With the turn of the millennium, the NZ music landscape drastically changed. Noticing a distinct divide between local and international artists taking up our chart space, the NZ Music Commission decided to initiate an annual scheme that would celebrate the vast amount of talent we had here in Aotearoa. The result? NZ Music Month: a spotlight on Kiwi artists for the entire 31 days of May.
And it worked. As more and more grants were offered to budding local musicians, more radio play and airtime became available and therefore more local music was being pushed out to the masses. In the year 2000 alone, 12 Kiwi artists entered our Top 40. The following year saw it jump to 20, and by 2002 we had a whopping 26 locals – who had seemingly come out of nowhere – climb their way up NZ’s charts.
It’s a system that’s continued to work, too. Despite the introduction of streaming in 2012 shaking things up (more on that later), Kiwi artists have always felt the support they needed from their home first. Whether it’s a live gig, a press release, or simply just a shout out from a radio host, NZMM has been giving our country’s artists a voice for more than a decade now; and what a journey it’s been. With a mix of sounds, tastes and histories, NZ’s music scene is one of the most diverse and it continues to thrive both nationally and internationally.
In celebration of 21 years of NZMM, we unpack the unique evolution of Kiwi music from the 2000s to now.
Classic Pub Rock and the Introduction of Pop-Punk (Early 2000s)
The prime of physical music also brought with it the prime of live gigs, and what, for decades and decades, has always sounded the best live? Heavy guitars, smashing drums, and the kick-assery of rock, obviously. Taking inspiration from predecessors such as The Feelers, The Exponents and Shihad, new rock bands started to form as the NZ music scene started to expand. It was a sound that had worked in the zeitgeist of our musical history well; so, when Helen Clark announced in 2000 (in May, fittingly) that $80 million would be placed into the arts sector for the next few years, burgeoning bands started to come out of the woodwork and use that extra step up to propel them into the already blossoming NZ rock scene.
In the late 90s, the rumblings of a Christchurch band called Zed started to form. They were edgy but still radio-friendly, cited Radiohead as a huge influence, and were impressively still in high school. Already a fascinating mix, the country couldn’t get enough.
The band started their chart debut with the 1999 hit ‘Glorafilia’ before going on to smash with their 2000 debut album Silencer. Spending 17 weeks on the NZ charts – 9 of which were in the top 10 – the impact Silencer had across the nation was massive. Six radio hits were put on heavy rotation from the album, one of them being the iconic ‘Renegade Fighter’, which would come to be synonymous with Rebel Sport’s brand (following their long-running ad) and one of Kiwis’ most loved tracks.
A couple of years later, a quirky four-piece by the name of Elemeno P dipped their toe into the NZ rock scene before fully wading in and shifting the entire paradigm. With a fresh approach, the band brought pop-punk into the world of garage rock and made fun, crazy pop rock hits that soundtracked an entire generation’s house parties.
Elemeno P made waves with their debut hit ‘Fast Times in Tahoe’ before going on to drop their debut album in 2003 Love & Disrespect which went straight to number 1 in NZ. It was hard to pinpoint the band’s edge; they were simultaneously a bunch of genres and then none at all, but what can be agreed is the American sound they harboured. Bringing that sought-after pop-punk sound from the West into our mainstream, Elemeno P set the stage for a new generation of Kiwi artists who didn’t have to just fit the classic rock mould to succeed.
The Rise of Urban Pasifika and R&B (Mid to late 2000s)
The other end of the musical spectrum saw the hip hop movement move in full swing. Following the massive popularity of 90s R&B and hip hop overseas, NZ artists started to look for ways to replicate that familiar sound but also make it feel more home-grown. While the genre of Urban Pasifika – a blend of Pacific Island and Māori instrumentation and language mixed with classic R&B and hip hop – had been around for a while, the idea of making it more commercial and in line with the West had really only started to come from the likes of Che-Fu, Scribe, Savage and OMC’s classic ‘How Bizarre’ a few years prior.
In 2004, a new R&B star was emerging. Indian-Samoan Aaradhna was the newest addition to the iconic Dawn Raid Records (the label that housed a good chunk of NZ hip hop artists during this time), and she brought with her something fresh that would elevate our take on hip hop and help propel it internationally.
