In 2003, Hamish Pinkham, Tom Gibson, and Andrew Witters – three friends studying together at the University of Otago in Dunedin – decided they wanted to throw a New Year’s Eve festival. They booked a then unknown band named The Black Seeds and assembled some staging at Waiohika Estate, a lush vineyard near Gisborne, which also conveniently happened to be Andrew’s family home.
The first year was a success, and the event grew rapidly. It quickly increased in size to include multiple stages, off-site accommodation at BW Campgrounds – which for a time were probably as much of an attraction as the actual festival, and a companion event in the South Island called Rhythm & Alps. Rhythm & Vines gave an early North Island festival platform to a generation of fast-rising New Zealand acts including Fat Freddy’s Drop and Shapeshifter, before fully embracing DJ culture, and expanding into a multi-day event in the late 2000s. Over the next couple of years, they helped usher in the arrival of a new wave of internet-era hip-hop, electroclash, and indie rock in New Zealand, before shifting focus towards the EDM space with telling timing. In the process, the festival earned its place within New Zealand’s summer events calendar. This year, they’re bringing together a lineup that includes Sniffers favourites Schoolboy Q, Giggs, David Dallas, Montell2099, Jess B, and SACHI.
For Hamish and the team, it’s been a long journey, one full of ups, downs, and changes. They’ve scaled the heights of success, come close to complete failure, and bounced back, all while navigating a shifting local cultural and social landscape, and taking on Waiohika Estate as a full time events centre along the way. In early October, Hamish jumped on the phone with us to reflect on Rhythm & Vines’ history, and share a few stories and memories.
Dean Witters & Hamish Pinkham
On New Year’s Eve 2014/2015, riots broke out at the BW campground. How much of a wakeup call were they?
They were a big catalyst for change. Our business was probably unsustainable. Our south island festival Rhythm & Alps (which started in 2011) was taking quite a bit of energy and running at a loss. Our model was flawed, and we were in a bit of debt. It was just a good time to stake stock and regroup. I had been overseas for a bit, and I got more involved again. We reshaped all aspects of the business and the vision and started from scratch. That was 2015. We had a small team, three of us. We sold Rhythm & Alps to our business partner down there, and that gave us time to focus on getting Gisborne right. We didn’t have BW on our doorstep. We had to clean house and start again.
Afterwards, you guys made the call to reinvent Rhythm & Vines. Can you talk about what that process was like?
We talked about a new dawn. We highlighted ten key changes. They were good and bad, things like no B.Y.O, but we embellished that by letting people know we would be selling beer through license, beer garden styles. Another change was focusing on our core music, which was hip-hop and dance. R&V is a party, and we’re always going to cater to that. Then we did things like bringing in comedy with Giggle & Vines, and making the camping cheaper. We threw our ten commandments of change into the market and went in a new direction. It did scare people off; the 18-year-olds didn’t want to come because they couldn’t afford to drink from licensed premises easily. Some people didn’t like the music. We weren’t trying to appeal to a Splore or Laneway audience. There was no more BW campgrounds, which was a big attraction for people as well. We set these new standards, and the concept has slowly taken off since. Now people are coming back in droves.
Do you have any interesting booking stories from over the years?
We were trying to get De La Soul, and just before our lineup release, the agent was like, do you want to take this young guy, Tinie Tempah? The guys at E.M.I [now part of U.M.G] had already given me a heads up. He was cheap as chips, maybe fifteen thousand dollars at the time. The next week he was on stage at Glastonbury with Snoop Dogg. His songs were some of the top hits in the UK that summer. By the end of the year, we had a bonafide superstar on our hands.
Lorde was one oversight, but we under offered to her. The agent was looking for six figures, and she’d only had two live shows. It was pretty hard for us, we were feeling in the dark, and we felt like it was too big a risk to take. I remember telling the team to tell her to come back when she’d won a Grammy, and sure enough, later that year she won a Grammy. Our offer was pretty insulting when I look back on it, but, as I said, she’d only had two live shows, and we weren’t at that level.
Last year Diplo wanted crazy money, and we just held our ground. The agent went off at us, told us we were turning down one of the leading artists in the world, and we weren’t going to get a headliner. We said we’ll take the risk, and we got Chance The Rapper! That was a coup in terms of bookings. He really blew up. I think bookings is something we’ve done well. We’ve picked some good trends, we may have lost Post Malone to Northern Bass, and we’ve maybe lost a couple of relationships along the way, but you can’t book everyone. One thing we have done well is saying no to things that don’t fit with what we want to achieve. Credit to Northern Bass, they’ve found their lane and stuck to their audience.
Earlier, you said you’d been overseas for a bit, and had to get more involved again. Can you talk about what that was like?
