Milne: Tote?s Closure Is ?Wake-Up Call

Less than twenty-four hours after announcing the closure of Melbourne institution The Tote, director Bruce Milne talks to DARREN LEVIN about his fears for Melbourne’s beleaguered pub rock scene.

A Friday morning phone call finds Tote director Bruce Milne emotionally and physically drained, not to mention financially destroyed. For the past year-and-a-half, Milne has been battling Liquor Licensing Victoria over its decision to brand the venue ?high risk?, despite a clean bill of health from Victoria Police. A recent $1700 increase in yearly licensing fees in addition to extra security requirements has made his fight untenable, leaving Milne with no option but to [call time](news/3845158) on the Melbourne institution yesterday.

For Milne, the closure of The Tote holds great personal significance. A pivotal player in Melbourne’s music scene – he founded Au Go Go Records in 1979 and currently helms In-Fidelity Recordings – he realised a dream when purchasing The Tote’s license in 2001 with brother James and former nominee Richie Ramone (who sold his share in 2006). And while he’s devastated to see a vital piece of Melbourne’s rock’n?roll history go, Milne hopes that its demise will not be in vain. He considers the pub’s closure symptomatic of the struggles faced by other live music venues following new regulations drafted ostensibly to curb alcohol-fuelled violence, and has grave fears for Melbourne’s vibrant live music scene.

In shutting its doors for good, The Tote isn’t just an icon anymore – it’s now a martyr.

How are you feeling about yesterday’s decision to close?
I’ve been under such stress for a year, [but] it’s just accelerated over the past month, so it’s been very hard – While there’s still incredible frustration, I feel like I’m now sharing my problem with everyone in Melbourne. And everyone in Melbourne’s now taken on some of the weight with me. It’s just great. And plus, while I can’t save The Tote, at least I feel like I can help the other venues now. Because I can talk, I don’t need to keep my mouth shut anymore.

Have you been overwhelmed by the support?
It’s mindblowing. And all I’ve done for the past 24 hours, since that press release was sent out, has been dodging thousands of emails and texts. Every phone in the building has just been ringing the whole time. There’s been an outpouring of grief and anger. All the mainstream media have been jumping on it, which is great, because that’s all I need. I’m not going to change anything unfortunately with Mess+Noise* and Triple R. It’s gotta be *The Herald Sun saying, ?We were campaigning against violence in the city. We weren’t campaigning against the bloody Tote!?

It must have been particularly hard for you personally as the custodian of the venue’s history.
Of course, there are so many bands I’ve seen here, you know, going to a party here when Mudhoney played a set of Australian punk rock songs. I have memories that go back to 1981 and I’m aware of it every day I walk in the building, just looking around at the photos and the plaques.

Why did you decide to shut up shop so suddenly?
It’s long and complicated, but it’s to do with the pressures of trying to secure a long-term lease while I was losing money trying to comply with Liquor Licensing. My license fee for late last year was $6000 [up from $1000] $4,289 [up from $1600] and given that I’m on a month-by-month lease at the moment that’s a lot of money. But I had been to VCAT [Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal] and got a stay on the ?high risk? conditions by closing at 1am. I actually begged VCAT to let me close at 1am to get out of the high risk, which was insane, but Liquor Licensing wouldn’t take me out of it. So there I was begging to reduce my most popular hours of trade, I got it, but then they sent the license and they had still charged me high risk [fees]. I wrote to them and said it doesn’t make sense – and they just knocked it back and said, ?You have to pay [the license fee] immediately or we’ll shut you down.? At that point, I was like, ?This is silly fighting this battle.? I had a VCAT meeting in February that the lawyers said would cost about $15,000. To do what? To go and argue that I can try and do something like I used to, run some sort of scaled-down version?

There’s also the security thing, which is just insane. I can’t have three bands playing. I can’t have young bands playing on a Tuesday night. If I’ve gotta cover $80 per hour in extra security costs before any entertainment and an hour past – and that even includes the volume of the jukebox – how can I make money? I can’t make money on the door because that goes to the bands, so the only way I can make money is selling beer. They [Liquor Licensing] are sort of saying, ?You’ve gotta sell a whole lot more beer, but at the same time we’re way way stricter on it, so now you’re only allowed to sell two or three beers before cutting someone off.?

