Do you remember when Wellington had multiple CD stores? I do. While it might seem like a long lost memory, once they were scattered like leaves in Autumn throughout the CBD in Wellington.
Around seven or eight years old I remember going into a music store and buying my first CD - The Spice Girls. Over time, I grew more intimately acquainted as I browsed the many sections, wondering things like what exactly ‘House’ and ‘World’ music was. At fifteen, I spent my first ever pay packet on white Skull Candy headphones I had seen on Leigh Lezark from DJ group ‘The Misshaps’ in Teen Vogue Magazine. But by that time things were changing. Myspace was where we aired our music tastes. Limewire was on the rise. And then in 2003 I was given an iPod for Christmas. The memories stopped abruptly, like someone jerking the needle off of a Vinyl Record.
"The memories stopped abruptly, like someone jerking the needle off of a Vinyl Record."
There is a woman in Wellington, however, that knew Wellington CD stores like they were her own children. Nicole Seminiuk is a bubbly, funny and hella awesome Canadian Kiwi and former music industry maven. Nicole and I met at Kaibosh Food Rescue where we both volunteer. One day, while sorting through a crate of grapes she mentioned she had worked in Wellington CD stores before her current job in Government. Intrigued, we got to talking about music. After swapping a love of Cat Power, Jenny Lewis and Patti Smith I got Nicole’s phone number. I wanted to fill in the gaps. What had happened - and when exactly was the day the music died?
So, over beer and corn chips in her garden, with my new pal - Photographer Danny Rood - along for the ride, Nicole tried explaining what it is like to move to Wellington from Canada at 22 in the 90’s, to see an entire industry disappear within a year and what it’s like having one of the Foo Fighters try and kiss you in a hotel penthouse (spoiler: “It was pretty funny”).
Vancouver Island is a large island off the west coast of Canada. Between Vancouver and Seattle it is technically on the border between the USA and Canada. Victoria, where Nicole was born, sits at the bottom of the Island. Nicole’s parents, however, met in New Zealand. Her father, a Canadian with a Ukrainian/Romanian background, managed a vineyard in Gisborne. Her mother, a Kiwi, had just finished her teaching training. “I’m pretty sure my parents got pregnant, engaged and then married and then my sister was born who is 6 years older! Shotgun wedding, I’m told!” laughs Nicole.
The couple moved back to Canada when Nicole’s sister was around 4. Nicole’s mother had been blacklisted in Gisborne for trying to get sex-education taught in schools. Back in Canada, her family worked hard and her mother taught ‘Home Economics (which included sex education). “My mother was quite involved and powerful in getting sex education in the schools in BC” explains Nicole.
"Vancouver Island is a large island off the west coast of Canada. Between Vancouver and Seattle it is technically on the border between the USA and Canada."
Growing up, Vancouver Island inspired an outdoorsy upbringing for Nicole. She was a Girl Guide. Hiking, skiing and sailing were part of everyday life. Despite the idyllic upbringing, Nicole was inspired to travel further afield. Passionate travellers, her parents would take the children on a trip overseas every year. “Half the time it was to New Zealand and then stopping somewhere on the way - like Hawaii to Disneyland or to Mexico” Nicole remembers. “Other times we went through Europe. I was really fortunate. Nowadays people are like ‘You must have had a privileged background’. But really my parents saved so much to allow us to travel because they really wanted to teach me and my sister through experiences and through culture.” Manners were also important. “When we were travelling through Europe, going across borders” Nicole explains “we would be taught how to say please and thank you going over every border.”
“He had a collectors edition of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - he loved moody blues, 50’s and 60’s compilations - it was always such a mix."
Nicole’s love of music came from her father. It inspired memories to this day. “He had a collectors edition of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - he loved Moody Blues, 50’s and 60’s compilations - it was always such a mix. It’s probably the reason why I made the shift into working in music. I loved everything and anything, from classical music like Wagner to pop music.”
Smells like Teen Spirit: The Seattle Scene
Around the late 80’s to early 90’s, Nicole discovered grunge. Practically living in music retail stores throughout high school meant she would jump on the ferry to Seattle to get to music festivals and gigs. Nicole saw Pearl Jam play their first gig at Harpo’s in Victoria. She was too young to get in - but the bouncer was the brother of a friend of her sister’s from school and allowed her to see the gig the backstage door. It was a perfect early 1992 moment. She also went to Lollapalooza in 1992 seeing Jesus and Mary Chain, Soundgarden, Ministry, Ice Cube, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Lush and Pearl Jam. Front row to the right the whole time, she left with a fractured left socket and five broken ribs. “These” she reminds me “were the days of one stage festivals.”
Nicole moved to New Zealand, where she started running record stores.. “It reminded me of San Fransisco - but smaller scale with no bridge. Really relaxed, people playing music on the streets. I wanted to leave Canada and it seemed like a good fit. So I moved to Wellington at aged 20, in with my sister who went to Uni here and lived in a flat in Roseneath. I got a job at the Sounds Store in Queens Wharf when it first opened arounf the same time.” She moved back for a short stint and then moved to Wellington for good in 1997. Best move ever.
