Singing from the shadows
“It has been difficult. Happy and Fred’s were the places to go and test out new music,” says Jo Minister of Jo Hanna & the Mystery. “There are some really great venues in Wellington, but you have to be at a certain level to make it sustainable.”
To plug the gap, Minister is putting on a show at the Eva Street studio of painter Freeman White, a “more cozy, chilled out” space where people can sit in front of the fireplace. “It’s really good to put on our own shows where the environment is a bit more relaxed and it’s word of mouth and you get other new musicians turning up,” she says.
Since 2010, three shows have been staged at White’s studio, the last drawing about 80 people through buzz alone. Bands play acoustic to avoid noise control and no booze is served and “it’s something different,” she says, the mystique of a show in a strange spot as much a draw as the music or the name of a venue. “People are often looking for something new.”
The new gig scheduler at Hashigo Zake knows that. Saturday night jazz, funk, and blues at the cult beer bar is new to the scene, and so popular he didn’t want his name used. Vibe and atmosphere are as important as drawing a big crowd.
“I’m trying to emulate the feeling of having a party in someone’s lounge,” he says. “People really love that space. Bands who’ve been booking in other forms have formed little trios just to play there.”
One of them is Darren Watson who’s been working Wellington gigs since 1985 and reckons the scene is as healthy as ever. “The meat meets the market,” he says, adding that he plays only three times a month – more is saturation.
Intimate shows at quirky spots have always been in the mix, he says, but “more than ever my friends are doing house parties, but I guess that’s just another version of the hall gigs from the 80s. I think they’ve moved into the suburbs because there used to be all these public halls and they’re gone now.”
Small hot spots are important stepping stones for musicians, as the cost of venue hire can be intimidating, says Peter Baillie, who plays with Sophie and the Realistic Expectations. “Some of the larger, more expensive venues will charge a bond of up to $500 before you even play,” he says, and bands paying for a space want it to complement their music. “You don’t need a great vibe to play music, but it helps,” he says.
Tamara Buckland, owner of Bar Medusa, says she doesn’t charge venue fees, only $80-150 for the use of their sound engineer, and bands keep everything raised at the door. Still, she has empty spaces on the schedule.
“A lot of people don’t even consider Medusa as a venue for their gigs and we’ve been trying to work on that,” says Buckland, booking more singer-songwriters mid-week. “We struggle a lot with identity. We’re seen as a metal venue.”
Jesse Rivest, another local guitarist, says, “The motivation to book a space that’s not a music venue is you have more control of the door, the ambience, the atmosphere of the evening.”
Like Minister, that’s a motivating factor for James Gilberd to reinstate shows at Photospace Gallery. “There’s absolutely no money in it, it’s gold coin donation so you hardly cover the costs, and no one gets paid, but the benefit is you can contribute to the scene. The acoustics are really nice, people can be close to the band, it’s very intimate and you can really hear the intricacies of the music.”
- Amanda Witherell