Killing Capitalism with Kindness: Part One

Killing Capitalism With Kindness

In the first part of The Corner’s final series, here’s how the Music Commission enabled the sale of local music to the alcohol industry. Go here for Part Two. Go here for Part Three.

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For Chris Knox, who sang:

“Why do you think you must buy
What you know should have never been up for sale?”
— ‘(& To Think It All Started With) Trim Milk’

June.

It’s the end of New Zealand Music month, and with it, the closure of Wellington’s Mighty Mighty and Puppies, two venues that have long served independent music in New Zealand in an original way. In Auckland, Whammy & Wine Cellar has been rumoured to be due for closure for a number of years; either way it chases the fate of many other Auckland bars that have closed after dwindling crowds. NZ’s national music press is in a state of disrepair. The closure of record stores around the country marks the decline in spaces for consuming physical recorded music. While a certain young New Zealander is making herself world-recognised through music, the institutions of her country are failing to support and prove our sonic diversity as more and more entities that comprise the lifeblood of music in New Zealand are dropping away.

And so is The Corner.

This’ll be the last article I ever write for this website, and if I know what’s good for me, anywhere. So here’s some stuff I need to get off my chest.

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4,000,000 Trapped Alive

The New Zealand Music Commission, on April 23rd, 2014, announced Beck’s beer as the official sponsor of New Zealand Music Month.

Pete Dick, Beck’s New Zealand Brand Manager, says: “Beck’s has always been a champion of the New Zealand music scene, and in the last few years we’ve focused strongly on providing support to emerging local talent. It’s a natural progression for us to partner with the NZ Music Commission and combine our marketing efforts to promote up and coming Kiwi artists, and give them greater exposure.”

Chief Executive of the NZ Music Commission, Cath Anderson, also commented that Beck’s is a company “serious about making a positive impact on the New Zealand music scene.

Serious, they sure are. Anyone who’s followed the movements of New Zealand’s music industry over the last four years will surely recognise Beck’s as the surveyor, purveyor and prospector of local culture it claims to be:  Since at least 2012, Beck’s has collaborated with record label Arch Hill in various PR-friendly projects that underline the kind of internet generation savviness particular to those loose-collared youngsters within advertising firms and independent labels alike. In 2013, Beck’s launched the Record Label Project, an imaginative stunt that would “treat Beck’s as if it was an actual record company,” releasing limited-edition packaging on their beer bottles and at the same time documenting young bands in their strides towards commercial success. Beck’s is also a sponsor of Voices from the Wilderness on Kiwi FM, which “champions unsigned and undiscovered acts”. They’ve even made a playable record out of a beer bottle. The big guy, seemingly, is all about helping the little guy.

Thanks to Beck’s, the ‘help’ comes in the way of a series of NZ Music Month events bearing the Beck’s logo, some free beer, and a selection of young artists receiving a friendly cash injection to produce their priceless works of art in their various ways. The most alluring gain for these bands, maybe, is a launching pad: an opportunity to build your audience. All they ask? Only your passive surrender to the largest multinational brewing conglomerate on the planet.

Beck’s: A brewery originally owned by local families in northern Germany until its purchase for 1.8 billion euros in 2002 by an overseas brewer that eventually became Anheuser-Busch InBev, a company with a 25% share of the global market. Beck’s is brewed under license in New Zealand by Lion (formerly Lion Nathan), an Australasian beverage company.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re talking about ‘NZ Music’ here, a concept plagued with inconsistencies. NZ Music as a genre. NZ Music as a title. NZ Music as an institution. Personally, the tag has never stuck: I’ve consciously only ever written about “local music” or “music from New Zealand”, as I feel “New Zealand music” — ahem, New Zealand Music – as a term is far too loaded. Dollar-eyed shills, fickle-minded corporate phonies and all sorts of gross assumptive inaccuracies are what have invaded our TV sets for the past decade and a half with such presence that any person with legitimate musical credentials in this country hardly bothers to acknowledge it in the first place. Its bafflingly American attempt at boosting New Zealandism is the most revealing proof of system malfunctions that appear to be built-in. Thankfully, we can click ‘ignore.’

