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Similar in many ways to the traditional indie pop sound, the Dunedin sound uses "jingly jangly" guitar-playing, minimal bass lines and loose drumming. Keyboards are also often prevalent. Primitive recording techniques also gave this genre a lo-fi sound that endeared its earnest music, but occasionally hard-to-understand vocal accompaniment, to university students worldwide.
The Dunedin sound can be traced back to the emergence of punk rock as a musical influence in New Zealand in the late 1970s. Isolated from the country's main punk scene in Auckland (which had been influenced by bands such as England's Buzzcocks), Dunedin's punk groups - such as The Enemy (which became Toy Love) and The Same (which later developed into The Chills) developed a sound more heavily influenced by artists like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. This was complemented by jangly, psychedelic-influenced guitar work reminiscent of 1960s bands such as The Beatles and The Byrds, and the combination of the two developed into the style which became known as the Dunedin sound.
New Zealand-based Flying Nun Records championed the Dunedin sound, starting with their earliest releases (including The Clean's single "Tally Ho!" and the four-band compilation Dunedin Double EP, from which the term "Dunedin sound" was first coined). Many artists gained a dedicated "college music" following, both at home and overseas. In July 2009, Uncut magazine suggested that "before the mp3 replaced the flexidisc, the three axes of the international indie-pop underground were Olympia WA, Glasgow, and Dunedin, New Zealand." The growth of the Dunedin sound coincided with the founding of the student radio station Radio One) at Otago University, helping to increase the popularity and availability of the music around the city. Student radio RDU in Christchurch, popular in student flats at the time, was already playing plenty of Dunedin music as early as 1981, while commercial radio stations in NZ barely featured any "homegrown" music until a voluntary code was introduced in 2002 after a quota system was proposed and discussed during the mid-to-late 1990s.
The development of parallel musical trends such as the Paisley Underground in California and the resurgence of jangle pop aided a growth in the popularity of the Dunedin sound on college radio in the USA and Europe. The heyday of the movement was in the mid-to-late 1980s, although music in the style is still being recorded and released.
Pavement, R.E.M., and Mudhoney are but three overseas bands that cite the Dunedin sound as an influence, and overseas artists such as Superchunk,Barbara Manning, and Cat Power have covered Dunedin sound songs on several occasions. A 2009 tribute album to Chris Knox (who suffered a major stroke that year) included contributions from fan-luminaries such as Will Oldham, The Mountain Goats, Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow, A. C. Newman, Stephin Merritt, Jay Reatard, and Lambchop.
In 2000, a "Dunedin sound" showcase was presented as part of the Otago Festival Of The Arts held in Dunedin. This showcase featured performances by the Clean, the Chills, the Dead C, Alastair Galbraith, the Renderers, Snapper, and the Verlaines. KFJC 89.7 FM, an American college radio station based in Los Altos Hills, CA, broadcast all six nights of the "Dunedin sound" showcase live to the San Francisco Bay Area via their FM signal and worldwide over the internet. The following year, a double CD documenting these broadcasts was produced for the station's annual fund-raiser.
Though the artists themselves tend to eschew the genre title, "Dunedin sound" artists include the following bands and soloists. Not all of these musicians are from Dunedin, but all show the influence of the music which emanated from the city in the 1980s: