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Do Kiwi Musicians Really Need to Leave New Zealand to Make It Big?

Is New Zealand really a graveyard of lost opportunities and forgotten dreams?

by Nick Fulton
05 July 2016, 12:25am

Yumi Zouma. Image: Instagram

In May 2006 I attended a gig at Wellington’s Bar Bodega. The hand-drawn poster, which I had on my wall throughout the aughts, described it as a “London Bus Fundraiser” for a band called Connan and the Mockasins. Leading up to the gig, Camilla Martin had mentioned it on her late-night TV show Intellectual Property and had played the band’s new video for “Sneaky Sneaky Dogfriend”. The gig was a sell-out, the mood was celebratory and there was an anticipation that our local boys were off to make it big.

A year went by without any news. It then emerged that the band had broken up, followed by news that Connan had been jamming with Fatboy Slim’s Norman Cook. Several years later he was working with Charlotte Gainsbourg and collaborating with Dev Hynes and still rocking the same pastel blue guitar he’d played a decade earlier in Wellington.

Those all sound like big achievements for a shaggy blonde boy from Te Awanga, but the question remains, has Connan Mockasin ever made it big? What does making it big even mean? To find out, I asked some New Zealand musicians to share their thoughts on the somewhat undefinable theory.

Josh Burgess has been touring overseas since he was 17 – first with Bang Bang Eche and now with Yumi Zouma. He’s also the Flying Nun label representative in the USA. He has a unique double-sided view of the music industry that allows him to “see the wheels in motion.” Speaking from a cafe in Austin, Texas, where he’s been sitting since 7am using the free Wi-Fi, he recalls how he viewed the music business before moving abroad. “Living in New Zealand, there’s definitely a tendency for it to be all smoke and mirrors and behind closed doors,” he says. Like most people I spoke with, he struggled to define what making it big ultimately means, but says, “in the internet age the market is just a big long tail... the idea of making it big is so unquantifiable because there are so many different stages of making it.”

On a personal level, he says, “I always thought it would be great to be in a band and have all the expenses paid for,” but goes on to say, “It’s an endless ladder that you’re climbing. You go from where we’re at, where we can pay for hotel rooms, but then wouldn’t it be great if we each had a hotel room, or instead of just selling out New York, Paris and London, we’re also selling out DC and Boston.”

Wellington indie-pop artist Nik Brinkman agrees. He’s toured overseas and collaborated with Peter Morén from Peter, Bjorn and John and French artist Soko, but hasn’t yet had a breakout hit of his own. But if and when that moment comes, he says, “I'm sure if I had 500 million streams on a song I had written, I'd probably want 600 million for the next song.”

Nik Brinkman. Image: Anna Wickenden

Neither think that living in New Zealand affects their creativity, but both agree that being away allows them to see beyond the horizon. Josh says, “I think in New Zealand you can have a tendency to think that your world is elsewhere, or that the best world for you is elsewhere. But I think there is something to be said of people that start bands in New Zealand that really, the idea of ever being big overseas is never a conceivable option for them.”

And there is an attitude in New Zealand that underpins this, leading all the way back to the Flying Nun bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Josh ponders the idea of unintended fame for a moment, then adds, “The slacker thing resonated a lot with New Zealand and maybe that is because the idea of making it big was unquantifiable for a lot of New Zealand bands.” Throughout our conversation he paraphrases from Flying Nun founder Roger Shepard’s new book, In Love With These Times. Contextualising the infamous Flying Nun myth, he says, “In Roger’s book a lot of the bands talk about having no idea that there was ever an audience... it was only a few that cottoned on that there might be a market outside of New Zealand.”

He says it’s important to remember “that there’s so many more Nun bands that never made any impact overseas”.

Grayson Gilmour believes so much of what happens in the music industry is down to chance. I spoke to him one evening after he’d finished his shift at a Wellington record store. “One of my experiences with So So Modern was uncanny,” he tells me. “We ventured to the UK, through Europe and then back to the UK, and we never really achieved anything until the last night in London when we met both our [future] booking agent and our label.” Back home, So So Modern were selling out shows in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. When they returned to Europe for a second time, Grayson says they were much more successful.

Josh has also witnessed local success translate to nothing. He recalls a trip to SXSW in 2009 where his band played alongside a platinum-selling New Zealand band named Midnight Youth. “As they stepped onstage at the New Zealand music showcase to perform to ten people, someone announced that their album had just reached number two [on the New Zealand album charts]. It was such a funny juxtaposition, anywhere in New Zealand they’d be playing to thousands of people, but here in Austin they were not playing to anyone.”

The idea that the grass is greener elsewhere is one that most people will have pondered at some point, but leaving New Zealand isn’t so simple. Grayson says, “One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was leaving New Zealand and already being ten thousand dollars in debt.” Josh uses New York band Parquet Courts as an example. “If they wanna tour America all they have to do is quit their jobs, buy a van and just start sleeping on people’s floors. If a New Zealand band wants to go overseas they need to have a huge amount of self-belief, because they’ve got to raise about fifteen hundred dollars each just to leave Auckland airport.”

Auckland emo band Carb on Carb are full of self-belief – the duo toured Singapore and China in 2013 with Mac DeMarco. They’re also one the few New Zealand bands whose sound and attitude aligns with the Flying Nun bands of the past. When I asked how their experience with various DIY punk communities throughout the world compared to New Zealand, they concluded that New Zealand was a pretty good place to be. Via email, James Stuteley ran me through the pros and cons of each country he’d visited; in South East-Asia “they really commit to the lifestyle and ethics”, he says. China was similar, but had “bigger and fancier infrastructure”, while in Malaysia the audience was “quite boys-heavy”, which he says made his bandmate Nicole “uncomfortable at a few points”.

His most interesting comparison is between the US and New Zealand. While he says the US is a great place to tour and is full of big communities and great networks, he admits “the financial side can be pretty rough as a random DIY band”. He tells me “US shows are often underpriced and donation entry shows are common. A couple of our shows we only made around $20 even though there were maybe 30 people there. There’s much less expectation to pay or be paid for shows.” He appreciates and understands it’s part of the culture, and makes no suggestion to change it, but is also aware of the financial burden an overseas band takes on when touring. It made him appreciate playing at home even more. He says “I’m so thankful that New Zealand and Australian people are willing to pay, because it makes it so much more sustainable.”

Perhaps sustainability is the keyword that ultimately defines what making it big really means. You could be like Lorde, playing shows with Nirvana and winning Grammys, or you could be like Carb on Carb or Yumi Zouma, playing to a small devoted audience each night and earning just enough to keep you in the game.

Follow Nick @nick_fulton