Russell Brown’s Public Address article on the impending closure and redevelopment of the King’s Arms music venue got me thinking. Russell highlighted the importance of certain types of physical spaces for a music scene’s ongoing vitality:

What the King’s Arms and the Powerstation have in common is that they are reasonably large rectangular boxes, which makes them ideal rock ‘n’ roll venues. That’s a hard kind of building to find – and an even harder one to build – in the current environment. While the Wine Cellar and Whammy have done a good job of making the most of their space and Galatos seems to work well, the only real “big box” on K Road is The Studio.

As the article investigates, a confluence of positive and negative trends is putting pressure on spaces for live music at the centre of Auckland. On the one hand, the success of the city centre as a place for both employment and residential living means that redevelopment is spilling out to the city fringes that traditionally served a mix of cultural purposes. On the other hand, the city-wide housing affordability crisis is putting the screws on rents.

As I discussed in another recent post, when rents rise faster than general consumer prices across the entire city, it’s a sign that there is a shortage of housing supply relative to current housing demands. In other words, we haven’t built enough. In Auckland, if rents had kept pace with consumer prices since 2001, they’d be $120 per week lower than they actually are, or $6240 per annum. Here’s a chart:

auckland-mean-real-rents-01-16-chart

Russell doesn’t mention it in his article, but rising rents have a second negative effect on the sustainability of a local music scene. They make it more difficult for people to start bands, as the time that would have gone towards practicing, writing songs, and hustling for gigs and recording time goes towards paying the rent instead.

David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven frontman and one of my favourite musicians) neatly set out the link between low rents and dynamic music scenes in a 2011 blog post about the Santa Cruz milieu that spawned his band:

…music scenes rely on low property values in particular transitional neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods that had once had another purpose but now had fallen out of primary use.  Cheap space and a tolerance for noise are important commodities for bands.

You could argue that the old beach rentals along the lower end of Ocean street and the neighborhoods clustered around the old harbor qualified as in transition.  Too seedy and rundown for beach rentals these houses were subsequently occupied by the more adventurous.  Arty students, musicians and other slackers now occupied many of these cottages.

But our cottage was effectively cut off from these neighborhoods by the river levee.  In retrospect I now see it was very Dungeons and Dragonsish of the locals to refer to the homeless population that slept in hideaways along the river as “trolls”.  Indeed walking to my house at night I learned to steer clear of these trolls as many were quite aggressive or totally insane.   You definitely felt penalized after unexpectedly making contact with these folks.

But the isolation was very good for a couple young mathematicians and songwriters. I was able to really dive into the most difficult proofs and songs in that cottage.  Later when I moved to a better part of town I found that I had to go to the science library to get any deep thinking done.

If you want a vibrant music scene, you need a combination of young people – university towns are great for this – and low rents. That was the recipe underpinning the Dunedin Sound in the 1980s, and pretty much any other successful music scene.

But this isn’t just about cultural vibrancy. The same factors underpin long-run economic success, as they affect people’s willingness and ability to start and grow new businesses in a city. Entrepreneurship is very important. Economies thrive not by continuing to do the same thing over and over again, with minor refinements and productivity increases, but by generating new ideas and making new goods and services.

Affordable rents aren’t the only factor that contributes to a vibrant startup culture, but they are an important one. In this respect, tech startups are similar to garage bands: in the early stages, they need a bit of cheap space to allow them to experiment.

steve-jobs-and-wozniak-1977
Apple Computer, 1977

(Other factors that probably matter include an educated population, low levels of corruption, support for primary science and research and development, an active venture capital market, and good access to markets. New Zealand does well on the first two, and iffy on the last three.)

Data on growth in inflation-adjusted mean rents suggests that constraints on housing supply in Auckland over the 2001-2016 period have imposed an implicit ‘tax’ of around $6000 on someone living here and trying to start a business. Possibly more, if you’re trying to pay the rent and rent commercial space for your business. There are obviously other advantages to being in Auckland. It’s got the best international connectivity, access to a large and growing urban market, and a talented and diverse pool of workers.

However, we can’t be sanguine that those advantages will outweigh the ‘tax’ that a lack of housing places on new businesses or creative endeavours in Auckland. Left unaddressed, rising rents will dissuade startups, resulting in a less dynamic, less prosperous economy. (And fewer good bands.)

