Like sun safety, double-scoop ice creams and the beach, music festivals have become a quintessential summer experience. Now, for the first time in living memory, we have the chance to celebrate our local artists without a glut of international acts vying for our attention. But as Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow over all aspects of society, festival organisers are forced to face the prospect of promoting an event that might have to be cancelled at any moment.
At the same time, Covid-19 has also presented organisers with the opportunity to re-establish what festivals are and address some long-held issues, such as diversity of line ups, fair payment of artists and harm reduction. For many, these cornerstones are firmly in place but how and why they are delivered has been altered and, in some cases, reached a new level of significance.
Kate Powell spoke to three organisers who promoted festivals this summer to hear about their experiences in this environment.
Welcome to Nowhere
Welcome to Nowhere has been operating “on a random farm somewhere between Hunterville and Whanganui for the last five years” says organiser Sophie Scott-Maunder. A mishmash of arts, poetry and stand-up comedy stretches over three days and two nights in February. Scott-Maunder describes it as a “grass roots, DIY festival. We don’t really pay ourselves to do it. The focus is really on paying the artists as much as we possibly can, while covering our costs. Which I think is particularly important. Our ethos is making sure that people get paid fairly and we’re not profiting off paying people small amounts for trekking all the way out there to play.”
When asked to consider the impact of Covid-19 on Welcome to Nowhere and any benefits it has had on the music sector at large, Scott-Maunder says of the sold out festival, “I think it’s definitely helped us sell tickets. People are really excited to go somewhere, make the most of our summer, while they can.”
“We’ve always booked local acts because booking overseas acts hasn’t been an option for a festival of our size. I think it’s awesome to see what other festivals are doing, in terms of having to actually work hard and think about who they’re booking. A lot of those bigger New Zealand festivals are in such a fortunate position where they’re selling out before they’ve even announced who’s on the line up. So, they’ve got an opportunity to give smaller local acts a chance to perform to big audiences and make names for themselves. I think that’s really important that the organisers or curators think about the impact that their decisions have on the artists that they book.”
Welcome to Nowhere has a policy where they do not book the same artists in consecutive years. So for her, “it’s been great to see some New Zealand festivals really branching out and putting in effort to find new and interesting artists. It’s such a responsibility for these curators to be helping out people. I don’t understand how when you’re selling out before it’s announced….you could book anyone and you book the same people. It frustrates me.
Championing gender diversity within the newness of each line up is “not [Welcome to Nowhere’s] aim. Our aim is to pick artists that we like. If they happen to be women or non-binary people, then that’s who they are” says Scott-Maunder. “I look at the lineup that we’ve made and go “awesome band, awesome band, awesome band.” I don’t go “ooh, this is diverse.” I know it’s diverse, but I want to think more broadly and be like we’ve booked these bands not because they show diversity but because they’re awesome bands and we like them. I think it’s really easy to get stuck in this tokenism, like “ooh it’s male heavy, we should add some females to the mix.” I try not to think like that. I think most of my favourite bands in New Zealand are women creating music. Maybe because I identify with that, or maybe just that’s what I think is good. I guess we do champion diversity, but I’m trying to view it as we’re booking people that we like. And they happen to be diverse.”
Scott-Maunder hopes that 2021 brings “more diversity across cities” in the music sector as a whole. “Having more touring bands come to visit Wellington, seeing Wellington bands going on tour to Auckland or Christchurch or Dunedin” she enthuses. “I think that’s something that really strengthens music, playing with different bands from different cities. I think that’s something that I missed last year with [her band] Soft Plastics, we didn’t really have the same opportunities.”
A “staunch belief in community and the power of music to bring communities together” was the initial impetus for the Newtown Festival, run by Martin Hanley and Anna Kemble Welch. 27 years later, they’re “pretty convinced [the Newtown Festival] is the biggest free showcase of New Zealand music – 175 artists performed in 2020” says Hanley.
