Death of a newspaper

March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments

capital times edit

The presses are to stop rolling for Wellington’s Capital Times and it is a moment for reflection. For as long as I have been a Wellingtonian, the free weekly newspaper has been taking the city’s cultural and social pulse. After 38 years, it more than qualifies as an inner city institution but there’s little room for sentiment in the economics of the digital age.

In matters of the life and death of a small, hard scrabble newspaper, nostalgia makes little difference if advertising revenue is tanking and last week, the owners of the Capital Times announced they had decided to call it a day. They could see no glimmer of an upswing for the paper and they are right.

The newspaper’s editor, Niels Reinsborg, says rival community publications owned by APN and Fairfax are slashing advertising rates by up to 50 per cent. While advertising remains steady at the Capital Times, revenue is down and costs are up.  The owners think the situation is not sustainable and the prognosis is not healthy. It simply doesn’t make sense to keep going.



The news has sadden many of its contributors and readers. Its long standing film reviewer, Dan Slevin, is disappointed. He thinks there’s a few more years left in newspaper that has carved a niche for itself as a metro giveaway with a heavy focus on the arts and entertainment scene. But even he agrees that the end will have to come – if not sooner than certainly later.

The end of the Capital Times – which has a circulation of 20,000 and a staff of eight – is another signpost on the breakneck road between traditional news business models and the increasingly digital, mobile, touchscreen, app driven world of publishing. Advertising is shifting online or being divided between the old and the new, making for a smaller pie from which all newspapers are trying to take a bigger slice out of. Caught in an advertising war for fewer dollars, the Capital Times was becoming increasingly vulnerable.

Factor in a wider business environment characterised by recession, job insecurity, redundancies, cautious consumer spending and a retail and hospitality sector that is, by and large, also pinching, and it all makes for a confluence of gloom for newspapers.

Advertisers are less reliant on newspaper advertising. They are learning that it is free to use social media and peer to peer sharing through online social networks. All of this makes it extremely difficult to keep a marginal, independent community publication going for longer when doing so would be postponing the inevitable.

While many publishers are attempting to future proof their publications by moving their content to the web, they are still baffled by how to make money from their online publications. Newspaper and magazine publishing is currently trapped in a kind of limbo between hard copy and digital and it is going to take deep pockets to persevere until the online rewards are realised.  The business model that works for a 24 page free community paper isn’t the same as for a local community news website that relies on volunteers, subscribers and donors to keep its costs down and augment any advertising it can attract.

By and large, the bells are tolling for the newspaper industry. It has been in a sunset phase for some time now.  It joins CD shops, postal deliveries, video game parlours, travel agencies, book and video shops in the endangered category. In the years ahead, we will be mourning the extinction of many animal species as habitat loss and poaching take their toll on the last wild Sumatran tiger or black rhino. To this melancholy list, we are also seeing the end of days for many brick and mortar businesses – to which I add newspapers. And that is cause of reflection.

The last edition of the Capital Times will hit the streets on April 10.


Forever dolphin love

March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

Dolphins as seen from Oriental Bay. Photo by Steven Wong aka @winesentience.

Dolphins as seen from Oriental Bay. Photo by Stephen Wong aka @winesentience.

As news stories go, it wasn’t supposed to be much of a news story. Word on Twitter this week was that a huge pod of dolphins was churning its way around Wellington harbour. The Radio New Zealand news room ignored it because it is radio without pictures and, anyway, dolphins come into the harbour at least once a year on the hunt for schools of fish. I wouldn’t call them a common sight but you could say they are a regular sight.

But in no time at all, the Wellington twitterati was cooing with pleasure as more and more people from vantage points in office blocks overlooking the water witnessed the massive pod of up to 100 bottlenose dolphins turn the inner harbour into a banquet. They laboured their way in front of the skyscrapers that lined Jervois Quay like a peloton in a road cycle race and Twitter was positively radiating delight at the sight.

I could just make out the pod from a window on the third floor of the eastern side of Radio New Zealand House before it ploughed across to the Overseas Terminal and Oriental Bay. There they lingered a while, casting a spell in glorious sunshine in front of hundreds of Wellingtonians on the waterfront.  This was happening on a superlative summer afternoon – the latest in an unbroken series of beautiful days in what forecasters are calling the sunniest summer in a lifetime and longer.

There are photos from the Scoop team here and there’s raw video from TV3 here.

