12 June 2008

His master's voice

Sending Coldplay in as the cavalry may not be the answer required for EMI’s woes, but I’m no auditor looking at the global balance sheets. EMI NZ is about to turn into a branch office of Australia, with only sales reps here. Being the second-cousin to Tasmania has never benefited any New Zealand operation that has found itself answering to Sydney. Staff start to enjoy leaving work around 5.00pm, knowing it frustrates those in head office who want to make bullying phone calls. Now we have mobile phones of course, though there are so many places over here in the bush where the coverage is poor.

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.


Anonymous said...

TVNZ is not "taxpayer funded". TVNZ is a crown owned entity which delivers a financial dividend to state each year. The taxpayers do not pay TVNZ, TVNZ pays the taxpayers.
The whos you mentioned on C4, however, is taxpayer funded through New Zealand on Air.

Chris Bourke said...

Thanks but I think you're being disingenuous. So TVNZ doesn't get any money from NZ On Air? And taxpayers don't fund the government?
Even if I removed "taxpayer funded" from that sentence, the point would still be the same, and accurate: the foreign owned C4 is currently doing more substantial programming about New Zealand music than TVNZ. These programmes are destination viewing. There are currently no New Zealand music programmes on TVNZ that one would set a VHS for. What have they broadcast since the (excellent) Give it a Whirl?

Anonymous said...

If TVNZ is not taxpayer funded, then the government needs to be told. This link leads to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage site, the section called "Agencies we fund". The page itself is for TVNZ:

Anonymous said...

At an an age when I dream of yesteryear I hit on your website; Distractions: His master's voice; And in the 1950s, if you wanted a new radio put in your car, HMV was the place to go'.

It's probably my fault that I found nothing about HMV car radios. However, as a voice who lived in this period perhaps you'll allow me to air my memories.

In 1954 a friend of mine spent £100:00 equally divided between an HMV car radio and 5 Michelin 'X' radial tyres; a considerable sum in those far-off days. He owned a Sunbeam Talbot 90 Mk. IIA.

The HMV radio had a number of push-buttons (5 or 6)that could be locked onto a radio broadcast wave-length. This is how it was done. One manually sought the programme, then pulling out button 1 to its fullest extent, one pushed it firmly home. The programe was locked on button 1. Being a valve radio, when switching on, one had to wait a few seconds for the radio to warm-up before getting sound.

A car radio that could receive Radio Luxembourg was worth having. This station broadcast in English in the UK after 7pm - adverts and all! Adverts were a novelty and one is reminded of such companies such as 'Horace Bachelor and his Infra-Draw Football Pools Method, and the Ovaltine choir of children ''We are the Ovaltinies, little girls and boys''.


Meredith Wyness said...

So lovely to see this photo, Alfred Wyness was my great grandfather.
Cheers, Meredith Wyness

Meredith Wyness said...

So lovely to see this photo, Alfred Wyness was my great grandfather.