Planning Christchurch's new BeatBox
As part of a four-stop national tour in early October, much admired British troubadour Billy Bragg will perform a benefit gig at the Aurora Centre in Christchurch on Tuesday October 16, with proceeds from his show going towards Beatbox, an innovative new central city music rehearsal space being developed by the Christchurch Music Industry Trust. While the Bragg benefit show cash surplus may not represent a major portion of the Beatbox project’s proposed $550,000 budget, it does represent an important and potentially valuable endorsement from the international artist fraternity, as CHART chairman Neil Cox tells Richard Thorne.
When the PM and Christchurch earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee unveiled the ‘Blueprint’ plans for the rebuilding of Christchurch’s CBD at the end of June, the nation’s attention was drawn to grand scale plans for a metro sports facility, a 35,000-capacity covered sports arena and a 24,000sq m convention centre.
Christchurch’s beleaguered ratepayers received the inevitable bad news of their likely contribution a day or two later.
They went unreported, but somewhere in the document’s detail there was mention of ArtBox and Beatbox, two exciting new building projects planned for the city’s artist community. Situated on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, near CPIT’s Jazz School, each are low cost structures created with a steel frame cube (‘box’) concept developed by Christchurch company F3 Design.
Work has already started on ArtBox which should be completed by November, about when Neil Cox, chairman of the Christchurch Music Industry Trust (CHART), says they should be ready to start building Beatbox, a multi-space rehearsal facility they hope will also become a new central city musicians’ hub.
Asked to explain just what Beatbox will be, Cox (pictured above) instinctively harks back to 2006 when CHART was first established. He was an original CHART trustee and has headed the organisation’s board since 2008. Ahead of that he had an extensive international background in festivals and touring acts, and is currently GM of the earthquake-damaged Isaac Theatre Royal – which Sir Ian McKellen and The Flight of the Conchords have both gone out of their way to raise funds for in recent times.
“CHART was started six years a go by a bunch of industry people. We formed it really to represent the music industry in Christchurch and try to build it up again. That’s been a fantastic five years, CHART has supported a lot of new music and formed a relationships with a lot of the industry bodies nationally, so it had started putting Christchurch music back on the map. Then, of course, we had some earthquakes,” he ruefully laughs.
Pre-earthquakes, it was costing about $70,000 per annum to maintain the organisation. Annual grants from the Christchurch City Council and Canterbury Community Trust cover basics like salaries and office costs, with additional project funding coming from a variety of sources. Other consistent financial supporters have been APRA, Creative NZ, SmokeFree and CPIT.
“What we’d always wanted CHART to be was a self-sustaining industry body that wasn’t necessarily always reliant on funding. We always wanted it to move into a business model of some sort that could represent the industry in Christchurch and also report through the industry in the rest of the country, consulting with various other industry bodies covering music publishing and event promotions. “After February we not only lost a lot of venues and places where live music could be played, but we also lost places like storage facilities and garages, where musicians used to rehearse. There had never been a dedicated rehearsal studio as such in Christchurch anyway, and a lot of the remaining garages suddenly became storage places for people with broken stuff, or just weren’t safe.
“Through discussions with Jeff Fulton who was CHART’s manager at the time, and various others in the organisation, we thought that if we can do anything significant then CHART should really put a legacy into the city as well so we represent something that music needs to build on, from grass roots and ground level again.
“Of course one of most important things between writing and recording or playing it live, is rehearsing – probably one of the most important parts of developing an artist from the studio to the stage. So this idea of a dedicated rehearsal space came up but, to be honest, we didn’t know how to do it.”
Cox says that in October CHART applied to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust which, in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation, was offering grants up to $25,000 for youth-oriented projects.
The response was quick and very positive and soon the City Council called them in to discuss the plans, encouraging them to apply for more funding through the Christchurch Mayoral Fund, to which various corporations and individuals had been donating.
“We got $80,000 out of the Mayoral Fund and things sort of snowballed from there. Kent Gardener, who had worked with Neil Finn and other artists to raise funds in the UK, got in touch with us to help and that ended up in another $50,000 grant, so all of a sudden we had a real project that we could commit to.”
Initial thoughts were to take advantage of some of the plentiful disused warehousing space in the city, but Cox says the re-development costs were enormous.
“We then came across this company called F3 Design who had been designing these modular steel framed boxes. The planning then moved into alignment with ourselves and Martin Trusttum, from CPIT, and a project he had been working on with F3 called ArtBox.”
ArtBox will provide exhibition and retail space for Christchurch artists, craft practitioners and design retailers who have lost workspace and outlets. Closely linked to CPIT, the ArtBox project has attracted over $100,000 funding to date. For F3, the ArtBox project in effect meant developing a whole new construction system. They describe their welded steel framed boxes as essentially being like Lego bricks. The basic 2.9m cubes are scaleable, can be put alongside or on top of one another in almost any pattern, and decorated to suit.
“The idea has developed to a ‘BoxEd Quarter’ a site built up of these modular units that they wanted to be an innovative, creative hub, where various arts could all feed off each other,” Cox elaborates.
“That’s how Beatbox came around and we’ve been working with F3 since February now, developing this space to what our needs are.”
CHART surveyed local musicians to ascertain likely use, getting an enormously positive response. Initial plans were more grandiose and involved other partners (see image at bottom opposite), but the current design is for three rehearsal studios (two mid-size, one larger), plus office and entry spaces, in a single storey complex.
“We’re hoping to create this centre, and what it means is that as well as representing the local music industry, CHART can now move its activities to actually having a facility for the music community. We’re really excited about it, it’s exactly what we wanted to do and to provide something which is desperately needed.”
Further funding for the development of Beatbox has come from the Todd and Lion Foundations, bringing the total raised to date up to $300,000, of a targeted $550,000. Cox says that other applications in process at the moment are likely to satisfy that fundraising goal.
“The flexibility of the project is that if we only reach $450,000 then we will revert to two studios initially instead of three, but because it’s all modular and scalable – if we raise more we can add another one!”
Rather neatly, the so-called ‘BOXed Quarter’ including Beatbox will be on the site that Jetset Lounge (The Southlander Hotel) used to be before being damaged in the September quake, with Galaxy Records nearby. The land is owned privately, CHART will own the new building units and manage the facility. Cox says the fit out will take some time, with sound management a particular concern and requiring acoustic expert advice. “We hope we will have it open by April/May next year… everything is a bit of a crystal ball at the moment.”
The Billy Bragg benefit concert idea came from Bragg himself, something that Cox describes as being “… even more amazing” The hook up came through Vivian Lees, the ex-Big Day Out promoter who is touring him Downunder. Bragg apparently wanted to do something for Christchurch, Lees got in touch with CHART and the link was formed immediately.
“If the show sells out we will probably raise a few thousand, but it’s more about the international contact with what we are trying to do. Billy Bragg’s endorsement of the Beatbox idea will gain the facility some international recognition, for what it is and what it intends to do. For us it’s more about having that endorsement and that promotion opportunity within the international artist fraternity, and also then the national industry here.
“It’s almost like a patron [role] really for Beatbox as it comes out, and that is valuable to our overall plan so we are absolutely delighted. Also that Lindon Puffin is going to be the opening act on the tour. Lindon is a big fan of Billy and has been a real advocate of CHART and the Christchurch music industry for years.”