Story: Popular music

Page 11. The rise of New Zealand music, 1990s to 2000s

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The 1990s was a new dawn for New Zealand popular music. After a period in which only the most established acts received airplay on commercial radio, several developments saw young acts receive recognition. Widespread respect towards local music had been absent since the 1960s but now re-emerged.


Former student radio programmers found careers in mainstream radio, bringing a more supportive attitude to new stations such as The Rock, Channel Z and the state-assisted (though privately owned) Kiwi FM. Whereas in 1995 only 1.6% of music played on commercial radio was of New Zealand origin, in 2002 radio stations agreed to aim towards a voluntary quota of 20%. This was subsequently achieved.

Increased radio play boosted the local music scene and exposed listeners to more singers, bands and sounds than before.

Television and internet

From 1993 New Zealand music fans could watch dedicated music channels on television. In 1999 the television show Popstars, which created the band TrueBliss, launched a new generation of talent shows.

The rise of the internet in the 1990s and the music-sharing websites that followed were a challenge to established record labels, but made it easier for musicians and bands to market their work independently and reach new audiences, locally and overseas.


The government’s broadcasting funding body New Zealand On Air (established in 1989) launched several initiatives to encourage more airplay for local acts, such as funding for videos, recordings, promotions and compilations to help programmers’ decision-making.

The costs of recording lowered significantly, so young acts could make quality recordings without needing backing from major labels, just distribution deals.

Home-grown success

Bands that achieved mainstream success in the 1990s included the Headless Chickens, the Mutton Birds, the Exponents, the Feelers, Supergroove and Push Push.

Electronic music started to make its presence felt and some bands, such as Strawpeople, used samples and electronic beats to create their sound. Pioneering electronic label Kog Transmissions was founded in 1997 and released the early albums of P-Money and Concord Dawn.

By the mid-2000s the popularity of New Zealand music had reached new heights. Several artists were rewarded with album sales of between 30,000 and 60,000 – among them the female singer-songwriters Bic Runga, Brooke Fraser and Anika Moa.

A second wave of reggae-influenced acts saw the genre evolve from its Jamaican origins to a more indigenous sound: Trinity Roots, Salmonella Dub, Katchafire and Fat Freddy’s Drop. Similarly acts such as Scribe, Tiki Taane, P-Money and Ladi 6 localised rap.


Kimbra won two awards at the 2012 Grammy Awards for her collaboration with Australian singer Gotye. They won for best pop duo and best record.

Many New Zealand musicians set their sights on overseas success, often helped by the marketing nous of the New Zealand Music Industry Commission, founded in 2003. Among those who received acclaim in the US or Britain were the hard rock bands the Datsuns, Shihad, and D4, and pop acts Evermore, Kimbra and Ladyhawke. Less high-profile acts that found an audience abroad included the Phoenix Foundation, Mint Chicks and Brunettes.

In 2013 Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor), aged just 16, became the first woman to top the American Billboard Alternative Songs Chart in 17 years with her song ‘Royals’. She went on to reach number one on the US singles chart, and won two Grammy awards, for best pop solo performance and song of the year.

How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - The rise of New Zealand music, 1990s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014