A lesson I have learned in business is you really have to keep your hand on the wheel if it’s your baby. Especially if you are the founder and the visionary. Those skills can’t be replaced. You can’t delegate easily unless you want to step aside and sell out completely, there is no middle ground. The other thing I’ve been thinking lately is dreams don’t work unless you do. You might have a good idea and a vision, but you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and get involved. It’s been about getting back into the creative vision side of things. You’ve got to live and breathe your brand every single day. We’re trying to run New Zealand’s biggest new years party in theory – it takes a fair bit of hustle and passion to pull off.
The first wave of R&V was very tied into the rise of New Zealand reggae, soul, dub, and live drum and bass. Do you think it was it tied to any other trends?
Not really from a music perspective. I think we were a big part of that push because we provided a stage for all those bands to perform in front of thousands of people. There was nothing like that on offer. Big Day Out was still stuck as a big rock and alternative event while people wanted to hear homegrown talent. Our artists were really well paid as well. I don’t think any promoters were paying them the money we were. I know that for a fact. The early dub and bass music scene hadn’t had the kind of crowds in NZ either. This coupled with a safe and secure beach adventure for friends led to early success of which we have been able to sustain to current day.
When do you feel like you really started pushing the DJ side of things?
I was quite inspired by the festivals I’d seen in Australia. I’d seen Basement Jaxx in Melbourne at Summer Days, and Carl Cox at Bondi Beach. We had nothing like that in New Zealand at the time. I guess we had the Boiler Room tent at the Big Day Out, but there were no other decent raves, and R&V provided that. The Kiwi dub thing ran its course. We wanted to get the international talent from across the ditch, but we only had the one-day festival. In 2008 we expanded to three days. That gave us access to that talent. In that first year, we had the likes of A-Trak, Busy P, Santigold, The Ed Banger guys, Franz Ferdinand, The Kooks, and Public Enemy. It was really trying to be a well-rounded offering.
On reflection, that was a real pivot point for the festival wasn’t it?
Trying to cater to everyone was probably the wrong plan. We had an indie stage with The Naked & Famous. We were meant to do rock one night and hip-hop the next. Not only were we trying to please everyone, people probably didn’t understand what we were trying to do either. I remember people saying why are you doing three days; we can only really survive one? The three-day festival was just not on the radar here yet. People didn’t know how to pace themselves. We only sold sixteen thousand tickets as a result, and it was the best lineup we’ve ever had.
When you think back, what was the next big trend shift point for you guys?
After we sold out in 2010 we had a bumper few years. Rhythm & Vines was the place to be. Everyone really respected us, but we got too big; we got to 30,000 people. We had acts everyone really wanted to see like Chase and Status, and Pendulum; and we became a bass DJ festival. We were in on the early stages with EDM really, and we were on the money. We had Major Lazer, and Calvin Harris, look at those acts now. You can’t book those acts for under half a million now. We had Major Lazer when Switch was still in the group. We were pre-EDM, we had N.E.R.D before Pharrell blew up as a massive solo pop star, we were on the cusp. Gisborne and the festivities became the problem. Our lineup has always been solid and strong, it was just the culture around the festival became too much to manage. It was a turning point in New Zealand, look at what happened with the Rugby 7s in Wellington, they had the binge drinking thing as well, and the authorities were clamping down on that also.
What’s your vision for where this all goes next?
I think our biggest vision is just staying in the market. The trends are headed towards smaller and more boutique experiences, and a smaller Rhythm & Vines is providing that. We’re not trying to be everything to everyone. We’re working out who our audience is, and how to cater to them and keep them engaged and inspired. We’ll keep at our level, twenty thousand is probably the max we will go. We won’t open the big stage or go back to the big old days; we will just sell out in September every year and be happy. Whether you’re talking lineup, talent, food, or booze, people want quality, not quantity. The mass market isn’t as appealing.
On the music trends, NZ has always had an affinity with bass music, be it drum and bass, dubstep, hip-hop or trap, I don’t think that is going to change. They all work really well for us. We’re not doing jangly guitars or tropical house. I don’t think that will be the backbone of what we’re doing in a hurry. We’ll keep up with the trends though, and always try out a few acts. We don’t want to change too much. I think it’s working right now for a reason. We’ll just keep up with technological changes and social media. We’ve done that really well.
You started this festival in 2003. Close to fifteen years on, what still excites you about it?
It’s about getting to work on something I love and build my own dream. When you do your own business, you see real results and the decisions you make are reflected. It’s risky, and everyone tells you different opinions, but if you choose the right artist, you get to enjoy the results when everyone loves them. It’s not about power, it’s influence, and when you get it right, it’s quite intoxicating. I love the brand, and it represents something quite uniquely Kiwi and aspirational. I don’t think you get many chances in your career to be in that driver’s seat. You have to embrace it, take it, and try to keep delivering
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Grab single-day passes to Rhythm & Vines 2017/18, we’ll see you in Gisborne.