In my early days in Wellington, Colin Morris Records in Willis Street was the place to go to. Colin himself was impressively knowledgeable and enthusiastic and always willing to take time out for a natter and smile. Slow Boat Records in Cuba St was the other contender, with its acreage of CD and vinyl delights, and crowded countertops of new releases from obscure local bands.
These days, while Slow Boat is still humming along, ‘record shops’ are a both a delight and a rarity. Instead, musicians and composers are forced to rely on the digital realm to showcase and distribute their recorded material.
In New Zealand, the shining star of digital distribution is amplifier. It focuses exclusively on New Zealand artists, promoting and selling on behalf of 1000 odd musicians. Also of special mention, is the high level of customer service. The staff are unfailingly courteous and efficient, another rarity these days.
Richard Setford gives us an insight into the world of amplifier:
Could you give us a bit of history about amplifier…when it started, who was behind it and what the vision was?
In 1999 digital music was in its infancy and there were only a handful of places to source legitimate audio files. We have a Sony MP3 player still sitting on the shelf from the time. It can hold roughly a dozen tracks! Think about how much music you can now put onto your portable hard drive or apple device.
Amplifier was started in 1999 by Chris Hocquard who runs Dominion Law and is still heavily involved. There was really no one in New Zealand who had come at the digital retail side of things in a way that focused on NZ artists at that time. That was the point of difference. And we wanted to make it inclusive. This is a site that allows for any artist – from bedroom strummer to gold selling pop singer – to have a place online that they can populate with their musical offerings, images and thoughts. For many musicians, the path to getting people to hear and then potentially purchase their music can be quite challenging (there are so few record stores now that you can drop in your album to). Amplifier enables artists to create their own page and upload any content they see fit to put out there. We don’t judge the music or the artist; there are no restrictions on the amount of music you upload and no censorship regarding content.
Nowadays people have blogs and there are a multitude of platforms where independent artists can host their music. We’re thankful that our name still means something and new artists are continually adding their profiles to the site. First and foremost we’re an online retail store that specialises in offering audio files (MP3 and now WAV), but I should also say that we continue to offer physical product including merch, books and vinyl. However digital music on the site is outselling physical and growing. It’s a worldwide trend. We ship internationally too. A lot of people are interested in our local artists. Amplifier is one of the first places people will find if they google “New Zealand Music”.
From the outside an organization like amplifier seems like a real going concern. But in the digital age appearances can be deceiving. How big is amplifier in terms of staff? Has it grown much over the years?
We have always been a small operation. Three people at the most will take care of the day to day stuff – sales, artist liaison, customer support, shipping, content etc. There are really only 3 roles. Business Manager (Peter Baker is across sales and finance), Editor (Dan Clist posts news, works the social media side and is in charge of our weekly mailout). Officially I’m referred to as the Music Manager, but that title always seemed a little vague, unofficially I work across ordering stock, data entry, artist support and customer service with a little site maintenance on the side. All our shipping is done out of the Rhythmethod warehouse – that’s where Amplifier currently resides too.
Are you all young cool things?
We are mostly old cool things but we have young heads and good skin.
Where do you think amplifier fits in to the digital music market internationally?
It is but a blip. iTunes is the main player in the digital music world – they account roughly for 80-90% of all digital sales. It’s our niche factor that gives us customer loyalty and a good reach as I’ve mentioned. Orders come in from Japan to Denmark. NZ music has mega fans all over the world.
You are a composer/musician (Bannerman), as well as having a day job at amplifier. How do you think NZ musicians should be looking at a ‘career’ these days? Has that changed?
You can do a lot independently now. The major labels are all converging. If you are Internet savvy then you can create some really good support by being innovative, knowing who your audience is, responding to them, interacting with them. But it’s hard work to constantly promote yourself and of course we all fit in day jobs and personal relationships. Spending some money on radio pluggers and publicity agents is actually essential if you want to gain access to commercial radio, but of course not everyone has money to spend on such things so the alternative is to find support from friends or industry in your area. The NZ Music Commission, APRA and IMNZ are excellent places to go to for advice. Don’t be shy, they exist to keep the industry ticking over. Oh and probably the most important thing….playing live is essential.
Is there any specific thing about amplifier that you are particularly proud of?
The fact that we exist at all is satisfying. I’m proud of our lack of bias. When you can position an independent artist from Hastings who has played a handful of shows and has a collection of bedroom recordings alongside a major label hip hop act, then I think you’re doing something right.
fleaBITE has always found amplifier staff to be exemplary citizens, especially when it comes to communication. I have become so used to bad service that I almost fell over backwards with surprise when emails were answered pronto, and the people I dealt with were motivated, polite and efficient. Is that part of your mission statement, or are you all aiming for a Queen’s Service Medal?
I always think about how I’d want to be treated if I was coming to a company for advice or a service. I think back to when I knew nothing about the industry and was wondering how I could get my music heard. We’re here to assist and we wouldn’t exist without the artists. It’s as simple as that.