Facing the Music: A Conversation with Ian Jorgensen (Blink)

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
img_theproblemwithmusicinnzThe trailblazing founder of A Low Hum and Puppies on music as a commodity, the death of live music, mainstream media, and the problem with APRA.

Ian Jorgensen, a.k.a. Blink, has contributed so many great things to the New Zealand music scene over the last decade: A Low Hum, Camp a Low Hum, Puppies, and Square Wave, amongst others. When he’s got something to say, it’s worth having a listen. Recently, he collected his thoughts into a series of thought-provoking essays titled The Problem With Music in New Zealand and How To Fix It & Why I Started and Ran Puppies, published following the closure of Puppies in Wellington last month. The bar was nothing short of a success and showed people how it could be done: fixed starting times, little traditional advertising, treating bands with respect, and clear communication with all involved. The essays aren’t a whine; they’re productive and constructive documents, and are extremely useful to anyone who runs, or would like to run, music venues. Small business owners who are required to pay licence fees to play music will find the licence fee chapter particularly eye-opening, while policy-makers, councils, and governments can see for themselves how things can be fixed at a ground level. It’s also a great guide for ordinary music fans. At a time when it’s easy to become complacent about music being consumed for free, it’s just as easy to forget the obstacles that musicians face when trying to put on a simple live concert.

Beginnings

BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: You’ve invested a lot financially, energy-wise, and reputationally into music. So why music?

IAN JORGENSEN: It goes back to obsessively making compilations. We would all tape songs off the radio. You’d pause it, you’d wait until your next favourite song came on, you’d always miss the first five seconds—all that talk over the start—and you’d get really annoyed. I still have all of those compilations. And I’ve still got video compilations. I’d tape all of the music video shows and then once a week I’d take all of them and compile my best clips onto one VHS. I used to call them “Ian’s Music”; I’ve got Volume 1 through to Volume 15.

Getting to live out my boyhood fantasy and release compilations many years later was pretty exciting. I’ve always been obsessive about music. I never took it lightly. Even when I was 11, I was already collecting records. From the age of 15 I’d wag school, get on the bus, go to op-shops, buy up records, and listen to them at home. I’ve always taken it too far every step of the way. I was in a band when I was 13; it’s always been my life.

BG: Like me, I assume you grew up pre-New Zealand music quotas. At what point did you realise there was good stuff here in New Zealand?

IJ: I used to take photos at school balls. I was at the Onslow College ball, and these kids recognised me. It was there I realised that the school had a music scene. These 16-year-old kids had been sneaking into Letterbox Lambs and D-Super shows. They started talking to me, and told me about this band, and they were great. So I started managing them. That was the beginning of my involvement in the New Zealand music scene.

BG: Have you found it amazing you’ve been doing this for the last decade and a bit?

IJ: Fuck yeah. It blows me away that I’ve been able to do it. Initially I subsidised myself by shooting school balls, but after I started A Low Hum magazine, I didn’t have time for that anymore. After I had built up enough of a reputation to be able to shoot fashion, two, three days a month, I spent the rest of the time touring with a band. I’ve never seen money as being mine to spend on creature comforts. Every single cent that comes in goes into the business of A Low Hum. I kept A Low Hum afloat by working for it, and I got funding and sold my soul to the devil through a Jack Daniels sponsorship. Camp A Low Hum never made a whole bunch of money, but enough to buy me a ticket overseas. This allowed me to organise a tour for a band that could let me live overseas for six months.

I’ve had this weird life where I’ve been able to constantly get by. But I’ve also lived like crap. I’ve lived in a shitty bunch of flats, and when I was overseas I slept in cars most of the time—but it’s been nice being overseas doing what you love. As it’s gone on, it’s got slightly more comfortable, and the bar was the most successful thing I’ve ever done. The last couple of years have been great. I’ve got a really nice place, I paid myself a wage, though most of that has gone to the Inland Revenue Department to pay back debt. Once that was finished, it was like, “this is what it feels like to be a real person.” Now it’s gone. It was short-lived, but it was nice while it lasted.

