These are some of New Zealand’s cultural lifelines. They can’t be allowed to fall apart.
These are some of New Zealand’s cultural lifelines. They can’t be allowed to fall apart.

Pop CultureMay 15, 2020

Venue owners are coming together to keep NZ’s live music scene thriving

These are some of New Zealand’s cultural lifelines. They can’t be allowed to fall apart.
These are some of New Zealand’s cultural lifelines. They can’t be allowed to fall apart.

New Zealand’s live music venue owners have come together to crowdfund to save not just their venues, but their industry.

Our entertainment venues were some of the earliest hit by Covid-19. Before we all shut our doors to each other, venues were shutting their doors to their lifelines: their artists and their customers. Gigs were being cancelled left right and centre, calendars nationwide were stripped bare of bookings and an entire year’s worth of income, if not more, was not just put in jeopardy, but entirely wiped out. Then lockdown hit, and the entire country felt what these venues had already gone through.

Two months and three alert levels later and the outlook is still dire. Under level two, what most of us know as live music or events is still under many of the same restrictions. The three s’s (seated, separated, single server) might be a lifeline for restaurant and bars, but for live performance they’re more like keeping the life support machine securely unplugged. While some venues will be able to adhere to the new rules and survive, this isn’t feasible for many others.

That’s not to say that these venues are doomed. Some have been able to access the wage subsidy, while others have pivoted to essential services to stay afloat. To fill the large gap in between, Save Our Venues NZ has risen – a group of passionate people from the New Zealand music scene, coming together to raise funds and awareness for local live music venues across Aotearoa.

With help from crowdfunding platform Boosted Live, the collective has created a national “pay it forward” fundraising strategy. Dozens of campaigns over NZ Music Month (that’s May!) will go ahead. Each of these campaigns will start with a $1,000 from the Arts Foundation Future Fund, with 5% of their Boosted campaign target donated back to them. Each venue will then nominate another to kick off their own campaign, with that same seed fund to get them started.

The Spinoff spoke to venue owners, many of whom who are involved with Save Our Venues NZ, about the difficulties they’ve faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, what the future looks like, and how this campaign changes their outlook.

The bustling Dog With Two Tails (Photo: Facebook)

Michael Wilson from Dog With Two Tails (Dunedin)

Bark! was a venue for comedy, poetry and intellectual stimulation, but mostly it was an intimate live music venue built for the many great musicians of Dunedin and the touring musos of Aotearoa. We were all set to be the Dunedin Fringe Festival Club and had a smashing lineup of acts scheduled – not just for the Fringe, but for the rest of the year. Covid-19 sucked up all of that hard work and coughed all over it. 

Bark! is what many of us have been missing and craving over the past couple of months – it’s visceral, live music in the company of great people that connects each of us to the other. I don’t believe that we can be healthy as a society without this and so we’re trying to hold on until we are free to gather once again.

We’re opening the cafe next week for takeaway breakfast sets and coffee. In the meantime, we have been doing some minor renovations and are installing a still to produce gins and liquors in-house. We may as well drink until we’re allowed to party.

Smash Palace in Gisborne (Photo: Supplied)

Darryl Monteith from Smash Palace (Gisborne)

The weeks leading up to the lockdown saw a marked decrease in turnover for us, and then obviously everything came to a grinding halt. Being a licensed premise, we’ve been unable to operate at all under level three. While the government’s wage subsidy has been an absolute blessing for our team, the support of this campaign will enable us to meet the many other ongoing operating costs we need to ensure our venue is able to open its doors.

Inside the bar of the Darkroom (Photo: Supplied)

Feather Shaw from Darkroom (Christchurch)

We’ve had Covid-19-related cancellations since February, the first cancellation coming from a band from Shanghai who understandably could no longer carry out their NZ tour. Throughout March the cancellations from overseas and out-of-town bands continued, and then we went into lockdown. We were fully booked up until August, and now our calendar is wiped. We have had no income into our business since March. The wage subsidy, and our landlord temporarily reducing our rent, has been a huge help.

But we still need money to cover ongoing bills. We usually have a small buffer to fix broken things or pay unexpected bills, but that has rapidly depleted as we’ve had to use it to cover rent and our ordinary bills over the last six weeks. We want to see the great advocacy mahi from agencies continue, with music industry representatives continuing to liaise with the government. We also hope bands will start making bookings again once we know when we can reopen. 

With the support of our landlord, the government and donations from our generous supporters, we will be able to reopen. With overseas acts out of the question for a while, we’re excited to see local and domestic musical acts continue to thrive. 

