Episode 7 of a Class Act
Behind the treble at Northern Bass
Northern Bass is a feast of world-class musicians, producers and DJs, unleashing three days and nights of New Year celebrations in rural Mangawhai. While the party goers are indulging in all the sensory feels of festival life, there would be little thought around the monumental planning it takes to get an event of this calibre from paper to place. For festival author and Director of Fuzen Entertainment, Gareth Popham, it’s been a much-loved baby for six years, he’s well versed in the challenges of event management, and he couldn’t love it more.
If you simply looked at the bottom line in the early years, Northern Bass didn’t return a lot to smile about. It was 2011, Gareth was done with nightclubs. Closing two venues in Auckland and searching for the next entertainment high, he found the answer in the shape of shows and festivals, and Northern Bass launched at Haruru Falls in the Bay of Islands. As an 18-year-old, Gareth recounts good times at Haruru Falls. Back then it was a New Year’s magnet, and he thought it still held merit. What he hadn’t planned on was a nasty, 12-day tropical cyclone. Setting up and packing down in a heightened storm is one thing, but when the power trips out twenty minutes before midnight, vanishing all trace of sound and light – there ain’t no festival. Ironically, the revellers still enjoyed it, and Gareth sensed a life-defining moment.
There was no going back, the torrential rain was ugly and the location questionable, but the heart of Northern Bass worked – concept and format felt right. An empty bank account and exhaustion would be no threats to a further episode.
With five more years under the belt, Northern Bass is now firmly on the festival map, and much of the thanks is owed to its Mangawhai home. It was a chance meeting for Gareth when he was introduced to the Worsfold family of Kaiwaka/Mangawhai. The sons had rolled out a couple of gigs on the family farm, a stage had been established and a few events had played out on-site. All quite small scale stuff but on a staggeringly beautiful rural canvas. For Northern Bass – a winning venue had been found, but what mattered most was the instant click Gareth and his partners felt with the Worsfold family and their country goldmine. “The family are outstanding caretakers of their fifth-generation farm. The late Bill Worsfold had a vision for the property more than 30 years ago, and the result is incredible, the trees alone are insane. We really connected with the family and while the site does have some challenges, it aligns with everything we stand for.
We’re less about being commercial or mainstream, and everything should reflect that, including our location. We want an underground style to flow through our festivals, that’s our niche and what we’ve always done – we’re proudly left of centre.” Gareth says.
But what does a small Northland community make of it all? It’s an oxymoron to think you can turn the music down at a festival, and when you bring in 8,500 excitable kids, there’s sure to be chaos. The organising team are aware of the naysayers who are less fond of the event. Gareth doesn’t combat this with any angst; he genuinely respects the area – town and folk. He cares deeply about making it work and personally addresses every concern. “I’m active on the local Facebook community pages for Kaiwaka, nothing hides behind the Northern Bass brand, I front up under my name. In the past, we trialled a local road closure, but it caused a bit of a stir on Facebook. A couple of locals came to our defence which helps nip the negativity in the bud. We’re just trying to stop the dust nuisance, rubbish, and wayward revellers. We listen to every complaint.” As part of this, the entertainment on the main stage has been shaved back an hour, and while it is a late affair for residents, many have chosen to embrace it and head along. While neighbours to the site may not have been fans at first – they now can’t fault the vibe.
Environmental concerns run hot too. Party goers totally spent from three days of merriment doesn’t leave much incentive to pack down a low-cost tent or leave a camp site tidy. While some blame could be pointed at the big manufacturers for making four-man tents at such low-price points, Northern Bass had to address the issue quickly. A ‘Love Your Tent’ project was established. The festival year is spray-painted onto tents which have fast become a badge of honour, a show of commitment to the event and motivation for people to hang on to their canvas. There are also a few community groups that come in post-party to collect abandoned chilly bins, tents and so on.
For the local Kaiwaka country kids, the festival gives them their own kind of cool – it’s put them on the entertainment circuit, and the youngsters are proud of it. A sense of ownership is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many intrinsic positives. With 8,500 attendees, there’s a certain amount of economic contribution flowing into the area. While official studies haven’t been done, it’s easy to work out that if every kid spends a little over $100, in three to five days, that’s reaching $1million plus. Most hit up a tank of gas and will regularly flaunt the local Four Squares, many will spend a lot more.
A give back mentality is important to Gareth, and as the organisers have become more knowledgeable about the area, a lot is returned. Northern Bass is a principal sponsor of the annual Top of the Rock sports event in Kaiwaka. “From day one we said to Kaipara Council that we’re not here for a quick lunch – we love Mangawhai/Kaiwaka. It feels like we’re over the hump and most people seem to support us, we hire local gear and support local businesses wherever possible. The economic figures stack up – the evidence is here. We try to be as approachable as possible.” He says.
Success is also measured by the line-up and calibre of artists. Gareth doesn’t take a break from one event to the next; it’s a full-time focus finding suitable international acts. The fact we sit in a sunny part of the world over this time-frame does help sway the decision-making process for some artists. However, with so many events to draw upon across the globe, artist fees have increased by about 300% in many cases.
Your vibe attracts your tribe, and while this can be said for the eclectic audience who attend Northern Bass, it’s also the ethos that runs deep for Gareth and his three business partners. Gareth aside, his partners are surprisingly in their golden years – one is 80 years young, but all are lifelong mentors. There are three permanent staffers, increasing to 60 four weeks out from kick off, then upwards of 400 staff on-site during the festival.
A distinct culture and vision is commanded if you find yourself on the team. It’s a roll up your sleeves environment – Gareth might be on the end of a rake one day and rubbing shoulders with the finest drum n bass artist the next. “No one is exempt from doing the shitty jobs and that’s what makes our product so special. Staff sense our vibe, which flows out to everyone at the event. It just seems to work.