Decline of the independents
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.
Local recording studios
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.
Punk and post-punk labels
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.
Resurgence of the independents
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.