The night before they played Raglan’s Yot Club and ended up hanging with legendary, inebriated members of the New Zealand national cricket team. The batsman Martin Guptill and the bowler Kyle Jamieson just happened to be at the venue and the proprietor of the place — “an absolutely classic New Zealand bloke,” Pearce explains, “shaggy hair, shorts, so loose” — made all parties hang out.
Pearce, the band’s guitarist and a huge cricket fan, was star-struck. “Jonathan didn’t stop smiling for 24 hours,” says Anthony Metcalf, the Beths tour manager. “He keeps looking at his phone with their photo on it and laughing. It felt like a good omen.” Adds Pearce, of the cricketers: “One of them was very complimentary to us. Whether or not he actually saw us play, I don’t know. But he was very complimentary.”
In any other year, this would be one of those goofy, throwaway tour stories. But in 2020, this is a globally unique anecdote. Because New Zealand is one of the only places in the world where musicians are touring. And the Beths are one of the only bands even able to collect goofy, throwaway tour stories.
“There’s a new appreciation, a sense of gratitude,” says Stokes, the Beths’ frontwoman. “We know how lucky we are to go out, hang out with friends, and watch live music.” To be playing live again is “nerve-racking,” she adds, “but it feels great. It feels amazing. I’m jinxing it. Anything can happen. Anything can happen! But it feels . . . pretty great.”
New Zealand is one of a handful of countries to have successfully curtailed community spread of the coronavirus, having been widely praised for its “go hard, go early” approach. In March, within weeks of its first reported cases, its borders were closed to travelers; a mandatory quarantine was instituted for all returning residents; and a lockdown began. With a population around 5 million, New Zealand has to date registered fewer than 2,000 cases of coronavirus and 25 deaths.
New Zealand also boasts an embarrassment of music talent. That ranges from small, scrappy, critically adored bands like the Beths to festival headliners like drum and bass act Shapeshifter, pop A-lister Lorde, arena rock unit Six60, and TikTok-fueled starlet Benee. The latter has just wrapped a tour during which she live-streamed a concert from the 12,000-person capacity Spark Arena. “That’ll be one of the only live streams [that’s not] someone alone in their living room,” Campbell Smith, who co-manages Benee, said a few days before the event. “You can see, in New Zealand, thousands of people jammed together at a concert, legitimately.”
Reuben Bonner, the director of the booking and management company Banished Music, is an organizer with Save Our Venues, a fundraising effort created early in New Zealand’s pandemic. The idea, he explains, was to help venues with things like rent and payroll. But Save Our Venues was ultimately needed only as a stopgap: In July, the government opened the NZ Music Venue Infrastructure Fund through which venues were eligible for up to $50,000 NZD (about $33,000 U.S.) of relief. Bonner says that workers at venues felt utterly vulnerable at first. “But it went quickly from ‘grim’ to ‘maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,’ ” he said.
In the United States, an organization called NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, was similarly formed early in the pandemic. NIVA has championed a bill called Save Our Stages, which would distribute $10 billion worth of relief grants. In September, the bill passed the House of Representatives as part of a larger congressional stimulus package. But with those stimulus negotiations sputtering in the Senate, there’s no indication that support for independent venues will come anytime soon. In a NIVA survey from September, 90 percent of respondents said that, without federal assistance, they won’t stay open six months.
“I talk to venue owners across the country every day,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, NIVA’s director of communications. “There is an underlying sadness that we don’t get to wake up and put on shows and see that mass communal experience. But that is not the prevailing sense. The prevailing sense is utter fear. How do you make your bills?” From Oct. 16 to 18, NIVA and YouTube presented an awareness-raising live-stream event, #SOSFest. The “presenting sponsor” was Bud Light Seltzer.
While New Zealand’s venues and bands don’t have to rely on the largesse of obscure beverage brands, their situation is far from ideal. By the end of their current tour, the Beths will have played 17 shows in their home country. Under normal conditions at that juncture, they would have likely played more than 60 lucrative international dates.
