New Zealanders had an early fascination with listening to sound that had been recorded and replayed. The first phonograph, an early form of record player that played wax cylinders, was demonstrated in New Zealand in 1879, just two years after its invention in the US by Thomas Edison. Two thousand Canterbury settlers travelled to Lyttelton to hear ‘Edison’s wonderful phonograph speak, sing, laugh, whistle and play Levy’s cornet solos’.1 The sound quality was very poor, and the phonograph remained a novelty for some years.
Bernard Holton, a founder of the Talkeries chain of record shops, recalled in 1904 that ‘we received a visit to our Wellington establishment from the daughter of a noted chief who greatly wanted a recording of her voice. After recovering a little from natural nervousness she sang with verve a song in the Maori language and was … delighted with the subsequent reproduction’.2
In 1901 a chain of shops called the Talkeries sold gramophones, an improved form of phonograph that played disc-shaped records rather than cylinders. The records were known as ‘78s’, a reference to the speed they were played at – 78 rpm (revolutions per minute). The Talkeries also sold these records, including blank ones that customers could record their own sounds directly onto.
Concerts of recorded music were held, to allow people who did not own gramophones or records to hear the world’s greatest musicians.
Recording music outside a studio using portable equipment began in New Zealand in 1919, at a hui marking the return from England of the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. The recording team consisted of Elsdon Best and James McDonald from the Dominion Museum. Between 1919 and 1923 they made expeditions to Gisborne, Rotorua, the Whanganui River and the East Coast, recording waiata and chants on Edison Dictaphone wax cylinders. At times the recording team included Peter Buck and Apirana Ngata.
The first New Zealander to make a commercial recording is said to have been Wellington-born baritone John Prouse. He recorded 12 songs while in Britain in 1905. Six were released by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. Soon other New Zealanders also recorded overseas, such as the singer Frances Alda, who recorded with the famous tenor Enrico Caruso in the US in 1910.
By the mid-1920s the quality of recorded music had greatly improved and many New Zealand homes owned a record player. These played heavy and brittle 78-rpm records imported from overseas companies such as His Master’s Voice (HMV) in Britain. A New Zealand branch of HMV, called Gramophonium, was first established in Wellington by E. J. Hyams in 1913.
Australasia’s first recording studio opened in Homebush, Sydney, in 1926 and recorded many New Zealand as well as Australian performers. Dunedin tenor Ernest McKinlay recorded ballads and Māori songs that sold well in New Zealand.
In 1927 Australian recording engineers from HMV used portable equipment at Tunohopu meeting house at Ōhinemutu, Rotorua. They recorded well-known Māori songs such as ‘Pōkarekare ana’ and ‘Hine e hine’, which were sung by Ana Hato, her cousin Deane Waretini and other local musicians. These became the first commercial recordings made in New Zealand.
Many more recordings of Māori performers followed, and sold well in New Zealand and overseas. ‘Po atarau’ (‘Now is the Hour’) eventually proved a hit for Britain’s Gracie Fields, American singers Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and many others.
One of the first local recording stars was Nelson-born country singer Tex Morton, who recorded almost 100 songs in Sydney between 1936 and 1943.
New Zealand was very slow to develop a homegrown recording industry. The sound quality of gramophone music was still poorer than that of radio broadcasts and movies, so records struggled to compete. As well, HMV had a virtual monopoly on records sold in New Zealand, and had no interest in recording local artists.
Until 1935 the only local sound recording facilities were in radio stations or in small studios making radio commercials and contracted to the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS). In 1948 a local radio and gramophone manufacturer, the Radio Corporation of New Zealand, built a new recording studio at 262 Wakefield St, Wellington. It also established the country’s first record label, TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists), a name invented by Radio Corporation employee Bart Fortune.
Over seven days in October 1948 Stan Dallas, a technician on loan to TANZA from the NZBS, recorded the song ‘Blue smoke’, written by Ruru Karaitiana and sung by Pixie Williams. The record sold over 20,000 copies and was New Zealand’s first all-local hit.
In the 1950s technical developments such as recording to tape rather than disc, and 45-rpm singles and 33⅓-rpm long-playing records (LPs) greatly widened the market for recorded music. The music business itself was shaken to the core by the raw new sound of rock ’n’ roll.