With her soft neo-soul R&B, Aaradhna officially made her start when she appeared on Adeaze’s hit ‘Getting Stronger’, which would peak at number 2. The next year, she teamed up with Savage for the Sione’s Wedding classic ‘They Don’t Know’, which took her to number 3, before dropping her debut album I Love You in 2006 to an already established fanbase. From there, the star would go on to test out different genres and sounds (such as jazz, soul and 60s swing), but her additions to such a thriving hip hop culture will always cement her as one of the greatest R&B stars our country has seen.
David Dallas and Smashproof
Jump to a few years later and the hip hop scene in NZ is the predominant genre, with Kiwis preferring the unique sound of our own local artists to the traditional one that filtered through radios overseas. Urban Pasifika created a world of opportunity for an entire group who had been minorities their whole lives, and now they finally had the chance to share their stories on a national – and eventually global – stage.
In 2009, David Dallas dropped his debut album Something Awesome which went on to win Best Urban/Hip Hop Album at the NZ Music Awards and earned a shortlist for the 2010 Taite Music Prize. That same year, rap trio Smashproof would release ‘Brother’ with Gin Wigmore, a track that still holds the record for most weeks spent at number 1 (11 weeks) for a local artist. While seemingly two competitors in the NZ rap game, both artists brought humanity to hip hop. Touching on darker subjects that were real and honest portrayals of life in NZ, they both provided a source of escape for Kiwis who needed it and somehow managed to create a sound and message that was entirely our own.
But the resurgence of hip hop wasn’t the only storm rising, the internet was getting savvier and so too were people’s ways of discovering music. Something Awesome went straight to number 1 on the NZ iTunes chart, opening up a new field for artists to conquer. Music was going digital, and the blueprint as we knew it was changing.
Dance Pop and the Wonderful World of Streaming (2010s)
Spotify officially launched in NZ in 2012, simultaneously kicking the music industry in the gut while lending it a helping hand. The introduction of streaming changed everything; for one, artists no longer had to worry about government grants and album rollouts in order to be heard, but suddenly having an influx of every artist everywhere in the world in one single place proved challenging. The guidelines for landing a spot on our local charts had changed; instead of 1000 people going out and purchasing your hit single, you now needed thousands of streams in the one day.
However, with the internet came the technicality. With access to more digital tools, a new genre started to creep into our local music scene that emulated international artists well. Names like Ladyhawke, Kids of 88, Ruby Frost and The Naked and Famous started popping up, with each artist delivering a refreshing mix of synthesisers and 80s dance beats. It became clear that in order to keep up with the world spinning, local artists would have to develop a sound that would hit overseas if they wanted a fair chance in the streaming fight.
The Naked and Famous
In 2010, The Naked and Famous struck gold with their hit ‘Young Blood’, a track that would eventually take them all around the world and one that, most importantly, opened up a path for emerging local stars to follow in their footsteps. Their sound was like no other; in a world of loopy hip hop beats and slashing guitars, the Auckland group came out swinging with a burst of indie electronica. But while essentially more internationally focused, The Naked and Famous’ computerised rhythms made it clear that they voiced the new generation of teens. Ones that were moving away from garage rock to digital euphoria, and ones who wanted their youth to be soundtracked by something so larger than life it would set the mood for the next decade.
In the summer of 2012, a 5-track EP called The Love Club was uploaded to SoundCloud for free download by a 15-year-old Auckland schoolgirl. The biggest hit ‘Royals’, a quirky electropop look at modern aristocracy, would eventually propel her into global superstardom and earn her the title of becoming NZ’s biggest international pop export in history.
The success of Lorde could’ve never been predicted, but it’s a shot that’s been building up for decades as Kiwi artists before her have laid down the groundwork. While chasing an American sound, Lorde still found ways to incorporate home-grown elements – such as our knack for hip hop and R&B – and her goofy, unfiltered approach to being a pop star is undoubtedly the product of NZ’s casual demeanour. The teenage star became the youngest solo artist to top the US Billboard chart and the first NZ artist to do so since OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’, and she remains a polarising figure in not just our music scene but the world’s.