It’s not like the stormtroopers of NZ Music are kicking down the doors of our homes, blasting Dave Dobbyn through the loudspeakers and holding knives to our throats. What Beck’s has to gain from aligning with this crusade seems as little as what we stand to lose: yet another series of industry piss-ups featuring the same bunch of ‘up-and-comers’ before the same bunch of ‘greying industry types’, some more clueless than others. Some people have a good time, some people drink free beer, everyone stumbles home. It’s likely that these artists are fine with receiving a healthy buck, as they should; nor would I doubt that everyone from the industry high-ups to those Beck’s employees themselves actually believe that what they are doing will promote the “positive impact” that is supposedly needed.

And then you have the rest of New Zealand, for whom I ask: What does ‘positive change’ look like when it’s manufactured by an alcohol company? The ‘Alcohol’ section under the Health Promotion Agency’s annual report might offer some ideas.

“New Zealand has a very high level of acute alcohol-related harms, such as injuries, road trauma, offending, and alcohol poisoning, relative to other countries.”

This realities of New Zealand society are now at odds with the ‘practical reality of being a musician’  that we’ve so much about heard since the crash of physical music sales. A musician might not need to drink, but she or he certainly must eat. Seizing upon this is the alcohol industry, which entangles itself in dying trades of cool as it always has done, making for some murky moral junctions in the process as it tests the paddling-pool waters of complacency.

The World Health Organisation, on the other hand – the same one that just reported that 3.3 million deaths worldwide (5.9% globally) are attributed to alcohol – urges that complacency is a thing there is “no room for”. The same report indicates that restriction on all forms of implicit advertising, such as Beck’s’ endorsement of local music, has proved effective at curbing this kind of harm in the last decade. (Our own Law Commission recently proposed a blanket ban – I don’t need to get into cultural studies theory to express why a booze company would want to sidle up alongside us young, rebellious types.) I hasten to add that this the kind of industry that can spend around $300,000 a day on alcohol advertising and sponsorship. Music is nice, but at the end of the day, it’s not a currency that the alcohol industry trades in.

And now here we are: the words “drinking” and “culture” are two words fixed together more uncomfortably than ever before, confirming a cultural reliance that lasted even through liquorless Sundays, one that endured when bars still closed at 6pm. It is unfortunate, and we might not have a choice that it exists, but we do have the power to say — sigh — “yeah nah”.

In effect, the vertical integration of music is all-consuming. Where an organisation like the NZ Music Commission should (in principle) be supporting artists that don’t already possess commercial potential, a company like Beck’s will only seek out those that will maximise returns. The focus-grouped and majoritarian nature of marketing means that the fringes won’t be addressed, which is usually where government involvement is critical. Not to mention that alcohol companies are very happy to pick on these fringes – and just about anything that doesn’t resemble normative culture. The public and private sectors have incompatible interests; this is why historical regulations that are now being unpicked once sought to separate the two. When the two come together, there is a sickly relationship.

The personable face of alcohol advertising

[Alcohol: An expensive habit.]

Do you remember the first time you saw the NZ Music Month logo? You know, the one that kinda looks like a giant bullseye (the dollar sign was already taken). If you’re of my generation, chances are that it was on your parents’ television set. You would have been living at home, (presumably) under the age of 18, and though you might’ve not been able to explore the live music scene in bars, nothing prevented your ears from at least finding the music they enjoyed. It’s easy to forget that this age group still exists. They’re a group for which A Low Hum’s Ian Jorgensen wittily suggests that NZ Music Month is ‘the gateway drug’ to, well, better music. Because there is better music in this country than the state-funded American regurgitations that were often on TV in the early 2000s, thank Christ. I will even concede that thanks partly to the recent refreshment of NZ on Air’s funding system, young people are exposed to much more authentic, conscious music that represents, for the first time, their own culture. Their own economy. But NZ Music Month now bears a beer logo: Welp, too bad for them. Here these kids are, now confronted by yet another R18 stamp on music – this one quite plainly in view. Isn’t there a great contradiction in that while health-positive teen-friendly events like SmokeFree RockQuest funnel government money into an anti-smoking agenda, young people are simultaneously informed that ‘real’ New Zealand Music belongs in a bar?

