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Opinion: The Musical Mecca of Dunedin


opinion alcohol gig times Austin New Orleans isolation

by Brendan Christie

Musical Meccas of the USA

It’s Thursday night and I’m strolling down Frenchman Street, aptly named and one of the most popular streets of the French Quarter in one of the musical meccas of the world - New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. With all its ruggedness, its dirty streets and diversity of cultures, for the average traveller it is exciting.

But for the musician, it’s like stepping out of a taxi and into heaven.

Rewind back to a week before and I was encountering a very similar experience in Austin, Texas. A single street, named in the American style of ‘6th’, packed with people. There are laughter, smiles and hugs everywhere you look. But what is most similar about these two cities is not what’s happening on the street, but what’s happening in the wall-to-wall cafes and bars that line both sides of it.

Live music, of all varieties and styles, booms from within. The music is country, blues, jazz, funk, cajun, rock, metal, electronic, punk and more, all performed by some of the most talented and skilled musicians I have ever seen in one place at one time. They are old and young. And this happens pretty much every night of the week. At the front of each stage sits a bucket labelled ‘tips’. As in many parts of the United States, bands are paid a nominal fee by the venue, their profit coming from the appreciation of their audience.

After a great night out dancing the two-step to country bands, I joined two Texan women and an older gentleman at a nearby Denny’s. This particular man intrigued me, not just because he was 82 years old and out at Denny’s at two in the morning. As a retiree and in possession of the local events paper, he had mapped out everything he was intending to see over the next week. This often included three acts a day, throughout each day and into the night. Groups he enjoyed ranged from old to young, from fresh to classic - he loved it all. It was what he loved about the city, because there was something to see and do, for all ages, every day of the week. Other people I encountered followed bands around the city, but were also very open to seeing something new.

And with a rather large fast-forward now, I find myself walking down yet another street that gives me a very similar feeling to what I experienced in the USA. However my surroundings are far more familiar than either Austin or New Orleans.

Currently, the Dunedin music scene seems to be booming. Bars, clubs, farmers markets and cafes all over the city seem to be supporting and demanding live music, both covers and original. Even before my return home, I could see the potential Dunedin has for becoming one of these musical meccas, to become a genuine centre for arts and music in New Zealand. It has much of the foundation put in place already: Our secondary and tertiary educational institutions have programmes and initiatives in place to nurture young musicians, not just educating them in the practice of making music but also providing essential learning about the industry. To add to this, there are numerous societies, clubs and communities across the city that actively encourage and promote Dunedin music.

Dunedin as a Musical Mecca

Wouldn’t it be a dream? To have tourists from around the world visiting New Zealand and asking “What is there to do here?” The answer would include “Oh, and you HAVE to go to Dunedin for the music!” Like Austin and New Orleans, Dunedin has a fantastic social district that is centralised and easily accessible to the rest of the city. It has a community that has always enjoyed and supported live music. So what is holding us back?

One argument against this is that Dunedin is too isolated from main centres to support a thriving music scene. But a quick look at a map and I realise that Austin is in the middle of nowhere, in the vast American Southwest. Perhaps distance isn’t a problem, but this does bring us to the next argument: population.

There are many different methods of encouraging people to move to Dunedin, but there is no reason to wait for someone else to make the difference. It makes sense to me that the foundation of a music scene is developing a culture where the local population regularly support local and touring acts. If this could be achieved, bands would base themselves here, the social culture of the city would expand, and it will in turn encourage more people not only to move here, but to stay as well. With a higher population, we can expect additional airlines to provide additional direct flights to Australia, and Dunedin will become closer to the world than we think.

If you live in Dunedin longer than five years and follow the music scene, you will understand the ‘ebb and flow’ that is typical of a small city with a large, transient student population. The fact that so many of our young people leave after a short stay is actually a good thing for our local music acts. What these people will take with them is a vast array of fond memories of the music here. They will provide promotion of Dunedin music all over the world. They will attend the gigs of our touring bands, even sometimes give them a couch to sleep on. Music can become an export that Dunedin is known for.

Improving our social scene

Now, I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but here are a few of my opinions on what needs to happen.

In most major centres, musical performances take place considerably earlier than they do here. Support bands take the stage by 7 p.m., with headline acts opening their set by 9 p.m. and usually concluding around 11 p.m. Take these times and add two hours and then you have Dunedin’s typical night out - particularly with original acts.

Recently there has also been a push by the city to reduce alcohol consumption. Bars are under increasing pressure to monitor intoxication and discourage ‘binge drinking’. But while targeting bars may see a short term reduction in alcohol-related problems, is it really solving the issue? The risk is that such restrictions discourage people from drinking in bars, which in turn restricts the venue’s ability to monitor the alcohol consumption and safety of its patrons.

One reality of drinking that I’m aware of is this: I drink less when I have something else to do. If I’m performing, I could go a night on no more than a couple of drinks and have a lot of fun all the same. If I’m watching a gig, I’ll drink less because much more of my night will be taken up enjoying the entertainment on offer. I witnessed this all over Austin and New Orleans, people seemed to drink less and enjoy themselves more.

The issue of people ‘pre-loading’ - drinking alcohol at home before going out to bars and clubs - is possibly one of the main causal factors for the most visible problems regarding alcohol in Dunedin, and it hurts the music scene as well. Currently, most entertainment doesn’t start early because there is no which to play before. Here we have a chicken-or-egg scenario where punters are so used to bands starting late, they don’t come out until later anyway, which in turn means the bands start even later when people finally decide to arrive. If the city and the music scene were to insist on early start times, it would encourage people to get out of their homes earlier, and possibly some of these pre-loading issues would cease. Bars would make more money, thereby securing their longevity and which can in turn put more money into the arts and music scene.

Additionally, any parent or working person knows the endless weighing of options that goes on when there is a gig they really want to see during a weekday. For most, weekdays are not an option. If all gigs were to begin earlier, not only does it get younger punters out to the bars sooner but it also opens up the young and up-and-coming musical groups to more than just their friends and other young people. If we can promise an audience outside of the weekend, this will also encourage more touring acts to come our way. Promising a show any day of the week will also benefit tourism, and all that needs to happen is for our music scene to cater to the public better.

So how can we make this happen? How can we generate a public perception of an exciting and vibrant social scene without tarnishing our reputation as a place of education and history? In a perfect world it would be great to unite all the elements that play a part in creating a vibrant social scene; the city council, the musicians and artists who perform, the bars and venues that house them, the newspapers, networks and communities that promote them, the hostels and hotels that provide information to tourists… I could go on. But how do we create incentives for people to be proactive in this way?

No doubt there are many ways to approach this. But it seems to me that it would not take much to get this ball rolling in the right direction. What is exciting is how close Dunedin is already to becoming a musical mecca in New Zealand.

Brendan Christie is a Dunedin-based songwriter and musician for The Mentalist Collective, a teacher and traveller.
@brendamnfine @mentalistcollec

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