Music Manager will have to understand how best to interact with media audiences and give them what they WANT not what commercial interests SAY they want.
“Broadcast partners” cannot be defined in the traditional way that they used to be, nor can “co-funders” (previously Labels). With the advent of crowd-funding and the realisation that professional levels of quality can be achieved in many ways to get their work online, the old model well and truly does not apply anymore and so Smyth’s leaving marks the end of an outdated era with a full stop.
Rob Mayes is a New Zealand music archivist and historian and co-administrator of the NZ Music funding discussion group Sounds Like Us NZ Music