Hard News by Russell Brown


LATE: The Age of Slacktivism

Everyone is there for a reason at the LATE at the Auckland Museum session I'm fronting on Monday evening. The theme is The Age of#Slacktivism, which I'm effectively interpreting as "beyond slacktivism" -- that's why ActionStation cofounder and Amnesty International NZ board member Marianne Elliot, and the face of RockEnrol, Laura O'Connell Rapira, are on the panel. 

The fact that Nicky Hager and Matthew Hooton are also on the panel doesn't mean it will be Dirty Politics redux. There are things I'll ask them all about changing hearts and minds, and about bridging the gap between me-too hashtagging and whatever change you actually want.

Both before and after the panel discussion, there will be korero and waiata from Moana Maniapoto and Paddy Free, which I'm really looking forward to.

The schedule, details and links to buy your $20 ticket are here. See you on Monday, maybe.


Friday Music: Virtual Rockstar Accountant

All week, Matt Nippert and his new colleagues in the New Zealand Herald's investigative team have been dropping hints about Matt sweating over a spreadsheet. What corporate malfeasance was about to be laid bare in the cleansing sunlight of Nippert's forensic fu?

Turns out, it was Matt returning usefully to a story he's covered before: the numbers behind Lorde's success. At midnight, she turned 18 and thus became legally able to control estimated career earnings of $11 million.

Matt constructed an earnings model based on informed assumptions about her various contracts:

... taking into account fees typical in management, recording and publishing contracts and using publicly available sales and streaming information, suggests she is one of the highest-paid individuals in New Zealand. The bulk of earnings appears to come from the sale of 2.7 million copies of her album and a combined 17 million singles, including more than 10 million for Royals.

Several music industry figures reviewed the model and said, while acknowledging the specific details of Lorde's contract details were unknown, that the assumptions made were reasonable and the resulting numbers realistic.

Earnings of at least $11 million to date, with the prospect of significant and ongoing royalty payments from her songs being played on radio and used in films and commercials, are comparable with her winning Lotto's Powerball last year, and then guaranteeing a first division prize annually.

He joked to me that he was thinking of turning his exquisitely-crafted Excel doc into an "interactive rock star accountant" -- you put in the contract terms and it spits out net income. I reckon there's a video game in that.

Lorde's success is also Universal Music New Zealand's success. The company saw a 50% increase in revenue for FY13, driven largely by US sales of Pure Heroine and its singles. Licensing revenue rose from $3.7m to $12.1 million to give the company its best result since 2005.

Ironically, the birthday girl probably wasn't thinking about any of that as she turned 18 some hours ago. What she wrote on her Tumblr was all about this, the video for 'Yellow Flickr Beat' ("i wasn’t thinking too hard about story or a specific narrative, more a mood; a harsh, crackling heat"), which went live at midnight:


The other thing that happens today in the local music business is that for the first time, the official New Zealand singles charts will include audio streaming data alongside retail sales.

Recorded Music NZ has closely followed the practice adopted by the UK. Only on-demand audio-only streaming is counted (ie: not radio-like "passive" services such as Pandora). So far Spotify, Xbox Music and Google Play are providing data, with others to come.

The chart itself has effectively been a digital one for a while, and single downloads will still likely constitute about 80% of of chart performance. The "audio conversion rate" being quoted has 175 streams of a track equating to a single paid download.

Australia is about to launch a very similar system, leaving (as is so often the case) the US at an outlier. The Billboard charts use an unpublished metric that includes sales, radio performance and video and audio streams, including YouTube. There is also talk of throwing social media interaction into the magic formula, at which point your chart positions would start to look like quite an artificial construction.

Anyway, here's this week's singles chart, which is worth a look if you haven't seen RMNZ's nifty interactive presentation of it before: you can mouse over each track to get preview audio, video and a link to buy. I haven't found the button that makes the music sound better though, bah humbug, etc, etc.


