Now with 40 gigs every year across the country, Smokefreerockquest quickly became New Zealand’s only nationwide, live, original music, youth event to give young musicians the opportunity to perform live in a professional setting, in venues from Whangarei to Invercargill. It has been a stepping stone for many of the country's most well-known and successful artists, contributing massively to the music community throughout Aotearoa.
One of the platform's first big moments came in 1989; Smokefreerockquest’s very first year. The band Outer Control were crowned Winners in Christchurch, and members Bobby Kennedy and Clint Harris also went on to win the 1990 National Final as De Funk Express, along with Jason Kerrison bandmate. They went on to form the popular New Zealand rock band Opshop. Kerrison’s music has gone platinum nine times, he’s won nine New Zealand Music Awards, an APRA Silver Scroll Award for Song of the Year and he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for Services to Music in 2011.
As Kerrison says, “Opshop came about because we met in the most fertile environment you can imagine, up against the most competitive bands you can imagine. Smokefreerockquest puts a support network around you and that makes the difference.”
As part of that first 1989 National Final, Anika Moa performed. Atlantic Records signed her directly after watching that National Final performance. Her album Swings The Tide spent 39 weeks on the album chart, peaking at number six, and was certified platinum for selling over 15,000 copies. The album’s first single, ‘Dreams in My Head’ was the soundtrack of summer 2007, literally - it spent 18 weeks in the charts and picked up a Silver Scroll nomination along the way.
1991 Bay Of Plenty winners, Auntie Beatrice, featured brothers Bradley, Laughton and Francis Kora who later formed successful Reggae/dub band Kora. Bradley and Stewert of Kora, then went on to form L.A.B, who’s single ‘In The Air’ (2019) went to number 1 in NZ.
This year in Rockquest also saw guitar legend Julia Deans enter as part of The Far Side from Burnside High School. She won best original song at the National Finals for her song ‘Tower’, before going onto primarily being known as the front-woman of Fur Patrol.
Another signing directly after a National Performance, just a few years later, was Bic Runga who competed in 1993. Pagan Records signed her and she was subsequently signed to Sony for international release. Since the release of her first single ‘Drive’ in 1996 – a top ten hit when she was just twenty – Bic has been awarded almost every musical honour in New Zealand, including the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll songwriting award. Bic has won the most Tuis by any individual ever, holding 20 of these NZ music awards.
Evermore have gone on to international success since winning the competition in 2000. The band used their Rockquest prize money to build their own recording studio, Red Sky Studio. Their song ‘Light Surrounding You’ was released in 2006, and became their first number one hit.
In 2003, North Shore National Finalists The Checks were the school band from Devonport, which went on to secure a four-album deal with Sony and tour with the likes of Oasis, The Hives, REM, AC/DC, The Killers, and Muse. Edward Knowles and Sven Pettersen from The Checks now perform as a part of the band RACING.
Sam McCarthy and Jordan Arts, members of the 2004 winning band Insurca, went on to form the new wave duo, Kids of 88. Based in Auckland, they were best known for their 2009 single, ‘My House’. They signed through Dryden Street to Sony Music and released the album Sugarpills in August 2010. Sam McCarthy now works under the pseudonym BOYBOY, and has written and produced for the likes of One Direction and Balu Brigada. Jordan Arts performs as a part of Leisure, as well as performing in his own solo project called HIGH HØØPS.
Second place National Finalist for that same year - 2004 - was 14 year old Kimbra. She and Gotye won the Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance awards at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards for ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. This achievement made her the third New Zealand singer to win a Grammy Award. Of her time in the competition, Kimbra said “I love that Smokefreerockquest gives kids a real incentive to pick up an instrument and write a song. It often gives birth to a real passion and musicianship from a really young age.”
2005 winners The Electric Confectionaires from Takapuna Grammar School went on to write ‘Piece Of My Heart’, which was used as the theme music for Go Girls, a prime-time Comedy-drama which aired across New Zealand and Australia for five seasons.
2007 saw alt-country artists scene Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding compete together as a duo, at the Otago Regional Final’s. Naid Reid was nominated in 2017 for the APRA Silver Scroll Award, along with Best Solo Artist, Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and Best Alternative Artist at the Aotearoa Music Awards for her album Preservation. Aldous Harding was the winner of the 2019 APRA Silver Scroll Award for her song The Barrel.
2007 National Finalists Josh Burgess and Charlie Ryder went on to form Yumi Zouma, who have since released three successful studio albums and average 600k monthly Spotify listeners in 2020.
In 2008, Marlon Williams won best song award at the Christchurch Regional Final. He has since won multiple New Zealand Music Awards including winning the Silver Scroll with his song ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’. In 2018, Marlon Williams was approached personally by Bradley Cooper to perform in Academy Award-nominated film A Star Is Born, alongside Cooper himself, Lady Gaga and Brandi Carlile.
2009 National Winner Jesse Sheehan has toured with Neil Finn and is a Double Silver Scroll Finalist. He was the first soloist to win Smokefreerockquest, before the solo/duo and band categories were defined in 2013. Sheehan is now the front man of FRED.
2011’s Nationally winning band The Peasants consisted of Georgia and Caleb Nott from Garin College in Nelson, who would later form the internationally acclaimed duo Broods. Having won 10 NZ Music Awards, they have also toured with Ellie Goulding, Haim, Sam Smith and Taylor Swift. Of Smokefreerockquest, Georgia said they “seriously would not be in the amazing position we are in right now if Rockquest didn’t exist. It was and always will be one of the best things we ever did.”
In 2013, founders Glenn and Pete were honoured with the MNZM for Services to Music, and continue to lead the team that now runs this New Zealand institution from offices in Nelson and Auckland.
Among the notable musical successes who participated in Smokefreerockquest over its 30-year history include Leroy Clampitt, Aaradhna, Ladyhawke, Die!Die!Die!, Joel Little, Tiny Ruins, Brooke Fraser, Chelsea Jade, Steriogram, Holly Fulbrook (Tiny Ruins), Robinson, Phoenix Foundation, Devilskin, The Black Seeds and The Naked and Famous.