What do garage bands and tech startups have in common?

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?

Midweek reading: Christchurch, record shops, and decaying infrastructure

I’m doing a smaller roundup of articles midweek due to a lack of time to write proper blog posts. Regular service will – hopefully – resume before much longer.

Let’s start with Christchurch. Rebecca Macfie writes (in the Listener) about what has been learnt in the five years since the Canterbury earthquakes. She highlights some lowlights:

Beyond that lie two large empty blocks that have been bought and cleared by Cera for a massive convention centre. The proposed complex was tagged by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee as one of the priority projects in the Crown’s 2012 masterplan for the rebuilt CBD. Like an economic defibrillator, it was to kickstart the central city economy.

“In the near term it will provide certainty and confidence to the private sector, encouraging private investors to accelerate the rebuild of central Christchurch,” he wrote in advice to Cabinet in 2013. Longer term, it will “leave a legacy of buildings, public spaces and activity that will help define the rebuilt Christchurch”.

Construction was to be completed by early 2017, according to an “indicative anchor project delivery schedule” published by Cera in late 2013. But there’s nothing here except a sullen grey expanse of gravel and broken concrete, ringed by security fences.

Duval, like everyone else in Christ­church (including Mayor Lianne Dalziel), wants to know what’s going on, but no one is telling.

“We’re starved of information, and that creates uncertainty,” he says.

Some big calls that now look like they may have been the wrong calls:

The centralisation of control of such an enormous and complicated recovery task in the hands of a new government department and its minister alarmed some international experts, who wrote to Prime Minister John Key in late 2011 urging change. Among the signatories were Doug Ahlers, a recovery expert from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Sir Richard Leese of the Manchester City Council, and Kit Miyamoto, a seismic engineer with extensive experience of post-disaster reconstruction.

Offering their experience from “similar-scale disasters in other parts of the world”, they called for a governance structure that allowed business, non-government and community sectors to be heard, and warned that the decision to demolish the majority of the CBD (including repairable buildings) would lead to higher costs, a loss of city identity and a slower recovery.

“I think I can say with confidence that this could be considered by some as being worst practice,” wrote Ahlers of the Cera structure.

And some highlights:

There have also been successes – the wonderful new playground, a user-friendly bus interchange, well-advanced construction of a justice and emergency precinct for multiple agencies and 2000 staff, and an emerging “innovation precinct” that will be home to Vodafone and Kathmandu. The emerging retail precinct, consisting of four major developments driven by long-established local investors Nick Hunt, Tim Glasson, Philip Carter and Antony Gough, is generating high hopes that the area around Cashel St will become a vibrant hub.

More than 85% of the $3 billion job to repair the city’s pipes, drains and roads has been done (although only to a patch-up standard, rather than “as new”). The innovative Scirt alliance (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) of big construction companies, local and central government is credited as a highly successful approach to getting through the horizontal infrastructure work.

New Zealand will have more natural disasters. Maybe not next year, and maybe not in my lifetime, but after all, we’re sitting on top of two shaky isles. So we need to learn from Christchurch’s experience, which means having an honest public conversation about what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong. I’ve been happy to see some challenging commentary popping up around the fifth anniversary of the quakes. May the conversation continue.

Closer to home, Gary Steel profiles Auckland’s Real Groovy record store on Audioculture – a vivacious survivor in an industry that’s undergone a few tectonic shifts over the last few decades:

As Auckland’s longest-running secondhand record store, Real Groovy has not only proved its most persistent critics wrong by surviving and prospering, but has also seen off nearly all of its competition in doing so.

Perhaps our most-loved record emporium, and the only one that bears serious comparison to California’s enormous Amoeba Music, Real Groovy has weathered a chequered past and a near-complete meltdown to revitalise itself as vinyl and music-related ephemera slowly overtake the mountains of unloved compact discs and DVDs.

Few of the busloads of daily browsers can know of this genuinely iconic shop’s beginnings up the road and around the bend from its famous location in Queen St, and it’s hard to picture just how a couple of guys with a tiny space on Mt Eden Rd could have transformed their used vinyl record shop into its current giant warehouse-like operation.

It’s been a while since I seriously spent a lot of time in a music shop – not because I’ve shifted to digital, but because I seem to have less time to seek out new music these days. But it wasn’t that long ago that visits to the big used record shops was a highlight of trips into town. There was – is – something great about browsing through big stacks of music without being totally certain about what you will find.

Cities are great in the same way: they’re big and varied, which means that it’s possible to be surprised by them. And without the element of the unexpected, what’s the point in living in the first place?

One thing that I am consistently surprised by, in cities, is the degree to which we’re willing to neglect them. Cities are, to use Ed Glaeser’s phrase, humanity’s greatest invention. But as Philip Kennicott points out in the Washington Post, American cities’ metro systems are currently undergoing shutdown because the systems were left to decay:

But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness.

That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.

Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.

Mid-century infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life all across the nation. But much of that Great Society infrastructure was a response to an earlier infrastructure that was, by the 1950s, reaching the end of its life. And the response then was to say: Let’s rebuild it, and let’s make it as beautiful as we can.

One of the things I appreciate about Auckland, right now, is that we are willing to invest in good design for public infrastructure. You can see that at new rail stations like Britomart and Panmure, where roofs and skylights have been designed to echo Auckland’s distinctive volcanic cones. You can certainly see it in the Pinkpath. Aesthetics don’t have an infinite value, but I’m glad that we’ve decided to assign them a non-zero value!

Sunday music: Talking Heads on cities

A blast from the past: the Talking Heads’ ode to urbanity, “Cities”. This is from the band’s fantastic concert film Stop Making Sense:

The Talking Heads emerged from 1970s New York. The city itself wasn’t doing so well at the time – like many other large American cities, it was struggling with deindustrialisation, white flight, and a crime wave. But it was a fantastic time and place to make music. Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were originating hip-hop; Television, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the Ramones were putting together punk rock.

People were swapping ideas and innovating. Things were happening. That’s what happens in cities.

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne realised how important urban places are to creativity. A few years ago, he wrote a great book about cities and streets, drawn from his experience touring all over the world and riding around cities on his folding bike – it’s called Bicycle Diaries.