The TANZA label followed up its first hit, ‘Blue smoke’, with ‘Maple on the hill’ by the Otago country and western quartet, the Tumbleweeds. Noel Peach’s Astor Studio in Auckland’s Shortland Street also began to record artists for TANZA, including Pat McMinn, whose ‘Opo the crazy dolphin’ was the hit of 1955. However, in 1956 TANZA’s parent company, the Radio Corporation of New Zealand, gained the rights to distribute recordings from the US-based company RCA in New Zealand, and after that it reduced its interest in local artists.
The New Zealand branch of the label His Master’s Voice (HMV) relied on small independent studios for its local recordings. At Alan Dunnage’s Island Bay Studio in Wellington, country and western entertainer Johnny Cooper recorded a version of ‘Rock around the clock’ for HMV in August 1955. This was possibly the first rock ’n’ roll recording made outside the US.
Another local record label was formed by Aucklander Eldred Stebbing who, since 1945, had been recording weddings, parties and other events direct to disc. In 1951 he formed the Zodiac label, which had the slogan, ‘Follow the stars on Zodiac’. The label went on to release over 400 records. In 1965 Zodiac had a number-one hit in New Zealand and Australia with Ray Columbus and the Invaders’ ‘She’s a mod’. Stebbing eventually opened a four-studio, all-digital complex in Auckland’s Ponsonby.
Among the staff working at a recording studio are: the A&R (artists and repertoire) manager, who selects the material to be recorded; the producer, who makes overall decisions and aims to capture the best possible performance from the artists; the musical director, who arranges the backing musicians and often conducts them as well; and the recording engineer, who operates the equipment.
The leading recording facility in the South Island was run by Keith Robbins, who took over the Christchurch Recording Studio in Springfield Road in 1958. Over the next 15 years his label issued some 150 records, covering local artists from country singers to brass bands, local rockers and Celtic folk clubs. Robbins stopped releasing records in the late 1970s but his son-in-law, sound engineer John Phair, opened Tandem Studios and launched a record label of the same name.
In the late 1950s a new wave of New Zealand independent labels appeared, driven by the craze for rock ’n’ roll. Phil Warren was only 17 when he formed Prestige Records in 1956. The following year he signed young rock ’n’ roll sensation Johnny Devlin, and recorded his debut single ‘Lawdy Miss Claudy’ live in May 1958. Prestige issued New Zealand’s first rock ’n’ roll album, simply titled Johnny, in 1959.
Another entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller, founded the La Gloria label and had national success with the Howard Morrison Quartet. Their hit ‘My old man’s an All Black’ was recorded at the Pukekohe Town Hall in 1960.
In 1957 veteran local publishers A. H. and A. W. Reed launched the Kiwi Records label (later Kiwi Pacific Records), focusing on Māori music and the educational market. Kiwi’s manager, Tony Vercoe, had early success with original songs by folk singer Peter Cape, such as ‘Down the hall on Saturday night’. Poet James K. Baxter and composer Douglas Lilburn were other early Kiwi Records artists.
In 1964 Kiwi signed the young Kiri Te Kanawa, and later Malvina Major and Īnia Te Wīata. The bird noises played daily on Radio New Zealand came from Kiwi's catalogue. In 2012 Kiwi Pacific reissued the legendary 1920s recordings by Ana Hato and Deane Waretini.
An effect used on many HMV recordings around 1967–68, such as 'Spinning, spinning, spinning’ by Simple Image and 'St Paul' by Shane, was the swishing sound known as phasing. Frank Douglas, a recording engineer at Wellington’s HMV studio, used a primitive but ingenious method to create the effect: he recorded on two tape recorders and varied the speed of one very slowly, putting it slightly out of phase with the other. ‘To get it to happen in the right place was very hit and miss.’1
The 1960s were something of a golden age for the New Zealand record industry. Each year local labels released 70–80 singles and the occasional album. With generous radio and television exposure, they sold in impressive numbers. Most were recorded by HMV (later EMI), which bought the Radio Corporation of New Zealand studio in Wellington in 1962.
Murdoch Riley, a former employee of both the New Zealand Broadcasting Service and TANZA, formed Viking Records in 1957 with Jim Staples and Ron Dalton. In the 1960s Viking had a series of massive hits by local artists such as Peter Posa, Maria Dallas, the Chicks and Dinah Lee. In 2013 its large back catalogue, especially of country, Pacific Islands and Māori music, still sold strongly.
One of the longest surviving early independents was Ode Records, formed in Auckland in the late 1960s by Terence O’Neill-Joyce. Ode developed an extensive catalogue of New Zealand, Pacific, world, classical and jazz recordings by local artists. In 2013 Ode was also the appointed distributor for more than 50 other independent music labels from New Zealand and overseas.
