The Trouble With Live Music Venues In NZ

Gary Has A Grumble: Number 1 in an occasional series

A FEW WEEKS back I was invited to check out a new Auckland venue designed for live music.
It’s not something I do too often. After all, I’m negotiating my middle years, and living out my bliss in my semi-rural idyll. These days, I get up at sparrow’s fart, and start feeling sleepy halfway through the evening news. All this is in stark contrast to the halcyon days of my 20s, 30s and 40s, when I attended literally thousands of public exhibitions of musical performance in venues throughout the land. As a music journalist, the gigs were often free, but I paid a price: permanently squealing tinnitus.
It must have been the promise of “complimentary nibbles and refreshments” and a sneak peak at the venue before the doors opened for the inaugural event that lured us (that’s me, and the wife) into town on a chilly evening.
We were checking out Paddington Live at 117 St. George’s Bay Rd, Parnell, which, as the publicity puff states, is “designed to stage all genres from intimate, atmospheric shows to hard out rocking gigs. Paddington Live is uniquely focused on artists, providing superb quality production in a professional, comfortable environment.”
The glossy pamphlet bangs on about how the 280-capacity venue provides full support to touring bands, with a comfortable “green room”, as well as on site sound and lighting engineers, and it details what looks to be an impressive set-up – mixing desk, PA system, and so forth.
But we were punters. Sponging punters, at that. And soon to be disappointed sponging punters: despite our special VIP Launch Invite tags, the promised complimentary nibbles and alcohol was in short supply. We nabbed one glass of cheap bubbly from the counter, and listened to our tummies grumbling while we paced around the room while the suspicion arose between us that this fabulous new, dedicated music venue was, in fact, A PUB. [But I’ll get back to that later].
It wasn’t all bad. We got a bit of exercise huffing and puffing up the hill to the Parnell shops, where we enjoyed a wonderful Indian meal, spending cash we hadn’t budgeted for. We may have enjoyed it too much: by the time we sloped back down the hill to the venue, our tummies bulging with delicious dahl and creamy korma, the venue was bulging with audience, and the musical entrée was clearly about half-way through its set. I had heard good things about Family Cactus, but on this occasion, they were beyond intolerable. Had we been willing to push our way through to the sweet spot, the gig may have taken on a more alluring aroma, but consigned to the back of the venue, with poor visuals and acoustics, all we could hear was the insufferably boring indie strum, and a vocalist who couldn’t get near to hitting the note, and it was tortuous.
We had planned to stay for Anika Moa. She’s a nice sort, after all, and talented, too. But it was getting late – at least 10pm – and we could see the Family Cactus droning on for at least another 45 minutes, and by that stage we would have been catatonic. And we couldn’t see or hear anything properly, anyway.
But we did make some observations about Paddington Live during our aborted “preview” and while we were trying to figure out how to escape the arid drone of the Family Cactus, and here they are:
We felt that, from an audience perspective, it was all wrong. You walk in, and the bar is directly ahead. Turn to your right, and there’s a small area in which audience members can congregate, and a small stage. At least there’s a stage. The mixer and light engineers are to the right, taking up valuable audience space, but that’s inevitable. As you’re facing the stage, the room stretching out behind you is an oblong shape. If you want to mix and mingle rather than fight the crowd to see the band, you turn left at the doors, and head for the lounge area, or the small semi-private room to the left of the bar. In theory, nothing much wrong with any of this, but what happens when you’ve got a crowd is that a relatively small group get to view the stage or hear the sound with any degree of fidelity, and the crowd is in danger of backing up, so that anyone entering the room is immediately caught up in it. The lounge area is kind of pointless – why would you go and see a live band if you didn’t want to see or hear it anyway, but where the sound was still so loud you couldn’t converse with your friends?
For a while, we sat on a fairly comfy chair with a view right up behind the bar, and it was most unbecoming. The bar staff were throwing beer caps all over the show, and the floor was sodden, which not only created a visual anomaly, but could have been dangerous. My wife, who is an experienced bar manager – was shocked by the lack of professionalism displayed.
Paddington Live looks good in the photos, and maybe it’s a godsend for bands that are tired of being treated like garbage by dubious outfits. But for punters, it’s another mixed blessing. For one, it’s obvious from the moment you step inside that it’s merely an old pub that’s been redecorated. Nothing wrong with that, but what we really need are purpose-built venues, not pubs with mild makeovers, where the bar is still the focus and the shape of the room means there’s a perpetual crush amongst those who want to experience live music.
Standing up and rubbing shoulders (and possibly other body parts) in a concert crush is one of those rituals that 20-somethings don’t seem to object to, but it gets pretty boring thereafter, especially when it goes on for hours and hours. Somehow, this ritual has become the norm in New Zealand, and it’s almost impossible to find more sophisticated live environments in which to listen to, and watch, bands perform.
Most of my peak music moments have been experienced in venues overseas, whether they’re bizarre experimental music grottos in New York, jazz clubs in Oakland, dub clubs in Japan. I can appreciate that lack of funds is partly behind the dearth of really good venues in NZ, but I don’t accept that it’s the only reason. My contention is that the problem is also lack of vision and imagination, as well as thinking through the basics of genuinely good sound and genuinely enjoyable environment.
I wish the owners/managers of Paddington Live every success. It’s possible that they’ve raised the bar when it comes to artist management is concerned. PL is certainly no worse than other venues around this town. But it seems a travesty at a time when live music is experiencing a reawakening that there aren’t some entrepreneurs out there with enough dollars and sense to see the potential in a music venue – whether it’s small, medium or large – that treats the punters and the musicians with some genuine respect. GARY STEEL

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