29 Mar 2018

Sound in the city: Taking stock of Auckland's music venues

12:05 pm on 29 March 2018

At least we still have the Powerstation and Whammy.



A crowded night at Whammy Bar in 2010.

A crowded night at Whammy Bar in 2010. Photo: Petra Jane Smith/AudioCulture

For decades Auckland has had a thriving music scene with many great venues around the city catering for music fans from all walks of life whether it be punk, indie, rap or folk. People look back fondly to the days of the Gluepot, St James Theatre and Windsor Castle and the great bands that used to play week in and week out. However, things are changing.

With the recent closure of the Kings Arms and Golden Dawn, two of Auckland’s premier music venues, and with the draft Auckland Plan containing very little reference to arts, culture, or venues, is the beginning of a murky future for Auckland’s live music scene?

Currently, Auckland has a range of different venues that vary both in size and quality. There are the big outdoor venues such as Mount Smart Stadium and Western Springs, venues that host stadium shows from the likes of the Foo Fighters and Adel and festivals such as Auckland City Limits. There are the mid-tier venues, these include the ever-reliable Powerstation, the gorgeous Civic Theatre, and the Auckland Town Hall. And, finally, the smaller venues such as the K Road haunts of Whammy Bar, Galatos and Neck of the Woods. With the Kings Arms and Golden Dawn having now closed, one would think some of these smaller venues would pick up more shows. Auckland is well-catered with smaller venues for now, as long as rent prices and gentrification remain under control, although concerns do remain as signified by this recent petition urging developers to take more responsibility if venues are affected.

The Datsuns on stage at the Kings Arms in 2002.

The Datsuns on stage at the Kings Arms in 2002. Photo: Simon Grigg/AudioCulture

A larger problem also exists around the suitability of some of the bigger venues around the city. Venue choice does often come down to promoters and venue managers, but when music lovers pay to attend live music they expect the facilities to be top notch as there is nothing worse than attending a concert where the venue is not up to scratch, something that can detract from the music.

Having attended hip-hop gigs at both the Logan Campbell Centre and the Studio recently, I question the suitability of both these two venues as remaining viable options, especially when it comes to fan experience. I saw Big Boi at the Studio, a venue known for having sound issues and the sound was so muffled and distorted at times you could not even make out was being said on stage. Meanwhile, at Lil Uzi Vert's Logan Campbell show the sound was also an issue, while the interior of that venue looked as if it has remained mired in the 1990s, worn out carpet and all.

The Powerstation is going great guns and remains arguably the best venue in Auckland, however, I still think Auckland needs a new medium-sized indoor venue around the 5000-seat capacity mark, while it would be nice if some of the beautiful boutique venues such as the Crystal Palace on Mt Eden Rd and Avondale’s  Hollywood Theatre were utilised more than they currently are.

Then there is the issue of the St James Theatre, the wonderful jewel in Auckland’s venue crown which the city is sadly missing out on at the moment. St James hosted gigs for years before it was initially shut in 2007 after a fire. It then reopened briefly in 2015 before closing in 2016 for strengthening and earthquake proofing. Renovation has now stalled after a planned apartment block next door that was going to help pay for the restoration was cancelled. Hopefully this is a minor stumbling block and the restoration of this beautiful theatre is seen through to completion as this venue is perfect for live music. It has great acoustics, is a nice size, and is based in a wonderful location within walking distance of two other great venues, the Town Hall and the Civic. Just imagine having those three venues operating together within what would make a wonderful live entertainment and music precinct right in the heart of the CBD.

It is an interesting time for live music in Auckland, a city that was recently-announced as a UNESCO city of music, with the closing of the Kings Arms and Golden Dawn and lingering uncertainty over the St James. For the future of the music scene in this city and for that future to be bright it is important the right gigs are held at the right venues and that the fan experience is prioritized over everything else. Currently, it seems that too many concerts are being held at poorer venues, especially rap gigs, while many of the good venues lie idle.

As the fanfare and outpouring of sadness displayed over the closure of both the Kings Arms and Golden Dawn show a venue’s connection to its fans is vitally important to that venue’s success. To many gig-goers, venues can become like a second home and that is why venues must cater to their fans and the wider gig experience to ensure those fans continue to come back.

Golden Dawn bar manager Laura Lopez Lopez and entertainment manager Matt Crawley.

Golden Dawn bar manager Laura Lopez Lopez and entertainment manager Matthew Crawley. Photo: Luke McPake/The Wireless

This means ensuring the sound is good so you can hear the artist playing and that the interior of the venue is modern, up to date and well equipped for the people attending the gig, people who want to feel comfortable and with a good vantage point so they can enjoy the show without having to worry about distractions such as poor sound. This is why venues such as the Powerstation and Whammy Bar remain two of the most popular venues in Auckland.

This is something both the Kings Arms and Golden Dawn were so good at in creating a loyal community over many years, gig-goers who kept coming back because they enjoyed what those venues had to offer. At the moment though, it seems fans are often getting short-changed with venues and that is something Auckland cannot afford moving forward, especially when great venues are shutting down while others remain under threat.