Wellington - The changing state of it
Author: Karen Blyth (photography by Positively Wellington Tourism)
In the early days of NZM Wellington was known best for its eclectic, arty roots bands which included the still-active Windy City Strugglers, Six Volts, Chicago Smokeshop and country faves The Warratahs. Almost single-handedly the once-were speed metallers Shihad changed that focus, and in their shadow the heady days of the 1990s gave rise to other nation-rocking rock bands including HLAH, Weta and Fur Patrol.
The start of the 21st Century has seen Wellington’s music scene further develop a roots-reggae royalty. Heavy hitters Fat Freddy’s Drop, Rhombus and The Black Seeds have made well-earned names for themselves and for Wellington as a bass-heavy town. Tempering the shock split of main players TrinityRoots, at the end of last year, is the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Fat Freddy’s album. Meanwhile waiting in the wings to again take the Wellington stage seems to be a bubbling rock scene. Having earned considerable respect with their exceptional debut album, Paselode have recently lost a few members. Newer bands like The Accelerants, Batrider and Connan and the Mockasins draw healthy crowds - if not yet sell-out Indigo Bar audiences.
Phoenix Foundation are one major act which falls into neither camp and prove that Wellingtonians’ love of the arty and eclectic has not been lost.Unfortunately it would seem that all is not quite that rosy. The council-imposed sound restrictions have been just one issue in making it difficult to provide live music opportunities. Some of the main players on the venue front feel Wellington’s scene is currently short of bands able to draw a comfortable crowd, on a regular basis, any night of the week.
Fraser McInnes of Bodega has noticed a downturn in crowds of approximately 20% compared to this time last year. He is now placing four bands on a bill, where in times past two bands could have drawn the same numbers. Unfortunately, he says, there are not enough bands around to maintain such a high rotate without audience burnout.
Indigo Bar has noticed a similar trend. While the big acts like The Black Seeds have received enough national press and attention to pull a full crowd of new students in town, there are relatively few recent-comer bands that can easily draw a consistent crowd.
It seems Wellington is missing an important piece of the pyramid - the middle. Where are the bands that have been around for a year or so, slowly building their live shows and audiences? What is stopping bands from making the leap from newcomers to mainstayers?
Carol Wahrlich, Wellington City Council Arts Centre Project Manager, has heard the strong cry from the musical community for cheap, clean, functioning, sound-proofed rehearsal space. Since their rehearsal space The Factory was turned into apartments, newcomers Charlie ASH have spent the past six months looking for somewhere central and cheap to practice.
The construction of three rehearsal studios in the new Arts Centre, due for completion in the upper Cuba Street area late May, should help get bands out of the bedroom and into the venues. Hireage of these rooms is expected to be between $6 and $15 per hour, depending on studio size. One space is expected to be set up as a recording studio at a later date. Marmalade Audio is also re-opening one of its studio spaces in town for reheasals and/or recording.
Local recording labels are more positive about the Wellington scene and what it holds for this coming year. Loop Recordings have nine releases in the pipeline, including a solo project from the Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott, ‘Fly My Pretties II’, and Skallander - a new ‘folktronica’ outfit.
Brent Gleave of Capitalrecordings says they are having to wait a few months before approaching more artists as they have their hands full with current talent. The Illphonics’ album is due out early May, and they’ve signed Disasteradio and The Inkling - both with releases due later in the year.
Wellington music features heavily in both playlist and DJs’ chosen selections at Radio Active 89FM. Bands regularly seek advice from the bNet station on how to get their sound out there and take the next step from getting a gig to getting signed and touring. This points to a need for more managers in the Capital: people who are knowledgeable about venues, advertising mediums, the costs of promoting a band and how to keep a band’s profile up.
There are some band managers who have picked up their skills ‘on the job’ as Wellington’s scene has grown over the past decade. Stephen Upton of Indigo is also the Wellington area rep the Music Managers Forum (MMF), which doesn’t yet seem to have caught the attention of would-be local managers for the occasional seminars.
Wellington Music Week, which arrived with much bravura but little genuine support two years ago, retrenched last year into a more workable format of workshops and seminars. The MIDI organisation website home page still refers to the ‘upcoming 2004’ WMW. There has been no sign of ARMS actively promoting their services in the last year.
The Wellington City Council has been more creative with their music video grant scheme which provides $1000 funding if the flick is to be shot, and largely produced, in Wellington. Recipients however seem to be only those which have already gained NZ On Air video grants. The council has also established contacts with companies that will give discounts to successful applicants.
Radio Active’s Handle the Jandal Video Awards, held each September, received twice as many entries in 2004 as it did in 2003. These awards only accept entries from video makers who create their videos without any government/public funding.
Wellington’s music scene is definitely going through a transitional stage. There are signs of a new audience keen to discover something hot and different, and there’s the established crowd that has developed over the last six years supporting the roots-oriented super-bands. Wellingtonians now need take a chance on a few of the newcomers.
In the words of Scott Nicholson, Radio Active’s on air producer, "2005 is the year of the Phoenix." Wellington may also well be the hot new rock bed, after roots blazed such a fantastic trail.