It was with a heavy heart that I read the recent news that HMV - the record store chain that has been for so long a mainstay of the British high street - had gone into administration, its future as a viable business hugely uncertain. In many ways, it had done well to cling on this long, its core offering of music and video having been gnawed away at inexorably over the past decade by a technology revolution that has seen computers and portable devices become the dominant platforms for at-home and on-the-go entertainment. The story resonated with me acutely, not just because of my nostalgia for an institution I grew up with, but because the shift in the way I myself consume music has paralleled, and even contributed towards, HMV’s sad demise.
As a music-hungry teenager whose general philosophy on shopping was to spend as little time doing it as possible, HMV was one of the few places in a city centre where I could happily spend hours (not to mention cash), propping myself up against listening posts and rifling through CD racks in the hunt for exciting new sounds. Of course, unashamed music snob that I am, I would always prefer an independent record store if I could find one, but as the years went by and digital formats began to steal an ever greater share of the market, HMV became in many towns the only place outside of the supermarkets where you could buy the latest releases on a Monday morning. For older albums and records by alternative acts, it was often the only choice consumers had.
For a long time, I clung staunchly to physical editions when buying albums, even though I’d begun to listen to most of my music digitally through my iPod or laptop. I felt great pride watching rows of CDs accumulate over time into a whole wall of music in my living room, each album a marker of a particular moment in my life, imbued with memories of where and when I bought it, and the feelings running through me when I first heard its songs blast out from my speakers. Closer up, I loved the tactile nature of CDs: iconic sleeves from history and modern artwork grappling for iconic status; the linear notes with details of the cast who created and honed each work; the latter era digipacks and bespoke casings that vied to capture the physicality and collectability of old vinyl.
Through many a change in my life and at a cumulative expense I daren’t now contemplate, I amassed a music collection that stopped guests in their tracks when entering the room and seeing an entire wall scaffolded by shelf upon shelf of CD spines. It became my own little record shop and I must have spent a thousand evenings in my mid-20s obsessively perusing its plastic treasures and spinning songs into the wee small hours.
It was something of a wrench, then, when I came to ponder moving to New Zealand, as I knew straightaway that there wouldn’t be a chance in hell that I’d be able to take my collection with me - not unless I wanted to spend a minor fortune shipping it half way round the world in cardboard boxes anyway. Of course, such expense could not be justified, even for a staunch music traditionalist like myself, and I quickly realized that I would be forced, at long last, to embrace wholeheartedly the modern age and rely henceforth solely on compressed digitalised versions of all my singles and albums.
In the end, my collection was packed – geekily ordered by artist and by decade - into boxes, but rather than being taped up and carted off to an Oceania-bound cargo ship, they were loaded into a van and taken back to my family home to gather dust until such time as I could be reunited with them. For sentimental reasons, I did choose to take one item with me on my travels: my complete box set of remastered Beatles albums, a discography so perfect that it alone out of all oeuvres could keep me sane on a desert island in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.
Inevitably, once the spell had been broken and circumstances consigned me to an MP3-only future, I never looked back. With the tactile pleasures of my thousand-strong CD collection a fast-fading memory, I began to do regularly what I’d previously reserved for one-off tracks and new single releases: download music from the iTunes store. At first it felt uncomfortable, the ability to source any album I could conceive at the mere click of a mouse button feeling almost uncomfortably easy. And those incidental pleasures of the physical album – like the first slipping of an inlay booklet out of a cover tray and the obsessive pouring over lyrics and production credits – were suddenly gone, making the experience of a new record all about the music and nothing else.
I had not entirely given up on CDs though. While my primary outlet for music shopping was now the internet rather than HMV, happy memories of the good old fashioned record store were vividly reawakened by Auckland’s Real Groovy, an emporium of both new and second records, as well as myriad memorabilia of rock ‘n’ roll past and present. If only the CDs here weren’t so prohibitively expensive, I might even have bought one, but these days the only physical albums I do still buy are box sets whose lovingly designed packaging and unique special features provide significant value beyond the music.
Like the UK though, record shops are few and far between in New Zealand. Where music is really starting to thrive here is on the live circuit, where an ever increasing catalogue of bands from distant parts of the Earth are finally starting to wake up to the opportunities of the Kiwi market. In the past - and still today for certain tours - international bands would often trot the globe all the way to Australia, only to turn round and fly back to the northern hemisphere without so much as a chord struck for little old New Zealand. When The Cure, one of my all-time favourite acts, played a three night residence in Sydney where they built whole evenings around some of their most revered albums, it was a case of ‘so close, but so far’.