Beck’s patronage isn’t a new model. Wellington’s Homegrown, an NZ-only music festival, has been sponsored by Jim Beam since its inception in 2008. While the event is R15, the website requires under-18 registration, literally stating that “access for those under the age of 18 is very much a privilege not a right.” A representative from the Advertising Standards Authority told me that there was a recent formal complaint against the alcohol sponsorship of Homegrown, but it was ultimately not upheld (25% or more of the audience must be under 18 for the complaint to be considered). Alcohol and music can be remembered even as far back as 1987, in an event remembered in Flying Nun history as a turning point for the underground label when Headless Chickens won a national rock award that was sponsored by Rheineck. Yep– a Lion beer. Beck’s’ latest investment in music is only the fateful climax of a journey that has lasted since the first intersection of capitalism and culture, but one helped especially by the collapse of the record industry. Whether or not it successfully holds the industry’s hair back as it vomits, the hangover will be in the way of the ongoing regimentation of music as an activity that belongs in bars. What only cements the inescapability of this fact is that alcohol is simultaneously helping to keep live music’s biggest supporters, like the Wine Cellar, in business. (They don’t stock Beck’s, though, sorry.)

Perhaps this certain omnipresence is why it goes unquestioned, and perhaps this is why when the Music Commission announced their partnership with Beck’s, it wasn’t widely reported. There’s also a resignment to that idea of the practical reality of being a musician that sentimentalises that a musician can only take what they can get, no matter what the cost. If something’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, right? After all, audiences aren’t built in a day.

I have even less illusions about it: The culture of drinking has become so normalised in New Zealand that it is afforded more bargaining power. The price of an artist’s integrity has never been lower because it’s harder to turn down an offer nobody else would refuse. Yet, if something is not socially questioned, is it necessarily socially right? This normalisation, according to Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago, is the “aim of the game for the alcohol industry” – it’s exactly how they make their money. “People won’t normally be wary or not when it comes to this type of sponsorship, which is why it is so effective for alcohol promotion and the perpetuation of a highly normalised heavy drinking culture,” like that we have in New Zealand. “I can’t see what’s in the air,” as the Gordons once put it, but the air sure does stink.

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 5.16.46 pm

["It's been an unlucky year for Laramie Cigarettes. A lot of the people who smoke our product have been, well... dying."]

The neoliberal mentality theorises that in an unregulated, free market economy, the best will rise to the top (like hot air), the fittest will float (like fat), and the results will trickle down (like piss). The reality is sobering: arts funding, being a part of the neoliberal system, is not free from the neoliberal ideal. And it is this — not any illusions of ‘positive change’ that the New Zealand Music Commission dreams a beer company could provide — that really steers the decisions of state music funding. Money is not the answer, for the Music Commission. It is the question. And the answer is “yes”, “yes fucking way.” But we know this, as any struggling organism in a hostile environment would: the money has to come from somewhere.

Well, my sure-as-shit hope is that that the money has somewhere good to go. Think if government funding went to combatting alcoholism in New Zealand, rather than seeing it as a patron. Think if government money went into infrastructure, providing something like an All Ages venues for under-18s and adults alike to work together in a zone that, like any real enjoyment of music, doesn’t necessarily require alcohol. Think if government money tried to help a cause other than itself. Excuse my idealism, but the thought of nurturing actual positive forces (and in the process, helping to stimulate the economy with successes in mind that extend beyond the short-term) is one that’s not only a good business (rather, I mean, government) strategy, but one that should never require — let alone enable — exploitation.

Public funding of the arts, in my view, is not always an inherently awful thing. It’s just that it’s horribly mismanaged, and miscalculated, and often naïve.

Exhibit A: $50,000+ New Zealand taxpayer dollars spent on a private party celebrating 21 years of NZ on Air, 2010

Exhibit B: $95,000 New Zealand taxpayer dollars granted to Annabel Fay, the daughter of one of New Zealand’s richest men, Sir Michael Fay, 2006-2011

Exhibit C: $287,460 New Zealand taxpayer dollars granted to a music management ‘video game’ project that was literally unplayable, 2013

Literally unplayable.

I could write a book about all the inconsistencies and flaws within the New Zealand music system, but thankfully, an individual with a reputation as self-assuredly do-it-yourself as Ian Jorgensen is doing-it-himself at this moment. (He also rejects alcohol sponsorship nowadays – having previously tested the waters in old A Low Hum tours – on the grounds that, well, it kills folks.)

