Hard News by Russell Brown


Lorde, the council and the Powerstation shambles

Two weeks ago, Unesco, the UN cultural agency, announced that it had approved a joint application by Auckland Council, Recorded Music NZ and Apra for Auckland to be named an international city of music, alongside the likes of Glasgow and Kingston Jamaica, as part of Unesco's Creative Cities Network.

As yet, Auckland's page on the Creative Cities Network website is "under construction" and features a photograph of Splore and not much else. But RMNZ's Mark Roach had this to say:

Changes like paying better attention to Auckland's grassroots venues, which were "the research and development labs" of any music eco-system, protecting and preserving Auckland's music heritage for future generations, improving Auckland's liveability and attraction through a thriving music scene, and celebrating its unique sounds and musicians, he said. 

The next move would be to formulate policies with council and creative sector stakeholders, and work out what outcomes and milestones needed to be achieved, he said.

I would suggest that Auckland Council could start by thinking very hard about what happened to Lorde's much-anticipated all-ages show at the Powerstation tonight.

On Friday, a press release from the tour promoter, Frontier, announced that the Sunday all-ages show, which sold out months ago, was being moved to a less appealing venue, the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna. (Much of the excitement about these shows has been that they're happening in a small, dedicated music venue – it's quite a gesture on the part of the artist.):

On Thursday night (9 Nov) Frontier and Eccles Entertainment were informed by the Powerstation that the Licensing Police had refused them permission to host any persons under the age of 18 at Lorde’s three sold out Auckland concerts. 

As the Sunday 12 November Lorde concert is an all ages show and can no longer take place at the Powerstation, the concert will now be relocated to Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna. Anyone with a ticket for the show on Sunday 12th November should go to the Bruce Mason centre for the show – your ticket will be valid for that show and you need take no further action other than turn up at the new venue.

My first thought was to wonder how on earth this had happened. The Powerstation has been running all-ages shows since the 1990s – with the bar open either upstairs or downstairs only (depending on the balance of sales), all alcohol branding in the all-ages area covered and two security staff checking ID at the bottom of the stairs – and has (or, more probably, had) several more scheduled for this summer. How could they have suddenly got it wrong for such an important show?

Well, it depends on who you believe.

Stuff had the first story up, quoting the council:

Auckland Council alcohol licensing manager Rob Abbott said the Powerstation had not applied to change its licence to allow under 18s in without their parents, therefore the issue should have come as no surprise.

Abbott said he received a call from the venue's manager on Thursday asking if they could change the  licence by Sunday, which Abbott said they could not. "There is no legal way to have it changed, certainly at that time. You have to go through a public consultation and a proper process to change licences."

In case anyone was in any doubt about whose stupid fault it was, Abbott added:

Abbott said the Powerstation's rules were not new, and its licence had been updated last year.

"This is the licence the Powerstation requested and it's what they got," he said.

But a quite different story emerged after RNZ got hold of the venue owner:

The license was checked as part of an inspection at an all-ages show at the Powerstation about 10 days ago, its owner Peter Campbell said.

He said days later he was told the variation to host under 18 shows never should have been issued and a special license for the Lorde show was not possible.

Mr Campbell said he would now have to look at future all-ages concerts held at the venue.

These are two conflicting accounts and can't both be true and complete. I think Peter Campbell's account is the true one, partly because, as I noted enough, the other one doesn't make any sense.

What it looks like is that the Powerstation had for years been operating in good faith under a licence that permitted a variation for all-ages shows. And then it was told, two working days out from its biggest shows of the year, that the licence was incorrect and under-18 year-olds who paid months ago for tickets would not be able to attend, even with their parents. That included any with tickets for the Monday and Tuesday shows, which were advertised with a "limited" all-ages area.

Yes, even with their parents, and even though they wouldn't get anywhere near a bar. As far as I can tell, under the terms of the Sale of Liquor Act 2012, and without the licence variation its owners believed they had, all of the Powerstation is a "restricted area" and no one under 18 can be there, even with parents. It would even remain so if all the bars closed.

Abbott implied that the Powerstation could have applied for a different licence last year. I don't think that's true either. The council's liquor licence application form offers only two options, "restricted" or "supervised". In the latter, which is basically meant for pub restaurants, minors are allowed, but still only with a parent in attendance.

There is another option: to seek to have part of the venue deemed "undesignated". The Powerstation would not have got that either. I was told by Rohan Evans, the owner of the Wine Cellar, that he had tried to have the music room there (a completely separate part of the venue, with no bar and a separate entrance if required) declared undesignated. He was told that the Police objected on principle to any such application and it would never be granted.

Was there a last-minute fix? There sure was. The Powerstation would have tried applying for a special licence under Section 138 of the Act. Those must be filed 20 working days before the event – but the council's own form says that deadline can be waived in some circumstances by the district liquor licensing committee. It cites a funeral as potential exception.

But perhaps, in the circumstances, a long-planned homecoming show for Auckland's most famous musical performer could also have been expedited. That would seem reasonable. Hell, double the security, add any number of caveats, but let Lorde play to her fans.

There's another reason that I'm inclined to believe Campbell's account over Abbott's. And that's that I've spoken to a number of venue owners and event promoters who describe Auckland's licensing officials as obstructive, arbitrary, capricious and difficult. (One former venue owner told me liquor licensing was "the worst council department I had to deal with"). I know of one event promoter who has successfully taken legal action over officials' conduct towards his business.

Some of this is very much down to the stricter provisions of the 2012 Act. But the council does have room to move within the Act, and the police, another roadblock, have ample discretion. I know that alcohol causes harm, but the Powerstation isn't a booze barn. It literally only opens when a concert is booked. It's a music venue.

And meanwhile, at big venues like Spark Arena or or the Auckland Town hall, under-18s can usually attend, even though there's no separation at all from the bars. They can also sit down at any of the city's hundreds of licensed cafes without anyone batting an eyelid. Parents can take toddlers and a picnic down to Silo Park, where there's a mobile bar selling beer and wine for the grown-ups. It's the "research and development labs" that seem to have the problem.

And that has consequences. If kids can't hear the music they love – music often made by their peers – there's a risk they'll be lost to live music altogether. And more particularly, to New Zealand music. They can get the rest of the world's pop culture easily enough on the radio and the internet.

After all, they're not coming to these places to get illicitly boozed – it would be much easier to do that at parties or in suburban parks – but to get culture. It's not good for the music and it certainly doesn't tally with that nice "City of Music" honour.

Under-age venues, which seek no liquor licence at all, at any time, could fill the gap. But, for better or worse, bar takings subsidise the cost of venue hire – they pay for the house PA, the rent and staff on the night. I'm not sure such a venue could survive without outside support. From the council, for instance.

The other options would be for the council and police to be more amenable to undesignated status for music spaces, or for variations in special licences to be made more available (even the council's special licence form still only offers "restricted" or "supervised" as options).

I've posted before about the wearying regulatory pressure on Auckland's small music venues. What happened this weekend is just another reason for anyone presenting music to not bother any more. If Auckland Council wants the city's Unesco status status to mean anything, it needs to fix what happened here.

NB: my view on this dispute has shifted since I found out a bit more – as I've explained in this follow-up post.

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