New Zealand is a distant place for most international bands to travel to. It is often left off maps, doesn’t feature on ‘choose your country’ Internet sign-up forms, and according to many, is part of Australia. New Zealand is close to 15,000 kms from New York, 10,700 kms from California, 18,839 kms from London and 18,178 kms from Berlin. Flights to and from our country are expensive and we often lag behind other countries in popular culture, music and fashion. We are indeed geographically isolated.
It is well known that as a result of this isolation we miss out on many international tours. It’s infuriating. While Auckland hosts more international bands than Wellington; that does not compare to the many more bands that play in cities such as London, New York or even Melbourne. We don’t come close.
Yet over the last two years it appears things have drastically improved. So let’s be optimistic, as the past year has seen a boom in international bands visiting New Zealand, with many coming to Wellington. We have had Strike Anywhere, the Lemonheads, Calexico, Joanna Newsom, Gomez, Roni Size, NOFX, Animal Collective, Goldie, Guitar Wolf and CSS to name a few.
So who brought them here?
Promoters, that’s who. Promoters are a bunch of able, dedicated and hardworking individuals in New Zealand who are doing their best to rectify this problem, and I think it’s time they are given due credit.
While these promoters are less known as promoters such as Michael Coppel (the stadium style promoter responsible for the upcoming Guns ‘n’ Roses tour, Herbie Hancock and the re-formed New York Dolls), they are all in it for the love of music, which is fortunate as the scene in New Zealand is still quite volatile and relatively unprofitable.
All cited similar reasons for starting their companies – sheer dedication and their love of music. Jim Rush and Gordon Campbell, who set up Galesburg and bring an assortment of alternative goodness to Wellington, started their company about a year ago on the premise that Wellington was missing out on too many gigs exclusive to Auckland. “There were so many shows only making it to Auckland, and not down here that we thought it would be worthwhile to try and get bands playing down here,” says Rush. Galesburg also attempt to keep its ticket prices as low as possible to attract as many people as possible – in fact it has yet to price a ticket above $35.
Likewise, punk and hardcore Wellington company Souls n Bones (formerly Harbour City Records) was set up by Paul Comrie-Thomson in 2005 to bring over Virginia punk band Strike Anywhere. Since then Comrie-Thomson has bought over Against Me from Florida, The Disables from Brisbane and Darkest Hour from Washington DC – all bands who would not otherwise have headed this way.
Dave White from the Phat Club, held on a pedestal in the eyes of New Zealand drum and bass heads New Zealand wide, cites his reason for promoting bands as being ‘pretty selfish.’ “It’s so that me and my partner can check out acts that would otherwise not come anywhere near us!”
Auckland based indie/alt-county purveyors Mystery Girl was taken over by Arch Hills Ben Howe and Simon Coffey for the love of the music. Similarly, for hardcore, metal and punk devotees Dynamo Productions, owned by Dave McDermott, and assisted in a large (and voluntarily) way by Katie Macrae, the reason they are involved is “because we all love it (the music) and have grown up with it. It’s in our blood we want the bands that come and play over here to leave with as much as possible, so we do it for the love of it really.”
These five promotion companies are a success due to their reputations and solid track records in promoting, but they are a small fraction of those in New Zealand. While the rest range from amateur MySpace dependent ones, to stadium style full time job professionals, the boom in people bringing over international bands, and the subsequent boom in international gigs throughout the country is undeniable, and according to the promoters mentioned above, the Internet is to blame. I say blame, as many of these promoters see the boom as quite unhealthy for their scenes. MySpace in particular is a culprit, as it has proven pivotal for promoters – amateur or not – to get in touch with independent bands they like and bring them over.
White reminisces when “things were controlled by a few promoters who pretty much worked with Australia to set fees and spaced acts to ensure a healthy level of risk; now with broadband and MySpace heaps of young would-be promoters are bringing over practically unheard of and unreleased new acts cause they like one of their songs and to tell you the truth it’ll eventually kill audience appetite dead in its tracks.”
White believes that full access to any act you want at any time is not necessarily the best thing for a scene and as something starts to die out in the Northern Hemisphere a flood of acts will appear here and in Australia. White claims to spend 90 per cent of his time saying no to offers of internationals, particularly for the annual Phat New Years Festival, claiming he wants to “ensure that some kind of scene remains intact into the future”.