Here in Auckland, it feels like the few packed-out gigs in the city are those sponsored by Beck’s (via Lion), Vice (via Rupert Murdoch), or Converse (via Nike (via Bangladesh)). They’re typically mid-week cheap-piss parties featuring bands of the moment and not a lot else. Free stuff? You bet. You can brush whatever ideology you have aside for a night of free booze, but it is hard to ignore what cultural attitudes the popularity of events like these confirm. Besides, y’know, some ordinary everyday opportunism, there’s the unfortunate truth that local music and consumerism are fatefully binded. If the NZ Music Commission did indeed give due thought to their decision to sell local music to Beck’s — if it was at all anything more than a desperate scramble for the closest open-armed benefactor — perhaps this is what they recognised. No explaining would have ever been needed to be done.

All that talk of building an audience as a band — you gotta wonder what kind of audience you’re building, and for whom.

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12 Comments

  1. klane says:

    “Think if government money went into infrastructure, providing something like an All Ages venues for under-18s and adults alike to work together in a zone that, like any real enjoyment of music, doesn’t necessarily require alcohol.”

    +1. I know it’s not in their remit, but always thought that a chunk of that NZOA or Play It Strange money would go to far better use creating infrastructure like an AA venue.

  2. Exhibit A: $50,000+ New Zealand taxpayer dollars spent on a private party celebrating 21 years of NZ on Air, 2010

    Exhibit B: $95,000 New Zealand taxpayer dollars granted to Annabel Fay, the daughter of one of New Zealand’s richest men, Sir Michael Fay, 2006-2011

    Exhibit C: $287,460 New Zealand taxpayer dollars granted to a music management ‘video game’ project that was literally unplayable, 2013

    I’m not sure it’s reasonable to to refer to all these in the present tense.

    1. A obvious misjudgement that brought down serious grief from the minister’s office. Will never happen again. NZ On Air parties, even for anniversaries, are no longer a thing, from what I can tell. I suppose it’s worth noting that the biggest cost was flying and paying the band. So that’s something.

    2. (a) That funding structure doesn’t exist any more. (b) It’s silly to regard it as mismanagement, unless you favour the idea of doing means tests on the parents of all artists to apply. An arts funding system can’t work that way and shouldn’t.

    3. Not music funding. That was the Digital Fund, and that grant dates from early 2011, not 2013. The Digital Fund is managed along wholly different lines now, and currently has little directly to do with music. The strategy now is to target audiences that are currently not well served — hence last year’s focus on Pasifika media, such as thecoconet.tv.

    It’s healthy that someone is raising the problem with alcohol sponsorship, but it’s been a reality of making things work for literally decades. Hello Sailor’s Rum ‘n’ Coca Cola Tour in 1976(?), which set the template for national pub tours, was underwritten by Coruba rum. Chris Knox, who you’ve quoted at the top of the post, licensed ‘It’s Love’ to Heineken for a US campaign in 2008, and he had every right to. Sync deals are a big part of artists feeding themselves and their families now.

    Beck’s’s art sponsorship strategy dates back to 1987 in London, when Gilbert and George were commissioned to provide a label. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and others followed. The part I like about it is that they commission works — the labels (which they did for a while here) or, as was the case this year, previously unreleased songs. The part I don’t like about it is the beer. If you’re going to depict the NZMC as grasping or desperate for going with Beck’s, it’s probably worth noting that like everyone else in the contemporary cultural sector, they’re working with six or seven years of funding freezes.

    All all-ages venue? Sure. But in most places in the world — notably Europe — community venues are usually funded by local, not central government. That might be a better place to pursue this worthy goal. I don’t think it really works to fund such venues under the Broadcasting Act.

    • Hi Russell,

      I know this isn’t your job at all, but do you happen to know which NZOA document details their decision to *begin* funding digital platforms and content?

      I can’t track it down, but I’m assuming it must have come out around the time of before DMT started NZ On Screen.

      Thanks mate

      • I think it’s in the Caddick Report which is available on line.

