When EMI first started in New Zealand, it was called HMV, and mobile phones were pigeons. Among the products HMV was assembling here before the war were toasters, radios, radiograms, irons and even bicycles. All this happened at their Wakefield Street premises in Wellington, a block away from Te Papa. And in the 1950s, if you wanted a new radio put in your car, HMV was the place to go. (There is a great array of photos showing behind-the-scenes 1950s action at HMV at the National Library’s excellent Timeframes site.)
HMV formed its New Zealand branch in 1926, emerging out of a Wellington-based firm called EJ Hyams who since 1910 had been distributing HMV recordings and gramophones here. When Hyams retired in 1931, HMV in England bought all the shares, and the accountant Alfred Wyness became the managing director.
Wyness ran a tight ship, taking all instructions from the UK, and when he retired in 1951 he was succeeded by his son AJ (insert Sopranos joke here). The Wyness dynasty lasted until February 1973, when AJ retired; Shona Laing’s ‘1905’ was in the Top 10, but through Phonogram.
HMV's cricket club, Wellington, 1938. Managing director Alfred Wyness is, of course, the man in the suit.
Curiously, HMV was involved in the first music recording here to be released on disc. In 1927 Parlophone of Australia came over to record Dean Waretini (senior) and Ano Hato, using a mobile unit brought over for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (the parents of the current Queen). The label above is of one of those early Ano Hato recordings, which were pressed in Australia.
But after that, HMV did nothing to nurture New Zealand music until the 1950s. They didn’t need to: they dominated distribution here so effectively that in the late 1930s, HMV could claim that every record played on radio in New Zealand was released through HMV. If your image of the multi-national record executive is from the 1970s – business trips to Burbank, long lunches, tennis, sessions in the spa – it may be hard to comprehend the Wyness approach.
The company may have enjoyed its monopoly to the fullest, and taken ruthless steps to maintain it, but Wyness was staunchly religious. In the 1950s his son came into the Wakefield Street studio on a Sunday to find a recording session was booked. A grand piano had been hired, transported and tuned. Musicians were waiting. No matter; it was a Sunday: the session was cancelled.
1944: HMV staff assemble army radio sets for the war in the Pacific.
During the Second World War, HMV turned its production plant over to defence needs. They changed from producing fridges and gramophones to assembling army equipment. HMV didn’t set up an Auckland office until 1946, and the man in charge of it had been working for the firm since 1919. Because of import restrictions, a pressing factory was set up in Kilbirnie in 1949, using masters from overseas. The first New Zealand record pressed was Les Wilson singing ‘The Yodelling Cowboy’ in 1953. This was four years after ‘Blue Smoke’ came out on Tanza, HMV’s new local rival (Les’s brother Cole was in the Tumbleweeds, then Tanza’s top sellers).
The departure of EMI NZ’s managing director later this month mirrors what is happening overseas as the company’s new global owner – Terra Firma, the investment vehicle of merchant banker Guy Hands – looks for a new way to make money out of recordings. The end of June will also see the departure of the president of EMI’s legendary US label Capitol, and perhaps Virgin’s president soon after.
Left: possibly the last managing director of EMI (NZ), in a former life.
Neither will be replaced; the latest idea is to have a “president of A&R” overseeing all EMI’s labels. It will be interesting to see which big overseas names will remain with EMI for the local reps to sell, once their contracts come up for renewal. Here on the other side of the music galaxy, New Zealand acts hoping to sell their music don’t have to look far for their new business model: Fat Freddy’s Drop.
Speaking of New Zealand music, the foreign-owned C4 channel is currently showing the taxpayer-funded TVNZ how to bring it to our screens. The 100 magic moments show Rock the Nation has been excellent: well-researched, wide ranging and full of surprises. During the series they have been promoting Making Tracks, of which already three episodes have screened. I’m annoyed I wasn’t watching from the start. It’s a brilliant, simple idea – taking New Zealand hits overseas for other cultures to reinterpret – but probably far more complex to achieve than it looks. The hyperactive host Nick Dwyer is perfect for it; he (lovingly) describes himself as a “cheeky scamp” and I’m sure there is always a future for him endorsing Ritalin. It was very impressive watching him wow dancers in India with his “old-school techno” moves on the dance-floor, and of course the former New Zealander who became Miss India was also very telegenic. If ever NZ On Air money has been well spent on music, it’s with this show.