Hard News by Russell Brown


Powerstation II: It's complicated

My +1 came down sick shortly before Lorde's Powerstation show last night, which meant I was standing at the pickup desk at 8.30pm with a spare ticket to a hot gig.

"What should I do with it?" I asked the Powerstation's doorkeeper.

"Well, there are people out there without tickets ... " she pointed out.

I stepped back outside to look at who might be deserving, and she followed me out a second later and drew my attention to a folorn young man standing by the wall. I asked him if he needed a ticket, he nodded and I gave him the spare. He was so discombobulated with gratitude he tried to shake my hand and hug me at the same time and succeeded in doing neither very well.

It turned out he was French, here on a working holiday visa. He'd bought a ticket for the relocated Sunday show, misinterpreted the message and turned up last night only to discover his purchase had been refunded and his Sunday ticket was no good. He was disconsolate. And now, he was rescued.

A glance at social media suggests others weren't so lucky. I wrote a pretty forthright post on Sunday about the licensing issues that saw Sunday's all-ages show moved. But having talked at some length to both sides rather than relying on reports, my view has shifted somewhat.

The Powerstation did indeed have a boffo liquor licence with a variation that allowed it stage all-ages shows with a minimum of fuss. It ran those shows responsibly, providing proper separation between the area with bar access and the one without and covering all alcohol branding in the all-ages area. There was little trouble in the six years it had that licence.

But something odd happened in March last year, when the licence was renewed. The venue applied for a licence which designated the whole club as a "supervised" area under the Sale of Liquor Act 2012, which meant that people under 18 could be there, but only with a parent or guardian. I can't work out why that happened. Campbell is emphatic it's because that's what liquor licensing officials told him to do.

"I was doing licensed and all-ages shows on a semi-regular basis. And every time I did one, I applied for a special licence," he says. "They were getting fairly regular and starting to cost a bit of money, but that was just what was required if we wanted to put those shows together.

"There was then a suggestion that came from licensing that we then reapply to have the venue [designated] supervised so that we would not have to go through the process of applying for special licences every time we did an all-ages event."

Rob Abbott, the secretary of the district licensing commiteee, says he doesn't know why the Powerstation applied for this markedly less amenable licence. Abbott says the old licence condition didn't even require special licences – just a call to notify his office.

"He had to consult with me and I'd consult with the police. I'd have to say that no one ever approached me to invoke that in the three years I was there."

Abbot says Campbell "specifically asked for the whole premises to be given a supervised designation, which is completely different to what he had. When people ask for stuff, we don't question it, unless it's illegal or something."

And Campbell's claim that's what he told to do?

"I don't know. I can't say someone wouldn't have, but it wouldn't be the best advice – and my guys would know better than that."

Would he have been able to roll over the old licence if he'd asked?

"Probably, if he'd asked for it. It’s very strange, I've never seen that kind of condition, but yeah. There's been a change in the act, but it hasn't changed that much. If it was workable, we'd have just rolled over if he'd asked for it."

So since March 2016, all the Powerstation's all-ages/licensed shows have been in breach of its new licence – as the police discovered when they visited a show last month.

"And they came out and told me, this is great, it's exemplary, everything's fine," says Campbell. "He took a photo of our licence and that's when he discovered that the designation was supervised. And about three days later [on October 13] they called me in and said this is the problem we've got. Everything's cool at the venue, but this is the problem and we're going to have to try and work out how we do it.

 "And at that point I said, okay what do we have to do? What's the legal requirement? We were obviously assisted into this licence classification – can you help us? And at that point they actually were really helpful and did try and get a legal call from their people and said they'd let me know."

So he thought he was okay for a while?

"No, I can't really say that. But that was what was indicated."

"It would seem that he continued on operating as if he was under the old condition," says Abbott, "and it wasn't until the police paid a visit to one of these functions last month that they said hey you're not operating correctly – you've got a supervised designation. And that's when the question came up: well, how have you been operating, Peter?

"The police made it quite clear to him that he was operating outside the law. Lorde hadn't come up at that stage – they were just talking generally about his licence. He must have said at that stage, well, what can I do to change it and they said you put in a variation for it. And suddenly this Lorde thing comes out of nowhere."

I think had I been Campbell at the point of the meeting last month, with his three biggest shows of the year approaching, I'd have been acting with greater urgency to get it sorted out.

Abbott says he discussed a potential amendment with his staff, but then went on leave "and as it turns out, Peter didn't progress the matter any further."

"What I'm doing at the moment, I have a liquor licensing consultant who's been working on it, who's disgusted with them," says Campbell. "And the application has been prepared. It hasn't been submitted. Because first of all we'd discussed that I already had these licensed/all-ages shows going through under the current licence, which I need to get through, to which they nodded. It took a little bit of time to get out of them what was going to be required."

Abbott got back from leave on Thursday.

"And the first call I got was from his agent, who said 'is there anything we can do Rob - I know we can't get a special, it's way too late'. And we had a confab and both agreed and I spoke to Peter on Friday and said our advice was that there was nothing that could be done at that stage."

Not even a last-minute waiver for the deadline? There wasn't time even for that, says Abbott.

"And his agent said to me, he doesn't want to address [a permanent licence variation] until it comes up for renewal in 2019."

There's one further wrinkle: that supervised designation may make it harder to get approval for the rest of this summer's all-ages shows. It's complicated.

The council has also told me that Campbell could have applied last year to have his whole venue deemed undesignated (making it like Spark Arena and the Town Hall), but my understanding from other venue owners is that would likely have been knocked back by police.

And I am still mindful of what others have told me about the difficulty of dealing with with liquor licensing officials, and aware of one fairly egregious case that wound up in legal action.

But what's happened here is very strange, and I think Campbell relied rather too much on the assumption that he could continue to do what he was doing when prudence would have dictated a more proactive approach.

Anyway, it's happened and perhaps the Lorde effect has concentrated everyone's minds. Campbell says he still wants to keep running the place and has plans to invest to "future proof " the place – no small thing when it would be easy enough to sell a desirable site to a developer.

Anyway, Lorde played last night and showed why the decision to do three club shows rather than a single arena concert was such a great and generous call. People danced their asses off in a way that they wouldn't have in a big room. The music wasn't crazy loud, but at times the response from the crowd was so deafening that I put my fingers in my ears. It's a very long time since I've experienced an atmosphere like that.

It started like this:

And it did not stop. Whatever else went on these past few days, the singer got it right.

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