She started working in the Tower Music store on Lambton Quay, where Partridge Jewellery is today. Tower Music was owned by Sounds Music store who she worked for previously. Nicole then opened her own Sounds Music store across the road from Midland Park which specialised in imports. Her store became known as the go-to-place for hard to find music. People spent hundreds of dollars at a time on CDs and DVDs. At the peak of the Sounds CD Stores, there were 90 nationwide. Information about music came from magazines and CD stores and Nicole’s Midland Park store was the place to be. Nicole recalls pouring over ‘Mojo’ and ‘Q’ with her fellow music shop workers and customers. In pre-internet overload days, that was how information about music was distributed and shared.
A little party never killed nobody...
Over the years, Nicole worked hard and worked her way up at Sounds Music. The hard work had it’s upsides. Every band that came to Wellington meant a free pass for Nicole and her partner to the show. She also went to The Big Day Out in 2003 where Sounds had organised a private lunch with one of Nicole’s favourite bands, Wilco. Another magic memory was when Nicole was invited to attend a Warner Brothers Music party in Auckland with ‘Flaming Lips’,‘Jane’s Addiction’ and ‘The Darkness’. “It was this posh house in Parnell that they rented. It had a codfish pond and a bonsai garden. It was so much fun and everyone was so super cruisey. It felt like a barbecue in someone’s backyard. No prevention at all.” In particular, Nicole remembers when one of the members of ‘The Darkness,’ who was sober, roped her into a mission to find orange juice. Ben Harper and Dave Grohl also get a shout out as people that Nicole enjoyed meeting many times over the years.
He was like ‘I love Canadians’ - and shoved his tongue down my throat.”
But the most rock ’n’ roll moment was when the Foo Fighters came to Wellington, back before they really took off (and before Nicole met her current partner). After having a messy backstage experience, Dave Grohl pointed to people around the room he felt he had bonded with (Nicole was one) and told them they were going back to the penthouse at the Park Royal Hotel (now the Intercontinental) to party. And boy, did they party. “Tyler Hawkins had just stepped in as the touring drummer. He came over - I was single - and asked where I was from. He was like ‘I love Canadians’ - and shoved his tongue down my throat. It was pretty funny.”
I ask Nicole whether back when she was selling music whether she thought it was ever going to change and music would no longer be sold on CD’s. “No” she admits “never. The CD store was a little bit more like the Liv Tyler movie ‘Empire Records’ - it was fun. You would play what you wanted and turn it up loud. Then it got more serious so you needed to play what music was being publicised. But Wellington was always really different. We broke records in New Zealand.” Nicole says the store sold 1000 Nora Jones albums before anyone else did in New Zealand. Groove Armada was another first that was launched from her stores. “My true love, however, is Alt-Country”
However, around 2003 things started to change. “You could see it starting to come in” remembers Nicole. “People are starting to talk about downloading. People would buy CD’s and then come back to return them having burnt them. “We started putting safety seals on CD’s - stickers seals on CD’s. They had to go around the whole thing. People were exchanging things more than they used to. It was a bummer. People were abusing it”. Until she left the industry she never burnt a CD - but these days she can be found down the way of the Wellington City Library where she will pour over CD’s (and take them home to burn them. Sometimes -”only if they’re really good…”).
Nicole foresaw the end coming. Sales dropped drastically. “I remember saying ‘This company is going to be bankrupt within a year.’ 11 months later they filed for bankruptcy.” The music companies started folding. A year later, they were bankrupt. “Now the only way you can make money as a band is to tour.” Nicole explains “The exposure is more, because it’s all online, but its not giving the musicians an income.”
Nicole was asked to come to work at iconic (and still thriving) record shop Slow Boat Records. I ask Nicole how Slow Boat Records has survived. “They have a passionate customer base. Much of their customer base is based overseas too. There is a phenomenal interest internationally in the New Zealand music label Flying Nun.”
After Nicole decided to move away from working in music professionally, she became a travel agent. “I then quit and started volunteering at the SPCA where I was hired and worked for a time. I then became an administrator for Forest and Bird. I worked there for 3 years and then got a job in Government and worked my way up.”
"...this effervescent Canadian Kiwi has learnt through life not only an appreciation for music but an appreciation for people and creativity. Perhaps, I think, that is what really makes a Wellingtonian. And that is something worth remembering."
Life now is full of yoga and sunny afternoons in her backyard in Mount Victoria. She loves walking to work past the beautiful harbour. She and her partner still go to gigs, although they admit they have become more picky in what they go and see. She thinks San Fran has turned a corner and is the only place that she goes and sees a gig. She loves Wellington still however. Although life has changed, and the music industry too, Nicole’s passion for music has not. Throughout our talk, it is clear to me that this effervescent Canadian Kiwi has learnt through life not only an appreciation for music but an appreciation for people and creativity. Perhaps, I think, that is what really makes a Wellingtonian. And that is something worth remembering.
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