    • Buffalo Bill says:

      Re your point in 2a that it was not mismanagement…didn’t daddy fly Smyth and the radio programmers out to Great Mercury Island for the greasebag treatment? If so thats surely rank as a clash of interests possibly leading to mismanagement of funds?Who knows what wenton.Either way that doesn’t make NZOA look good.

  3. Robyn says:

    I’ll tell you what, over the last three years I’ve watched and reviewed over 700 NZ On Air funded music videos, from 1991 to 2004 (and counting). There’s a huge variety of music that’s funded. There are high profile artists like Shihad, the Feelers, Fur Patrol who get tons of funding, but the majority of artists only get funding for one or two songs. And there are a lot of artists who get funding who are weird little bands that never became household names.

    There’s some funded music that I don’t really enjoy, but it would be so weird if all the NZ On Air funding went to Robyn-friendly music (lolz). And I might roll my eyes at some funk-rock band from the ’90s, but then I remember that time that band played at the Big Day Out and it totally went off.

    Another thing to consider – NZ On Air funding is not arts funding, it’s cultural (the Arts Council has arts funding for music projects). Yeah, some of the music might sound like dull, middle-of-the-road pop, but it’s *our* dull, middle-of-the-road pop and there’s always room for that on our screens. Not everyone loves music as much as we do.

  4. Billy Bob says:

    Jesus Hach Christ! How is the air up in that ivory tower?

    This is the biggest whinge of an article I think I have ever read, further I will only be drinking Becks beer from now on.

    Also this reads like a first year media studies student whose made love to a thesaurus.

    Your argument boils down to “wake up sheeple”…. ahem…. cringe.

    • Mark Webster says:

      I love beer. If you do, you’ll know Becks is tasteless dreck. I also love music – unfortunately, a lot of music is like Becks, NZ or not. And Becks is an overseas brand ‘manufactured’ here –
      So I guess that’s a match …

  5. chris says:

    So what your talking about is basically a symptom of a free market capitalist country where arts sectors are relying more on corporate sponsorship to pay the bills/put on events etc. I think you’ll find this is happening in capitalist countries all around the world & has now become the only way many of these various institutions can survive. That’s why when Prince did a one off show recently there was a massive Doritos ad on the side of the stage. As you’ve identified this is partly to do the dismantling of the recording companies who would stump up money (even on a risk). It is also happening alot more to get independent films made.

    As Russell has pointed out those examples you have used are quite redundant as they have already been pointed out a lot & have already lead to some significant change & now the funding is alot more diversified. That’s why you now have videos being funded for bands as sonically interesting as Sharpie Crows & Wilberforces.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PRHndjg2Fw

    So I think there is already a positive change happening.

    Another problem I have with your blog is you really seem to go after Becks for some reason. If your wearing abstinence from alcohol on your sleeve then why to some bars get off the hook? Yes Wine Cellar don’t sell Becks but they sell Coopers & a whole range of other spirits that cause health/behavioral problems. Where does personal responsibility come in to all this? They also have rules to ensure that people can’t be served if they appear too intoxicated.

    You make it out like Blink back in the day put on a lab coat, rubbed his hands together & said “I’m going to experiment with getting sponsorship from Jack Daniels & put their ads in my magazine”. He was also until recently running a bar (I believe they also sold Becks). How do we know he’s not just punching the liquor industry in the balls because he couldn’t sell enough alcohol?

    Also, you realise that Scrumpy is a fairly high percent beverage? As you well know they also get involved in big piss up fests for bands.

    So your basically saying “Hey jack stay away from me & my mates cool bands” to Becks. Fair enough.

    I agree that mixing bands & alcohol is problematic. Ideally we would have a government that would provide enough funding so that this wouldn’t even need to be the case. If a political party puts up their hand & says they will provide enough arts funding for regular ongoing events around the country then I & many others (likely the people you have mentioned in this blog as well) would vote for them tomorrow.

    In terms of all age venues you would need a hefty fund to be established that could generate enough interest to pay for rent & sound people to be employed . You would also need someone put in charge to see that no one is sneaking in alcohol because as soon as the Police got wind of a venue that was facilitating under age drinking it would get closed down fairly quickly.

    [IMG]http://i58.tinypic.com/anh6b7.jpg[/IMG]

  6. chris says:

    Not all that long ago.

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