11 May 2024

Aaron Hawkins on his favourite Dunedin venues

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 11 May 2024
Straitjacket Fits at Sammy's in 2005

Straitjacket Fits at Sammy's in 2005 Photo: RNZ / Andre Upston

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

“It became quite obvious in the early stages of the pandemic that the creative community, and events in particular, were going to be the first victims of our public health response.”

Aaron Hawkins became mayor of Dunedin in 2019, the year before NZ went into lockdown. Some years later, he’s reflecting on the impact COVID-19 had on the city’s live music spaces.

“Coming out the other side of that, it’s one of the last industries that can recover, because while bars, restaurants, cafes and retail could work around the protections that were put in place, you still couldn’t get 20,000 people in a stadium, or 1,200 people in an arena show, or even smaller things on a local scale.

No caption

Photo: Otago Daily Times / Files

“It made it quite clear that the existing models for the live music community are not sustainable. The old model of bands playing pubs for free, and the venue recouping costs over the bar, doesn’t work anymore.”

Prior to becoming mayor, Hawkins was a Dunedin City councillor. He’s also a huge music fan, with a stint fronting the Radio One breakfast show.

He says despite losing some spots, like Arc Cafe, and Dog With Two Tails, others like Errick’s, and Moons, have opened in recent years.

“Despite the challenges that exist, people still seem to see enough value in it to be opening new venues, and that’s really encouraging.”

On Crawford St, the building that opened as The Majesty Theatre in 1897, and tok on a new life as a venue called Sammy’s, is still unused, after being purchased by the council seven years ago.

“In 2017 the city council bought the building for two reasons”, says Hawkins, “firstly it’s in the wider setting of the warehouse precinct, which has seen considerable investment in the adaptive reuse of some of our old warehouse buildings, and has been a big project from an urban renewal point of view.

“And secondly, there was an ongoing conversation about what the city needs in terms of music venues of varying sizes, and to cater to different audiences. It was sensible at the time to own this building in order to have it be a part of that conversation.”

Outside the venue formerly known as Sammy's

Outside the venue formerly known as Sammy's Photo: Tony Stamp

Sammy’s went through a few life cycles; nightclub, then pool hall, reopening as a venue in the mid-2000s.

“It certainly saw some good shows in that revival of it as a venue,” says Hawkins, “it was a beautiful room to be in with 500 to 800 people. Amazing proscenium arch stage. As with any building of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, not without its challenges from a building maintenance point of view.”

Hawkins lists shows by local bands The 3Ds, The Subliminals, and HDU among his favourites at Sammy’s, as well as internationals Neutral Milk Hotel and Brian Jonestown Massacre.

There was also the Radio One 21st anniversary in 2005: “The party was the Straightjacket Fits reunion show here on a reasonably miserable evening. I was there, soaking wet after my trek in from the North East valley.”

And The Clean: “There was an occupation of the Octagon, as part of the Occupy Wall St movement, and Hamish Kilgour spent a lot of time with them. He then led a parade of the occupiers down to Sammy’s for The Clean show as part of the Flying Nun anniversary.

“It was a glorious thing to witness, on any number of levels.”

Dale Kerrigan performing as part of Dankfest at The Crown

Dale Kerrigan performing as part of Dankfest at The Crown Photo: Dunedinsound.com

The Crown Hotel on Rattray St has existed since 1862. Under the management of Jones Chin, it’s become a pillar of the local music scene.

“There are so few remaining venues that are open access in the way that The Crown is,” says Hawkins. “Anyone can book a show there if Jones has got space in the calendar. There aren't any barriers to entry.”

Recent construction of a mixed-use four story building near The Crown has sparked concern about potential noise complaints.

The Crown Hotel Dunedin

The Crown Hotel Dunedin Photo: Supplied

“It’s a really open musical base, so people are rightly nervous about that,” says Hawkins. “Anyone can play here once, and that’s what’s missing, really: venues that are open to taking a punt on bands who are starting out. It’s so important for people to have those opportunities.”

In 2023, Dunedin City Council drafted the country’s first Live Music Action Plan, working with advocacy group Save Dunedin Live Music.

“There are always moments that become flashpoints for these sorts of responses,” says Hawkins. “There was a reasonably quiet-by-all-accounts folk show that was on the receiving end of a fairly enthusiastic response from the firm that noise control contract out their enforcement to.

“People would be right to be mad about it, and take up arms against the council for enabling that, or you can take a more constructive approach and try and work with the city to help them understand what the needs are of the  live music community and try and figure out what the solutions might be.

“At least now you had something you can hold your city accountable to, if they have agreed that these are things that are important to them, and this is a piece of work that matters for the wellbeing of the city, then that’s a lot easier to make these arguments than it might have been two years ago.”