Twitter transmitted the excitement to those of us trapped in our workplaces. All the while I was thinking what an endorsement this was for our city, for the cleanliness of the water in the harbour and for their status as a protected species, that this unusually large visitation by one of the most recognisable ambassadors of the wild oceanic world should feel so at ease and at home so close to us.

If you’re wondering where the headline came from, here’s a video of the inspiration – Forever Dolphin Love by New Zealand’s own Connan Mockasin.

Cuddly Grizzly Bear

November 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Grizzly Bear play the State Opera House.

Grizzly Bear play the Wellington State Opera House. Photo courtesy of @fantalefm.

Grizzly Bear is an anomaly and I mean that in a really good way. The band from New York gets called indie rock but given how its music confounds and transgresses the rules of so much that is stereotypical about rock, that label does it a disservice and blinkers the sparkling music it makes.

There were times last night when Grizzly Bear sounded a bit like the Fleet Foxes, or 70s progressive rock, or abstractly jazzy with elements of Kurt Weill thrown in. But none of these tangential references are really remotely accurate. Grizzly Bear sound like Grizzly Bear and there’s no one else around who can come close to what these guys are doing.

Many bands have gifted and talented singers – think Radiohead, The National, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, Lawrence Arabia, Phoenix Foundation – but how many have an embarrassment of riches like Grizzly Bear with three fine vocalists interchanging and harmonising?

They are multi-instrumentalists too, adding textures with flute, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, lap steel and piano. It is rock music that sounds like nothing and everything, a hypnotic pop sensitivity that shifts from swagger to dreaminess in a heartbeat, and there’s nothing else to do but surrender to the swelling drama of the music.

I had a deep feeling the band would make its weirdly idiosyncratic albums sound even better on stage and that’s exactly how it happened. Grizzly Bear is a different animal live – so adept at changing the mood and feeling of a song. Heard in the flesh, the music is taut and elastic and it sounded pristine in a venue that celebrates its 100 anniversary next year. Seeing artists play at the State Opera House sells itself but when it happens to be musicians of this kind of calibre, the whole experience becomes exquisite.

Grizzly Bear last night played songs mainly from its most recent albums, Shields and Veckatimest. Songs like Two Weeks, Ready Able, Yet Again, Gun Shy, Half Gate swooped and soared while A Simple Answer came chugging out majestically, showing just why these guys are currently so highly cherished by fans and critics everywhere.

Part of the anomaly that is Grizzly Bear is that it sounds like a cult indie band but one that smashed the charts when its second to last album, Veckatimest, soared to eighth on the Billboard 200 charts in 2009.

Grizzly Bear is so hot right now. There’s a rare chemistry at work here – not the kind that creates an explosion but the kind that makes rare, swirling colours. It was such an extraordinary treat to see the band play Wellington for its first time. It helps that Grizzly Bear comes across as a band of friends who are enjoying a long moment in the sun and as long as that moment lasts, there’s so much to love about these five guys from Brooklyn.

I took some video. The first one (Yet Again) is only 17 seconds long because one of attendant Nazis rushed over to tell me to stop. The second one (Two Weeks) was done guerilla-style and it shows but at least the sound is clear.

A night with Lawrence Arabia and his big band

July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

It was hipster heaven at the Wellington State Opera House on Sunday night. Many of those gathered to watch Lawrence Arabia play songs from his new album, The Sparrow, wore their badges of hipster cool. They had come to see one of New Zealand’s brightest (and coolest) indie pop artists.

From the beginning, we could see this was going to be no normal rock gig. A big stage, four string instruments and a bolstered brass section had been commissioned to add nuance and subtlety to Arabia’s songs – textures that might have gone missing in a more conventional Wellington rock venue like the San Francisco Bathhouse or the Bodega.

It was a carefully chosen list of songs, representative of all three Lawrence Arabia albums but picked for active listening and less for dancing. The lighting was muted, the mood was atmospheric and the music was angelic.

Lawrence Arabia plays songs about unrequited love, requited love, best friends, former best friends and nostalgia for ships that pass in the night. The highlights included the drama filled The Crew of the Commodore, the heartbreaking Look Like A Fool and the ironic Talk About The Good Times.

But to call the show wistful and mournful would be to do Lawrence Arabia – real name James Milne – an injustice. I defy anyone to find a better exponent of writing perfect pop hooks, and, as if to make this point, he and the band played Apple Pie Bed as if to break up the show’s languid, graceful tempo.

