How Six60 became the biggest band NZ has ever seen

  • 22/07/2018

Six60 are as much a business as a band, and have achieved historically unprecedented success with a very unconventional approach, writes lapsed Six60 hater and music critic Duncan Greive for The Spinoff.

New Zealand has never known a band like Six60. Their success is complete and unblemished - so vast that it can render the milestones of other artists petty and childlike by comparison.

The numbers they produce are astounding. For six straight months, from November until May, they had the most played song on radio, with 'Don't Give it Up' only ceding the top spot when another of their songs, 'Closer', was ready to take it. Twelve singles have gone platinum or better, and both their albums are quadruple platinum. While Lorde is globally popular, in New Zealand Six60 are way ahead.

Their current release is a six-song EP, imaginatively titled Six60 EP. As well as going platinum, it has had a quite absurd dominance of the Top 20 NZ Singles chart, neatly illustrated by this week's version:

NZ Top 40/Recorded Music NZ
Six60 rule the charts. Photo credit: NZ Top 40/Recorded Music NZ

If you're counting at home, that's the entirety of the release contained in the top 10. So total has been their ownership of this chart that its administrators at RMNZ have had to set up a separate chart entitled 'Hot Singles' which values volatility over sales. This is in part because the Spotify and YouTube era has made hits last longer than they used to, but also a response to the fact that Six60 have effectively broken their charts.

Yet, despite this backdrop, an announcement on 28 June represented an almost chilling level of ambition. They were playing Western Springs, an outdoor stadium in Auckland's inner city suburbs. If it doesn't necessarily ring a bell, that's probably because it's not in particularly common usage. There are very few artists anywhere in the world capable of filling it.

Over the past few years that has included The Police, Guns N' Roses and Bruce Springsteen. Heritage megastars deep into their careers, often playing long-awaited reunions. At 49,000, capacity is just too big for all but the very biggest.

For New Zealand artists, it's not even really an Everest - it's just not something they would ever contemplate. You might as well talk about planning a show on the moon. Even with Six60's immensely popular live show and dominance of streaming and radio, it remained a huge risk - a show without data points to safely predict outcomes. To put it in perspective, only one other New Zealand artist has ever headlined a show there, and that was over half a century ago in 1966, when Larry Morris pulled 18,000, according to Six60's promoter, industry legend Brent Eccles.

So when tickets went on sale, even this supremely confident band was tense.

Six60. Photo credit: File

They needn't have been. The pre-sale saw 13,000 tickets disappear. Within 24 hours they were well over 25,000. Today, just weeks after opening and more than six months away from the big day, they're over 42,000. That's bigger than all but the biggest festivals in New Zealand history - more tickets than most Big Day Outs and around twice as many as were rumoured to have been sold to this year's Auckland City Limits. A sellout is near-assured.

As extraordinary as their success is the paradoxical indifference of much of the institutions which normally propel it. While they dominate radio, even that has been a hard march - Mai and Flava, two of the biggest stations in the country, only really came around on recent releases. Mainstream publications have treated them like any other big-ish band, most notably in coverage of the Western Springs show itself. It's easily the biggest New Zealand music story of the year, a historically audacious event - yet it generated a smattering of stories at the time, and none since.

This is in part because the music media has been somewhere between indifferent and hostile from the start. When I was a music writer I regularly wrote cruel reviews of their singles, describing 'Rise Up' as "meaningless lyrics and feelgood vibes plastered to a mush of tinny dubstep and Starbucks drum'n'bass" in 2011.

Western Springs.
Western Springs. Photo credit: Google Maps

I was hardly alone in that perspective. And because critics largely decide who to cover, too, the band weren't near first picked. Contrast them with the likes of Marlon Williams and SWIDT, two critically adored artists with audiences tiny fragments of the size of Six60's, who regularly receive large and intricately rendered stories across broadcast and print media. (One notable exception: Chris Schulz's excellent profile of Six60 from last year).

As went the media, so went the industry. They were courted, but not as aggressively as they should have been. And as a result, they learned how to conduct their business their own way. Starting as a covers band in Dunedin in 2008, they learned how to deeply connect with an audience playing parties and 21sts.

A few years later, they were finishing up at uni and decided to record an EP as a memento. They booked a studio in a few weeks time, resolving to write some originals in the intervening period. Lacking any connection to the formal industry, they walked into a local branch of the Rock Shop and asked the guy behind the counter if he knew any producers, which is how the guy from behind the counter at the Rock Shop ended up producing their debut EP.

That EP contained a number of songs which would become staples and huge hits, including their most well-known song, 'Don't Forget Your Roots', which mainly consists of the lyric "Don't forget your roots my friend / Don't forget your family yeah", and yet has become almost hymn-like for fans.

They self-released the EP on their own label and it sold thousands of copies, which they shipped out from their practise space, and their strange combination of DIY tactics and huge commercial success was away. Not long after, they booked their first Auckland show. The venue? The Town Hall. It sold out, of course.

This was largely a combination of Otago students who had returned home, and newfound fans converted through the then-new social media phenomenon of Facebook. The band has 300,000 fans there, who are essentially a giant vault of committed customers, ready to be mobilised at a moment's notice. A classic example of this is the 'White Lines' video. They asked fans to submit footage of themselves singing along to the song, then edited the best of those submissions together. They billed it as 'directed by New Zealand', and it's now had nearly 2m views, while costing barely anything to create.

Six60 EP cover.
Six60 EP cover. Photo credit: Massive Entertainment

Over the intervening years, they have gotten more professional: they have big-time US management (despite not yet having made much of a dent overseas) and work with outside promoters like Eccles. While still on their own label, they have a long-running promotion and distribution deal with Universal Music New Zealand.

Still, they feel like a band apart from the industry. Despite their EP's dominance, they received no nominations in this year's Silver Scrolls. Their Western Springs show is a mini-festival, with four support acts - yet there are no women on the bill, something almost unimaginable in this era. It's not that they're unfriendly with other artists, just that their values feel very different - exemplified by their conception of the band as a 'high growth business'. This is backed up by their diligence: they have a full-time studio, with workstations and set hours, and work with the All Blacks' mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka.

Other artists cultivate an air of mystique and separation from their fans, whereas Six60 seem supremely relatable - even in their success, they do what middle New Zealand aspires to. One drives a late model BMW, others own their homes. When I met up with them to shoot a segment for The Spinoff TV, bassist Chris Mac had a scab on his face from falling over while walking. What's more quintessentially New Zealand than that?

Through all this normalcy they become an enigma - the biggest band in the country by far, yet scarcely acknowledged by many cultural institutions. The best thing to happen to the local industry in years, while also oddly distant from it. Capable of filling our biggest venue without viewing it as much more than a stop on the way somewhere else. Incredibly corny, but deeply and affectingly sincere.

A band whose music I find really hard to listen to, yet whose story is the most bold and fascinating in New Zealand music since Lorde.

The Spinoff