Fortunately, there are things we can do to address this issue. The most important is to let more housing and commercial space get built, especially in areas that are accessible to jobs and other good urban things, as that’s a key factor in getting rents back in line with consumer prices. The Unitary Plan does quite a bit to enable more construction, but reforming and fine-tuning our urban planning system will be an ongoing challenge.

Improving transport choices is another key priority. The city fringe area is an attractive location for live music because it is both relatively dense (by Auckland standards) and very central. When you put on a show, people can get to it. (And, depending upon when it ends, you can get a drink and still be able to take the bus or train home.) Other parts of the city aren’t as well-connected, which serves as a barrier. Fortunately, we can fix this by improving transport choices throughout the city – more frequent bus routes, more rapid transit corridors, more safe cycleways.

What do you think about the prospects for starting bands or businesses in Auckland?

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18 comments

  1. Excellent post Peter. Always good to connect transport and urban form discussions back to their real purpose: society. Transport plans and investments are just means to ends, not ends in themselves.

  2. “Other factors that probably matter include an educated population, low levels of corruption, support for primary science and research and development, an active venture capital market, and good access to markets. New Zealand does well on the first two, and iffy on the last three.)”
    The second one is getting worse. The rates of corruption in NZ are rising roughly in proportion to the number of Chinese and Indian immigrants arriving here… coincidence? I doubt it. China is ranked 72nd (or 83rd depending on your source) in the world for corruption levels while India is 65th. NZ on the other hand is 4th so not surprising really.

    1. This comment violates several user guidelines, including 1 (“Commenters are guests and are asked to behave accordingly. Treat other members of the community with civility and respect.”), 6 (“Opinions, while welcome, are not facts, so do not assert them as such.”), and 8v (no “sexist, racist or other offensive comments”). Any further comments in this vein will be deleted.

      Attacking individuals – in this case Chinese or Indian immigrants – based on the supposed characteristics of their ethnic group is pretty much the textbook definition of racism. It’s not accurate or acceptable.

  3. 1970s London and Manhattan were also pretty run down and cheap and were hotspots for creativity, especially bands.
    It’s a balancing act though, cheap and run down also means potentially quite unpleasant to live in. David Byrne has lived in the Bowery since the 70s but says he doesn’t miss the old days of winos and streetwalkers.
    My first flat at top of Symonds St in the mid 90s cost me $60 per week. Walking distance to Kings Arms and K Rd dodging crazed streetwalkers and the odd shuffling junkie remnant.
    Plus no one lived in town in those days so we could skate the streets without worry of traffic at night. Great fun, but those days are gone and Auckland central has developed.
    Now you’d need to do that in the back end of Onehunga or Otahuhu. Is that what arty kids are doing now? Or is there a small town they’ve moved to?

    1. As I walk around the back of New Lynn amongst the old warehouses and more rundown homes, I do wonder if it is the less desireable parts of New Lynn, Onehunga, Otahuhu etc where the “poor student/artist/musician” set will establish. If you look to somewhere like melbourne, its out on Coburg and Preston these days.

    2. Yes, good point! Cities don’t stand still: a well functioning city will always have some areas that are rising in attractiveness (and price) and others that are declining a bit and becoming available to low-income families and artists and the like.

      1. Yeah I think this is the key point along with Patricks – we want cities to evolve, and for all the various benefits espoused on this blog to become more urban. This means that once non-desirable inner city areas vacated by the push to the suburbs are becoming desirable again. It happens, things change, we can be sad about it, but the challenge is how to evolve with it. Making sure that the means of enabling new areas of creativity to flourish (e.g. New Lynn listed above) is important so that it doesn’t die, it just shifts postcode, is done by making sure the city has effective systems in place to make new areas accessible (i.e. effective and cheap transport) to be able to roll with the punches.

  4. We really need new economic metrics that really describe the reality of people’s lives. Something like an ‘economic freedom’ index whereby expenses such as housing, transport, tax etc are all taken into consideration for different types of people. What should X person have left over after the usual expenses? I think there is a huge problem with the ‘rentier’ class in New Zealand whereby people are taking massive and disproportionate unearnt economic gains at the expense of people and business. The problem with discussions on this topic is that people use the catch-all ‘wealthy’ or ‘1%’ that really does not distinguish ‘how’ the money was made. Then you get hard working people/business owners/lucky/successful or whatever standing up and saying “thats not fair”.