Music as a Commodity

BG: You grew up when music was still a commodity, something people paid for. Has that affected your view today of music having value attached to it, as opposed to younger people who have grown up with ‘free’ music?

IJ: Totally. When I make some of these complaints about bands not being able to have careers anymore, when I talk to young people, they go, “What? People had careers?” They don’t even understand that I’m complaining about things. They don’t expect to make money. “We just give away our music for free.” It’s fascinating to hear somebody talk like that. And it’s a little bit depressing. Nobody really thinks that they can have a career anymore, whereas 20 years ago, you could make a career. You could be a band from Ashburton and aspire to have a career. It’s really quite sad. Physical sales, there’s no point trying to get that. The book talks about other formats, increasing audience sizes, and it’s tricky. I don’t try to talk about the future or how I see music going.

BG: We talk as if there was a golden age of making music, but people have always found it pretty tough around these parts?

IJ: It’s always been tough, but somehow the music scene has avoided inflation. While inflation has happened in every other aspect of life, show prices haven’t go up. Ian MacKaye was a massive inspiration to write this article. He was all about cheaper show prices, and his Fugazi shows were $5 or $6. In 1991, US$6 bought 20 litres of fuel. Now it buys 2.5 litres. It’s different times. Going by that rate of inflation, we should be charging US$30-$40 a show. It’s bizarre.

BG: Did it shock you when you started Puppies that people didn’t want to pay to get in?

IJ: Luckily in Wellington, people always paid for music, just not that much. One of the things I didn’t talk about in the book—I left stuff out as I felt it was too negative already, and I wanted to focus on the happy bits—was how one venue can completely change a scene. The Dux came to be the premiere venue in Christchurch, and all of their shows were free. That went on for years. So the value of live music in Christchurch is free. You can’t put something on in Christchurch and charge for it, unless it’s a $40 or $50 show.

When Mighty Mighty came to Wellington, it was a massive backward step. The market for shows was averaging around $10, but they charged $5 for every show, every night. Everyone got used to paying $5 for a show, because everyone was going to Mighty. With Puppies, I thought I had to at least put it up to $10 minimum. Mighty had a massive impact in Wellington—it was a great venue and it had awesome parties—but no one really thought about the economics of it. They were using money they made off the bar and their regulars paying $5 to generate this massive turnover all night. They paid their bands well, but it meant every other bar in town, if they tried to do a $10 show, nobody would turn up. Bands would come down and play Mighty to a couple of hundred people and go, “damn, this is awesome.” Then they’d do Bodega a couple of months later, and 10 people would turn up. That would happen all of the time. Venues make a massive difference. I tried to do that in a positive sense. I used Puppies to influence the Wellington scene by setting times, the cost of shows, door-lists—all of these little things in the background.

The Death of Live Music

BG: There has been quite a bit of talk about how Wellington is a dying city. Did you notice that with Puppies?

IJ: In New Zealand, people aren’t as interested in live music. And we don’t seem to be doing anything about it. Everyone seems to be trying to exploit the current audience, rather than trying to attract a new one. There’s just not enough incentive to go out to a show anymore. Bars cost too much. No one wants to pay $9, $10 for a beer and hang out in a situation where they could be there until midnight to hear a band they want to see play. People are over that shit. People can stay at home, watch Game of Thrones in the comfort of their living room and have a beer for a $1.50. I’d stay at home. Shit. That’s where my competition is. If I can’t put on a show that’s better than Breaking Bad, what’s the point? And that’s a fucking good TV show. Unless I’m going to have meth at my show, what else can I do? Ten years ago, no one watched TV. Friends, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, maybe—and they were all re-runs, anyway.

BG: They were early too, so they didn’t affect your night.

IJ: Exactly, 7.30pm shows.

BG: If Wellington is having its issues, how difficult is it in a small town for live music to exist?