Something new of note: the Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth has a new album, Alone for the First Time, out this week. It's all dreamy beats  and covert pop. I like it. And of particular note is that track two is voiced by Wellington's Eddie Johnston, aka Lontalius, and it seems to be winning him quite a lot of attention. Here's the album on Spotify:


Some very ancient tapes of the Detroit Hemroids have started popping up on Souncloud and Facebook. The what, you say? They were a Christchurch pre-punk garage band assembled around 1975 by intriguing Englishman Olly Scott and including Nicky Carter (the Playthings), Paul Kean (Toy Love, The Bats), Jane Walker (Toy Love) and Mark Wilson (the Androidss). This is some historical shit here, people. They played a lot of covers, as was the custom of the day, and my favourite of the new uploads is this great, swinging take on the Stooges' 'I Need Somebody':

There's more here, in a Soundcloud account set up by Olly's friend Raz Illa. Olly died three years ago, and Raz now has custody of the tapes, which include very early Gordons recordings.

And also this, which is the original live recording of 'Sit Down Stand Up' which ended up on the Playthings' debut release, a 7" single. Completists and fanboys will thrill to the unmastered vibe and the additional five seconds of applause at the end, but more so to the knowledge that the version pressed to vinyl was inadvertently slightly sped up:

I believe Janine Saundercock, who sang and played guitar on that track, is now a wedding planer or somesuch. She should on some distant day die happy that she wrote the lines: "Loosen up your platinum breastplate, turn yourself down / Plug into my sizzling power-point / We'll wake this bloody town!"


Similarly intriguing, although of more recent vintage, is a Soundcloud account launched this week by FromTheCrate Records, which has been releasing vinyl records from within the orbit of the OpenSouls, She's So Rad and Jeremy Toy for more than a decade. There's a some great stuff there. They're not downloads, but a number of the tracks turn out to be available for a handy $2 each from the FromTheCrate Bandcamp, including this great dubwise take on OpenSouls' 'Turn It Up':

The Tornadoes' warm and sprightly afrobeat cut 'Huihui':

And this mint version of Dusty's 'The Look of Love' from Toy's recent jazz alter-ego Leonard Charles, which is a free download:


More tracks ...

Paddy Buckley has put me on to yet another good Australian DJ -- Dr Packer, who's in the mode of his countrymen Late Night Tuff Guy and Copycat. I like his acid dub job on Dennis Edwards' 'Don't Go Any Further', which you can buy here:

And this kind of obvious, but nicely-executed, mash-up of 'Good Times' and 'Rappers Delight':

And also this mix, uploaded yesterday, from a crate full of early (late 70s-early 80s) rap records, from back when a lot of it was people jamming over disco tracks. It's pretty sweet, and although the embed's not showing a download button, it's there if you click through:


This video for Seeep Dog & Wolf's 'Glare' was won its director Thunderlips and  producer Candelit Pictures the best music video award at the Show Me Shorts do in Auckland last night. That light is the sun, in a place 12 hours north of Adelaide called the Moon Plains.


 In the fairly fresh bin ...

Sexy-talking minimal funk from Auckland's Jellphonic, who seems to have something to do with She's So Rad (again). It's from an EP out on Modern Man Records, who offer no clue at all as to how a recording might be purchased:

On TheAudience, spacious bass beats 'n' soul from the Wellington-based Kakapo:

Moody soundscapes from Thirsty:

And a sweet little indie-pop song song from Wellington's Towers:

And with that, I'm off. By the time of next week's Friday Music I'll be in London. I'm not sure what I'll be posting, but I will try very hard to post something.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Housing, hope and ideology

As reported this morning by Radio New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key has given a few more clues to the mystery parcel that is his government's housing policy -- and in the process, contrived to make that policy seem even more alarming.

The thrust of it is that the government believes subsidising rents will be a more effective way of bringing people out of poverty than providing conventional public housing. This may sound like a familiar idea to mature readers -- because it's not unlike the National government's housing policy in the 1990s.

Back then, the government ordered Housing New Zealand to begin charging market rents to its tenants, on the promise that the state would take up the slack by transferring its social obligation to an expanded accommodation supplement available to both public and private tenants.

This time around, the government's exit from public housing provision is being sold on cost-benefit grounds. It's a matter, says the Prime Minister, of bang for buck:

John Key said the cost of paying more income related rents would be a fraction of the cost to build more state houses.

"So for a thousand people to support them in income related rents costs us $12 million, to build a thousand state homes costs us half a billion. So the fastest way of us moving people out of poverty is to deliver more income related rents."

