From the biggest party of the year to a pared-down celebration among colleagues, the Aotearoa Music Awards are a bellwether for a shifting culture in the local music industry. But is change coming soon enough?

The New Zealand Music Awards used to be the biggest red carpet event in the country. They would pack out the floor of Spark Arena. The glittery ceremony would last for hours, hosted by Kiwi famous media darlings, slathered with corporate sponsors like Vodafone and Godfrey Hirst carpets, with the winners announced by All Blacks and competitors on The Block – all broadcast live on primetime, free-to-air television.

For many in the industry, it was an excuse to go hard.

“You’d start off with pre-drinks, maybe at about 3 or 4 [in the afternoon],” says RNZ’s Music101 host Charlotte Ryan.

“You’d then go to the pre-drinks of the awards with the artists … then go to the awards, drinking, sitting down at tables for hours, then there’d be the awards after-party, then there’d be the after-after-party, and then – you never know. 

“It was always the big party of the year. You’d talk about it for months.”

The 2022 awards happened last week, and you wouldn’t be blamed for not knowing about it. It was hosted in a bar in Auckland – the type of bar the after-party used to be held at – with a guest list of under 300, and only allowed three drinks each.

The organisers had many reasons to re-evaluate the event. A tighter budget without a corporate naming sponsor, the risk of spreading Covid-19 to half of the country’s music industry workers – but there was also a sea change in the culture of the New Zealand music industry that they were tapping into. A new emphasis on making the industry a safe space for women and gender minorities, free from sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation.

Ryan tells The Detail the change has been years in the making. 

Back in 2017, the #MeToo movement sparked revelations of sexual abuse in the halls of power across the globe. For the music industry here, the conversation really started when an Instagram account, Beneath The Glass Ceiling NZ, started posting anonymised allegations about sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Then, in 2019, a report called Amplify Aotearoa looking into gender discrimination in the music community came out, finding 70 percent of women reported experiencing gender bias, and nearly half of women reported unwanted sexual behaviour.

In the wake of the report, action group Soundcheck Aotearoa was formed, the child of various industry bodies, including NZ On Air, NZ Music Commission, Recorded Music NZ, APRA AMCOS and the Māori Music Industry Coalition. Still in its early days, the group provides industry training on inclusion and safety.

“If anything, I wish it would’ve come earlier,” says Ryan.

“I’ve been working in the music industry since the early 2000s, and I think we always knew as females that was the deal – there were often events where I was the only female, and there were 40 other males.

“We wanted an organisation to stand up and say ‘Stop this’.”

In early 2021, Stuff senior journalist Alison Mau released her exposé into harassment and exploitation in the New Zealand music industry, including two high-profile executives who conducted inappropriate relationships with clients and other workers. The article, Mau said, triggered “a flood of corroboration”.

“I spoke to a number of other people in the course of that investigation who didn’t want to be named,” she says.

“The number of times those people talked about harm that had happened to them at the music awards was quite stunning. It has been an unsafe place for many many years.”

Mau says often when she breaks stories like this one, the industry where the harm took place makes grand gestures of reform, but a lot of the time, nothing much eventuates. In the case of the new look for the music awards, “it’s a more subtle but probably more meaningful indication that change is happening”.

Mau says while many workplaces can be unsafe environments, the music industry is a unique structure. 

“Those people whose life dreams are to progress in an industry like that are really vulnerable to the behaviour and decisions of others. 

“In the case of artists, these are people who have hung their career hopes on progression through the gate keepers – the management, the labels – who have long been dominated by men at the top. So they’re in a very vulnerable space.

“Work takes place in bars, and in venues with lots of alcohol flowing, and potentially other things as well … These are spaces that women and non-binary people have to inhabit otherwise they’re not participating properly in their own career advancements. It makes them particularly vulnerable to people with power.

The Detail also speaks to Catherine Hoad, one of the researchers behind the 2019 Amplify report, about her work at Massey University educating the next generation of music industry workers.

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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