In the mid-1970s the New Zealand recording industry entered a decline. Independent labels could no longer compete with multinationals such as EMI, recording was too expensive for most performers, and radio was under no obligation to play a minimum quota of local music, although many in the music industry had begun to lobby for such a quota. Local releases sold in small and usually uneconomic numbers, and there were just six new titles a year in 1976–78.
Sales of cassette tapes now outnumbered record sales.
One of the few new labels in this period was founded by James Moss, who had a background as marketing manager for EMI. He created Record and Cassette Distribution in 1975. Six years later he formed Jayrem Records whose first release was a cassette of ‘Maori myths and legends’. Moss went on to record and distribute for niche music markets such as heavy metal, Māori music, women’s music, poetry, children’s recordings, blues and reggae. New Zealand's first rap single, ‘E tu’ by Upper Hutt Posse, was released by Jayrem in 1981.
In 1976 EMI moved its recording facility to Lower Hutt and became primarily a record and cassette manufacturing plant. The other major recording studios with 16- or 24-track facilities – Marmalade in Wellington, and Auckland’s Stebbings, Mandrill and Mascot – survived by recording TV and radio commercials. Local musicians were occasionally permitted to record overnight at cheap rates. However, the most successful acts, such as Auckland rockers Hello Sailor, recorded at overseas studios as soon as they could afford to do so.
A number of international record companies had New Zealand offices. They sold mainly overseas recordings, but invested a portion of their budget in New Zealand artists. By the late 1970s CBS could claim New Zealand’s three biggest-selling recording artists – Sharon O’Neill, Jon Stevens and Misex.
At the end of the 1970s local music was rescued by the rise of punk culture. Raw energy suddenly mattered more than recording quality, and a wave of small independent labels arrived.
Ripper Records was set up by broadcaster Bryan Staff in 1979, and recorded Auckland-based bands such as Toy Love and the Swingers. Mike Chunn, formerly the bass player for renowned New Zealand band Split Enz, became Ripper’s resident producer.
Propeller Records was formed in 1980 by Simon Grigg, and in 1981 had a hit with Blam Blam Blam’s ‘It’s bigger than both of us’. That year they also released the Screaming Meemees’ single ‘See me go’ – the first New Zealand single to debut at number one in the New Zealand charts.
In 1985 Trevor Reekie formed Pagan Records, which became known for innovative artists such as Shona Laing and Greg Johnson.
By far the most successful of the independent labels was Flying Nun, formed by Christchurch music-store worker Roger Shepherd in 1981, to create an outlet for South Island bands. Many initially recorded at Arnold van Bussell’s eight-track Nightshift Studios in Christchurch.
Flying Nun became internationally known for the ‘Dunedin sound’ of bands such as the Clean, the Chills and the Verlaines. In 1990 Flying Nun signed a deal with the large Australian independent Mushroom Records to acquire the capital and facilities to meet the international demand for its records.
A veteran Māori singer/producer, Māui Dalvanius Prime, formed the Maui label in the early 1980s, with hopes of doing for Māori performers what the US Motown label had achieved for Black Americans. The hip hop single ‘Poi e’, performed by the Pātea Māori Club with Māori-language lyrics by Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi, was released in 1983 and became an international hit.
Maui ceased issuing new records in 1990 and its catalogue was then administered by Jayrem. A remastered and extended 25th anniversary edition of the Pātea Māori Club album was issued in 2009.
In 1986 Murray Thom, formerly head of CBS New Zealand, formed his own company, Thom Marketing, and made a recording of hotel foyer pianist Carl Doy performing popular standards. Piano by candlelight went platinum in New Zealand (15,000 sales). Nine similar records followed, and a compilation of them exceeded sales of three million in the US.
EMI’s Lower Hutt studio closed its doors in 1987. By then there were more than a dozen recording studios in Auckland alone, ranging from Harlequin, featuring state-of-the-art 24-track equipment, to Last Laugh, an eight-track studio pitched at progressive and experimental bands.
It was not until 2002 that New Zealand radio stations agreed to aim for a voluntary quota of 20% local music. This was a further boost to independent record labels.
In 1990 Murray Cammick, editor of the music magazine Rip it Up, formed the Auckland-based label Southside. It specialised in dance music and soul, and recorded the Hallelujah Picassos and Māori artists such as Ngaire, Moana and the Moa Hunters and Upper Hutt Posse.
With the aim of promoting and recording music by Māori and Polynesian artists, musician Neil Cruickshank and producer George Hubbard set up the Tangata label in 1991. It outlasted Southside, and some Southside artists later transferred to Tangata.
