In 1990 a private member’s bill for a New Zealand music quota was introduced to Parliament by Graham Kelly, Labour MP for Porirua and a piano-playing leader of dance bands for many years. He remembers the experience.
Introducing a Music Quota Bill into Parliament to increase the amount of New Zealand music played on our radio stations to 20% was something I enjoyed getting my teeth into during my first term.
Promoting and protecting our own culture and identity was the fundamental object of the Bill. The quota would have allowed New Zealanders to be heard as we have a particular sound when singing and it would have helped promote our musicians and vocalists.
By the 1980s, there was barely a song or composition that was written or performed by Kiwis on our radio stations. What we heard on the radio was the music of New York, Nashville, Chicago, London, Liverpool, Sydney, and Melbourne and every other place that based their music on the playlists of the US, Australia, and the UK, but they ignored our own distinct culture.
Radio New Zealand not long before then introduced a voluntary quota of 10% of music performed on their commercial and non-commercial stations that had to be played and recorded by New Zealanders. These were the YA, YC (concert programme) and YD network stations plus the commercial ZB network. That quota was working, the audience numbers were higher than private radio stations, so the opposition to New Zealand content by the private radio stations did not hold water.
Popular music was played from “playlists” that came from mainly the US, Australia, and the UK. These were what sold advertising. Any programmer overseas and in New Zealand could have been tone deaf and just followed the other stations’ playlists to know that this would improve their ratings and attract listeners to be able to sell more toothpaste or tyres. They did not have to know or like the artists or the tunes.
As a result, our private commercial radio stations played less than 2% of local artists’ music, except for the few student radio stations who often had 50% playtime for New Zealand artists. Wellington’s very popular Radio Windy had 0.3% local content, because they, like the other stations, thought that foreign vocalists and bands were what attracted listeners and advertisers.
There was more local content the further away the station was from the main centres in New Zealand, but nowhere near anything that made a real difference. Before going out of government, we also helped by directing NZ On Air to produce a Kiwi Hits Album three times a year, comprising new releases of New Zealand artists recordings and sending these to radio stations without charge to encourage them to play New Zealand artists. This has continued since.
During that term in office, a group of popular New Zealand musicians and artists came to see me in Parliament and asked if I could help redress this problem of them being blocked from having their records played on our radio stations.
They pointed out that Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in Australia had legislated for this in 1974 by introducing a Music Quota by law to provide that all radio stations had to play not less than 20% local Australian content. The same quota on TV applied in Australia.
At the time the Australian legislation was being considered, the Australian private radio stations launched a campaign against the move by deciding to play a new recording of an Australian tune called The Redback on the Toilet Seat by Slim Newton, in the hope that people would not like it and the proposed music quota legislation would rebound against the government.
They thought this tune and its words were so bad that it would kill the Bill for local content in their Parliament. It had the opposite effect, and the tune became a hit in both Australia and New Zealand.
Unbeknown to me when I started work on the Bill, was the fact that when the negotiations for the first-ever Free Trade Agreement New Zealand negotiated with another country in the 1970s took place, an important omission occurred. The Closer Economic Relations Agreement (CER) with Australia had a provision the Australians wanted, which was to be able to sell their broadcasting radio and television recordings to us, without restrictions, and have these played on our radio and television, but New Zealand did not then insist on a reciprocal arrangement.
That’s why there are Australian-made productions on our TV channels and Australian recording artists on our radio stations, and maybe once a year they might show our Once Were Warriors movie on their TV. And it’s why very few Kiwi recording artists are heard across the ditch on their radio stations. There were 342 submissions, nearly all in favour of the Bill. There were the expected reactions. Young people said it was just what they wanted. They liked hearing their own country’s artists. Musicians and their union strongly supported it and made their views known at concerts and anywhere they played.
Not unexpectedly, the radio industry strongly opposed the move, surprisingly, including Radio New Zealand in their appearance before the select committee, as did the National Party. The evidence showed that one percentage point increase in listenership could mean the difference of $400,000 a year to a radio station in Auckland or $160,000 in Christchurch – sometimes the difference between a profit and a loss.
Stations were not prepared to take the risk of finding out whether a record made by Kiwis would be a hit or popular unless it had been tested overseas. This created a total inbuilt barrier for local material to get on the air
By the time the Bill was due to return to the House, it was too late to progress it because the 1990 General Election had been called, so it was carried over as business awaiting the reopening of the new Parliament. On winning the election, the National Party told me they would not support my Bill, but we could have one final debate in the House.
By then radio stations had started playing far more New Zealand content in anticipation of the measure possibly becoming law and most privately owned commercial stations were playing around 10% of local artists with many playing more. This increase has continued to this day.
Airplay of New Zealand music has doubled since March 2002 when the government and the Radio Broadcasters Association launched a Code of Practice for New Zealand music content, then agreeing to a “target” of 20% of local music by the year 2006. This would have been a huge jump from the less than an average of 2% of music played on commercial radio in 1995.
By 2005, New Zealand music had risen and accounted for a record 20.8% of music played on commercial radio – up from 18.6% in 2004.
Would anything have happened to redress the lack of New Zealand content on our radio stations had my Private Members Bill not been introduced? I doubt it. The market does not often correct these gaps of its own accord.
Read more: NZ Music Quota Petition, 1986 - a personal memory