When the Bolger government reformed housing policy in 1993, the change came with similar promises. As this 1999 paper by David Thorns of the University of Canterbury explained, the cost of the expanded accommodation supplement was forecast to increase to $476 million by 1996, then stabilise around that level. In the real world, the cost in 1996 was already $560 million annually -- and it exceeded $800 million by 1999. By that point, the government was arguing that its own scheme was too generous and needed more targeting:

However, as Murphy (1997) has pointed out, the Govern- ment through the way it has set up the new institutional framework has built in some of the upward pressures itself. HNZ, forced under the Restructuring Act to operate as a commercial enterprise, seeks higher rentals based on what it considers the market will allow. This upward movement opens up the `rent gap’ for the tenant between their wage or benefit and the rent which then puts political pressure back on the Government to increase the Accommodation Supplement to reduce housing-related poverty. Increased benefits then set the cycle going again as landlords (including the state) see the opportunity to raise profits.

In the last five years of the policy -- the time when it was supposed to stabilise -- the cost of the expanded accommodation supplement increased 78%. Had the new Labour government not restored income-related rents in public housing in 2000 (and promised a home-building programme it only partially delivered), we can only guess how high the spiral the government created with its own hand might have gone.

Because even after the Clark government's intervention, the cost to the taxpayer continued to climb, just not as dizzingly. As Interest.co.nz reported in 2011:

The government is being urged to boost the supply of affordable housing to help wean people off a state rent subsidy which could cost NZ$2.2 billion a year - almost twice as much as official predictions - by 2016.

But any fix could require a large up-front investment in state house building, and/or require action from the private and community sectors to help increase housing supply, and therefore affordability, at the lower end of the price spectrum.

The government, as we have been told lately, is set on doing exactly the opposite thing. And remember, this wasn't some lobby group plucking a figure out of the air, but a Statistics New Zealand projection. Mr Key's plan to save money by increasing an already out-of-control cost to the taxpayer seems, to put it mildly, risky.

In its submission to the Productivity Commission, the Salvation Army was emphatic that the situation was unsustainable:

The existing programmes have become more and more expensive and at the same time have not directly addressed issues of adequacy of supply. The existing subsidies have created a dependency both by tenants and landlords which has been locked into the housing market in terms of house prices but which offers little if any hope that future needs will be met.

But perhaps we should consider the other side of the argument: perhaps taking money away from housing provision for a smaller group and spreading it more widely in the 1990s did actually help ease overall poverty.

Unfortunately, it didn't. While, as Thorns noted, a substantial increase in the number of people receiving the supplement and an increase in choice could be seen as a policy success, housing-related poverty didn't decline as the costs of the policy ballooned:

One factor here is the institutional reforms and the creation of Housing New Zealand as a profit-driven company. It appears that the supplement may have simply raised rents and thus landlords’ profits. Overall choices thus remain restrictive due to the way in which the market has responded, there has not been a large increase in low-cost units of accommodation. Hence, the claim for the supplement that it would reduce marginalisation by increasing housing choice for low income households has thus far not eventuated.

To be fair, the authors concluded that the situation might improve if new forms of housing provision -- from sweat equaity and self-build to housing associations -- were to emerge and actually expand the housing stock the way the National government originally fancied its policy would do. The Salvation Army also sees a role for community housing providers -- alongside a "direct" role on the part of Housing New Zealand.

This time around, the government is in fact actively and openly relying on third parties to make its housing policy work. But it's asking them to buy some of the public housing stock it runs out -- and not, apparently, to undertake significant building work.

In the absence of an accompanying state building programme -- again, the government aims to do the opposite -- it seems extremely optimistic to suppose that third parties will step up and build at the necessary scale. And that the expansion of subsidies to landlords won't simply drive up house prices even further.

I presume -- well, hope -- the government has expert advice to the contrary. But wishing won't make it so. And it is useful to remember two things about the 1990s. The first is that the government's fond predictions of fiscal sustainability were blown out of the water almost immediately. The second is that the second half of the 1990s saw the emergence of appalling public health problems that we deal with to this day.

There may be something I'm missing here -- I'm no expert. But it seems that policy predicated on no more than an ideological desire to get the state out of social housing provision could well go terribly, terribly wrong.


Music: The Homecoming Queen

Astonishingly, it's only just over a year since a 16 year-old Lorde took the stage for a promotional gig at Vector Arena. It was easily the biggest room she'd played, and a mere four months since her public debut. It wasn't a flawless performance: she started confidently, literally ran out of puff for 20 minutes, then gutsily hauled it back.

