NYC’s Eartheater at Whammy last month. Image: Nicole Hunt
NYC’s Eartheater at Whammy last month. Image: Nicole Hunt

OPINIONOpinionFebruary 13, 2020

Auckland live music is booming, actually

NYC’s Eartheater at Whammy last month. Image: Nicole Hunt
NYC’s Eartheater at Whammy last month. Image: Nicole Hunt

Despite what some critics claim, there isn’t a ‘gig problem’ in Auckland, writes Josie Adams. You just need to look beyond indie rock.

There are around 20 gig spaces in Auckland’s CBD. Over a three-day period last month, Whammy Bar alone hosted the Laneway afterparty, the bFM anniversary weekend party, and an Eartheater show. The Others Way festival last year hosted 46 acts in 13 venues across one night and sold out.  

To an outsider, it looks like live music in Auckland is booming. To an insider, it looks the same. Sigrid Yiakmis is a promoter, radio host, DJ, and events manager for bFM and for Community Garden. She’s been active in Auckland’s live music scene for nearly 15 years.

“It’s definitely in a boom,” she said. “Over a two day period last week I saw Troy Kingi, Che Fu & the Kratez and Ardijah at Hoani Waititi marae put on by Te Whānau O Waipareira Trust for Waitangi Day, Ary Jansen playing in the Albert Park rotunda as part of Wilde Projects’ Queer Pavilion for Pride Festival – which was supported by the Auckland Council – and German experimental composer Annette Krebs playing in Aotea Square presented by Audio Foundation as part of the annual Music In The Square series put on by Auckland Live.” All of these were free events.

Outside of the CBD, the major venues are E4 in New Lynn and Black Spot Studios in Onehunga, both of which cater to audiences that guitar fiends might not be part of, and therefore not consider when diagnosing the health of Auckland’s live music scene.

This is why you might think live music in Auckland is on the edge of extinction. But that isn’t true. Drum and bass, whether you like it or not, is live music too.

It can sometimes seem like a gig is only ‘live music’ if it has a full band. In reality, two or more guitars feature in a relatively small proportion of gigs in Auckland. DJs, EDM, dubstep, grime, trap, and hip hop are all booming in Auckland. But because the stereotypical “New Zealand sound” is often seen as indie rock, it’s easy to conflate the health of that scene with the vitality of the sector.

The Beths are good, but they’re not the only band in NZ. (Photo by Dave Simpson/Getty Images)

Matt Hunter is the founder of independent record label Heat Rockers and also works with promoters like Eleventh Realm, which was behind last weekend’s packed-out, dual-room Ultra Sound event. He started his record label to give a more diverse range of local artists a platform.

“So many producers and artists and DJs would make tunes and put them on Soundcloud and share to Facebook, and I was like – this music’s amazing! There’s a beauty to formalising something,” he said. “Otherwise everything gets caught in that social media obscurity.”

The label’s focus has been on giving platforms to a more diverse, lesser-known range of artists – musicians who haven’t been shoulder-tapped for funding or promotion by government or council organisations. “Mid-tier to large artists [already] get a prop-up,” said Hunter. “So many of the requirements [for funding] are social media-based – you have to have, like, 1000 likes on your band on Facebook. How do you expect people to get there?”

“Diversity” can be little more than a buzzword, but promoters like Hunter and Yiakmis are actually doing it. Queer and non-Pākehā artists are more present at Whammy Bar and Black Spot Studios than they were at The King’s Arms, and a large reason is that when these venues consider diversity they factor in genre. The success of these gigs has opened up larger venues like the Wintergarden and Wynyard Quarter to both local and international acts.

“Promoters are becoming more open to different genres or even disciplines being included together on line-ups,” said Yiakmis. “I think that has a domino effect for musicians or artists or dancers where they can feel that there is a platform for whatever it is they want to create and that there will be an audience for them, and an audience that is supportive and open.

“There’s always been people who were waiting to see something that deviates from what’s always been on offer, and now that it’s actually happening it makes Auckland an attractive and viable place to tour for the international acts who have largely been ignored by bigger promoters or festivals.”

Community Garden brought Venus X from the New York club scene to Whammy Bar last year. Image: Nicole Hunt

Gus Sharp of local dance heroes Friendly Potential believes safety and diversity are cornerstone values for many new promoters. “Our motto is ‘we can’t relax until you do’. We want to be sustainable, and that can mean financially, but it also means that when people come to one of our events they want to come to the next one.”

Built on a safe and supportive atmosphere – “good vibes” in general – Friendly Potential has built a reputation for great parties. They’ve hosted multi-night parties (“Catacombs”) in the Civic’s Wintergarden, they’ve brought German composer Nils Frahm to the Town Hall, and next month Beacon Festival will shower Queens Wharf in local and international electronic music. 

Sharp is one member of Friendly Potential’s dedicated team and says their success is due in large part to their focus on relationship-building. “We were all competing for slices of a pretty small pie. So we decided to collaborate, not compete. And we’ve been going for five years.”

When it comes to gig economics, right now dance music just makes sense. “It’s expensive to travel with a band,” he said. “One DJ is much easier to tour.” Sharp is quick to point out that a thriving entertainment scene is a side effect of broader economic changes. “We’re a niche scene, and the council is more concerned with housing, public transport and roads. I think the health of music in Auckland is part of a wider liveability thing. Better transport, higher wages – music is affected by those things.”

Catacombs, a Friendly Potential event in the Wintergarden. Photo: @dylanbiscuit

Hunter suggests the council formally recognise entertainment and music zones to prevent NIMBYs from shutting down establishments like the King’s Arms, but thinks it might be too late for K Road. “If they picked an area like Morningside, which is mostly industrial, and allowed it to be noise-making, that could be a space for the community to grow,” he said. “Open air parties would be cool, too.”

The society that’s built up around Auckland live music is one that’s grassroots, gritty, and overflowing with talent. The financial issue isn’t that venues are desperate to sell drinks; it’s that they’re desperate not to be pushed out of long-established creative zones like K Road.

If you want to see the state of music in Auckland, check out labels like Heat Rockers, NOA Records, and Been To Berlin Once. Follow promoters like Moments, Community Garden, Friendly Potential, and Dynasty Collective. And go out and support the people who are making music happen – just don’t expect them to be holding guitars.

Keep going!