IJ: Anything in a small town is easier. The smaller the town is, the easier it is to get an entire audience. I’d known Barrytown for years, but I never made it there until 2006. And I regretted not going there instantly. I had done at that point eight shows in Nelson, and the biggest audience I ever had was 70 or 80 people. Barrytown’s population is 144 people, and the first show I did there, there were 110 people. All you’ve got to do is put one poster outside the bar. There are only two businesses in the town. If you put on a show, everyone knows about it. The entire community knows about it. If you’re doing a show in Nelson, it’s too small an area for music, but it’s too big that there’s no centralised performing area. All of my shows in Barrytown were fantastic, and Barrytown is a great community. If you could play to a hundred people every night for three or four weeks, you’re set. I’d get bigger shows in Barrytown than I’d get in Dunedin. The cities are too big. Postering is a crazy expensive thing. A poster campaign for a show is $400-$500, so suddenly you need to get 40-50 people just to get enough to cover the poster costs.

BG: A lot of the old school bands used to rave about Barrytown.

IJ: It’s amazing. People know how to party, no matter what age they are. You’ve got people in their sixties, seventies, eighties coming out and doing the robot. It’s an incredible experience. It happens in other places too. Motueka is another example. People get spoiled for choice in the cities. I want to find a place which doesn’t have the Internet. Is that anywhere? Actually, how would you organise a show if you didn’t have the Internet? I don’t know how to call and book a show anymore. I used to do that.

Alcohol

BG: I’m interested in how alcohol dominates music. Most people got into music without alcohol, but now—and I’m guilty of it too—why is it that going to show must also include an obligatory drink or two?

IJ: Because they’re held in bars. Everyone else is drinking and you’re surrounded. It’s your only option. People don’t feel cool drinking Coke. I was at this party once and someone said, “I’m going to get some drinks.” This guy asked, “Can you pick me up a Coke, please?” “Pussy!” And so he relented, “All right, get me a couple of beers.” That’s a problem. And you can’t identify where it comes from, because that attitude doesn’t really exist overseas. I see shows in so many different places. People aren’t out to get fucked.

BG: Could Puppies have existed without alcohol?

IJ: I do plan to do a non-alcohol space one day. I don’t think bars should stop having shows. I like watching shows in bars: Whammy, the Dark Room, Chick’s Hotel. If bars continue, what is the best way to put on shows in bars? Understanding how the devil works. I was trying to create a model for now, as opposed to five years down the track when I think DIY venues will become an established thing. The original plan for Puppies was to close and then to open two weeks later as a BYO venue. There are some really good models for this. At the time I was thinking of doing that, but I was sick and tired of organising shows. I needed a break. I think I could have made a venue work that didn’t sell booze. Easily.

BG: From the other side, do musicians like playing to drunk people?

IJ: It’s fun. People are more liable to dance and it’s a fun environment to play shows. Sometimes it’s a bit of a bummer when you see people having a good time and you’re not even playing. People will dance to whatever DJ comes on afterwards. The most disappointing thing I witnessed when I was touring overseas was when Disasteradio was on tour. He played these club nights in the UK, and he’d put on these killer live shows, effectively playing dance music. People would get into it, but straight afterwards, someone would put on MGMT and the crowd would go nuts. As soon as he finished, this massive DJ hit would come on, and it was like nobody cared. It’s a weird way to feel as an artist. No matter how good you are, the current dance floor banger is going to get a big reaction. No matter what you do, Beyoncé is going to raise the roof. You can’t beat Beyoncé.

BG: In France, people went to see the music. Drinking might be incidental, but the music was the priority.

IJ: When people go to Europe and come back to New Zealand, their eyes are opened. France is completely different. It doesn’t have the same glamorisation. Kids don’t see getting fucked up [as the thing to do]. In New Zealand, every adult does it, and so kids see their parents and their parents’ friends doing it. Everybody talks about it, glamorises it, and when you’re a kid growing up, it’s boring. There’s not much to do except get drunk every weekend. A friend of mine, at the age of 21, had liver complications from alcohol abuse. She grew up in Whanganui. All she did from the age of 13 was sit on the bank of the river and drink, every weekend. That’s insane. It’s a massive problem, and the government is not doing anything about it because of the amount of money that’s at stake to them.

