As a founding member of both Split Enz and Crowded House, Neil Finn is New Zealand’s most successful musical export, and a multi-award-winning songwriter. As well as being hugely prolific, he was an early convert to the power of live streaming, regularly broadcasting performances since 2001.
His latest project is a series of Friday-evening (NZ time) streams from his studio in Auckland, which will culminate in a performance on 25th August, with 30 other people in the studio with him, where he will record his new album, Out Of Silence, in a single session and then master and release it digitally a week later
Music Ally spoke to him about why he is happy to let light in on magic, how livestreaming has been a constant for him, where technology is allowing new acts and genres from outside of the dominant markets a way to compete globally that was unimaginable when he started his career, how streaming is proving sustainable for him and why artists need to think about live streaming as a Skype call for the masses.
What is the end goal with the livestream?
“This month I am doing four Friday night [NZ time] sessions online. On the 25th of August we will be recording 11 new songs in quite an elaborate fashion with a large ensemble.
It will be in full view of people, mixed straight after and then out a week later. CDs will be out four weeks later and vinyl will follow about six weeks later. But it will be available on iTunes and Spotify the following Friday.”
It’s a bit of a high wire act, isn’t it? It could all go terribly wrong…
“It felt like an exciting idea for me and meant that I had to prepare really well. I had got into the habit, like many other artists have, of going into record, reworking songs and sitting in front of the computer screen for months on end.
I wanted to return to an old-fashioned way where you need to finish the songs and the lyrics, arrange the shit out of it, get a good band to play it, make sure it sounds really good and then do it in a live session like they used to.
I love the idea of combining that with what the internet affords you, which is the ability for people to tune in and for it to be a live, fulsome and visceral experience.”
PJ Harvey at Somerset House and (soon) Esperanza Spalding on Facebook have opted to let fans watch the recording process in a similar way. Are you worried that this is letting light in on magic?
“It was an exciting prospect for me to do it this way. To perform in front of an audience [gets a different type of performance]. When you play new songs on the road for a few weeks, you suddenly realise the different ways they can be performed and you think that this is the way they should have been recorded.
It always helps to have an audience and a great band playing it live where you find nuances in the music that you didn’t know about. It stops it being such a navel-gazing exercise and focuses you on what’s important. Also the preparation becomes super important.
I think what PJ Harvey and Esmeralda Spalding are doing is infinitely scarier in a way. I’ve done a lot of webcasting since 2001. It’s a way of performing for people around the world and controlling things yourself.
It’s not like being on TV; you can actually run your own show. It feels intimate. It’s just you and them. This seemed like a natural extension. It’s a big and ambitious idea, but I’m going to be well prepared. I am excited by it. I don’t think I’m going to be like a bird on display.
I think the idea of turning the recording of an album into an event is a really good thing for an artist. It just stops it feeling like another album. It’s a good energiser. My live shows have tended to be fairly loose and open to surfing the moment – and I think livestreaming suits that.”
How has technology changed what you can do since you first started livestreaming?
“It’s just easier to get to a lot of people. Back in 2001, we had to bring in these weighty servers in order to get to 300 people – that was our maximum audience.
Technology has made it easier to do what we are doing now and it means that we can get to a lot more people. In a weird way it doesn’t feel like it has actually changed that much at all.
And it doesn’t feel like livestreaming has reached its potential yet. There’s a lot more to be had from it, I believe, in terms of a direct connection to your audience. People think of it too much like TV; they don’t think of it enough like a Skype call for the masses.”
How has the audience expectation changed?
“Like all technology, there is good and bad. The great thing is that there is an ability for people with good ideas to be noticed via the internet. That happens a lot. Obviously people move in and try and control the space and the gatekeepers become as tyrannical as they used to be with radio and TV.
I like the freedom of it where I can put on a performance for my fans without getting permission or approval. All without having to deal with anybody in the mainstream media.
We do have some cooperation with Facebook and YouTube for this particular thing because it’s a new area for them too as they’re getting really interested in live streaming.
It has been slow to be used to its potential. I am fascinated by the whole thing, especially living at the bottom of the world. We are a long way away. It’s a big plane ride to get to you guys. The internet has afforded us people down here in the isolated regions of the globe quite a lot of potential exposure to the world.”
YouTube pays a small amount for music and Facebook currently pays nothing. What are your views on that given they are your key platforms here?
“I am just really interested in the music and getting it out there, creating an exciting event for myself and hopefully for the audience. There is no perfect platform out there.
We have chosen Facebook and YouTube to be presented by because they have the greatest reach. It’s as simple as that. I’m a little disappointed that Facebook isn’t yet live streaming in stereo. That seems very contradictory in this day and age. We are working on them for that.”
Facebook pushes video higher up its news-feed algorithms. Was that at the back of your mind when planning this?
“I don’t really know how that works. I am sure there are lots of people working those angles. And I would hope there are a couple of people on my behalf doing it because I don’t really understand it. I am not naive but I am also not overly interested in spending a lot of time worrying about those things.
I just want to put on a good show and get that to as many people as want to watch it. Those organisations are the best positioned to do that. But just thinking about algorithms? I don’t really understand how that works. So I’ll leave that to somebody else.”
New artists today have to make music but also become IT experts. Do you feel the need to chase this too?
“A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing! That’s the standard I go by. I can work my phone and I can work my computer. But I don’t pretend to know how you promote yourself on the internet. I just want to get my music out there and those platforms seem to be quite effective.”
You say that, but you have been doing live streaming since 2001: you were ahead of the curve here!
“It really started as an enthusiasm for that means of getting to people. Maybe it is largely because I live at the bottom of the world. I thought, ‘Shit! I just want to find a way to get to these people that I see at concerts once every two years.’
I want to communicate with them more often and give them music that is spontaneous and being made for the love of it. I want the music to travel. I am not a charity. I want it to get out there and find an audience.”
Will you do the next one in virtual reality?
“I’m just content to work this angle for this album. I have never had anything be turned around this quickly before. That is an exciting prospect.”
How do you feel about streaming in general?
“I don’t want to seem ambivalent here, but in a sense I am. We lived through an era when things were simpler – not necessarily better, but simpler – to understand. Now I don’t have a very good understanding of the way that music is curated out there in the wider world.
A lot of younger artists today are fixated on keeping their Instagram accounts updated every day and are worried about Facebook likes. I do Twitter because I like to have a bit of repartee. But I also don’t want to be this guy in the middle of my career desperately trying find out what the kids want.
The internet to some degree has an element of mystery and magic about it that people can discover things if they are good enough. I just want to make music good enough so that they discover it. But I don’t want to understand how it works.”
Is streaming sustainable for you?
“I would guess it is. I don’t want to sound glib, but I don’t really look at the way the income streams come in. I know that I can very easily because it is all very accountable and transparent. I have a manager who checks up on all of that.
I have had a lot of good fortune and I have a studio here so I am able to keep working and making records, be that when it’s dipping or when it’s going up. I have a lot of songs. And when you have a lot of songs and some of them have done well, you are doing pretty good. I can’t really answer that because I don’t know if it’s getting better or worse for me. I don’t mean to be evasive.”
But are you still able to put food on your table?
“For sure! I have done well out of music. And I have people covering my songs left, right and centre. That’s like a little Christmas bonus. Miley Cyrus does one of your songs [’Don’t Dream It’s Over’] and it gets 30m hits; it’s a good little earner!”
If you were starting out today, how would you get your music out there?
“A huge part of why people get noticed is that they build their little world and then they send that world out via the internet. They build their image and they build their sound.
If you do it skilfully and artfully, you get noticed and then maybe you’ll get a chance to tour. I don’t think anything will replace turning up in person. Playing live is still a critical part of the mix, I think.
You can certainly get a lot of stuff happening by having an artful and smart presence online. I admire a lot of young artists who do it really well. I don’t know how they find the time to do it all at once. Songwriting is time consuming enough.”
It’s an always-on culture where the treadmill is getting faster for younger artists. Is there too much pressure on them?
It’s the test of a personality, isn’t it? Some people are just going to crash in a heap because they give so much of themselves to the world every minute of the day. They are not going to be able to withstand that intense scrutiny.
It’s a mysterious generation, but I am very hesitant to be critical at any point and say that things were better in my day. I don’t know that they were. That was my day and I just understood it better. Now it’s just a different type of challenge. Some people are amazing at it.
There are some incredible young people out there who are so in control of their own music and their own image. I really admire it. I think there are some smart people like that.
I do think there is a lot of manipulation still and too many men in the mix in the music industry. There are a lot of barriers that need to be broken down still. Ultimately there is a lot of young and talented people out there I hugely admire how much they can do for themselves.”
The world is being shrunk and is no longer (musically) about the US and the UK dominating. How do you feel about that?
“That’s a really great thing. I love having different languages entering the mainstream charts. They were previously relegated to the world music or Latin charts on Billboard.
It is still early days for that kind of crossover, but music is the best chance we’ve got. The world is completely fucked, really, especially when you look at the news every night. Music is one of the most positive forces in the world and we need it more than ever.”
Highlights from Neil’s first live stream can be seen here.