The community hall is a staple of small town New Zealand. In nearly every rural town of size, you can expect to find a hall as surely as you’d find a dairy or a paddock.
Town halls were built to serve as the hub of the town: the community gathered in the hall for church services. Often local schools used the hall for activities or classes. Clubs, committees, and political parties used the community hall to gather and hold meetings.
With the ubiquity of the internet, and the shift of populations towards larger cities, the town hall has had it’s once pivotal role as a hub reduced. But it’s in the midst having a musical resurgence.
Jamie Macphail is the founder of Small Hall Sessions, an organisation that produces live music gigs in town halls all across the Hawke’s Bay. It’s borne from Macphail’s Sitting Room Sessions (live music gigs that took place in people’s living rooms), and took off in 2021 when Macphail began booking shows in community halls around Hawke’s Bay.
“During the first Lockdown, I was really questioning everything that I was doing,” says Macphail.
“And I think like lots of people, I really felt as if we were going to emerge from Lockdown into a changed world. It felt quite profound at the time.”
Macphail has worked “on the periphery” of the music industry for years, in radio and as a producer on live shows, but it was only with the Sitting Room Sessions that he cut his teeth on live music promotion.
“The live music industry in New Zealand is such a small one at the moment,” remarks Macphail. “[Musicians] chat to somebody else who chats to somebody else, and word spreads relatively quickly. And the same is happening with the Small Halls. I'm getting so many artists contacting me saying ‘hey, this is a dream, we would love to do one, how do we negotiate this?’”
The music business has changed significantly in the last few decades, and the vast majority of these changes don’t always support those that make the music.
Streaming platforms mean there’s less money going direct to the artists from record sales. Not to mention recorded music was invented just 100 years ago. Listening to music has becoming an increasingly insular experience.
Nowadays, artists make their money from touring the music they stream. But the costs of producing a national (let alone, international) tour are expensive. Playing shows isn’t necessarily a lucrative endeavour – unless you’ve broken through into the global mainstream.
“I think the joy of hearing live music is something that lots of people have forgotten about,” says Macphail.
“[People] might pay $1,000 for a weekend in Auckland to see Elton John, but it's not really in the modern consciousness - for the vast majority of our population - to pay to see people make music. For me, the ultimate way to hear music is live.”
Macphail is deliberate on how he books artists, and pushes to get artists paid.
“They pay a set fee, and I cover all their expenses,” he explains. “I bring them to Hawke's Bay, I give them really nice accommodation here, they get a per diem, they get paid every night. It's risk free for the artists.
“In this day and age, it’s really appealing [for artists] to know that they're going to get ‘x’ amount of money for five days' work.”
The result – of playing five shows in various small halls around Hawke’s Bay – is that artists can actually expand their listener base through the Small Hall Sessions.
“I tend to do a bit of a straw poll at each gig and ask, how many of you knew [the artist] before you came here,” says Macphail. “And the result is always less than half. [The audience] is there because they're expecting good music; they're not there because they're a fan of that artist.”
The Wellington Sea Shanty Society at Waimarama Memorial Hall, Credit: Andrew Caldwell of Ankh Photography.
And although audiences might not know the musicians, they are there to listen. That’s the ethos of the Sessions: to listen.
The halls are, well, small – which means audience chatter can carry, so people are more likely to listen to the musicians’ playing. The Sessions’ staff even wear shirts bearing an apt Dylan Thomas quote, from Under Milk Wood: “Hush…Listen.”
“That's a lovely thing for a lot of artists who aren't necessarily used to that,” smiles Macphail, “because they're often playing in bars and clubs.”
For the artists themselves, the Small Hall Sessions are a refreshing break from the mundanity of touring life. Halls represent a town's history and its people, and the Sessions perfectly encapsulate both entities, in the name of music and community.
“We live in a world where everything is getting more uniform, less local, and less special,” says American singer-songwriter, Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls, who played shows at Haumoana Hall in Hawke’s Bay and eventually produced a circuit of shows with Macphail on Waiheke Island.
“Big box stores replacing the local dairy, Starbucks replacing the local coffee shop, Amazon replacing the local bookseller. This sort of anti-progress kills humanity's heart. We need small places to meet, to commune, to feel, to explore our feelings, to grieve, to celebrate.”
Along with Palmer, dozens of musicians and bands have played Small Hall Sessions, including Finn Andrews (The Veils), Jackie Bristow, Delaney Davidson, Julia Deans, and many more.
For communities, the halls are being reinstated as the gathering place of the town.
When Macphail was growing up in Hawke’s Bay, the hall in his town - Pukehou Hall - housed the community’s clubs, unions, church, and school. That spirit of gathering remains at the very core of the Small Hall sessions: that desire to bring communities together.
“With a lot of these halls, often they'll have meetings about flood protection schemes or riparian planting programmes or pest control,” Macphail muses. “And that's what the halls get used for.
“But for [people] to actually be able to come along to the hall to have fun and see their mates from down the road – it gives people a reason to gather and offer something that they wouldn't normally experience.”
Hall operators see the benefits too.
Jonathan Stockley from Maraekakaho Hall (just west of Hastings) sees the Sessions as adding value to the community and the halls themselves.
“Jamie’s sessions bring amazing artists to really small and out-of-the-way communities where, very often, the village hall is the hub of the community. The sessions are so valuable for bringing our community members together and for bringing new people to see our historic building and share the joy of Jamie’s evenings.”
Macphail makes every Small Hall Session special. He sets up lights and brings a branded pop-up bar to every hall.
“The idea for a community that there's going to be a really nice little bar is quite appealing in itself. There aren’t pubs on every corner, so people are able to have a night out, have a couple of drinks. It's no great effort for them.”
Julia Deans at Maraekakaho Hall, Credit: Andrew Caldwell of Ankh Photography.
“To see our halls transformed and hosting nationally recognised artists also brings a real sense of pride to the community,” agrees James Macphee from Raukawa Community Hall (a small rural hall just south of Maraekakaho).
Each community hall is different, yet each hall holds generations of history.
The architecture varies between halls, as does the size and the location (some halls are incredibly rural, whereas others are situated in slightly larger towns). But in every hall is a shared history - and in every shared history, the roots of a community.
“There's something so important about space and scale and lighting, and wooden structures that tell an old story to the people who know the land and the history of a place,” says Palmer.
Macphail hints at expansion to other regions of Aotearoa, but knows expanding the scope will mean more travel and less control over the finished product.
“I get really paternal about the idea. If I was choosing to expand, I'd want to be really involved with it. I love the idea of taking it further, exploring more halls, but I have no idea how that's going to be viable.”
The solution, Macphail hopes, may just reveal itself in time. In the meantime, the connection between community halls, musicians, and the communities all around Hawke’s Bay is being reinvigorated.
“These halls were purpose-built to host that most important aspect of human community, and they've gotten cobwebbed over,” says Palmer.
“Bringing them back will be like planting trees where a forest has been razed. Everything changes when you add music to a town.”