While this view may be due to White’s personal interests (tours, festivals, and his club are his sole occupations), Macrae agrees that the market has gone to the extreme of being saturated with international tours enough to have negative effects for local acts; if punters are spending all their pennies and time checking out that week’s international act, they often miss local shows. She also finds New Zealand a tough place for bands to tour – both local and international bands, which she says is due to the small population and affects underground music, particularly punk and hardcore.
Comrie-Thomson agrees. “When we brought Strike Anywhere over for the first time there were like only three to four big punk bands from the states that came over and toured that year, compared to now when you have got a couple every month and you can see now that it’s saturated. Instead of getting 300 people going to a show of a band they don’t know, you’ll get like 50 because it’s not a big thing.”
Yet Howe finds Mystery Girl is mostly in competition with itself “because there are so many different things coming through, so one can sometimes affect another”. She believes that this boom of bands wanting to play in New Zealand could be due to the cultural and environmental nature of New Zealand. “Bands that have been touring for a long time find it pretty tiring, so they see New Zealand as a nice sort of place to go to rather than playing in Detroit for the 50th time or San Francisco for the 25th time and some of them try and take a couple of extra days here to holiday sometimes.” This may explain why many of Mystery Girl’s acts are keen to venture out of Auckland. While some bands don’t have the time to fit in a nation-wide tour, according to Howe some of the shows Wellington has been treated to of late comes down to “coincidence really, that they have wanted to go further afield which is fine by us.”
As the recent sold out Mystery Girl shows at San Francisco Bathhouse have proved, they have been worthwhile ventures. Howe says “even though Wellington has fewer people than Auckland, often if you look at the ticket sales they end up being the same, it depends a little bit on what the act is but certainly the kind of alt country things like Calexico or the Handsome Family end up being fairly similar.
Auckland will usually end up being a little bit more, but not twice as many,” which doesn’t reflect the population difference to the expected extent.
On the other hand, Dynamo finds that a good percentage of the shows played in New Zealand are on the backs of or on the way to either Australia or Japan. This often means bands can only spare one day and one night in New Zealand, which is most often in Auckland. Another reason for playing only in Auckland is that often the costs of travel cannot be justified in relation to breaking even.
The process of actually getting an act here can be arduous, and according to Howe, about 50 per cent of his shows almost happen but don’t “because bands change their plans and they might decide its more important to go to Europe than New Zealand- it’s just the nature of the music business.” When they do happen though, the process White outlines is standard for all. It starts with offering the right fee, locking down a contract, paying the deposit, flights and visas, ensuring the venue/production meet requirements, sort a promo campaign, keep the act well looked after and happy while in the country, and quite important to White “keep them out of jail and send them home with a smile!”
However, the risks are mammoth when putting on shows for these promoters. The biggest and most daunting risk is the possibility that no one will attend the shows. Everything is usually paid for in advance, so if tickets are not sold, and venues not filled, then it’s good-bye money, and more importantly to Dynamo, the bands lose faith in the company. For White, “the biggest hidden risk of any gig is credibility in the eyes of your loyal supporters. It’s always possible for a name act to play a shit show and believe it or not, it’s the promoter that gets the blame. In my 30 years in the business I could count on one hand the number of sure fire guarantees regarding expectations (financial and punters).”
Rush tries to counter these risks “by working as far in advance as possible, doing interviews with the artists, working with the distributors to ensure that the records are visible in the stores, getting the tunes on the radio and generally creating a buzz around the show – marketing it as an event that people won’t want to miss.” These risks and preparation paid of for Galesburg last year, as their Animal Collective show was voted the indie gig of the year by Radio Active and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone had ‘scattered pearls’ come in as the number one song on Radio Active for 2006.
It goes without saying that these promoters need to be supported to ensure that more acts head our way, so what better way to support them, than attend the many gigs they put on. Buy tickets. Turn up. Macrae urges a need in changing the gig culture in New Zealand.
‘People really need to start buying their tickets. It is a Kiwi thing: we see more and more that these shows do actually sell out and as a promoter if you have a look at your ticket sales and you haven’t sold very many a lot of the time you have to tell the band and they cancel if there are not enough tickets sold.”