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’
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.
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.
4,000,000 Trapped Alive
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.
[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.
["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.
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.