    The systemic problems we have are not that people are not earning a ‘living wage’ in my opinion. The problem is that people need so much money to live, and the reason for that is systemic. If I work 40 hours and everyone else works 30 hours for the same wages for instance then I have the ability to put aside money to save. However if everyone else chooses to work 40 hours then the majority of the increase goes to the rentier classes. I think you really show how much the rentier classes have gained disproportionately vs the rest of society with the chart showing the increase in rent.

    Doing things like starting a business, or starting a band requires the ability essentially to work for oneself. The more you work for the benefit of others the less you can work for yourself. Essentially by crushing a lot of the dreams of the younger generations under the weight of this massive cost of living rise is the equivalent to eating the seed corn — incredibly stupid. Imagine the gulf between where we could have been had we not had this short-sighted approach to practically everything and where we are now. Right now we have an economic system that eats children, and children are supposed to be the future.

      1. Oh yes I remember that one now. I really liked it.

        I like the alternative perspectives offered here because of the deep systemic thinking that goes into a lot of the blog posts. It makes me think of the excellent RSA animate by Ken Robinson about the failure of the British Labour party to solve problems. Politicians do policy on a topical level often, so more money for X, Y, Z, and it’s like they signal virtue by what they spend money on. I picked up a mindset from The Oil Drum that given the massive power of fossil fuels driving the economy it simply does not make sense that people work so hard to survive.

  5. As a musician who’s played the KA a couple of times, this is an interesting question to me. Somebody mentioned New Lynn as a possible new lo-rent music scene and the beginnings thereof have already begun, around UFO in Veronica Street. But on the other hand, the article seems to concentrate especially on rock bands, which need space and noise-tolerance for drum kits. The northern English city of Leeds spawned a plethora of bands who sidestepped that problem by using drum machines (the Sisters of Mercy, the March Violets etc). So perhaps dance/electronic musicians don’t need the space, though they still need the low rents?

    1. Henderson has been spawning bands for decades……Zeal and the Corban Arts Centre are great youth hubs for this…….I’m surprised a “scene” never really eventuated. Probably the Trusts liquor licenses may have hindered this creating a lack of live music venues.

      South Auckland always seemed to be more hip hop orientated than rock band orientated, while the shore has spawned quite a few bands of all ilks……….It makes me wonder is low rent really the catalyst? There seems to be a good support networks if not a large amount of live music venues.

      Innovative businesses on the other hand probably do need that low rent to allow experimentation as the facilities may not be available .

  6. I think the issue extends beyond musicians. There are a lot of callings in life where you don’t make much money. Artists are a good example where most do it for love rather than for riches. You could probably plot the cheaper cities of the western world against the output of artists. Paris in the 1890’s and again after WWI, New York in the 1950’s and 60’s as other people went west or to the suburbs, Berlin in the 1990’s. All artists need somewhere cheap to live and work. But maybe also when there are not many other opportunities perhaps more people turn to art.

  7. Tech startups are easier.
    They just need very small footprint of floor space to put a desk and computer.

    Music would be harder, as the venue needs to be bigger.
    There is actually a lot of council owned spaces which is under utilized, such as community centre and art-centre.

    It would be great if musicans and bands can book the area for free

  8. Interesting angle on the housing affordability debate Peter. Affordable floor space for whatever purpose (housing, business, community…) is currently Auckland’s biggest problem. This is usually framed as a renters or first home buyers problem. But of course it also affects businesses too, such as the the local music scene as Peter describes. Firstly, it can directly affect them by increasing the cost of their premises. Secondly, if households are paying more for housing then there is less to spend on whatever goods and services they are offering. Thirdly, high housing costs can increase wage demands or create recruitment difficulties.

  9. In previous times cities expanded out with plenty of zoned land and good motorways – leaving the low cost accom in the centre of town. I had a flat in Ponsonby in the early 80’s and the 2016 inflation adjusted rent would be $70 for a huge room in a house on half an acre of land facing north with harbour views.

    The compact city movement has changed all this – and like turkeys voting for Xmas, the victims are the type of people who are supporting this flawed model. Bands. start-ups, students and the lower paid are all priced out of the inner city now.

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