The Easy Listening Grey Area (2000 – present)
Filtering through the rock bands, the South Auckland MC’s, and the burgeoning pop stars were the artists that just really honed that NZ sound: an easy listening mix of reggae, R&B, pop and rock. It’s a sound that you can pinpoint right away, that familiar twang, the opening guitar chords. It appeals to all Kiwis, rather than picking which age group to target, and has come to provide the soundtrack to way of life in NZ.
In 2007, pop rock group Opshop dropped their sophomore album Second Hand Planet. Already floating from the success of their 2004 hit ‘No Ordinary Thing’, the album reached number 1, single ‘Maybe’ reached number 3, and ‘One Day’ went on to become the best-selling local single of the year. With a softness to their rock edge, the impact Opshop had on the country is one that has helped newer bands break through. Providing a mix of elements and genres Kiwis were known to love, they became the staple sound for some of the most important moments of our lives.
It would be two years later until Gin Wigmore would step onto the scene. Loud, mischievous, and entirely her own person, the blonde bombshell paved the way for female artists to not care about anyone’s opinion and simply just be themselves.
With the drop of her 2009 debut album Holy Smoke, Wigmore instantly cemented herself as a prominent figure in NZ’s music history. Three singles ‘Hey Ho’, ‘Oh My’ and ‘I Do’ circulated not only NZ but internationally as well, and the 2011 smash ‘Black Sheep’ has appeared in a number of global ad campaigns and TV shows. Mixing country, rock, blues, soul and pop, there’s a distinct art to Wigmore’s artistry that can only be attributed to our colourful country. Her honest and raw approach again reflects back to our cultural behaviour, and her trailblazing has led the way for artists such as Lorde and BENEE to grow as modern female stars.
For Six60, it wasn’t until their self-titled debut album dropped in 2011 that the Dunedin group – formed a few years prior – began to slowly take over NZ. Paying homage to the likes of Salmonella Dub, Shapeshifter and Fat Freddy’s Drop, the awe of Six60 is how they consistently manage to blend the lines of music. With elements of reggae, dubstep, electronica, pop and R&B, the band have cast their shadow over all Kiwis and have since become our most commercially successful band. Their hit ‘Don’t Forget Your Roots’ earned the group ‘Single of the Year’ at the 2012 NZ Music Awards, became the highest-selling track of the year, and subsequently put them on the map to achieve a history-making musical career.
The fight to the top becomes hard when it feels as though the reach is so far away, and it often seems like Kiwis have to work twice as hard than anyone else to just be seen. With the introduction of streaming, smaller artists simply can’t compete with the Drakes, Arianas and Taylors of the world, so charting success isn’t what it used to be. Streaming services also work on the collation of global user data and since NZ is such a small market, this means they lack the ability to distinguish the difference between Shapeshifter, David Dallas and Fat Freddy’s Drop and instead lump them all together as ‘NZ music,’ which of course affects audience listening behaviour.
But just because the number of Kiwis in the charts may seem low in comparison, it doesn’t take away from the fact that our music scene is absolutely flourishing with talent. In just 21 years alone, our country has seen incredible artists act with passion, honesty, integrity and a strong pride for home, and in some cases those virtues have carried us all over the world. We may be small, but what we lack in size we make up for in love. Kiwis will always love Kiwis. There will always be a sense of pride in seeing a NZ star rising or listening to a local single. When we prove that anything is possible, it brings that reach for the top down just a little bit lower for everyone else, and thus our creative ecosystem continues.
From heavy rock to Urban Pasifika to dubstep, NZ’s music scene has been about as colourful and diverse as our culture. Representing all walks of life, and all listening tastes, our music has always been made by the people, for the people. There’s a sense of community when you’re at a Six60 history-making gig or when you’re watching Lorde receive her Grammy; almost like a line that connects you to every other person in NZ. We all share the praise, the blood, sweat and tears. We all watch as another one of us looks at something and thinks huh, I reckon I could do that too, and we all stand back proudly when they then go and bloody do it.
Take a listen to our NZ Music Month playlist below!