Photo: Encircle Photos

Gigs are off, but Auckland’s music crew is back at Spark Arena

Over lockdown, a small team of music industry professionals have become emergency response workers. Josie Adams visited Spark Arena to meet them.

Behind Spark Arena is a line of shipping containers filled with food and hygiene products. “Only a few months ago this was filled with Tool’s stuff,” said Tom Anderson, a coordinator of Auckland Council’s emergency response food parcel service. He slapped the sturdy metal doors. “Now, it’s full of nappies.” He grinned and opened up another container, full of baby formula and shampoo.

The arena has been transformed from a 12,000-seat music venue into an emergency food delivery response hub. Five weeks ago, a team of music industry workers returned to their old haunt to box supplies for families in need. Since then, they’ve sent out over 50,000 individual boxes of food and essential home items around the Auckland region.

Anderson is co-owner and manager of Whammy Bar, a dark and delightful home for Auckland live music. He’s also the production manager of Live Nation NZ, an engineer, a musician, and tour and stage manager. He’s spent plenty of time at Spark Arena in the past, but this is the first time he’s been there working office hours. “It’s definitely different,” he said. “I’m used to working here, but it’s usually at night, with heaps of people.” The early afternoon sunlight reflected off the white of his face mask, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled enough to show he was smiling. “It’s weird, yeah.”

“We went from zero to absolute 100,” said Anderson. “We started out with just these boxes,” he said, pointing to a massive wall of flat-pack boxes that lined one side of the arena floor. “Within days the supplies came in.” Countdown is the main supplier of these emergency goods, which include tinned foods as well as fresh vegetables and hygiene supplies.

Thankfully, he’s surrounded by friendly faces. Everyone working at the arena is from the music industry. Anderson wouldn’t have it any other way. The workers are sound techs, drivers, runners and managers; even the regular Spark event barista is still there.

Tom Anderson, one of the coordinators of the Spark Arena emergency response, in front of the loading zone

Lisa Fahrenberger, an audio technician, has spent the past month taping the boxes together. Next to her on the day The Spinoff visited was Heath Barlow, another audio tech – one Fahrenberger knows well. “Heath and I work together quite often, so we’re a good team,” she said. He looked over and raised a box in cheers.

The last gig she worked was WOMAD. “Everything got cancelled after that,” she said. “So I was at home from mid-March, and when this came around five weeks ago I’d been sitting at home for almost a month, so I was lucky to be asked.” Many in the music industry were hit hard by Covid-19, and might end up on the receiving end of one of these boxes. Fahrenberger knows the music industry is going to take a long time to heal, but she’d prefer to work here than sign on to something more permanent in another field. 

“I’d rather do this, where I can work and be social, in a kind of familiar environment, and know it’s temporary, than have a career change,” she said. “I love my job.”

Lines are taped onto the ground at two-metre intervals, keeping workers like Fahrenberger and Barlow a safe distance apart. Each box has a list of what needs to go in it, and slowly moves around the circuit two metres at a time. “It’s basically a chain gang,” said Anderson.

The boxes are packed with essential goods. “We do a gluten-free box, we do a vegetarian box – people can pick what they need,” said Anderson. “They can select what kind of pet they have, or how old their kid is.” The childcare section separates nappies and baby formula by age, as does the cat and dog food.

Alongside Spark management, Anderson is coordinating the response with Daniel Turner from Rhythm and Vines and Shane Marsh from Homegrown. Keeping a music festival from descending into chaos is a skill few people possess. They’re putting those skills to good use here. “We’re used to adapting,” said Anderson. “It’s what we do.”

On a busy day, over a hundred people could swing by Spark Arena: workers, couriers, and supply truck drivers. Some are part-timers, and others are here every day. Staff levels have gone up and down in relation to demand; and demand has changed as quickly as the pandemic does. In its first week of operation, the team fielded 3,000 requests for food parcels. Last week, in just one day, it sent out the same number.

The network these music professionals share has helped build this emergency response. A trucking contractor donated three containers for storage that usually ship lights and sound equipment. Production company Tone Deaf donated its container, which usually has crowd barrier in it; now it’s home to shampoo. Viking, a staging company, donated concrete blocks to hold up a donated marquee in the carpark. “We’ve called it the Covid merch tent,” said Anderson. Underneath the marquee are crates of supplies that haven’t found a home in a box nor a shipping container.

A shipping container that once held musicians’ gear now holds nappies and shampoo.

All these spaces are filled with supplies, and people moving them. It’s a stark contrast with the venues these people normally fill; places like Whammy Bar, Wine Cellar, Galatos, Neck of the Woods, and a nocturnal Spark Arena. In every city in New Zealand, thousands of people are out of work in an industry that has become their way of life.

Anderson checked on Whammy Bar the other day, looking for signs of rats or leaks. The bar is underneath St Kevin’s Arcade, which is all but deserted right now. “All these empty spaces can be pretty traumatic, really.”

He isn’t sure how long this emergency response plan will keep him busy. “They said eight weeks, but it’s hard to say when demand keeps changing,” he said. He hopes everyone who needs it is accessing it. 

Auckland Council itself isn’t sure when the need for emergency response food parcels will end. “At this stage it is hard to predict how long the service will continue to operate in its current format,” said Kate Crawford, group controller of Auckland Council’s emergency management. “However, Auckland emergency management will continue to work with the arena and our partners across levels three and two to ensure the needs of our communities are met.”

“We are also really grateful for the work the staff at Spark Arena have done, turning the site from an international event venue to a major food distribution centre in a matter of days. The commitment they have shown to their fellow Aucklanders is inspiring.”

The welfare food distribution centre at Spark Arena is a significant partnership between Auckland Council, Auckland emergency management and Countdown, Spark Arena and New Zealand Couriers. It was set up by Auckland Council at Spark Arena at the request of the government to help people needing assistance due to the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown. If you need to access this service, call 0800 22 22 9.



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