There was never the option of the bar staff doing the requisite security training?
No. We looked at that, it’s quite illegal. You have to have separate security. That seemed like a logical thing, but it wasn’t acceptable. It’s not like I hadn’t been to Liquor Licensing a number of times, offering to compromise. They constantly said, ?How you run your business has nothing to do with us. Pay up.? There’s never been a moment of, ?Let’s sit down and work things out.?

Given the [licensing dramas](/news/3612856) you went through late last year, do you think the Tote is being targeted?
I think what happened late last year pegged us with them. And, yes, I think from then on we certainly got a lot more attention than maybe was warranted.

Do you have any idea at all why you were deemed a ?high risk? venue? I mean, in all the years I’ve been to The Tote, I haven’t seen so much as a heated argument.
It’s a one-size-fits-all rule. If your license says you can open after 1am at any time [during the week] and you have live music, you’re immediately high risk. Because on Friday and Saturday nights we’re open until 3am, we’re immediately high risk and we have to have extra security staff on at all times, etc. Having extra security on a Friday or Saturday night, I can handle, but having a semi-acoustic act in the front bar on Saturday afternoon, and having two security guards standing there getting paid twice as much as anyone else in the building, who are working their arses off, is ridiculous.

?Don’t assume that in six months time you’ll be able to go to a gig at Yah Yahs, pop round the corner to The Old Bar and then go into the city and see something at Pony.?

We heard [reports](/news/3752577) last year of smaller pubs being visited by Liquor Licensing inspectors. Was this a regular occurrence at The Tote?
Oh, god yes. But to be honest, we were only getting visited once a week, whereas places like Pony are getting visited every night. It’s a massive shame. There’s no sense. I sat with the head of Liquor Licensing [Sue Maclellan] and said, ?Look. You can’t call it a high risk venue if I’ve run it for nine years and we’ve had no reports of violence. The police have never had a problem with us. You can go to Collingwood cops and look at the report on The Tote and you’ll find an empty file.? And she looked at me and said, ?You’re ignoring all our research and data.? [Laughs] I can’t argue with that. Then I got a copy of it. Because they automatically say that live music venues are the same as nightclubs, they’ve lobbed The Tote in with some 3000-capacity dance club in South Melbourne. They may as well put chemist shops in there as well – because it makes about as much sense.

Is there an avenue beyond Liquor Licensing and VCAT?
I’ve been trying behind the scenes to work on the media, because I figured that was the sensible thing to do. But it wasn’t a sexy enough story and it needed something like The Tote to be shut down to wake people up.

So the intention was for The Tote to be a martyr?
I knew when I made this decision, I wouldn’t have to shut my mouth. I’m the only person who can talk because everyone else is scared shitless. So that’s what I’m doing now: talking to all the other venue owners, putting together all their stories, and I’m not going to keep my mouth shut. My pub’s gone, but I’m still a music fan. I still want to go out and see bands, I want to have places like The Tote and I don’t want to end up like Sydney. We’re at that point. I’ll leave the city if it’s like that.

You have the situation now in Sydney where it’s all spread out to the warehouses, and now they’re shutting those down. Where does it end? Speakeasies?
It’s so inevitable, isn’t it? It’s hard to have live rock bands without someone there listening [Laughs]

How has business been going generally?
Terrible. We gave away four hours of trade to try and keep Liquor Licensing happy and it got to the point where we were losing money each week. And I can’t afford to lose money because I don’t have any. How can I negotiate a lease for another year when I know that these rules aren’t getting any easier? They’re getting harder. So they’ll have closed me down and I’ll have signed a 10-year lease, so I’d be paying rent on an empty building.

How long had you been trading on reduced hours for?
Since the VCAT hearing in about August. We were losing gigs, that’s the other thing. Bands would say, ?We used to love playing The Tote because people would come and they’d stick around. Now we’d play and they’d be pushing us out the door half-an-hour later.?

So let me get this straight, every venue that has live music after 1am is automatically considered ?high risk??
Yes, and if they’re in the inner-city too. I think if I was in Thornbury or Northcote [in Melbourne’s outer north] it wouldn’t apply. If The Tote was 300 metres down Johnston Street, over the other side of Hoddle Street, it probably wouldn’t apply.