There’s currently a legislation change along the lines of removing alcohol advertising from sport. This happens every four or five years, but here’s so much pressure put on by alcohol lobbying that it never goes through. It is nuts that there are no restrictions on logo placement. Alcohol brands can put their logo wherever they want. It can be viewed by kids, regardless of age. They can’t advertise on TV between 6pm and 8.30pm, but they can have their logo at an event that’s shown between 6pm and 8.30pm. Alcohol companies know there are specific limits as to how they can advertise to people, and that’s why they want to sponsor shows, even shows like mine. I don’t understand why Jim Beam Homegrown manages to get through when the event is open to 15 year olds. I don’t know who’s enforcing these rules or these guidelines, because it doesn’t look like they’re doing their job.

APRA

BG: The APRA stuff seems really dodgy. It does enough enforcement to freak people out, but there’s no information out there pertaining to what they do with the money.

IJ: It’s a worldwide problem. There were gangsters in the U.S. who would go into a restaurant and demand money from the owner for the music they were playing. It became protection money. The people who paid the bills never got told where the money was going. That’s why muzak became so popular—it was a way of playing this crappy music so you wouldn’t get abused by gangsters. Somehow the business became legitimised, but it didn’t become legit. Everybody knows it, people talk about it, but no one puts it out there. Companies dealing with it are too big and too scary. In New Zealand, money is demanded from businesses and no explanation is given as to where it’s going, other than being told it’s going to go to the right people, but they’re not making an effort to find the right people or ask who the right people are.

BG: And you’ve tried to get some information on where the money goes?

IJ: Yes. You can find that information when you delve deep in their website. Since the publication of my book, that information is now on the FAQ, but the money is distributed to the logs they collect from radio play on commercial, student, and access radio. Which they think is an accurate way of summarising every single business in New Zealand that plays music. On the contrary, businesses choose not to play the radio because they prefer to play music they want. Every time I’ve talked about this in a café, the music they’re playing is completely different to what they’d be playing on commercial radio.

BG: Presumably, anybody who starts a business chooses the atmosphere they want to create. At Puppies, you wouldn’t have been playing whatever 91ZM plays.

IJ: Unless that’s your clientele. I’m talking main street fashion retail. And it’s a tiny subsection of business. Every other business makes a really clear defined aesthetic choice about what they want to play. I researched this with business after business, listening to what they played. This [café] is playing easy listening background music, which is the bulk.

BG: I wonder how much money Fat Freddy’s Drop made back in 2006? I’m thinking fuck all.

IJ: So many cafés in New Zealand are playing Fat Freddy’s Drop, the Black Seeds, and Fly My Pretties, but those bands are not that big on radio compared to how big they are in cafés. It’s weird that I’m trying to fight to get Fat Freddy’s more money, but I want everyone to get money that’s rightfully theirs.

BG: So for people who don’t know how it works, if I started a band, I would sign up to APRA for them to collect royalties on my behalf?

IJ: Yes, effectively, but it doesn’t mean anything until you have songs registered with them. Once you’ve written a song, it doesn’t matter if you’ve recorded it, you register the song with APRA, and you register the songwriter of that song, and if you’re a band of three or four members who wrote the song, you’d each get your name on there and agree on the splits, maybe 25% each. And then theoretically, every time you perform that song live, or that song is played, money is collected on your behalf and distributed to you, less administration. There are certain businesses, like Farmers, who pay a distributor who organises a jukebox type system to supply them with music. They do keep those logs and they do supply them to APRA. But it’s a small section of businesses. There are 16,000 licensed businesses in New Zealand, and a huge proportion of that, there is no data collected.

BG: If I owned a café, and I just wanted to play Disasteradio for 24 hours a day…

IJ: In that case, you can come to me or to Luke [Rowell, Disasteradio] and organise an individual licence. But there’s no business that would want Disasteradio 24 hours a day. They’d be out of business [laughs].

He’s probably got enough material. But he’d never see a cent if they’re signed to OneMusic [who collects for APRA]. He doesn’t get played on radio. He might get on student radio, but when you take into account how seldom he’s played, he’s not going to see any money from that.

I’m not doing this for people like Disasteradio. I’m doing this for businesses. Certainly, all of the musicians I deal with, they don’t get anything, and if they do, it’s a few cents. They want the exposure and they feel bad if businesses are asked to pay money like this. It’s complicated. It could mean an income for a lot of musicians who aren’t making an income—and a lot of income for the likes of Shania Twain, Elton John, and exponents of background chill music. I think it’s unexplored territory and we should find out what’s going on.

