'Geographically marginalised, when it makes a mark globally it [New Zealand music] tends to be brushed aside ... and relegated to the status of a curio ... This marginality can be taken as a mark of weakness but it can also be a space in which a self-determining, oppositional identity and a fragile but idiosyncratic strength can be seen to operate.' (1)
The 1980s were crucial for New Zealand music. Many independent record labels were launched during that decade, reflecting the growth of distinctive local music cultures in New Zealand. In Auckland these included Ripper (which recorded Toy Love and The Swingers) and Propellor (which signed the Screaming Mee Mees and Blam Blam Blam). Wellington's first independent label was Bunk Records, formed by record shop assistant and journalist Mike Alexander in 1980.
Bunk lasted only a year. The gap it left was filled by Jayrem, started by record shop owner Jim Moss. Jayrem has gone on to become one of the most important independent labels in the country. It has many Maori musicians in its back catalogue and continues to record groups like Wai 100%. Jayrem has also released artists like David Eggleton, and When the Cat's been Spayed.
However, New Zealand's foremost independent record label must be Flying Nun, formed in 1981. Its founder Roger Shepherd initially wanted to provide recording facilities for Christchurch bands, but he ended up also signing many bands from Dunedin. It was for these bands - and the 'Dunedin sound' - that it became most famous.
In the first few years of the label's existence, its bands recorded on primitive equipment (perhaps a portable four-track recorder in someone's lounge or in a cheap eight-track studio). They then delivered their tape to Flying Nun, along with album and poster artwork they'd designed themselves. Flying Nun produced the record and distributed it via a network of friends around the country.
Despite their ad-hoc approach, Flying Nun had a big success almost immediately with the single 'Tally Ho', by Dunedin's The Clean. 'Tally Ho' reached number nineteen in the New Zealand Singles Charts. The Clean's follow-up EP, Boodle Boodle Boodle spent six months in the charts, peaking at number five.
Flying Nun took advantage of university campus radio stations for airplay, and university orientation programmes for nationwide tours of its bands.
Auckland-based Pagan records was founded in 1985. Pagan produced several number one records and recorded, among others, The Warratahs, Strawpeople, and Shihad.
In 1988, Flying Nun shifted base to Auckland. Many of its bands wanted to crack the international market, and they needed larger recording budgets to do so. In 1990 Flying Nun struck a deal with the powerful Australian independent label, Mushroom Records, resulting in the formation of a new company, Flying Nun Australia, which could offer those bigger budgets.
Independent labels proliferated in the 1990s, taking advantage of new technology and reflecting the growing diversity of musical styles. In 1990, Auckland-based Southside, with its hardcore wing Wildside, was set up by Rip It Up editor Murray Cammick. This label specialised in dance music and soul, recording the Hallelujah Picassos, as well as Maori artists like Ngaire, Moana and the Moa Hunters, and the Upper Hutt Posse. Some of these artists later transferred to the Tangata label, set up in 1991 by musician Neil Cruickshank in Wellington and producer George Hubbard in Auckland to record and promote music by Maori and Polynesian musicians.
In 1992, Auckland band the Mutton Birds won awards in the 1992 New Zealand Music Awards without any record label, setting a new benchmark in independent recording.
Today, Flying Nun, Jayrem and Pagan go from strength to strength, and new independent labels continue to be formed here. Two important recent additions are Kog Transmissions and Dawnraid Entertainment.
Kog Transmissions is a collective that specialises in making and releasing dance music. As electronic artists, the Kog people have found it difficult to gain funding through government arts bodies - who often don't see their work as art. Instead, Kog rely on corporate sponsors. They also save money by doing everything in house.
Dawnraid Entertainment was formed in 1996 by Danny Leaosavaii (aka Brotha D) and Andy Murnane (aka YDNA). The duo met while taking a business studies course at their local polytech in Otara, Auckland. Both felt that the major labels were not doing enough to promote New Zealand hip-hop. They started Dawnraid Entertainment to record previously undiscovered hip-hop artists from New Zealand and especially South Auckland.
To fund the venture they followed the do-it-yourself kiwi tradition, producing a range of tee shirts, which they sold at the Local Otara flea markets. This earned them enough to bring out the first compilation album in April 2000 - Southside Story. Some of the artists included have gone on to become recognised as among New Zealand's best hip-hop acts.
1. Mitchell, Tony (1994). 'Flying in the Face of Fashion: Independent Music in NZ', in North Meets South - Popular Music in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Philip Hayward, Tony Mitchell and Roy Shilker (eds.). Sydney: Perfect Beat Publications
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.