If, for example, someone were to take over The Tote’s lease, they would be automatically branded ?high risk??
Oh, yeah. I’ve been trying to get investors, but as the law has been changing, anyone who looks at it – people that are music fans that have money – think, ?This is nuts.? You’re almost guaranteed of being out of business as soon as you take it over.

What’s the situation with the freehold?
A really good company bought it called Colonial Entertainment. They basically said, ?We don’t want to run a pub. In fact, we don’t really want the building – we just bought all the [former owner] Cornerstone businesses – so buy it off us.? At that time, I was very interested and they offered very generous terms. The trouble was, as the weeks and months went by, and as the cost of the legal bills and the loss of trade began affecting me, if I went to a bank manager they’d laugh at me.

Do you know what the future holds for the building?
To be honest, the landlord told me last week he’d give me a six-month lease, and that wasn’t enough for us to be able to afford to fight Liquor Licensing, and do this or do that. It was only 48 hours ago where we said to the landlord, ?We’ll give you an empty building at the end of the month. We can’t afford to keep going.?

What was their response?
I think they were a little pissed off, because we were very keen to buy it when they took possession of the building.

Can you speculate at all on what’s going to happen to the building?
I think it’s just going to be an empty shell of a building until they pull it down and build an apartment block or something.

There’s no heritage protection given its connection with [notorious bookie] John Wren?
[Laughs] No. No.

What about all the memorabilia in the pub?
I’m going to auction it all off because I need every cent I can get to pay these legal costs, probably over the next week. You won’t be able to buy a beer, but you can buy a poster.

So there’s going to be a final gig on Monday [January 18]?
It’ll be the advertised bands this weekend, but [on Monday] we want to go out with a line-up of bands that reflect a part of The Tote’s history.

I’m sure there are a lot of bands that’ll be clamouring for that opportunity.
Sure. We’ve been trying to organise it in the last 24 hours, so we’ll see what we can put together [laughs]. Everyone’s been saying that, ?If we can [play], we will.?

What do you say to people that want to come down on Sunday and protest?
You can’t save The Tote, but you can save other places. Don’t assume that in six months time you’ll be able to go to a gig at Yah Yahs, pop round the corner to The Old Bar and then go into the city and see something at Pony. They might find themselves in the same situation.

Do you see yourself as someone who can lead the charge with a bigger protest down the track?
I would love to be part of the solution. I hope that the closing of The Tote is a wake-up call that’ll effect some change. Although I’m not very good at being a media slut. [Laughs].

You’re doing a good job at the moment.
I know, but I should’ve got a haircut and had a shave this morning! [Laughs]

What does the future hold for you? Does this mean you’ll devote more time to your label In-Fidelity?
I just need to find something to pay off debts; a straight nine-to-five job. At the moment, I’m emotionally and physically exhausted and financially destroyed. I’ve gotta stop picking up the pieces again. I have no ability at this stage to go back into a nutty entrepreneurial thing, which I’ve always enjoyed doing.

What have been some of your most favourite memories?
Well, certainly the early days. The first line-up of the Hoodoo Gurus when they played here on their first Melbourne tour. The launch of The Scientists? ?Swampland?. When The Triffids had a free residency when they first come over to Melbourne. Later on, seeing Magic Dirt’s first gig, and falling in love with the mess of noise that they were. There were some great Meanies gigs here with people going crazy. Even the international stuff. The Soundtrack of Our Lives semi-acoustic show was one of the most mind-blowing gigs I’ve ever seen. All the Japanese bands that have come here. I reckon we’ve had 50 or 60 Japanese bands playing here over the past 10 years. It’s just incredible.

Any parting words for supporters of The Tote?
We’ve got to take something positive out of this. It won’t be The Tote, but it could be the rest of the live music venues in Melbourne, which we should cherish. They should be flourishing, they shouldn’t be struggling to keep their doors open. You don’t need two bouncers when an acoustic act is sitting on a stool – It’s nuts and it’s gotta stop. Let’s draw a line in the sand with The Tote. I’m happy to go down fighting for everyone else.


The line-up for The Tote’s final gig will be announced on M+N this weekend.

CLARIFICATION: The Tote’s license fees for 2009 were $4,289 up from $1,600, and not $6000 up from $1000 as originally printed.