From cutting their teeth there as a young musician to now managing the joint, Abi Symes's leading role at long-standing Palmerston North venue The Stomach is a full circle moment.
“If a young Abi was told they would one day be the Manager of the Stomach, I never would have believed it!,” laughs Abi Symes (above) infectiously.
“The first show I ever played was here and it was a massive deal as a young acoustic artist finding my feet.”
Symes’ passion for Palmerston North and The Stomach’s crucial role in its music community is evident.
No stranger to the local music scene, Symes worked as the breakfast host for Massey University's student radio station Radio Control for four years, before pivoting into youth work and being a teacher aid.
In 2022, Symes became The Stomach’s Community Outreach Coordinator, a new role made possible by funding from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
“I thought, ‘this feels right’.”
The position marked a welcome return to the music scene for Symes but it wasn’t long before they were shoulder tapped by Harry Lilley for the role of manager.
“I was having a great time in that role and then Harry said he was leaving! I asked him who's going to be the new Manager and he said ‘I think you should do it. You know the roots of this organisation, you know what we’re here for and what our purpose is’.”
Symes says they have "extremely large shoes to fill."
They add “Harry’s left us with really good relationships with our funders and the community.
“We’re in a really good place as an organisation at the moment.”
Ask anyone who’s run a music venue in provincial Aotearoa and they’ll tell you - it’s hard enough just keeping the doors open.
With rent increases, unwieldy punters and - in more recent years - a pandemic and cost of living crisis to contend with, few music venues in New Zealand last beyond 15 years, let alone 35.
But The Stomach is far from your average music venue…
Established in 1988 ‘by punks just wanting a space to express themselves’, The Stomach has evolved into an all-ages, alcohol-free live music venue - doubling as a rehearsal space and recording studio with state-of-the-art equipment at community rates. Run by non-profit organisation Creative Sounds Society, the venue’s strong focus on affordability and accessibility has made it a Palmerston North institution.
Symes is keenly aware of the venue’s legacy and kaupapa.
This is a space to come and make as much noise as you want and feel like you can be your full, authentic self.
“For me, at the end of the day, we’re almost like a social service.
“We provide so many pillars of te whare tapa whā (the four cornerstones of Māori health). It’s this sort of wrap-around service with creativity which leads to spirituality but also community connection… Connection with music, connection with other artists and connection to the space itself.”
As well as sustaining the legacy of the space, Symes is focused on welcoming a new generation of rangatahi to The Stomach.
This means connecting with young people who might be making amazing music in their bedrooms and finding out what they need from the space.
“Music’s changing, technology’s changing - but we’re still here.
“It’s about getting people through the door and having buy-in from other young people. If they see their friends doing it, they’ll want to support them.
“I just really want them to be able to use the space like I did growing up.
“35 more years? Let’s do it!”
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