Meow is one of the many vibrant, diverse venues that make up Wellington's music scene.

At the sharp end of Wellington’s live music scene

Wellington’s music scene is diverse, vibrant, and full of community spirit – but it doesn’t come easy. Ben Lynch looks into the reality of being a music venue owner in the capital.

Whether you subscribe to Wellington’s widely used moniker of ‘coolest little capital’ or not, there’s no denying that the city has a depth of culture that belies its size. With more bars and cafes per capita than New York, and an impressive rate of a new restaurant opening nearly every week in 2017, there’s a creative and entrepreneurial community in the city that’s worth being proud of.

And, as with any hub that claims the title of ‘cultural capital’, the live music scene sits at the heart of it all. From international acts like Jay Rock and Deafhaven to local jazz and trap nights, the eclectic nature of the city is reflected in the huge variety of music and especially the venues that play host to it.

Rahine O’Rielly and Damian Jones, who co-own both Meow and the grassroots venue Caroline, explain how, because of Wellington’s size, there’s a need to be more than just a specialist genre venue. They point to the plethora of acts that have made up Meow’s recent listings, which aside from Jay Rock include the American indie act Snail Mail and esteemed rock trio A Place To Bury Strangers.

It’s concrete proof that, in Damian’s words, “we do everything”.

Calum Carmichael, owner of craft beer haven Rogue & Vagabond, shares this view. “The Rogue is a small venue, and we programme a wide variety of acts – funk, soul, blues, hip-hop, electronic, and of course jazz. We’ve been big supporters of the scene for six years now, and we don’t target a specific audience. Anyone that’s into music is welcome.”

Rogue & Vagabond, one of Wellington’s many venues

While there might be a concern that trying to do too much can dilute the appeal of certain venues, it seems that Wellington’s owners have comfortably nailed that side of it.

Even venues that are typically seen as more genre specific embrace this ethos and host a range of different nights – while a venue like Valhalla is seen as a ‘metal’ venue, it recently hosted a trap night. The two genres couldn’t be more different. Ben Mulchin, Valhalla’s owner, explains how: “Most [genre fans] have the same community spirit and passion as the metal community, so any show is welcome. As long as everyone is having a good time, I don’t care.”

This welcoming, broad-minded approach reflects much of the city’s output. The binding ‘community spirit’ that Mulchin references is also important in maintaining the diversity and artistic restlessness that’s widespread in the capital. As O’Rielly puts it: “I think there’s a wonderful community in Wellington, and that we are a smaller city but punch above our weight. We know the other venue owners, we know the people, we all work together and we all work towards the same thing.”

The city’s size is one of its main selling points as a cultural capital. Whether you’re wandering around one of the waterfront museums, eating on Courtenay Place, or sticking your head in a record store on Cuba Street, nothing in Wellington is too far, and most of it’s within spitting distance.

More importantly, perhaps, the city’s size also helps create the impression that everything is very much a part of your world. Seeing an act at San Fran a mere 20-minute walk away is far more manageable than driving to some unknown part of town that’s far removed from your day-to-day. That immediacy is important for a community to thrive, and is something Wellington has in abundance.

Caroline is a grassroots music venue in Wellington

Despite the tight-knit vibe of the city, running a venue isn’t always the easiest of gigs. As people are spending less money at bars and costs continue to rise, obstacles are consistently popping up for venue owners. “It would be great to get more council support and acknowledgment as we feel we add a lot of colour and boost the economy, especially when international bands play,” says Mulchin.

O’Rielly also highlights the encouraged free gig economy as being particularly detrimental.

“I think that a lot of the free events and how they run undermine the value of music for the musicians but also the people that are creating the scene. I know it’s a balancing act and it’s great to have music happening. But there are other events where they’re bringing in artists from out of town where they just seem to undermine the local music community. [The council is] doing a lot of publicity on the back of the ‘coolest little capital’ and ‘the most creative capital’, and a lot of that’s done by the people on the ground.”

Another key issue is one that’s impacting local music venues worldwide – sound control. UK cities such as London and Oxford have had widely-covered issues with venues struggling to deal with sound control, the problem lying in the balancing act that needs to take place between protecting venues’ livelihoods and not keeping people up all night.

San Fran, one of Wellington’s most popular venues

The lack of capital most venue owners have doesn’t equip them to incur such costs, and is something that, as O’Rielly puts it, “needs a resolution”. If not, the impact on Wellington’s venue owners could prove to be fatal.

But the overriding motivation for these venue owners isn’t financial. Rather, the rewards come from the blood, sweat and tears that each of them have put into the scene they so clearly love.

It’s in the close sense of community, it’s in the familial vibes, and it’s the depth of local talent and eye-catching international acts coming through. Talking to these owners, it’s obvious that despite the complications, running a venue in Wellington is a gratifying, and hugely important, vocation.

“It’s a fantastic job, and this is such a nice community in Wellington”, O’Rielly says. “I love that my children are growing up surrounded by these really creative and brave people who work really hard, and that’s why we do it.”


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