In 1988, Little Stevie McCabe and I spent most of May and part of June in the United States. The purpose of our trip was partly to perform, and partly to make and renew contacts on behalf of the record companies we represented (Sleek Bott and Onset Offset). We were both trying to get albums released by American companies, partly to overcome the problem of getting New Zealand records pressed, and also because the records of both of us attracted more interest in the U.S. than they did in New Zealand. Indeed, it always amazed me that I could get things reviewed in New York and Boston without difficulty, but not in New Zealand!
Before the trip, I had a number of expectations. For a start, I was under the impression that New Zealand music was currently sought after in a manner somewhat akin to the British Beat boom of the Sixties, although on a much smaller scale. I was surprised to find how much smaller a scale the interest was: most shops were as reluctant as the New Zealand ones to stock records released by small independent companies. The fact that New Zealand pressings were not sealed in cellophane didn’t help. One New Orleans, shop that had in the past exhibited enthusiasm for New Zealand music, had become disillusioned because it had not sold.
Few, however, gave the impression of having ever been remotely interested in any of it. The stock excuses were that the records had to be released through an American company, or that a shop could not buy records from anyone who did not have a vendor’s licence.
The latter had no apparent basis in law, as there were some shops that would buy stock from us, although sometimes they would take it only on a sale-or-return basis (“on consignment”) as in New Zealand. Onset Offset never received any money from such deals!
Onset Offset having received requests from American critics for records and tapes to review, I expected a greater interest from critics than one found in New Zealand, where a review copy sent to a publication occasionally resulted in a review, but was more likely to end up in the nearest second-hand shop. In this, I was not disappointed: my experience of American critics of independent records was that they generally turned out to be enthusiasts keen to build up their own collections in return for constructive and encouraging reviews in the magazines for which they wrote. Of particular note in this respect were Byron Coley of “Forced Exposure” and Fred Mills of “The Bob”.
As a performer, I expected the remuneration to be better than in New Zealand. While I was aware that New Zealand audiences were well known for their lack of response, I had no particular expectation of American audiences. As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which our performances were received. Americans, it seemed, understood what New Zealanders do not, i.e. that if a performer receives no encouragement in the early stages of a performance, it is almost impossible to build up any momentum, with the result that when the audience fails to indicate its approval or disapproval, the performance is likely to become more and more mechanical as it proceeds, leaving both the audience and the performer dissatisfied.
Whereas New Zealanders will sit like zombies waiting for the performer to win them over, Americans give one the benefit of the doubt and display enthusiasm from the start, which greatly affects the quality of the performance they get. As far as the money was concerned, however, it proved to be no better than in New Zealand. In San Francisco, where we performed and also worked for a promoter putting up posters, we were promised more for both than we actually received. Everyone in the music business there seemed to be perpetually insolvent, especially when it was time to pay performers.
My final expectation was that while there was likely to be more competition in America, there would also be more opportunities. What I found was that there was indeed infinitely more competition in the form of an unbelievable number of bands, most of which seemed incredibly well-rehearsed and displayed an energy that would probably have been frowned upon in New Zealand alternative music circles in those days. At the same time, however, each city seemed to have the same number of venues as a typical New Zealand city. While almost every band I encountered had a record out, there existed a similar situation to that in New Zealand where one could be revered by many who would do anything for you except buy your records.
Neither of us eventually found American companies to release our records, but we made valuable distribution deals, which at least ensured that our records would continue to be available in the United States.
As a performer, I am bound to say I would prefer to be in America than New Zealand. Nevertheless, in other ways I came to feel it was a nice place to visit, but an undesirable place to live. The ever-present beggars and hustlers were a nuisance, especially in New York, where one had to try to look intimidating to discourage as many of them as possible, and where any attempt at friendliness to a stranger was likely to be perceived as an attempt to get money from him/her. Also, despite being well armed at all times, I seldom felt very safe in the city centres, which seemed full of suspicious-looking characters.
On the credit side, I was frequently impressed by the friendliness of people of all races. Indeed, the racial problems we heard about were not as apparent as I expected. While I was there, I never wished I was back home, and my experience with Customs upon my return made me wish I had not bothered coming back: overzealous Customs officers seemed to think that anyone carrying a guitar case was a drug smuggler, and in a (fruitless) search for drugs they dismantled my guitar, went through my baggage and clothes, and took my souvenirs.
– Post by Ritchie Venus, Rock’n’Roll Idol, ruthless businessman, artefact collector, rnr analyst, film and popular culture historian, writer, singer, songwriter