Is Our Live Music Scene In Crisis?

Pub closures, oppressive regulations, liquor licensing, noise restrictions – is Australia’s live music scene in crisis? MATT SHEA asks seven venues across the country what it’s like to operate a venue in 2012.

You’d think these would be anxious times for live music operators. Every week word comes through of yet another venue closure. In the last month alone, [The Jade Monkey](/news/4432329) in Adelaide, [Woodland Bar](/news/4441761) in Brisbane, [The Gaelic](/news/4441453) in Sydney and no less than three Melbourne venues – [Miss Libertine](/news/4435992), [Buffalo Club](/news/4438253) and [The East Brunswick Club](/articles/4438114) – have all announced they’ll be shutting their doors.

Meanwhile, federal minister and former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett has finally come to the defence of The Annandale, one of Sydney’s most iconic venues, which had its own [near-death experience](/news/4294787) last year. In a [recent interview](/articles/4444735) with M+N, Garrett expressed his concerns about the longevity of little venues across the country, which he said are the lifeblood of Australia’s music scene.

?Well, it’s tougher for some venues to keep their doors open,? he conceded, ?and I think that’s a real pity because these places – have been incredibly important incubators of the live music scene in this city for many years, and they continue to fulfil that function, and it’s a very valuable one for musicians to ply their trade.?

So what’s really going on with live music in Australia? Are we in the midst of a crisis? To find out, M+N talked to operators in Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, getting a grip on current fortunes and asking how they see the health of the industry as a whole. In Perth, we contacted The Bakery, Amplifier Capitol and The Fly By Night; all were either unwilling or unable to comment.

The Tote (Jon)

Collingwood, Melbourne

None of the news of the last few weeks really surprises me. I don’t know as much about other states, but from the discussions I’ve had with people in Sydney, in particular, everyone is battling regulation everywhere. And it’s not just Australia, it’s San Francisco, it’s London. Just everywhere.

Planning is one of the biggest issues; it’s so hard to open a venue now. It’s just impossible negotiating the current regulatory framework that we have. The amount of money you need to invest has gotten so high that you just wouldn’t recoup it. We don’t have an investment framework that’s functional, and then we don’t have a regulatory framework to live within that’s functional either. It makes life very difficult.
For example, if you’ve got a venue and you get a new residential development going up near you, immediately you go out of compliance with the noise standards – and you haven’t done anything! Even if the developer decides to put sound proofing on the venue it doesn’t solve your problems, because the measurements are taken outside of the building, not inside the building. We don’t have appropriate places where music venues can exist, if you like, and that’s one of the things we’ve got to try and get into the planning system.

But where the council and state governments didn’t listen maybe two years ago, at least they’re beginning to now. That’s a change. We’ve got a good dialogue with the Yarra Council, but we haven’t really been able to put our case forward with the state government just yet. They’re two years into their term now, and they’ve been promising this live music roundtable for ages and ages and ages. I’m sure we’ll get in front of them, but then they’ve got to understand the issues, and then they’ve got to be willing to make changes. So you can see, it’s a very frustrating process.

All that said, things at The Tote are not too bad, actually. It’s about where we thought they would be: we’re getting audiences and we’re getting people who want to play. And they’re drinking enough beer to keep us financially afloat.

Yeah, I’m hopeful for the future. We’ve just got to keep beating the SLAM drum until we get some sensible change. All the solutions are well known. They’ve all been on the table for ten years now. None of this stuff is rocket science. We’ve just got to convince people that it’s worthy and they need to do it. And none of this is about trading off quality of life in residential areas or this stuff. It’s just about having a regulatory framework that’s functional for live music venues. But, live music: people are going to play it, whether it’s legally or illegally. It’s going to go on.

(Photo by Robert Carbone)

Grace Emily Hotel (George)

CBD, Adelaide

If we’re talking about the encroachment of noise restrictions and all that sort of bollocks, the closures aren’t anything particularly out of the ordinary. Councils often don’t give a shit. They say they do, but at the end of the day they want more rates and more money and more houses and more people in the city – the two don’t really go together. If on the other hand places are closing because of financial problems, that would surprise me.

With the focus on live music these days you’d think venues would be thriving. And for us: I wish I had more days in the week for live music because I could quite easily fill them. There’s a bit of a downturn but nothing anywhere near for us to think about closing the doors or changing our business model. With The Jade Monkey, that was simply a development thing: they were renting, their lease came up, the owners wanted to knock it down to build apartments. It could happen to any type of business that rents. They’ll [want to reopen](/news/4437303), I’d imagine, but that will then come down to them negotiating the legal bollocks and red tape.

The council and state governments try to be supportive. They say the right stuff, but it’s just a matter of whether they’re actually going to put that into practice. Our biggest challenge is residents: right across from us I’m looking at a massive sign that says ?sold?. We don’t know what’s going to happen with that. If it becomes apartments that could stuff our business up. Right behind us is another massive empty block – if that goes up it could screw us around. The councils don’t require double-glazing on the residential developments, but then they don’t want to support soundproofing us.