Alan Jansson founded Uptown Studios (originally Voxpop) in Auckland in the late 1980s and began producing young Polynesian hip hop and R&B acts, mostly from South Auckland. A number of these recordings were collected on the 1994 compilation Proud, released on Simon Grigg’s local label, Huh! Proud’s payoff came in 1996 when Jansson produced the single ‘How bizarre’ by OMC (Pauly Fuemana). The song reached number one in many territories, including Canada, Ireland and the US.
The recording industry worldwide was transformed by the proliferation in the 1990s of digital recording equipment. Digital compact discs (CDs) provided higher-quality reproduction than cassette tapes, although some aficionados continued to favour vinyl (records) over both newer formats. Later, CDs were replaced by newer digital formats such as MP3 that could be downloaded directly to playing devices such as iPods.
For New Zealand studios, digital recording could dramatically reduce the cost of recording and distributing music. This enabled small independent labels to compete more effectively with multinationals. Auckland band the Mutton Birds won Best Album in the 1993 New Zealand Music Awards although they had no record label at all. Their self-titled album was digitally recorded in their practice room.
Dawn Raid Music was formed in 1996 by former school friends Brotha D and Andy Murnane. Its name harks back to police dawn raids on Pacific Islands immigrants in the 1970s. Dawn Raid planned to record previously undiscovered hip hop artists, especially from South Auckland. To raise funds they produced T-shirts for sale at South Auckland fleamarkets. Their first compilation album, Southside story, appeared in 2000. Its record label, Dawn Raid, also formed a clothing label, retail stores and publishing, film and television projects.
Kog Transmissions was formed in 1997 as an outlet for the enthusiasts creating electronic dance music on computers and keyboards in their bedrooms and home studios. It helped to launch acts such as P-Money, Scribe and Shapeshifter. In 2014 it operated from a studio in West Auckland specialising in mastering (finalising recorded music), particularly for release on the internet platform iTunes.
Tim Gummer and Steve Garden developed their Auckland recording studio into the label Rattle Records to showcase contemporary instrumental music. In 1994 they recorded Te ku te whe, a ground-breaking album of music for traditional Māori instruments, played by Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne. It became a ‘gold record’ (representing sales of at least 7,500) in 2002, and influenced an entire generation of New Zealand musicians.
Rattle has also produced award-winning albums by classical musicians such as Jack Body, Dan Poynton and John Psathas, and launched a jazz series in 2009.
Producer and musician Joel Little set up his Golden Age studio in Auckland’s Morningside in 2011. The following year he began working with 15-year-old Devonport schoolgirl Ella Yelich-O’Connor. Performing as Lorde, her song ‘Royals’ became a New Zealand number-one hit in March 2013. In August 2013 it went to number one in the US, making Lorde the first New Zealand solo artist to top the US Hot 100, and the youngest artist to hold the US number one spot in more than 25 years.
The NZ Federation of Phonographic Industries, formed in 1956, was renamed the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand in 1972. In 2013 it merged with PPNZ Music Licensing to become Recorded Music NZ (RMNZ). RMNZ represented the record producers, distributors and artists selling recorded music in New Zealand. In 2013 it was dominated by four large multinational companies, including EMI.
Independent Music New Zealand (IMNZ), formed in 2001, represented independent record labels and distributors, and in 2013 had over 90 members. Both RMNZ and IMNZ lobbied on behalf of their members on issues such as parallel importing of recorded music, music copyright and online licensing.
A steep decline in record sales prompted major record companies to consolidate and reduce their numbers. In 2014 New Zealand continued to support a number of active independent labels, but their focus had shifted from physical to digital music sales.
The Archive of New Zealand Music in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, collects scores and sound recordings of music composed and performed by New Zealanders. In 2014 it held over 36,000 discs, tapes and cassettes.
Radio New Zealand's Sound Archives was responsible for preserving and providing access to New Zealand's recorded radio heritage, and in 2014 merged with the New Zealand Film Archive to form Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. Its collection includes early lacquer discs, analogue and digital tape cassettes and over 20,000 open reel tapes. Ngā Taonga Kōrero (the Treasures of Speech) is a separate collection of Māori recordings dating from the early 1960s. The Archive of Māori and Pacific Music, held at the University of Auckland, is the world’s largest archive of Polynesian sounds.
Bourke, Chris. Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010.
Staff, Bryan, and Sheran Ashley. For the record: a history of the recording industry in New Zealand. Auckland: David Bateman, 2002.