BG: So you can opt out by going directly to musicians?

IJ: Can you imagine trying to sign directly? It’s ridiculous. Nobody would. Cafés want to be able to play anything, but APRA have said they are going to do this in the future. In a discussion I’ve been having with them about changes, I’ve argued that if they were a normal business who had competition, they wouldn’t have to inform the business owners they’re asking money from who their competition is. But because there is no competition and they demand money or threaten legal action, in all good conscience, they need to tell businesses what their options are. Those options include: royalty free music; creative commons music; gaining a licence directly from a label, like Loop or Arch Hill; using music where the recording copyright has expired (there’s no song-writing copyright on classical music, for instance). None of that information is given to you. If you play music, you must pay us. Which to me, morally, is pretty disgusting.

Mainstream Media and Publicity

BG: Promoters used to be so dependent on traditional media writing an article about a show to bring outsiders in. Has that changed?

IJ: It made me so bitter that I couldn’t get The Dominion Post to write a single article during the life of Puppies. I didn’t hit them up every week, but there were at least several bands relevant to their target audience. The one article they finally did was on the closing of the venue, which implied that it was all doom and gloom. “Wellington is losing another venue.” No, for me, it was a celebration. I’d always intended the venue to close. I can’t get a single story in the two years my venue is open, but now you’re doing a story when I close? That’s pretty frustrating.

I tried to create a venue that existed without any of the current infrastructure required. I didn’t even list anything on gig guides. There are great people in the industry, like Andrew Tidball at Cheese on Toast—he grabbed information from my website and put it on his gig guides. I didn’t talk about the problem with gig guides in the book. There is no uniform system for entering in a gig guide. With every single gig guide in New Zealand, you have to fill in a separate form on every website with the same information in a way that you can’t copy and paste. To list one show on every guide can take up to two hours. Rather than write an essay about it, one of my plans was to find a kid who could spend an afternoon writing a software hack as a way of getting the information onto every website. Now that I’m not running a venue, I don’t have the impetus to do it. But I didn’t need it in the first place. I stopped listing with gig guides and it was fine.

BG: Social media has taken over?

IJ: Facebook events worked fine, but there are still a lot of people who aren’t on Facebook, and I felt lame always listing Facebook events. I don’t like Facebook and what it stands for, but it was easy. If you could somehow create something that could take Facebook events and transfer it to the gig guides, life would be sweet.

BG: Your shows for Tiny Ruins and the Bats, I was trying to figure out how I got that information. It certainly wasn’t from mainstream media.

IJ: It was Facebook and a list of shows that I had. People just found out.

BG: The Bats audience wasn’t your typical Facebook crowd either.

IJ: I was fascinated how they found out. For the Bats shows I did 20 posters, and I think Tiny Ruins might have done some of their own. In the first three months when I opened, I did block [template] posters. That was an experiment in itself, to get people to adjust to the different look of them. But once the venue was established, I didn’t do a single poster. What was the point spending $300 on posters when Facebook was there? Most of the shows in the last few months of the bar, only three or four of them weren’t packed. The traditional method of advertising is dead.

BG: Are we lacking here in coverage? For a so-called cultural capital, you wouldn’t get a sense of culture from reading the paper.

IJ: There’s no talk about the actual music that’s going on in the city. In the mid-2000s, everyone thought Wellington was the capital of dub, but you’d go out any given weekend, and you wouldn’t see dub music. There were only a couple of shows, and they were at the Matterhorn once a month. Somehow the entire country thought that was the sound of Wellington. Mainstream media would have taken that from The Dominion Post articles on those bands. They certainly weren’t talking about bands who were out there gigging week after week.

They’ll probably prove me wrong by digging up an article they have on the All Seeing Hand. A band like that should be getting the attention of Wellington media. There are lots of good bands, guys like Seth Frightening, who should be huge by now. The media don’t see it as their job to nurture anything. They don’t realise it’s their job. They probably think there are no bands worth talking about, but they need to get out. They’re the ones who can break stuff. Get out there and find the bands people are talking about.