For me, the night peaked with Dream Teacher, the last song on his second album, Chant Darling. It filled the cavernous space with fragile harmonies and made us grin about what could only be an autobiographical portrait of Milne’s infatuation with a teacher from his school aged days. I only wish I had captured it on my Flip recorder. But I did manage Early Kneecappings, an ominous sounding song from the new album.

The crowd could have been bigger and Milne and the band deserved better, even on a rainy, wintry, Sunday night in Wellington. Days before, I had been warned by a phone call from an Opera House staffer who was calling to advise those of us who had bought seats in the dress circle that it had been decided to create a more intimate show in general seating. In other words, it wasn’t going to be a sell out. But Milne was gracious as he thanked the fans from the “capital of culture” for making the trip to see him.

The videos here are nothing special. I was too distant from the stage to get close images and the lighting was subdued. But the sound is pretty good – a tribute to the wonderful arrangements and an excellent sound engineer. For posterity’s sake, it’s a partial record of an enthralling show by a New Zealand artist who continues to find new peaks to scale in his pursuit of musical adventure and brilliance.

After a two song encore, as the crowd at hipster central broke up and floated home, we were all left to reflect on how we could have stayed all night, if Lawrence Arabia had let us.

St Rupertsberg say goodbye to their drummer

October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

St Rupertsberg said goodbye to their drummer last night. She’s leaving to go overseas and now there’s a cloud over the band’s future. For the time being, St Rupertsberg have no drummer and it may be a while before we see them play again.

In the meantime, there will be no long waits for them to come on stage, like the night Kate and Wills became married. It will also mean no songs about tsars, creatures from the deep, having sex in parks and cemeteries, decaying middle European countries and New Zealand summers. At least, until they find another drummer.

Rock and roll history tells us that rock bands split up, get into booze, drugs and sex, egos get out of control and it all ends badly. I’d hate for that to happen to St Rupertsberg. We’d miss their late night starts, the clothing themes (they wore stripey dresses last night and a month ago it was dungarees) and the unabashed fun of seeing them play.

In the medium to long term, the odds of St Rupertsberg staying together are not good. The history of rock music tells us that. Ambitions and life plans are not shared equally. It must be difficult to keep eight individuals focused on a single mission especially through the struggle years of suffering for art.

If the sisters of St Rupertsberg are here for a short time, we will remember it as a good time, a lucky time. In the future, I hope many of you will kick yourselves with regret for failing to have seen the great St Rupertsberg at their peak, before its talented young members got sidetracked by life and work and travel and being mature and boring.

But when that time comes, we will have a sheaf of perfectly formed pop songs and blurry YouTube memories of St Rupertsberg, back in their day.

The three songs featured here are I’m So Fucking Goddamned Lonely, In Albania and Summer Jams. Their five song Seasonal Glimpse EP can be bought here. St Rupertsberg also have a Facebook page and a MySpace page.

St Rupertsberg are Hera Bird, Isobel Cairns, Catherine Henehan, Miriam Nelson Clark, Thomasin Sleigh, Sarah Smyth, Kate Uhe and Kate Whelan. There’s a rumour circulating that they are all librarians. This is untrue. Only one of them is.

The Phoenix Foundation play the Fan Zone

October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Back in their hometown after two European tours in one year, the Phoenix Foundation’s most recent show on the Wellington waterfront as part of the city’s Rugby World Cup festivities reminded me just how lucky we are in Wellington that they continue to do what they do.

The Phoenix Foundation is one of Wellington’s treasures. They’ve released four wonderful albums, contributed to a couple of film soundtracks, made a few EPs and been a constant cultural organism in the city’s musical fabric for over ten years.

Singer and guitarist Luke Buda told me the day after the show that the group had played 50 concerts in 2011, as many as the band had played in the previous four years. They were disappointed by the small but faithful crowd of about 400 that showed up to see them play the Fan Zone but it was a weeknight and the publicity had been ramshackle.

It didn’t matter to those of us who were there. The Phoenix Foundation is back among their first fans and the music shimmered across the waterfront while the wind stayed away and the stars sparkled.

There are many better quality videos of the group to be found on YouTube and elsewhere but for a little while at least, these videos I took of them on a still and clear Thursday night on the harbour’s edge will be the most recent.

For the record, the videos were made with a Flip video recorder – high definition on a small screen and fuzzy on a larger one.

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