“Playing in the USA especially is good for our band,” Pearce says. “The good people of the USA like to buy T-shirts!” Financially, says Stokes, “It’s been a huge hit.” Adds Pearce, quietly, “I wouldn’t like to guess what the number is.”
Stokes estimates that in 2018, touring behind their debut album “Future Me Hates Me,” the Beths lost money. In 2019, they managed to break even. “And this year was looking good,” she says. “Like we might make a little bit of money. Which would have been nice.”
Stokes acknowledges the pain of having the band’s upward trajectory upended, but only briefly. “We’re really lucky to play in New Zealand,” she adds quickly. “It’s quite validating, in music — to feel like you are valued.” Says Pearce, “There’s an acknowledgment that you’ve been hit hard but that you are a viable enterprise.”
By mid-June, New Zealand’s lockdown had lifted enough to allow conditional live music. Venue capacity was limited to 100 people with everyone seated and table service only. Lukas Mayo, a.k.a. Pickle Darling, is a musician from Christchurch who’ll be supporting the Beths on tour. Once live music started up again, Mayo went to everything he could see in Christchurch. “Even if I don’t like the band, I’ve been going to shows,” he says. “Where else in the world are shows happening? It’s, like, everyone should go to every show!” By July, bookers were putting on, and selling out, stadium concerts.
“We had no community transition for 100 days,” Bonner says. “Everything was looking peachy. I think everyone was feeling a little bit smug, too.” Then, in mid-August, a covid-19 cluster appeared in Auckland, and New Zealand went back into lockdown.
When the second lockdown was announced, the Beths were weeks away from starting their tour. They pushed the whole thing back to early October, hoping the situation would improve. Metcalf, the band’s tour manager, says that “there is no certainty. Any show or tour can be canceled at any time. We had to minimize liability and maximize agility.” On Sept. 21, the lockdown was largely lifted. Days later, on Instagram, the Beths posted an announcement: “Ok so after getting advice from the Ministry Of Health, we have great news and that news is that the tour is ON!”
There were still specific, confusing complications. While the rest of the country was on Level 1 — the country’s lowest covid-19 warning level — the Beths are from Auckland, which was still under tougher Level 2 restrictions. Consulting with the Ministry of Health, Metcalf was told the band had to “take our level with us.” That meant they had to socially distance from fans and the other bands. In their Instagram announcement, the band cheerily tried to explain: “Unfortunately we (beths) will not be able to get out ‘amongst it’ in the ‘mosh’ . . . But here’s the thing we get to PLAY some MUSIC for PEOPLE.”
Beyond the Beths’ tour, as New Zealand’s summer approaches, mass events beckon. While one prominent festival, Laneway, is taking the year off, the other major multiday parties — Rhythm and Vines, Bay Dreams, Northern Bass — are all rolling on. As international acts are still barred entry, New Zealand’s live music industry will be relying on its homegrown talent for the summer circuit. Remarkably, the industry is making it work.
“We are hermetically sealed within New Zealand,” Campbell Smith says. “We have great, great local talent. But do we have enough of it to last until the borders open? It’s also fairly clear that if another cluster is discovered, we’ll go back into lockdown, which doesn’t help with long-term planning or the confidence of the market. And still: We are doing a heck of a lot better than anywhere else in the world.”
A week into their return to the road, the Beths’ Stokes provided an update. “Touring is starting to feel normal,” she emailed. “It felt a bit like standing up after sitting in a chair for a long time. The gig last night in Palmerston North was a highlight. Met a bunch of kids who are all musicians, we love to see it.” Best of all: As of 11:59pm on Oct. 7, all of New Zealand, including Auckland, is back on Level 1. The Beths don’t have to socially distance from anyone. “The NZ community is officially COVID free! We can now mingle with the crowds.”
At the merch table on this tour, the band has been selling the Beths masks, a nifty item emblazoned with a guitar-shredding pukeko bird. Said Stokes, “A couple of people buying them have mentioned that they are a strange souvenir for the current era.” For the first few shows, the masks moved briskly; more recently, sales have tailed off. Triumphantly, Metcalf offered a theory: “Mask-wearing is no longer mandated under Level 1 — the customers have switched back to socks!”