Like many people in Auckland’s musical community, I was saddened to hear the Kings Arms being announced as a Special Housing Area in April 2016. It was inevitable the site would be developed for apartments one day – it was too good a location, too underdeveloped as it was, and increasingly struggling with noise issues – but it was still sad for me.
The Kings Arms was bought by the Gordon family circa 1988 and became a music venue a few years later. For the last 15-odd years since I turned 18, it’s been the best music venue in Auckland for local bands, and many of the less-famous international bands. When I formed my first band in 2005, the KA was absolutely top of my list of places I wanted to play; we never made it to one of the coveted Friday or Saturday night slots, but even just playing there on a weeknight was amazing. The KA had (and still has) the best sound and the best stage.
The first gig I played at the Kings Arms was on 28 December 2005. This was just a few days after an awesome Japanese band called Guitar Wolf had played there. We were so excited. I got my aunt to take various ‘promo photos’ of us in the surrounding area. I really can’t remember why we thought a picture of us up a tree was a good idea.
I played there a few more times over 2006-2009, including this one in mid-2006 where I did a powerslide over to my amp (captured in the photo below, although obscured by that girl’s head), but forgot I was wearing ripped jeans. So that was essentially carpet burns on my knees, which was kind of painful but still worth it. As a poor student at the time, my car which I left parked on the road outside didn’t have a WOF, and I got a ticket, but I wrote a nice letter and was able to get it overturned. Good times.
My music career was short-lived, but I’ve been to more gigs at the Kings Arms than I can count in the years since. And I’ll keep going to them up until the KA shuts its doors for the last time in February.
The Special Housing Area announcement spawned a 6,500-signature petition, which vaguely said that “we got to do something” and called on Auckland Council to “save the Kings Arms”. However, as Russell Brown pointed out at Public Address, the Kings Arms was on private property – owned by the Gordon family who ran the bar – and any decision about it was essentially up to them.
There’s a lot of sadness in the music community at the Kings Arms closing, some misunderstanding, and some anger. I share the sadness, but I’m grateful for all the good times I’ve had there, that it survived as a bastion of live music for so long, and that I’ve had plenty of time to say goodbye. The KA isn’t going quietly into that good night; it’s going out in a blaze of glory, as it should. If you’re interested in getting to the Kings Arms before it closes, there are heaps of great shows in the next five weeks or so, covering a wide range of genres. Coming from a rock perspective, I heartily recommend the ones over Anniversary Weekend and a reunion show for The D4.
What comes next?
The Kings Arms building is from another era – a time when bars were huge, covering hundreds of square metres, often a beer garden too, and masses of carparking. It’s a rabbit warren of a building, with the main bar and beer garden, and a smaller sports bar which also has its own balcony. Then there are several flats upstairs, presumably a relic of the time when taverns often had on-site accommodation.
Overall, it’s a 2,114 square metre property, with about 680 square metres of floor space. Hardly an intense land use just outside the city centre. The carpark has space for at least 30 cars, and in all the years I’ve been to the Kings Arms I’ve never seen it full. There’s nothing special about the building, and it’s an underused site; the Kings Arms is special because of what goes on inside.
Like so many great venues before it, the Kings Arms property will have a new life, although the building itself will go – making way for around 100 apartments. We all know Auckland has a huge housing shortage, in the tens of thousands of homes, so we’d need hundreds of developments like this to make a dent in it. But every little bit counts.
How else could we get more gigs and have great nightlife in Auckland?
Live music venues have always struggled in Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand too it seems. The venues struggle to make a buck, and often close down within a few years. Just in the last decade, plenty have come and gone; most of the places I played in the mid-2000s aren’t live venues any more. The Kings Arms had a very good run.
For live music to work, people need to show up in large numbers, and keep coming back. In most cases, the venue is a bar and can only survive if people are spending money at the bar; in other cases, the venue and the musicians may have another arrangement to share the revenue. Either way, having a community of people who support live music is the first step. The same goes for any other performing arts.
The second step is having venues which are on good terms with their neighbours and surrounding properties. Noise complaints can disrupt gigs or even get them cancelled, and the best way to keep everyone happy is to avoid the situation in the first place.
Anyway, here’s what I’d like to see happen with Auckland live music:
- Good soundproofing. The Kings Arms poured tens of thousands of dollars into this, but they were disadvantaged from the start in a rickety old building where one of the major attractions was the ability to spill outside into the beer garden.
- Handle ‘reverse sensitivity’ issues better – maybe venues could get resource consents to let them go a little louder – or venues which predate surrounding homes could get more leeway, like Eden Park or Western Springs do. Maybe we could have an “entertainment district” where more noise is allowed.
- Don’t make gigs so bloody loud. People shouldn’t have to wear earplugs or stand twenty metres back to enjoy the music. That’s not just a I’m-getting-old rant; I was often embarrassed about the volume when I was playing gigs in the mid-2000s, and wanted people to be able to come up close without being deafened.
- Start gigs earlier in the evening, especially if it’s a weeknight. Local concerts in Auckland are notorious for starting late; shows can go well past midnight, and people have work the next day. By contrast, I went to a concert in London on a Wednesday night, where the main band was on shortly after 8 and finished by around 10. Caught the Tube home by 11. Everyone wins.
Honestly, I reckon the best thing Auckland could do to improve its live music scene would be starting those shows earlier. The potential audience is much larger if people know they can stay in town/ central after work, head to a gig, and still make it home for a decent night’s sleep.