If you are keen on a night out to see and hear some live music, you might go to a bar with a covers band, Crab Farm Winery or Groove Kitchen for some laid back tunes, or Black Barn or Pettigrew Arena to see a bigger show. You might go to the Opera House to see a production, or even occasionally the Mission for a really big show like Rod Stewart.
The real local music scene, though, is found inside the newly soundproofed walls of the Cabana in Napier. One of the oldest venues in New Zealand, it was brought back to life after a chat between local musician Matt Baker, the Hotel Cabana book author Lee Pritchard and Auckland import Ian Morris of Th’ Dudes. It’s not a bar, but a venue with a bar.
You might not have heard of the bands playing on a given night, but then, how would you have? Not from TV or radio. Original music is effectively underground. The musicians at a winery or pub that play every week get paid a fee for playing for however many hours. Rod Stewart gets paid an agreed amount by a promoter who then takes the ticket money. Bands playing at the Cabana charge five to ten bucks at the door for the night, and that won’t pay the rent. So for them, the work of getting a set’s worth of original songs together is a lot of extra work for your listening pleasure.
Fifty years ago, in the early ‘60s, six to eight hundred people would cram into a club like the old Top Hat in Napier every Friday night to hear a band like Johnny and the Contacts kick out the latest hits. Boys met girls etc; they had a good night. There was six o’clock closing of pubs, and clubs like this sold no alcohol (except for private functions like a firemans’ ball or a young farmers’ ball). Teenagers could go along. It was ‘the dance’. Ties were compulsory for men. It would cost you about six shillings to get in. On a Sunday, the same band might play at a Sunday school function at Mclean Park to 1,000 people. Radio 2ZC occasionally played hits recorded by local bands before anyone heard the original. Live music was big.
John Lindsay of Johnny and The Contacts recalls, “It was the crest of a wave, you’re never going to see that now. New Zealand was starved of music. We cheated and copied the new styles from overseas, ha ha, we were mainstream, but there were underground bands like Troubled Mind that played to smaller crowds. I rated them very highly.”
The demographic in the Bay has changed since then, with many school leavers making the move to university out of town, since we lost Massey to Palmy. There’s television, which didn’t really become commonplace in New Zealand until the 70’s; video games; and the internet more recently, which brings everything to the home, including music. People work longer hours. If you’ve got kids, getting out can be difficult. If you are kids, getting out can be difficult. Live music is just one of many choices.
When you look at Wellington or Auckland, the live music scene is an important part of those cities’ cultures, particularly bands that play their own music. You can go and see them live, they exist in the culture there. The big city urbanites count their ownership of this cultural activity as a part of their very urbanity. There’s lots of students, including those from HB. They’ll be going to see bands we haven’t even heard of here. The B-net student radio network plays lots of local music.
The pop ‘idol’ TV phenomenon has suggested a different view of what a music career is amongst TV viewers that probably don’t go to see live bands. It’s almost like, if you’re not on TV, you can’t really count. But then, the last that was heard of Ben Lummis, he was playing the RSA in Lower Hutt.
For its part too, commercial radio might lead you to think there’s a pretty narrow range of music to choose from. It becomes conservative by its very nature. The corporatisation of radio has led to around 80% of stations in the US playing the same content. HB is no different.