But over the past two and a half years I have managed to see more bands in New Zealand than I would have thought possible when I said a sad farewell to my much-loved London gig scene in 2010. Morrissey. Radiohead. New Order. Portishead. The Smashing Pumpkins. These are just some of the iconic groups that have played concerts at Auckland’s Vector Arena in recent times, categorically debunking the assumption of some friends back home that no band of any serious note would ever come to New Zealand. Only last week, The Stone Roses, recently reformed after a 16 year hiatus and still in the early stages of feeling their way back into the UK public’s consciousness, touched down on Kiwi soil for a triumphant evening of late 80s nostalgia at Vector.
For a venue that from the outside looks far better suited to basketball or ice hockey than live rock music, Vector has proven to be a surprisingly accommodating domain for the bands I’ve been blessed enough to see perform there. With crisp acoustics and a movable stage that can turn a cavernous, cathedral-sized arena into an almost intimate setting, the gigs I’ve attended there have boasted a sound and atmosphere that many similar venues in the UK would struggle to achieve.
Good though Vector is, I do tend to feel more at home in smaller, cosier gig venues where I can get up close to a band and see the sweat of a hundred moshing bodies trickling down the walls. Auckland’s answer to this brief is Mount Eden’s The Powerstation, the closest New Zealand has to a Brixton Academy or London Astoria.
In my time here, The Power Station has played host to many well-known and critically acclaimed acts from across the world, including some groups who could pack out stadiums with ten times the capacity back home. One such band was Elbow in March last year, only a couple of months before their sleeper anthem ‘One Day Like This’ became the de facto soundtrack to the London Olympics. There was something special about seeing a band from my home country perform so far from the shores where we both grew up, Guy Garvey’s chirpy northern banter cutting a line straight back to Manchester through the largely Kiwi crowd’s chatter.
Smaller still is possibly my favourite of all the music venues in NZ – the King’s Arms in Newton, which is not only a landmark of local rock ‘n’ roll history, but also one of the few pubs in Auckland with a decent outdoor beer garden. In 2012, the endearingly jangly Real Estate graced its stage not long after releasing one of the best indie albums of recent years, the critically acclaimed ‘Days’. A band built for venues like the King’s Arms, their chiming guitars and lolloping bass lines filled this tiny space with a summery sound that had the whole crowd grooving appreciatively along.
I feel a little guilty for not paying more attention to local acts here, but festivals like the Auckland Anniversary Weekend alternative festival Laneways provides a great opportunity to check out the best of New Zealand music as well as visiting bands from overseas. Now in its fourth year, Laneways has never been the best organized of events and this year, for a second year running, murmurs of discontent sounded early when the supposedly VIP portaloos flooded and the entire site’s supply of beer ran out a little after 8pm, well before the main headline acts had got anywhere near the stage. My personal experience of the booze drought was particularly galling. I had queued in the supposedly queue-free VIP bar for well over half an hour – missing most of indie oddballs Yeasayer’s set in the process – only for the guy that I’d ordered four beers from to forget who he’d been serving and hand my drinks straight to a girl standing down the row from me. Feeling charitable, I let the moment pass, and re-ordered from another, sour-faced bartender, only to be informed curtly that the beer – at that very moment – had run out. Suddenly feeling the very opposite of charitable, I tried feebly to explain that her colleague had given the beers I’d ordered and queued patiently for to someone else, but my protestations were met only with a face that read “Do I give a f%^&?”.
It was fortunate, then, that the bands on the line-up were a little more inclined to crowd-please. While the highlights of the day were New Zealand’s very own rock chameleons The Phoenix Foundation and rising Aussie stars Tame Impala, whose thunderous White Album-era Beatles psych-rock provided the day with a rousing finale, my biggest cheers were reserved for my fellow Brit Natasha Khan - aka Bat For Lashes - whose stunning voice soared above the booze-fueled crowd with grace and drama.
While I still pine for the days when gigs were part of my weekly routine and I could wander down to the local newsagent on a Wednesday morning to pick up a freshly pressed copy of the NME, I’m far from bereft of musical entertainment in NZ and as long as my iPod continues to function (never a given from recent experience), my wall of albums in London at least remains accessible to me through my headphones. And I’d willing to bet that a decade or so from now, world touring bands will leave New Zealand out of their itineraries at their peril.