BG: I remember it being a glorious time in my early 20s in Wellington.

IJ: There’s still a lot of stuff going on. It’s just in different places. There is now way more stuff but none of it makes an impact. It’s the weird thing about the Internet. If I released this book as a blog, it would be seen by more people. Some of the essays would be seen by thousands of people in one day. As a book, it’s much slower, but it has more impact. Because it’s in printed form, it has a legitimacy to it. People take it more seriously. It’s the same with music. MP3s aren’t as impressive as putting on a record or a CD; there’s a disconnect between legitimacy and traditional media. There are stories on every band online. Millions of them. Who cares? It doesn’t mean anything. There’s no curation. To be mentioned in a newspaper, that means something. My parents get to read about it, because they won’t ever read Under the Radar or Cheese on Toast. It still doesn’t have that air of legitimacy. And the thing is: my writing is crap. The book is a series of blog posts, and yet my writing isn’t good enough for a blog. But because I’ve put it in a book, even though I self-published it, people see it as legit.

Culture Change

BG: One of the things I’ve found interesting about the book—and sure, if you’re opening a bar, you need to read this book—is that as a punter, it’s really useful. I went to All Seeing Hand on Saturday, I got there late, and it was $10 to get in. Everyone in front of me who was waiting, none of them paid to get in, even though the show had only just started. Having read the book, I was like fuck it, I’m going to pay the $10. I was always going to pay the $10, and it was my fault I got there late, and the band needs the money.

IJ: Seriously? They didn’t pay? I don’t understand. I used to feel so bad as a promoter, when I was doing shows. I’d start off at $10, and then I’d bring it down to $7, and then $5, so whenever someone came in and paid $10, I’d have to wait until they were out of earshot to say $7 again. The bands want to make money and they need to get paid. People would turn up late when we first started Puppies and would try to negotiate. After several months, they realised it wouldn’t work, and stopped trying. After that, people would come with only two songs left to play and would still pay $10 because they just wanted to be there.

BG: With the book, were you trying to change the culture?

IJ: Some of the best feedback I’ve received is from young promoters who say they’re not doing $5 shows anymore. It’s little things like that. There’s this new venue that has opened up in Palmerston North; they’re going to advertise their playing times.

BG: New Zealand seems to be the only place that doesn’t stick to playing times.

IJ: Even Australia is really quite regimented and it’s good. Over there, I can go to multiple shows in a night. The venues even work in a community, so one venue does a show on the hour and another venue does a show on the half hour. If they say a show will start at 8.30pm, then you expect the show to start at 8.30pm. We don’t really have that here in New Zealand.

If you go to see a show in Japan starting at 6pm, and the Kiwis show up at 10pm, the doors will be closed because it has finished by 8pm. Over there, there is a culture of shows before dinner. Here, it’s more like the Wild West, bars staying open as long as possible, and then there’s the problem with the small population. Generally, it’s the headline band that run the show and they don’t want to ask the support band to play when no one’s there. The bar doesn’t care, they’ve got no interest. They want the show to drag on. Every time a person goes to a show and they have to wait around, they’re uncomfortable, they spend too much money, and then the band comes on and it’s too loud, you’ve lost them. They’re not going to go again.

BG: When I worked at Salient, we received a letter from a first year student complaining about an Orientation show starting two hours late, and we all scoffed. That guy was probably lost to live music.

IJ: The thing is: that’s the standard. Bands started at 10.30pm, but the doors always opened at 8.30pm. I’d feel terrible when I started an hour after doors open.

BG: Is it a good time to be a musician?

IJ: This is the best time ever to be a band. If you’ve recorded a song, a minute later, it’ll be around the world. You do not need a record label. People can make art and share it with anyone. People love to make careers out of music, but in essence, they just want people to hear it. Race Banyon has recorded music in his bedroom; it’s being heard around the world, and he’s still going to school.

‘The Problem With Music in New Zealand and How To Fix It & Why I Started and Ran Puppies’ is available from alowhum.com. APRA’s response to Ian Jorgensen’s criticisms can be found here.