"I had no idea what I was doing," she mused to the crowd from the same stage on Saturday night. "I was scared shitless."

She seemed as amazed as anyone else that she had returned as the queen of a powerful,  prodigious arena show full of her own art.

The feat is all the more remarkable because it was achieved with the same musical format she started with: just her up front, Jimmy Mac on keyboards and Ben Barter on drums. Back then, that seemed to be a PA lineup; a way to get her out singing her songs until a full band could be assembled. Turns out, that is the band.

The songs have evolved: most notably 'Team', now an eight-minute live barnstormer, and the changed-up 'Royals'. But what's really changed is Lorde herself. She's a year older, and stronger in every way.

The big gain in stagecraft evident at the Silo Park show in January has continued: when she hit her mark at the end of 'Buzzcut Season', turned to profile and shucked her jacket in the last-second silhouette of the spotlight, it was pretty much a perfect moment.

Her voice, which has suffered at times under the stress of touring, was notably strong. At times a year ago, she'd get rushed by her pre-recorded backing vocals. Now she seems to hit them when she wants to, or divert from the studio versions of the songs to riff or growl when she wants to do that. She doesn't bother to sing sweetly all the time either -- she virtually snarled her way through a cover of the Naked and Famous's 'Young Blood'. (In Wellington she played 'Buffalo', to the considerable excitement of the Phoenix Foundation members in the house.)

The tour show is basically a three-act play containing several set-pieces. And given that Saturday night in Auckland was the last night of the tour, it wasn't surprising that the major set-piece, the 'Ribs' speech, was devoted to the homecoming:

But for all that coming back and ending it Auckland was special and the atmosphere was amazing, the show still had to contend with the sound issues of Vector Arena. It was plenty loud, but at times the bass was overwhelming -- not a smartphone in the house had a mic that could cope with it and it seemed a bit much much for the little girls sat in front of us. So if Auckland had the homecoming factor, the last-night-of-the-tour emotion and the biggest, loudest crowd, I suspect Wellington got the better-sounding show. So here's a video of 'Yellow Flicker Beat' from Friday night.

Here's to Ella's extraordinary year. I hope and trust she'll be taking a good, long rest from the clatter and clamour. And, of course, plotting her next thing ...

(Photo from Vector Arena by Lucy @niallrosy)


It's been a busy week of live shows. Last Wednesday night was the Critics' Choice section of the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, the annual secret-judge annointing of the upcoming talent. In this post-Lorde year, all three finalists were solo artists with minimal or no accompaniment.

Lake South, up first, is an odd fish. After years in indie bands (most notably Urban Tramper) the Wellingtonian found himself making bedroom electronica out of songs he'd written on his acoustic guitar. To his own professed surprise, people thought the stuff he made was great, meaning he had to work up a few more songs in this unfamiliar style,  to play the Critics' Choice. It's a work in progress and he was awkward and apologetic between songs.

But when he was performing? He was confident and compelling, at times electric, and the songs came together as a kind of literate electronica. I very much reckon he should stick with it, tighten things up between songs and work up a bit more stage patter.

By contrast, Randa, the North Shore pop-culture rapper, was born into beats and samples, provided on this night by his producer-accompanist Totems, who turned knob-twiddling into a whole-body dance. Which was nothing compared to Randa himself: I haven't often seen a performer just plain bring it, to the point of breathlessness, like Randa did on Wednesday night.

I get why Randa doesnt want to be defined by his genderqueer status, but it's going to be hard to avoid talking about it, because it's part of how he projects as a performer. Sometimes, he's like a wild 13 year-old boy, and it's honest and appealing, even unto the culturally-acquired American accent.

Last up was Estere, who is in many ways the most accomplished of the three finalists. She's relaxed and assured in controling her onstage gear, comfortable talking to the crowd and can really sing. Before the show, I'd expected her to be named the winner. But it felt as if -- on contrast to her much-talked-about support for Erya Badu at The Civic --the King's Arms wasn't really her place.

So Randa it was, and that was a popular choice. Here's a nice little video from the evening by AUT's Te Waha Nui, set to Randa's 'Rangers'.


The next night was the 49th annual Apra Silver Scroll Awards, staged in Wellington this year with Luke Buda as musical director. It was as congenial as ever, but I was also reminded that it's an event that takes creative risks that others (most notably those from the public sector) would baulk at.

