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The first Rockquest was held in 1988, and was organised by Christchurch radio station C93FM as a local event. The following year, school teachers Glenn Common and Pete Rainey formed Rockquest Promotions and by 1990 had made Rockquest a national event, with five regional finals and a national final. In 1991, Smokefree became a major sponsor, and the name became the Smokefreerockquest. Glenn Common and Pete Rainey now run Rockquest Promotions full-time out of Nelson.
Smokefreerockquest is the only nationwide, live, all original, youth music event. Now into its third decade, the series of 29 events from all over the country, reaches audience numbers in excess of 24,000 every year. Its aim is to motivate young musicians to prove their musical ability and to encourage their peers to support original New Zealand music. Initially bands played covers, but very early in the evolution of the event (and running parallel with the evolution of music in New Zealand) there was a shift to original music.
Musical successes from Smokefreerockquest over its 23-year history include Midnight Youth, Opshop, Evermore, Ladyhawke, Minuit, Marina Davis, Kids of 88, Die!Die!Die!, Pistol Youth, Bang!Bang!Eche!, Ivy Lies, Cairo Knife Fight, Cut Off Your Hands, Luke Thompson, the Datsuns, Zed, Brooke Fraser, Anika Moa, Anna Coddington, The Electric Confectionaires, Steriogram, Aaradhna, Spacifix, The Phoenix Foundation, The Feelers, The Black Seeds, Nesian Mystik, Bic Runga, The Checks, Julia Deans, Pine, King Kapisi, Kingston, The Fresh Prints, The Naked and Famous, Rival State, Autozamm, Taste Nasa, Kimbra, Elemeno P, Alien Weaponry and Joe's Van.
The SFRQ consists of around 40 regional competitions across New Zealand with the top regional bands progressing to the national final.
Each region holds both heats and a regional final. Bands have 7 minutes on stage to perform for an audience and panel of judges. Bands that place first or second at their regional event have the opportunity to submit a 15-minute performance video which is judged by a panel of industry professionals. From these video submissions, 6-10 bands are chosen to compete at the national final. At the national final, the competing bands have 8 minutes to perform on stage before the overall winner is announced.
The regional areas are: Northland, North Shore, Auckland Central, Manukau, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Taranaki, Wanganui, East Coast, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu, Wairarapa, Wellington, Nelson, Malborough, Canterbury, West Coast, Timaru, Otago and Southland.
The overall national winner receives a prizepack which includes the opportunity to record a single at York St Studios in Auckland, musical gear from NZ Rockshops, a New Recording Artist grant and a Music Video Grant funded by NZ On Air and mentoring with a music industry professional. Second and third placed finishers also receive Rockshop vouchers and the opportunity to record a single. Other awards at regional events includes the Lowdown Best Song Award, APRA Lyric Award, Smokefree People's Choice Award, MAINZ Musicianship Award and Smokefree Women's Musicianship Award.
- Because Evermore were homeschooled, they made up "Twin Oaks School" as their school name. "Smokefree Rockquest – 20 years young". Get the Skinny from Skinny. Get the Skinny from Skinny. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
- 1989/1990 — Bobby Kennedy and Clint Harris, members from the 1989 winning band Outer Control, formed the popular New Zealand rock band Opshop with Jason Kerrison, whose band De Funk Express won the Rockquest in 1990.
- 1991 — 1991 winners, Auntie Beatrice, featured brothers Bradley, Laughton and Francis Kora who later formed Reggae/dub band Kora. Kora’s debut EP Volume was released in 2004 and achieved platinum status with over 10,000 copies sold.
- 1993 — Pagan Records signed Bic Runga directly after her Rockquest national final performance, and she was subsequently signed to Sony for international release. Runga's first solo album, Drive, debuted at number one on the New Zealand RIANZ charts. She has since become one of the highest-selling New Zealand artists, also finding success internationally in Australia, Ireland and the UK.
- 1998 — In 1998, Atlantic Records signed Anika Moa directly after her national final performance. Moa's 2001 debut album, Thinking Room, reached the top of the Official New Zealand Top 40 Albums Chart and was a commercial success. She has released a total of four studio albums and has received numerous APRA and New Zealand Music Award nominations.
- 2000 — 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 facility, Red Sky Studio. They have since released four popular albums and have been nominated for numerous ARIA Awards and New Zealand Music Awards.
- 2001 — Andrew Wilson and Michael Prain of Die! Die! Die! originally played in the band Carriage H who won the SFRQ in 2001. As well as releasing five studio albums, Die! Die! Die! have toured with Franz Ferdinand, Wolfmother and Wire.
- 2004 — Sam McCarthy and Jordan Arts, members of the 2004 winning band Insurca, formed the new wave duo, Kids of 88 who released two albums. McCarthy also played in pop punk band Goodnight Nurse who released several top 40 singles.
- 2014 — Georgia and Caleb Nott, members of The Peasants (2011 SFRQ winners), splintered off to form the duo Broods. They have released two albums and have enjoyed some success in the United States.
- Smokefree RockQuest 2005 - an album of the finalists of 2005.
- "History of the Rockquest". TKI.
- "SmokeFree Rockquest".
- "Twenty five years of Smokefreerockquest". Smokefreerockquest.
- "Smokefreerockquest national finals results 2015". Scoop. Scoop. 14 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
- "About SFRQ". Smokefreerockquest.
- "Region dates". Smokefreerockquest.
- "How it works - Stages". Smokefreerockquest.
- "National Prizes". Smokefreerockquest.
- "Awards". Smokefreerockquest.
- "National Winners '89 – Outer Control".
- "National Winners '90 – De Funk Express".
- "National Winners '91 – Auntie Beatrice".
- Bic Runga
- "Thinking Room - Anika Moa". muzic.net.nz.
- "Anika Moa bio". the Adults.
- "National Winners '00 – Evermore". Archived from the original on 2011-05-18.
- Jason Ankeny. "Evermore Biography". AllMusic.
- "Evermore Bio".
- "National Winners '01 – Carriage H".
- "Die! Die! Die!". Sputnik Music.
- "National Winners '04 – Incursa".
- Lydia Jenkin (2010). "Kids Of 88 - More than Quick Thrills and Sugar Pills". NZ Musician.