New Zealand’s Hot Music Scene

November 23

(Featured image: Folktronic-Tastic! Paul Marcham and Claire Forrester)

When you geographically isolate a group of people on a couple of islands in the Pacific, something magical can happen. Of course, planes and boats can still reach New Zealand (and have for years) but that hasn’t stopped the music here from developing its own unique, diverse sound. Influenced by jazz, blues, rock n roll, hip hop and reggae, New Zealand music has been making waves in international charts as well as on home turf for decades.

The music culture in New Zealand is passionate, proud and ever-evolving in its search for originality. The 70’s and 80’s were characterized by the likes of local pop and rock musicians Split Enz, Crowded House, the Mutton Birds and Dave Dobbyn. In more recent years, Fat Freddy’s drop, Lorde, Flight of the Conchords and The Naked and Famous have made their names nationally and internationally, and while they’ve all got a different flavour, they’re equally hard to forget.

Reb Fountain live at the Sherwood. Photo: Laura Williamson

What kind of music do Kiwis listen to?

Impossible to pigeonhole into one genre, New Zealand music is a smorgasbord of diverse soundwaves. Choosing one would be like filling your plate with hot chips and leaving all the rest. You’ve got to search through and sample the lot, so let’s start at the beginning.

Pre-colonial Maori music was more traditional chanting than singing, and the instruments used were mainly hollowed out wood, bone or stone. When the Europeans arrived, they brought instruments and harmonies that that were gradually incorporated, and the first traditional Maori waiata-a-ringa (action song) came about in the early 1900’s.

For the most part of the 20th century, it was rock and hip hop (with its own New Zealand flair) that dominated the scene. Bands like Split Enz, Crowded House, Th’ dudes, Hello Sailor and Dragon had success across local and international charts, and Dave Dobbyn was busy creating hit after hit with songs like ‘Loyal‘ and ‘Slice of Heaven‘.

While Maori songs had hardly hit the charts in New Zealand, ‘Poi E’ changed that in 1984. It’s been called New Zealand’s first early hip hop hit, and was written by Ngoi Pewhairangi to encourage young Maori to be proud of being Maori. The song, which is impossible not to groove to, saw a revival with the film ‘Boy’ in 2010.

Around the turn of the century, there was a resurgence of Kiwi music on the world stage, and a lot of that is credited to The Feelers, Supergroove and country and folk music singer songwriter Bic Runga. By the early 2000’s, roots, dub, electronica and reggae influences were all in full swing in New Zealand, and Fat Freddy’s Drop became well known for blending this into what is now a world famous sound.

Reggae remains a strong influence, and summer in New Zealand will find many Kiwis swaying along to Katchafire, Kora, the Black Seeds or Fat Freddy’s with their feet in the sand and their faces to the sun. New Zealanders are die-hard fans of homegrown music (because it’s awesome), and New Zealand music month is celebrated with gusto every May.

Who’s the most famous musician in New Zealand?

Dave Dobbyn is probably the most well known and influential New Zealand musician, having won more awards for his songwriting than any other artist in the country. He’s had success both as a solo artist and with bands, first with Th’ Dudes and then with his next band DD Smash, who’s first album rocketed to number one in the first week of its release.

As a solo artist, his songs like ‘Loyal‘ and ‘Slice of Heaven‘ have become icons of New Zealand music. ‘Slice of Heaven’, recorded with the band Herbs for the soundtrack to a Footrot Flats film, went on to spend eight weeks at Number 1 in New Zealand. His single ‘Loyal‘, released in 1988 on the album with the same name, achieved cult status – after it became the theme song for Team New Zealand in the 2003 America’s Cup. While there were haters that claimed it was overexposed, an online survey of 3000 people in 2006 chose ‘Loyal’ as New Zealand’s greatest song in history.

What was the first NZ band to have a hit overseas?

Until the 80’s, New Zealand music was popular – but mostly in New Zealand. In 1980, The Split Enz were launched onto the international stage with their song ‘I got you‘, from their album True Colours, which found itself at the top of the Australian and Canadian charts, making them one of the first New Zealand bands to make it big overseas. ‘I got you‘ made it to number 12 in the UK and number 53 in the US.

The art-rock band emerged onto the Auckland music scene in the early 70’s, after being founded by Tim Finn and Phil Judd. They were later joined by Tim’s brother Neil Finn, who wrote ‘I got you‘ and later went on to start Crowded House. The Finn brothers wrote a bunch of songs for the band that would go on to be soundtracks to life in New Zealand, including ‘I hope I never‘, ‘I see red‘, ‘History never repeats‘ and ‘Six months in a leaky boat’. As far as New Zealand music culture goes, these guys are a staple, and their songs are belted out with pride at weddings, birthdays or any party worth its salt.

Fact: a radio revolution was staged to get NZ songs on the soundwaves.

While New Zealand bands were popular on the pub scene, and a home grown recording industry was growing, New Zealand radio stations weren’t keen to play local music. In 1996 only 1.5% of all songs played on air were Kiwi songs. The Kiwi Music Action Group was formed to encourage more music from NZ to see radio waves, and by 2005 that number was up to 19-20%. The group also started New Zealand Music Week, which then became New Zealand Music Month. Power to the people!

Who are some popular NZ music artists?


There aren’t many people on earth who couldn’t hum along to Lorde’s debut single ‘Royals’, which shot to the top of the charts in New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US Billboard top 100 in 2012. There are endless renditions – just search ‘Royals cows’ in Google and watch a US farmer play a trombone version to a paddock of swaying cows. If that’s not making a dent in musical history, nothing is. The pop star hails from little old Devonport on the North Shore of Auckland, and quickly became one of New Zealand’s most renowned artists. Her first album, Pure Heroin, won her two Grammy music awards.

Kiri Te Kanawa

If Lorde is New Zealand’s queen of pop, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is the queen of opera. She has made a name for herself as a top opera singer of her time, singing both local and non-local music, with her recording of Pokarekare Ana capturing hearts around the globe.


The Otara Millionaires Club showcase the best way to have a one hit wonder. Their hit 1996 song, ‘How Bizarre‘ remains the biggest selling New Zealand record of all time. It went to number one in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Austria and Canada and spent 36 weeks on the US Billboards Hot 100 airplay charts. It’s a classic road trip, dance floor and solo-in-the-shower song that keeps delivering well after its time.

Marlon Williams

This singer, songwriter and guitarist from Lyttleton, Christchurch has a voice making itself known across the globe. With his roots as a choir singer and in classical music, he relocated to Australia where his solo career kicked off. In 2015, he released his debut self-titled album, which went straight to number 10 on the New Zealand Albums Chart and received widespread international acclaim. With the release of his second album Make Way For Love in 2018, Marlon has made a name for himself as a world class vocalist and has won handfuls of awards for his powerful lyrics. Not bad for a boy from Christchurch.

What are the most popular NZ bands?

Fat Freddy’s Drop

Straight from the rich, playful Wellington music scene, Fat Freddy’s Drop emerged in 2005 with their first studio album Based on a true story. Recorded in a basement studio at one of the band member’s houses, it was released on the band’s own label, The Drop. The album was a roaring success from the get go, and was the first independently distributed album to top the New Zealand album charts. They’ve brought the sound of Wellington to the world, their songs are loved internationally, and the chemistry of these masterful musicians performing live is intoxicating. Their collection is extensive, but they’re best known by the masses for their songs ‘Wandering Eye’, ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Ernie’.

Flight of the Conchords

FOTC merges two of the best assets of New Zealand culture: music and humour. The folk parody rock group is composed of duo Bret Mackenzie and Jemaine Clement, and their music formed the foundations for a two season TV series. It’s outrageous, funny and packed with musical mastery. They used to call themselves “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”, but as of 2014, refer to themselves as, “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.” You get the idea, and you don’t, give them a google search.


If you’re looking for a legendary New Zealand band that personifies Friday afternoons and scorching summer festivals, your search ends here. Hailing from Christchurch, Shapeshifter are New Zealand’s most loved live drum and bass act, and the best way to get people dancing. They’ve released nine albums since ’99, and blend their influences of jazz, blues, dub and funk in their search for dance music with soul.

So there you have it; a sample of the feast that is New Zealand music. Hungry for more? We don’t blame you. Turn the volume up and eat your heart out.

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Delivering a unique reading experience, 1964: mountain culture / aotearoa works with more than thirty artists, including photographers, writers, woodworkers, welders, creatives and makers for each issue. We advocate for and support Aotearoa’s artists.