Michael Norris's ‘Inner Phases’, the winner of SOUNZ Contemporary Award, was re-interpreted on the night by longtime improvised music champ Jeff Henderson as a squall of electronic noise, panning left and right across the room. Some of the crowd loved it (me included) and others put their hands of their ears.

You could say much the same of Dean Hapeta's revolutionary speech before the presentation of the Maioha Award, which I gather didn't impress Minister Maggie Barry (to be fair, the minister's attempt to claim North Shore homie rights with someone called "Ella Yelich O'Connell" didn't impress me). We live in times when sometimes it's worth challenging people, if only to assert that we still can.

In the end, the Silver Scroll went to Tami Neilson, for her blues belter 'Walk Back to Your Arms', which also received my favourite cover interpretation on the night, in being performed by a gamelan orchestra with Gareth Farr and the All Seeing Hand's Johnny Marks, who did part of his vocal as a convincing throat-singer. It really was quite wow.

And finally, thanks to Hugh Sundae at the Herald for bundling up the Hall of Fame content Douglas Lilburn -- speeches, performances, the lot --- and sending me the embed code so you can see it here.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



The uncooling of the inner West

Over the past couple of weeks, the Herald's new data blog has been looking at population change data revealed by the 2013 Census. It's been a nice, open process culminating the Wellington firm Dumpark's creation of an interactive showing population increases and decreases around the country, from 2001 to 2013.

There's a general flow towards the cities and away from the regions, with a few striking features. None more so than the population shift out of the east of post-earthquake Christchurch -- which is, fittingly, the red zone on this map detail (a blue dot is one resident increase, a red dot a decrease):

But the part that caught my eye in the original iteration of the exercise, by economist Aaron Schiff, was closer to home. Where I live, in fact.

I moved to Auckland in 1983, and for most of that time, Auckland's inner Western suburbs have been a young place. Even as the Pasifika families of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were gentrified out, the inner west remained a place where young families could buy in and set up. When I returned from London in 1991, I met a generation of kids who'd grown up in those suburbs, walking distance from the city.

Those days are really over.

The all-ages map shows a huge intenstification in the CBD and a general increase around it, but the population is static around the Ponsonby ridge, and has decreased in Herne Bay and St Mary's Bay (as flats and low-rise apartments have given way to luxury harbourside pads).

But the real money is the 25-34 "young adult" map. You see the same CBD intensification  -- and a very evident emptying-out in the inner suburbs.

Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Point Chevalier: these are no longer places where people can easily buy in and start young families  -- but also, it appears, places where young adults are less likely to live full stop. A whole set of cultural assumptions about about these places -- diverse, bohemian, liberal -- seem likely to have gone with the young adult population. As we long feared, we're going to turn into fucking Parnell.

When I lived in the Auckland CBD in the mid-80s, it was quite an unusual thing to do. My friends and I literally broke the law when we converted a warehouse in Fort Street and lived there. Now, there are tens of thousands of apartments -- not all salubrious, but generally relatively affordable, close to work and study.

That makes the transition to home ownership and starting families particularly abrupt. Central Auckland, so cheap and accommodating for the baby-boomers, is prohibitive for their children. Houses don't fall much below $500,000 (which, let's be clear, means saving $100,000 for a 20% deposit) until the commute to the city nears an hour.

The obvious solution is not, as Act's David Seymour believes, to "create more Epsom" in Auckland distant hinterlands -- where they would palpably not be Epsom, or Ponsonby, Herne Bay or Mt Eden -- but to enable more people to live near their jobs, near to the city's life and cultural infrastructure. To not, as Seymour and his wealthy voters would do, raise the drawbridge and protect the people already in the castle.

There are limits here too. I felt obliged to object to a Housing New Zealand Unitary Plan submission seeking to spot-rezone its properties in our narrow little (17 properties) Point Chev cul de sac from "mixed housing suburban" to "mixed housing urban", a zoning intended for the fringes of town centres and main roads. It seemed an abuse of the process.

It wasn't the greater height limit: I'd have been fine with the 10 metres in the draft Unitary Plan, which was scaremongered out by Bernard Orsman and others, and I'm realistic about Housing NZ redeveloping to add dwellings in our street. But the prospect of Housing NZ aggregating its sections to escape any density limits in such a small street was just too daunting.

Anyway, we've been over this territory before and I'm sure there are other interesting insights in these interactives. Feel free to share your thoughts.