Back when Bailterspace were our Great White Guitar Hope people here got very excited about the fact they played at CBGB’s in New York. I didn’t want to rain on anybody’s optimism but always pointed out that a lot of bands played at CBGB’s, sometimes as many as four a night.
At that time I had been to that famous club a number of times, once when a Well Known Kiwi Band were playing there to an audience of about 35 people. I chatted with a girl from Christchurch.
Back home their New York "success" was trumpeted, but having been there I saw it . . . Well, let’s be charitable and just say, differently.
Memories of that and many other incidents involving Kiwi bands I have seen abroad came back when I read Neil Finn’s comments to Real Groove as reported in the Herald last week.
The adversarial nature of news reporting inevitably focussed on his comments about Helen Clark and the following day the call-response stoush was on. The Herald spoke to Ray Columbus and Sir Howard Morrison who weighed in to support the prime minister.
With all due respect to these two people -- Ray whom I don’t know but have liked very much every time we have met, and Sir Howard whose longevity I respect -- they hardly seemed the people I would have thought to be sought out for comment. (What, Frankie Stevens and Megan Alatini not available?)
Anyway, Finn’s snipe at Clark and the subsequent reports somewhat overshadowed the other and more important points he was making: essentially that it’s tough and indifferent out there in the international music marketplace, and that despite the money and enthusiasm pushing Kiwi bands into the world very few of them will make it.
He also seemed to be saying we shouldn’t be deluded about what these bands are actually achieving. Or even capable of achieving.
Of course comments like that -- general, but borne of long experience that we might want to take seriously and not dismiss as sour grapes as some have done -- don’t have a clear target as did his barbs about Clark. So it is harder to haul out a counterpunch debate of a few paragraphs. But they are points worth considering, especially in this month where we celebrate New Zealand Music.
Which brings me back to Bailterspace. Much as we might want our bands to succeed and we hail any small breakthrough, we might need to be realists and face the hard and uncomfortable truths: that a lot of these so-called international successes -- playing at CBGB’s or South By SouthWest -- actually mean more for home consumption than they do in the world.
The bands who play SXSW certainly get experience -- and my god do Kiwi bands need it.
One of the endemic problems we have in a small country is that bands play too infrequently. They don’t sort of get their stamina up.
I used to joke -- but it was true -- that most Flying Nun bands seemed to play two gigs in a week then need six months to lie down and recover. That is hardly going to prepare them for dates in the States or Europe. Or even just 10 days straight anywhere.
The other thing I always found strange was when bands from outside of Auckland came to the Big City some found it intimidatingly huge. I remember when Roger Sheppard of Flying Nun told me with his typically bemused grin that a particular band from the South were scared of the size of Auckland. I said if they thought that of Auckland he should tell them to forget about going to London or LA. Or even Birmingham.
Bands from here -- perhaps deluded by the success of MTV and MySpace acts -- seem to think that success can come on the back of a single or video clip. It can and has, but not often. Unfashionable though it may be, most bands and artists still make it by playing live to as many people as they can.
The tyranny of a small country is that it is easy to exhaust the local touring circuit -- although bugger all bands have tried in my opinion.
So you need to go overseas -- and not just to play a couple gigs then come back home for a cuppa tea and lie down. If you do that I figure you’re not that serious. You want success -- but still have mum do your laundry.
Bands or artists may need to base themselves offshore -- as an increasing number are realising. Greg Johnson is still slogging away in LA and every time I’ve seen him either up there or here it is always the same story: the breakthrough is just beyond reach but you have to keep trying. And you have to be there if it happens.
Jon Toogood of Shihad told me once that what they had learned by being the support act on a leg of a Major Band’s US tour was that playing a big gig in Denver actually means nothing of itself. They - Shihad that is -- might not get back to Denver for another 18 months by which time they were long forgotten, even by those who once howled approval.
Better then, in the States or Europe, to base yourself somewhere and work your local region -- which in the States might mean California where you can travel up and down the coast for years without outstaying your welcome, but also revisiting some areas where you make good and can build a local following.
It is a brutal life and I, who have not done it, only have admiration for people like Neil Finn and Don McGlashan who slogged it out and made sacrifices for years. And for my own three kids who work day jobs in London (as you do) and play in two separate bands. They are playing regularly, recording, one of the bands has done a tour of Poland (yep, you don’t think of it at this distance but they do have paying rock fans and concert halls in Poland) and I think their hard work will pay off. Seems to be anyway.
They are also in a very different social and emotional environment than we have here.
In the latest Real Groove where Neil Finn’s comments were published I have done an interview with Auckland singer-songwriter Miriam Clancy (who plays this Thursday at the Schooner Tavern incidentally).
In that I mention that she and her husband and young child are off back to the States so she can pursue her career there. They sold their house here a while ago so they could afford for her to record her debut album Lucky One which I think was one of the best albums of last year. Now they are looking to base themselves over in the States, maybe Nashville.
The point I made in the article is that unlike here the music community in Nashville will critique her work, here we provide a support network. But music isn’t a community project and never has been. Yes, we should support New Zealand music in terms of financial assistance and especially schemes like Outward Sound -- but at the end of it all it needs to be recognised that the new OpShop album isn’t competing for attention with the new album by the Tweeks from Dunedin, it is up against Arcade Fire, the Arctic Monkeys, Clinic etc etc.
My belief is that too often artists here -- and I am listening to two local albums at the moment which, while well intentioned, I wouldn’t give you tuppence for -- don’t have their work critiqued at every step of the process: in the writing, the recording, production, even the running order on an album.
Those who base themselves off shore are surrounded by so many more musical and cultural influences, so much more information, so many more points of reference or comparison.
Music is an international game and if artists only want success in this country then that is fine. I think they, if they deserve it on merit, should have it.
But for those who see something bigger and better out there -- a career even -- then the sights must be set beyond the horizon. But not through rose-tinted glasses.
Without wishing to speak for him or interpret his words, what I think Neil Finn was saying was that we need to be pragmatic and hard-nosed about this music business. It certainly is.
And ambitious musicians who aren’t tough/prepared/professional/hard-working and so on in all kinds of ways may find the world cruel and indifferent to them.
I think he was, in an off-the-cuff way, saying something that we need to hear more. The press releases about our bands at SXSW or playing a big Waitangi Day gig in London, or having a track added a TripleJ or flying to some Sydney-side MTV bash with a bunch of hangers-on need to be put into perspective.
It struck me that while a few people got huffy about Neil Finn’s remarks about Helen Clark our attention might have been better directed at what else he had to say.
But maybe that was a bit uncomfortable -- and in New Zealand Music Month we don’t want to hear it.