For Mike Chunn, former member of legendary bands Split Enz and Citizen Band, and founder of Play It Strange, his love of music and songwriting has followed him his whole life. As Play It Strange, a charitable trust that promotes and inspires songwriting in secondary schools, continues to celebrate “Twenty Strange Years”, Mike reflects on his journey and the importance of music in our lives.


I grew up in South Auckland and there was no television to watch, so I would listen to the radio in the kitchen. Occasionally, I fell in love with songs to such a degree that I would dream of the record. When The Beatles arrived with the movie A Hard Day’s Night, I became completely and utterly infatuated with being a Beatle because it looked like it was possible. All you had to do was wear cool clothes, grow your hair, and play an instrument. I wanted to play the bass guitar because Paul McCartney only had to hit one string at a time and he could sing, and I thought “Well, I probably can too.”

Pre Ends: Geoff Chunn, Mike Chunn and Paul Fitzgerald, taken at the Chunn house by Mrs. Chunn

My songwriting influence didn’t end at The Beatles. I grew up in an era in which the Top 10 was incredibly contemporary. I would be at boarding school in the 1960s, which is a terrible place to be, but I would hear Jimi Hendrix, and think this isn’t like the other squeaky clean pop songs, it’s quite edgy. Musicians were breaking all the moulds. I was lucky enough to have a young Tim Finn in my class and my brother Geoffery in the year below us. We started playing as a band when we were about 16, which went on to become Split Enz. That passion to be surrounded by talented people has carried with me throughout my whole life.

Now in my 70s, through Play It Strange, I get to support our youth, to tell their own stories through songwriting, and nurture the passion and power of music in our next generation. Music can guide us through challenging times, be a way to work through our challenges, and significantly improve the daily lives of all of us, through the sharing of it.

Songwriting in the days of Split Enz showed me the power of a song. Through Play it Strange, I have seen first-hand the role of music has been vehemently positive in making lives better. In its 20 years of operation, Play It Strange has had over 7000 songs entered in our songwriting competitions and over 900 writers have had the opportunity to record their songs and share them with the world, to bring emotion to the ears of the listeners and is so intertwined in every part of our daily lives.

I do wonder, what the world would be like if all the music was turned off. I imagine it as a cold, dark and dull place. Music and songwriting are alive because people create it, record it and share it with us. Just like any other service that makes our lives better, alongside nurturing new songwriters, I also have a strong passion for advocating for those songwriters, to be acknowledged for their creativity.

Mike Chunn, 2024. - Play It Strange

The presence of music in public places is powerful for making such environments more pleasant to be in. All it takes is a walk down the street – a small café playing Joni Mitchell; a secondhand music store playing obscure vinyl albums; a bookstore with ballad tracks from 1950s stage musicals. With music, the petrol pump flows faster, browsing the aisles of the supermarket becomes pleasant, even the frustration of waiting on the phone, on hold, is made somewhat bearable thanks to music creators.

I remember in the 1990s, I spent just over a decade at APRA, an organisation that represents those songwriters who are responsible for making our lives better. The hardest thing that I noticed was the instant rejection of a music licence in principle; this was before APRA AMCOS and Recorded Music NZ formed OneMusic as we know them today.

Back then a group of nightclub operators had said to me “No, we’re not paying a penny”, so we met and they brought their lawyer. The nightclub owner next to me said “You look familiar” – and I said “I used to play at your venue when I was in a band”.

Later I explained why there was a licence: so we could then pay the songwriters for the vital role they play. And he got it. He called all the other key nightclub owners and told all of them “Start paying licences, tell everybody”. We didn’t need to be bludgeoning on about it. They were smart, they knew that the licence meant that of all the millions of songs that go out, made their business better and that a licence meant they had permission from the creators to use it.

Times are changing, and now businesses are really thinking about music and how their OneMusic licence is a vital part of their staff and customers experiences, and how their business wouldn’t be as successful without it. There is the right music and the right lyrics in the right place at the right time of day. I don’t think people specifically think “Oh, that fourth song I heard up the road was really good, I didn’t like the fifth song”, it's just a general almost subcutaneous internal response emotionally.

Music creates the aura of a place and makes businesses more attractive and pleasant. In the end, the number of people in your venue is crucial to the success of a business. I'm betting that if music was turned off, more than half the people would stay at home or go to the beach.

There wouldn’t be so many millions of songs playing every day, if people didn’t want to write them – and that is the proof in my mind of why music must exist. You don’t get songs because the teacher said, “You’re going to have detention unless you write a song”. You get songs because for a songwriter it is an exciting and rewarding activity. Split Enz songs still pop up occasionally, maybe while I’m with my grandchild at our local café or I hear it pumping from the gym down the road – music is obviously powerful and transcendent. The youth I work with today, through Play It Strange, are the future of songwriting in Aotearoa.


This first appeared on the OneMusic website, 7 February 2024, and is republished here with permission. 

Play It Strange