The word ‘opportunity’ comes up frequently when you talk to Martyn Pepperell about his career. Luck, while it may have a role, it is not his master.
If you haven’t heard of Martyn, you’ve probably read his writing. This Wellingtonian has written for almost every New Zealand publication or website you could think of over the last 10 plus years. Unlike many others, he has been able to forge a full-time career as a freelance writer and musician, working on the side as a radio host, copywriter and creative arts consultant. Martyn has rarely had a 'day job' to speak. Instead he artfully gathered opportunities, wherever he could find them - and just made it work.
"How does one find so many 'opportunities'? If there are three words I could use to sum up Martyn’s story they would be: look for them."
So when we meet at Loretta on Cuba Street (his favourite haunt of several around Wellington), for a coffee and a chat on a Saturday morning I can’t help but ask how he did it? How does one find so many 'opportunities'? If there are three words I could use to sum up Martyn’s story they would be: look for them.
An arts upbringing
Martyn was born in Wellington in 1982. When he was growing up his father was an entrepreneur. “One week he would have a whole pile of dolls houses someone had made that they were selling on the Trade and Exchange and another week he would have found a whole bunch of tables someone would have thrown away. The next he would be doing some landscape architecture on someone's property.” When Martyn’s Father was a younger man, he would hang out on a commune called ‘Jersulam’, which, as Martyn explains, “...is where artists and poets such as James K Baxter formed a lot of their ideas for early New Zealand poetry.”
"My mother can play the Piano and the Violin. My Dad used to play Saxophone"
His mother worked at Parliament as a speech writer. She then began working as a legal editor for longstanding legal journal, ‘The Capital Letter’. “Both of them loved music and loved writing. My mother can play the Piano and the Violin. My Dad used to play Saxophone. So music and books were always around from a very young age. I’m from the age where parents read books to you before you went to sleep. There was less emphasis on Sports or Television and it was mostly about the Arts.”
When Martyn was around 12 years old a community newspaper ‘The City Voice’ (now defunct) had an advertisement for a teenage section for the paper, looking for teenage contributors. “Me and a few others went down to the paper and began to do a few bits and pieces for the like interviews and reviews around town. By the time I got to high school, I had already had a few pieces published as a writer. Nothing memorable that you’d want to pull out of the archives but ultimately I understood the process. You’d interview people, type something up and bring it down to the paper on a floppy disk. There was no email.”
“Me and a few others went down to the paper and began to do a few bits and pieces for the like interviews and reviews around town. By the time I got to high school, I had already had a few pieces published as a writer."
Around this same time, Martyn also started learning more about music. “When I started high school, one of my uncles lent me an electric guitar and another one of my uncles lent me a drum machine. I started learning the basics about how people make and play music. I became interested in raves and going to all-night dance parties in Wellington, hearing bands play - punk groups who would play at Thistle Hall. I also got to know bigger bands like Tool, Sound Garden or the Smashing Pumpkins. There were also hip hop things coming here like Bone Thugs N Harmony. I was seeing what was out there in the arts and music cafe scene in Wellington."
The First Zine
At Martyn’s school, Wellington High School, Journalism Studies, Film and Television and Arts based subjects were freely offered. Martyn studied these subjects and also wrote for the school magazine, learning more about layout and crafting articles. He began to put together videos and short films. After high school ended, Martyn teamed up with a friend who wanted to do graphic design and art and they started making a weekly ‘Zine. The Zine was a weekly gig guide. The pair weren’t being paid and they scrimped and saved. After a year of the Zine, more opportunities came the pairs way. They started engaging in other more well established magazines and work.
Martyn then went to Melbourne and lived with nine other New Zealanders and three German’s in a four bedroom house in the hip suburb of Fitzroy. “We’d go out to dance concerts. I did some writing work for some magazines. For a while we worked as street collectors for the Australian Wilderness Society - that meant you had to dress up in a Neon Koala costume and ask people for money. You also had a daily beer budget because it was so hot you needed to have a few beers to keep cool. So I really understood what it was like to be in a bigger city where there was money to invest in the arts.”
"For a while we worked as street collectors for the Australian Wilderness Society - that meant you had to dress up in a Neon Koala costume and ask people for money"
Music and Vocals
After a time, Martyn returned to Wellington where he continued his interest in music, particularly Drum and Bass, House, Jungle and Hip Hop. Martyn and a friend got together and decided to start a record label and music collective. After making a CD of songs, they sent the album around New Zealand and had a small tour.
Things went well and again, more opportunities began to come their way, this time in music. “This seems to be the pattern; you do something really well and opportunities come to you as you look for opportunities. We started being able to take this over to Australia with a couple of singers and DJ’s. What we found was this was connecting in a tangible way where there would be 500-800 people at shows. We were also starting to make a bit of money. But we also were relying on samples. We decided we needed to create our own original music with certain types of vocalists from Jamaica and the UK and make our own samples.”
