Finding some space

A practice room in Spaceland. Below, the inaugural gig. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
A practice room in Spaceland. Below, the inaugural gig. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
It’s been a winter of discontent for Dunedin’s music community. Old grievances that have tormented the scene for decades are bubbling to the surface and erupting.

A petition aiming to "Save Dunedin’s live music" through noise control reform attracted more than 1700 signatures, spurred by clashes between residential inner-city dwellers and musicians/audiences who just want to play/hear music at 10pm on a Friday.

Meanwhile, the Dunedin City Council is promising a new medium-sized theatre as part of its 10-year plan, which is nice for medium-sized acts who have the capacity to provide their own equipment and attract medium-sized audiences. But it’s a small consolation for the underground, under threat on all sides by both noise control and capitalism.

Over the past three years we have lost Jutland Street, None Gallery, The Attic, and most recently Dee’s. Not all of these losses were due to the council (mostly it was property developers’ eternal quest for maximum profit) and, crucially, we have also gained few new venues.

While the council may not be directly responsible for closing these venues, could they do more to support the creation of new ones?

A welcome recent development has been the establishment of practice space, thanks to the efforts of some local musicians. But it could have been so much more.

Spaceland is located in harbourside industrial precinct and offers rentable practice rooms for musicians, as well as a communal area intended to be a place for gigs.

Things were going well. They hosted a small opening gig with no issues. However, any hopes of a second gig were dashed by a visit from a council enforcement officer.

"He basically said if we went ahead without [being compliant] we would be fined or have to go to court," one of the musicians behind Spaceland said.

"We are not able to afford the ‘four toilets’ he quoted to make our building compliant, we won’t try to become compliant for fear of thousands wasted."

Thankfully, Spaceland can still exist as a practice space, but its future as a venue seems to be out the window. A real shame, since it’s location is ideal for the sorts of noisy rackets musicians like to make. The DCC’s own guidance on noise control states quite plainly: "For regular band practices choose a location where the noise will not disturb others, such as an industrial area".

"In my opinion, we are basically funding what the council should do or hasn’t done, which is provide a space for musicians to develop or easily exist," the Spaceland musician said.

"Councils need to help venues meet their costly requirements or maybe do their own version of a venue, or offer sound proofing grants."

In an email response from the council, a spokesman said the DCC was "not seeking to close venues" but it did have "a regular role which requires venues to comply with regulation such as the Building Act". They "encourage organisers to plan for such requirements, and discuss options for safe spaces with the DCC as early as possible in their planning process".

However, this spirit of encouragement doesn’t seem to extend to the people on the ground tasked with enforcing regulations. It doesn’t sound like the Spaceland musicians felt encouraged to plan and discuss options with the DCC.

Instead of an officer threatening them with fines, they might have appreciated being provided with resources on how to meet regulations, or how to apply for funding.

That’s putting aside the question of whether the regulations are even fit for purpose ... Do a few dozen people and an indie band really need four toilets? I’ve lined up outside enough bathrooms at flat parties to know that a single toilet can serve hundreds of people easily.

The underground is where music originates. The acts that attract tens of thousands at the stadium, or thousands at the town hall, all cut their teeth in sticky pubs and back rooms.

But music isn’t just about providing an incubator for the next Six60, there’s value in music for music’s sake, music that might only ever appeal to a few people, but the positive impact it provides for that audience is far greater than the size of their presence. This sort of music saves people.

So it’s crucially important that this small community is able to exist. And right now it’s struggling. Musicians are on the wrong end of a power structure that benefits anyone with more money than them.

Residents with lock and leave inner-city apartments can use noise control to suppress any hopes of a flourishing scene around them. Landlords can lease their unsafe and unlivable spaces to artists and kick them out on a whim.

And a truly arts focused council would do a better job at shielding the most vulnerable parts of their arts scene from those forces.

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