Under level two, we will be opening for some seated events including cabarets, comedy nights, pub quizzes and music events. Instead of selling individual tickets as we normally would, we will be selling group tickets by the table. We are going to book three or four events of this nature for late May to see how we go, and assess whether it is worth continuing to open for more events at level two or if we will wait for level one. 

A pumping crowd at Meow Bar in Wellington. (Photo: Supplied)

Rahine O’Rielly from Meow (Wellington)

If owning a venue was climbing a mountain, we’ve tumbled to the bottom. Covid-19 has wiped out the feeling of security we had from 10-plus years in the business. There is the loss of shows over this time and all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into filling our calendar, but also the buffer we had built, which in venues you inch out and often have to supplement with other incomes. It’s going to take time to get back to where we were. The critical question at the moment is how long we can keep paying rent and expenses with no money coming in. Under level two we will be able to have some limited-capacity seated shows, but this only works for a few acts and doesn’t cover costs, but it will be nice to have some music happening at all.

It’s not all doom and gloom – the music industry is well-practised at rallying and it’s also full of innovative and resilient people. We will work together to get an industry up and running again.

Auckland’s Whammy Bar (Photo: Supplied)

Lucy Macrae and Tom Anderson from Whammy (Auckland)

It all happened really quickly. Shows had started cancelling on the weekend, internationals at first, and by Wednesday we’d shut our doors without knowing when we would be able to reopen. With absolutely no income but bills still coming in and people to look after, both the wage subsidy and the Boosted campaign have been massive supports financially. 

Mentally, to know that we’re not in this alone and have a super-supportive nationwide community has been really important and humbling. However, with the current restrictions announced around level two, Whammy Bar has made the decision not to open just yet – it’s not viable for our business.

It’s hard as we have bookings in the calendar and artists wanting to know if we will be open for their show but we don’t know the answer to that. We won’t know until restrictions are lifted and even then we won’t be able to just open and have bookings ready to go with a few days’ notice – artists and promoters need time to be able to promote and plan their events. 

Vulcan Lane’s Cassette Bar (Photo: Supplied)

Ruairi Hatrick from Cassette Nine (Auckland)

We were literally stopped in our tracks and it will take a long, long time for it to be the same again on many levels. It was tough before Covid-19 to keep up with rising costs including crippling rents, and now it’s impossible. When and if we do come back, our venue’s world will be very different – the shifting landscape of gig goers and dance music lovers will be harder to predict than ever, knowing that the effects of a global recession will be knocking on the door for a year or more and tourism right behind it. The hard work has only just begun and we never stop working.

A massive positive is the coming together of music communities all over Aotearoa, a beautiful thing to see and a clear message showing how vital music venues are to the fabric of a city, music and culture. Right now the support from the music communities around us is incredibly warming to witness – long may it continue. We have also seen how we can work together with the goal of protecting our venues as one voice, with thanks to a handful of people putting in some serious background work to make that happen

We will most definitely need the support of the government when navigating a return to business, the wage subsidy to be extended and an acceptable recovery fund allocation, alongside a broader investment with the goal of recovering our tourism sector. We will also need the understanding of landlords who should be realistic about our ability to pay rent and operating expenses given the nature of our business. They should be thinking shorter-term pain for long-term gain.

We will not be opening at level two – given the rules and the risks involved, we think it’s responsible to hold off and wait for a safer time to allow gatherings of any size into our space. This and navigating the safety measures that must be in place to operate within the guidelines just don’t make it viable for a business like ours. 

Courtnee Bolton from Neck of the Woods. (Photo: Supplied)

Courtnee Bolton from Neck Of The Woods (Auckland)

Like so many venues, we were decimated overnight by the impacts of Covid-19. Our doors are shut with rent and other costs piling up, plus the double punch of border closures meaning no international artists touring for who knows how long. And now the level two restrictions mean we probably can’t open again until level one. I love our venue, and I’ve put my heart and soul into it right from the start.

Small music venues and a localised music scene are a part of our culture that no one can afford to lose, and the way we are heading, a lot of us just won’t survive. If you love music, then we all need your help. Targeted extension of the emergency wage subsidy, specific arts and culture funding for venues… all of it will be needed.

Even before the level two announcement, our team made the very difficult (but unanimous) decision to wait until level one to reopen. While this will have a huge financial cost for us, we believe it’s the right thing to do to ensure both the long-term survival of the local music scene and the health of the wider community.

You can find all of these campaigns and more 0n the Save Our Venues Facebook page here. Campaigns are launching on a weekly basis, and can be followed on all social media under #saveourvenuesnz

Keep going!