The Newtown Festival can be found dotted around some of Wellington’s most colourful and historical streets. Its stages are as diverse as the audience it serves. “The way we curate our stages is that various people become the co-ordinator for a zone. Could be singer-songwriter, could be punk, could be whatever” explains Hanley.
Together, Hanley and Kemble Welch run an architecture and urban design practice, which becomes the Newtown Festival hub for several months of the year. “We spend a long time designing the layout and honing the plan of the festival. There’s two other key players in our small festival team who work on it part time/full time all year. And then there’s a team of dedicated volunteers and interns and students on summer jobs” says Hanley.
“Every stage at Newtown Festival has come from someone coming to us who has a talent or a passion for something” says Kemble Welch. “Each of the stages has a particular theme. Some have been around for a long time, and some are really literal like the living wage stage are artists who support a living wage, came and talked to us saying “we’d really like to have an opportunity to showcase our cause, and have a stage where all the artists on it are part of artists for a living wage. It’s about the community and about the people working together to make things possible.”
When asked about the diversity of their line up, Hanley hesitates. “I’m interested in talking about this publicly, because we’ve been ghosting it behind the scenes for years. It’s incredibly important. We’ve always made sure that we’ve had a balance of women-only bands, or as much as possible every band had women in them. There’s some stages who ran that theme under the radar for years, to correct the imbalance in the industry. But we didn’t ever want to shout that from the rooftops.”
“There have been several moments, particularly a couple of years ago when Homegrown was loud in the media saying there are no talented female acts that could be on our headline; “what the fuck are you talking about? Two thirds of our headline is female” adds Kemble Welch.
Last year, the Newtown Festival was the last major event in Wellington before the first lockdown. Over the last 365 days, they have become adept at Zoom. “It was really nice to not have to jump in your car and go to a meeting” recalls Kemble Welch.
Should Covid-19 reappear in the community, Hanley says “there are contingency plans” for the Newtown Festival. “We would replace it with a series of smaller events.” The Festival has already been postponed once this year, with the entire event being rescheduled to April 11th.
Covid-19 has also led to “more of a sense of pulling together, and people wanting to be part of a community and contribute, and more awareness of the value of that” says Kemble Welch. Here’s hoping that the Newtown Festival can keep celebrating their community in 2021.
Organising an indie festival in Hawkes Bay was “a bit of a gamble” according to organiser Harry Pettit, but it’s one that seems to have paid off. “I think it has worked to our benefit though as our crowd often like to jump in a car or van with friends and hit the road for their summer roadie - giving people a new destination to travel to is always a bonus - especially seeing as New Zealand is beautiful all over.”
Nest Fest can be found in January at Black Barn Vineyards in Hawkes Bay. “There are a few more considerations to make - such as, where will people stay? Will they travel that far? How long of time do we need to give the punter so they can make proper plans with their friends etc. It's nice to bring new music to new regions and I think people can relate to that” says Pettit.
The lineup strives to be as diverse as possible. “We ventured out more into our genres for 2021 - having Indie Rock, Hip Hop & House music - which opened so many more doors for us in terms becoming more gender diverse. I can't wait to continue this progress for 2022 & beyond” says Pettit.
Speaking frankly about the impact of Covid-19 on the local music sector, he says “New Zealand is a world leader in curbing [the virus] so I believe [it] gave a lot of hope to organisers and some clarity on what their events will look like for 2020/2021. To be honest, it has probably helped a lot of event organisers this summer as the demand to get together and socialise at events has been very high at the moment.”
“There’s been a larger demand in supporting New Zealand artists too which is fantastic to see. It's the reason I got into the music business so it's warming to see a larger uptake in viewership and fans. It was cool to see some of the parents' friends at Nest Fest all coming up to me saying they have found their new favourite band and for it to be a Kiwi band made it that much better!” continues Pettit. “I think New Zealand is in a unique position at the moment and I hope the industry can leverage our unique position not only for New Zealand's benefit but for the artists and worldwide audience who are currently desperate to experience something new.”