How can Auckland be a ‘City of Music’ without a proper live music culture? Anthony Metcalf on how our biggest city’s paucity of music venues is hurting both artists and gig-goers.
Auckland City was recently named a UNESCO ‘City of Music’ as part of the wider Creative Cities network. This accolade, shared with the likes of Glasgow, Liverpool and Adelaide, celebrates ‘centres of musical creation and activity’. By joining the network, Auckland is acknowledging its rich musical history and a commitment to sharing best practice, developing partnerships, and strengthening participation in cultural life.’ As someone who has lived and breathed live music in Auckland over the past decade, I can tell you that Auckland is nowhere near the music-friendly hub like Glasgow, Liverpool or Adelaide. Not even close.
Auckland is losing music venues left and right. The St James Theatre sits in ruins, awaiting tens of millions in earthquake repairs. The institution that was the Kings Arms — which hosted legendary shows from The Mint Chicks, White Stripes, Neutral Milk Hotel and Peaches – had a show forcibly shut down in 2017 due to a literal smattering of residential complaints. Similarly, Eden Park, an excellent venue option for large touring concerts, has all but ceased it’s live music offering, due to NIMBY opposition from the local Neighbours Association. This anti utilitarian attitude towards live music, where the temporary concerns for the few outweigh the cultural, economic and entertainment concerns for thousands is not unique to Kingsland however. When I booked live music for downtown venue Cassette #9 we experienced a whole year of council scrutiny concerning the decibel levels of once-weekly gig soundchecks. A whole year.
To fix live music, first we need to fix Auckland. The music scene needs representation on Auckland Council – someone with enough on-the-ground knowledge and big-picture thinking to implement change and prioritise the viability, safety, and affordability of our night time economy. We also need to look at the cities that are doing it well – like London, long at the forefront of vibrant live music, arts and culture. Acknowledging the importance of the night time economy to Londoners’ cultural wellbeing, in 2016 the city government appointed a ‘Night Czar’ whose primary role was “championing London’s nightlife both in the UK and internationally, including safeguarding venues across the city.” Similarly, the South Australian and Victorian governments in Australia have introduced ‘agents of change’ legislation, meaning any development planned near a live music venue will be burdened with the costs for soundproofing the space, not the existing businesses and residents nearby.
Like most problems, the issue comes down to economics. For live music venues, being centrally located is crucial to remaining viable. That’s why a CBD location is so valuable – it means there are reliable and cost effective transport options from Auckland’s vast suburban sprawl. There have been decent venues as close as Parnell and Newmarket like Juice Bar and the beloved Lucha Lounge, but they’ve have folded due in part to a lack of reliable, late-night transport options for punters. Still, opening a CBD venue isn’t easy. You’re instantly in competition with retailers, restaurants and property developers in an extremely tight commercial rental market. Any venue that does take the CBD plunge needs to maximise its income in order to pay the bills.
Subsidising a live music spend with alcohol sales is common practice. Venue operators are intrinsically primed to prioritise shows, artists and promoters that will sell out their venues and buy a lot of drinks. Live music is a marginal business, and very difficult to keep viable with the delicate combination of rental and operation costs, and the simple fact that wages haven’t kept up with inflation for the last nine years. The night time economy in Auckland is an intricate web of artists, venues, promoters and creatives types, but their goals are far from common. The pressure to keep people at your bar, drinking your beer, is why you see endless throwback DJ sets, cover bands and drum ‘n bass nights.
With the CBD out as an option for progressive, forward thinking music venues, why can’t people just set up shop somewhere else? Venues have certainly tried. There was The Ambassador Theatre in Pt Chev which hosted alternative and indie shows in the mid to late 2000s. More recently, there’s been a steady spate of shows at Avondale’s iconic Hollywood Theatre. The problem with these options is that it’s very hard to get home afterwards without a) driving or b) getting a taxi.
For example, the last train home from Avondale station is just after 10pm every night except Friday, when you can train right up to 1:35am. Unless it’s on a Friday, a show at the Hollywood means expecting your entire audience to sober drive or taxi, or perhaps live nearby. Not to mention that currently all major routes lead to the CBD, which means a second or third leg of your journey is almost guaranteed. We’re talking about a whole load of admin and cost just to see a band you like with your mates.
Larger scale music festivals such as the Big Day Out have generally dealt with these issues by working with council and Auckland Transport to bundle free public transport with their concert tickets, and special bus services are often established for Western Springs and Villa Maria concerts. Laneway Festival has always remained somewhat immune to these issues due to its central setting, moving from Britomart to Silo Park (via Aotea Square), and settling in leafy Albert Park for the last few years. My problem with these examples is that they highlight just how lacking our current infrastructure is for simply getting around our city day-to-day. The opt-in nature of these band-aid solutions does nothing to help artists and their potential audiences when they’re honing their craft in grassroots venues.
I’m not saying we’re not a ‘City Of Music’. We are. Some of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard were written right here, in expensive, sprawling, hard-to-get-a-gig-let-alone-pay-the-rent Auckland. But I also think we need to earn our stripes — make it easier on venues, artists and promoters alike to do what they do and grow Auckland’s live music scene to be comparable with the likes of Glasgow, Liverpool and Adelaide. If we’re going to have any chance at competing with Netflix and Fortnite, we need a combination of music-first council policy, improved public transport options and reach, and an acknowledgement that live music has an intrinsic cultural value outside of the balance sheets of the delicate night-time economies keeping Auckland’s live scene above water.