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"I noticed there was a big gap in New Zealand musicians coming to play shows in Dunedin, we had a lot of tour dates missed off.
"They’d go to Invercargill or they’d go to Queenstown and that was the end of the tour.
"So I started having conversations and asking why and we just found that it’s risk, and it’s [that] we don’t have a venue in Dunedin for the intermediate sort of size ... Well not as readily available as we’d like."
By late 2020, she had founded AWOL Collective, a six-person team all with music and event production backgrounds and all working towards the fundamental goal of getting more NZ artists to perform in Dunedin.
"We want to encourage New Zealand artists to come play shows down here.
"But, I mean, we’re very passionate about Dunedin as a community and we’ve got other elements about roping in different people from different businesses in putting on these events.”
The AWOL Collective exists as a social enterprise, meaning it’s not in the business of hoarding wealth or answering to shareholders. All profits will go back into improving Dunedin’s music scene, but not just by bringing in more musicians.
Michelle Branford, who has many years of experience managing venues and coordinating events, has taken on logistics and venue management.
"We have this whole ‘return the favour’ concept," explains Michelle. "So if they’re in Dunedin they will need to go and do a session with a school, or a marae, or down at the university, with some sort of group they can connect with that they can inspire."
Each imported act will also be joined by at least two up-and-coming local acts, providing real-world experience which, Abby says, is absolutely essential.
"When I started off playing music, it’s like I learnt pretty much all I know from established musicians, and that was from being a support act when they played here, or writing songs in Auckland with people in the industry, and that kind of contact. It is just so important.
"Because there’s not really a play-by-play guide how to do music, like it’s very much you kind of have to fumble your way and find your own path. And it’s having that network of established musicians to share their experience with these younger dunedin locals, and show that music is a feasible career."
And the collective is already achieving results. Last week. it put on the first of hopefully many AWOL productions, a sold out gig in Port Chalmers featuring Anna Coddington.
"Anna was gorgeous. She hasn’t been to Dunedin for five years because she found it too difficult to put on her tour for us. So Abby approached her and she said ‘if you can do everything, then I’ll be there’. And she loved it, so she was like ‘if you can do this again I’ll come back any day’.
"And we had a young lady called Savanna Stent and it was incredible, it was the first time she’d ever played to an audience."
However, the reality is all this costs money, which is largely why artists may have avoided Dunedin in the past: Gigs are expensive and it’s a financial risk. So the collective is hoping to attract funding from various trusts and the council.
"We’d like to keep ticket prices as low and affordable as we can. We’re not in this to make a huge profit, we’re in this to put any money we make back into the very next artist that we can bring. But we still need to cover costs."
The collective has a calendar full of potential artists, and are in the process of locking in another gig at the moment. It’s early days, but with the progress it has made so far, and the dedicated team on board, I’m excited to see how things develop over the coming years.
To find out more or follow the AWOL Collective’s progress, visit fb.com/theawolcollective