Martyn got some money together and began to travel the world looking for people to work with on songs. “It was getting to see an even bigger window into what’s possible” Martyn says. “We worked with certain artists creating original music. Some of the music we put together was of a high enough standard that at that point that a few labels wanted to put it out on Vinyl Records - this was pre-software DJ or laptop days days. We came out on some ok labels and then went a toured America, Canada and Australia.”
Back to the Notepad
Around 2007 everything changed. Some of the original crew were moving in different directions and were looking to have families or mortgages. At this time, Martyn was about 26. He decided still had some risk in him and went to look for further writing opportunities.
Martyn found a chance to write for the weekly giveaway magazine, The Auckland based Groove Guide. Martyn wrote to Groove Guide and they agreed to have him write reviews and do interview for them. He started going up to Auckland regularly, around twice a month (which he still does). After meeting the Groove Guide staff Martyn put his feelers out, writing for Rip It Up magazine and North and South amongst others - “Just doing anything - I tried to do as much as I could. It’s funny because most of this time I was able to do quite well out of just print writing. This is something that no one can almost do anymore post-recession because we moved into a digital landscape. I started to wonder if a magazine might not be around in 6 months.”
Slowly over time, magazines and publications did start disappearing and Martyn's work began to move into the digital space. New Zealand on Air, around this time, was having complaints about their funding process so they had started a website so bands could upload their music and people could vote. This way, the band that received the most votes would be awarded $10,000 funding.
Martyn got given a monthly retainer to do a weekly series of interviews for bands. Around a similar time a digital agency called ClanMouse contacted Martyn to get him to write for a tablet magazine and website to be called ‘Vanguard Red’ wanting him to come on board as a regular contributor to blog and write features. “So suddenly I have these two digital retainers to write. Then again, more and more things start popping up like that. The whole thing starts shifting over and I see people paying for online writing and photography.”
Martyn also had regularly done shows for Radio Active for a long while up to that point and was also asked around this time to work for other student radio shows around the country. “You fit it all together” he says. He also began to make radio documentaries for Radio New Zealand. Martyn also was writing as a contributor to the blog/newsletter Word on the Street for Positively Wellington Tourism.
The Next Level
At a point, Martyn was able to live comfortably but wasn’t sure how it might progress. He decided to try his hand at writing for international publications. “It’s hard because no matter what you’ve done in this small island, it means nothing in the US or UK context” he explains. “I was incredibly lucky that over the course of a few months, several opportunities came up. A major independent UK website Boiler Room TV were doing a piece on New Zealand musician Connan Mockasin.” Around a similar time, he wrote for Red Bull Academy, profiling certain musicians.
Over time, Martyn found he was writing for about four good international level music magazines and so started to approach other’s, like ID magazine, Dummy Magazine and music websites. Some agreed to have him write or asked for a pitch for ideas. Some ideas were accepted, some weren’t and “I rolled into this pattern where now for the last couple of years the majority of pieces I’ve written have been globally positioned pieces for an international audience. At the same time, I pulled back on Radio and invested more in DJ work.”
Now Martyn regularly DJ’s around New Zealand, writes core pieces for international magazines and then doing copy writing work on the side. The goal is to keep on with it to move to the next level.” As part of taking things to the next level, June Martyn visited London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles to meet people. “I wanted to find out whether I could open some more doors” he explains.
Martyn continues to keep his eyes wide, constantly searching for the next opportunity. Yet all the while he’s stayed in New Zealand and has had Wellington as his home base.
“It’s easy to get around, it’s compact and we are so close to the airport” he says. “It’s a 15 minute drive, a 40 minute flight and an hour later you are in Auckland. You could argue it is quicker to fly to Auckland than it is to take the Tube across London.”
Martyn admits that he’s preferred to stay in Wellington because he considers the standard of living here is high compared to that in other New Zealand cities. “It’s easy to get around, it’s compact and we are so close to the airport” he says. “It’s a 15 minute drive, a 40 minute flight and an hour later you are in Auckland. You could argue it is quicker to fly to Auckland than it is to take the Tube across London.” Auckland used to be a real centre of work for Martyn between 2008 - 2013 but now he finds more and more he is writing for an international audience. He continues to have a good relationship with Red Bull, who throw opportunities his way frequently, and other festivals, gigs and events who want quality writing.
After we leave I think about Martyn and how powerful it is for people to persist, even when others wonder if they will ever get a "real job", and the singlemindedness that hard work in the arts requires. And of meeting Martyn himself - well, put it this way, it was one hell of an opportunity.