That said, the live music environment is supportive here. It’s a smaller town and there’s less competition for musicians. I’m pretty chipper about the future and looking at other venues like The Weatsheaf Hotel, they’re doing really well also. We’re not out to make money; we love live music and that’s what we care about. I think that’s why it works here and that’s why it worked at the Jade Monkey – we’ve all got the same attitude.

Alhambra Lounge (Jesse)

Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

I don’t think there’s a crisis. Woodland aren’t being shut down for any reason other than it changed ownership and the current owners said they could do something else with the space. There’s a bazillion great bands coming out of Australia, and in nine years this is the best time I’ve seen for quality music of a variety of styles coming out of Brisbane. I just think it would be great if the city had one more room, because I’ve got more good bands that would like to play here than I can accommodate at this point in time.

Live music venues don’t have any sort of manifest destiny or any right beyond any other kind of business to thrive; we’re just trying to make a living off something we like to do. Alhambra’s doing better than it has done in years, but that wasn’t the case six months ago. Back then, there seemed to be some fatigue around live music, particularly following BIGSOUND, and you could literally not give away tickets to shows that should have been sell-outs.

From a regulatory standpoint, it’s a lot harder than the southern states. Liquor licensing in Queensland is certainly prohibitive in terms of fees, drink measurements and the like; if we didn’t have to deal with that you’d probably see a dollar come off the drink prices across the board. The industry needs to be regulated but not overregulated, as it is right now. And sometimes the security requirements for us as a venue are phenomenal: I don’t think I need five security guards to deal with a packed house of ladies screaming for Matt Corby.

That said, the entertainment precinct here in Brisbane works well. I know that when David Hinchcliffe was Labor councillor for the Fortitude Valley area he was very pro-live music and wanted to keep that spirit. He wanted to keep that banner flying, particularly seeing as we had a lot of the venues here. The big thing for us is to be a hybrid and to be flexible, so I can put bands on here on a Thursday or Friday but come 11.30pm I’ve got DJs on and it’s a pleasant place to come party and have a drink. We’ll be disappointed to lose Woodland as our neighbours, but otherwise things seem to be going nicely for us at the moment.

The Workers Club (Jerome)

Fitzroy, Melbourne

Unfortunately, this sort of news isn’t totally new. It’s always a challenge for any live music venue to keep operating. There is an incredible amount of competition for the punter’s dollar now. We’re seeing a lot of mid-level and major Australian acts touring up to three or four times a year – even the biggest fans might question whether they can afford to go and see them each time.

Things are travelling fairly well for The Workers Club. We’ve spent the last year focusing on making the venue a destination to also visit for a meal and a drink rather than just solely relying on live music for our income, which puts us on a much more solid financial basis. We’re also about to announce some changes that I hope will ensure the venue’s long-term future as a live music venue.

[SLAM Day](/galleries/4434898) has been a fantastic way of highlighting the issues affecting live music in inner-city venues right around Australia. Here in Melbourne the establishment of a peak body such as [Music Victoria](/articles/4052745) has been a fantastic initiative that gives a professional voice to a very passionate community. Overall I think local councils and the state government are supportive of live music venues, but you can’t help but feel that there’s a disconnect between what is pledged publicly and what happens in practice. Some individual councillors and State politicians are incredibly passionate and proactive, but you wonder if others are privately more concerned about re-election than looking at the bigger picture.

Despite the pressures, I think the scene here is thriving. For every venue that closes down it seems another opens, and you know that the people opening these venues are doing it for the love. The biggest threat has got to be the issue of first right of amenity: for all the talk of addressing it by councils and the State Government, it remains largely talk. But I’m hopeful for the future. I think we’ve seen the live music scene flourish over the last decade, with it becoming more of a mainstream pastime, and I think the core of what we do is ensuring that the experience a music fan has at a venue is a good one.

(Photo by Michael Bainbridge)

The Annandale (Matt)

Annandale, Sydney

This sort of thing is nothing totally new: a change in ownership tends to lead to different ideas for the use of these spaces. And there are obviously localised issues with different venues and different councils. Radio’s a big problem too. Melbourne has PBS and Sydney has FBi, but we’ve got just one national youth radio station in triple j. There needs to be more Australian content on the radio, essentially, because that’s where people get their music from.

Talking about The Annandale, I can squarely place 90 percent of our problems on the shoulders of our local council. After we got in here in 2000 we had trouble with the previous owner, ending up in mediation court for a year. Then the fights with the council started: there was a bungled DA, and we lost a late licence through what we feel was corrupt behaviour from our local ward councilors colluding with two particular neighbours and not passing on information to us. There was a year in the Land Environment Court, then another year with the Liquor Administration Hearing Board. When you’re paying to sort out this stuff you’re not doing upgrades to the hotel, you’re not fixing things, you’re not doing the advertising, and your ideas can’t flourish.

Those ward councillors changed a few years back and it was such a relief to finally be able to get a dialogue going. The residents are happy, we get treated fairly, have an ear in the council, and that’s a big deal. But those battles definitely took their toll financially.
Now we have the buy-a-brick initiative, and it’s the first step in a multi-leveled approach to make sure this continues to be a live music venue and a business that is thriving and profitable. It’s going great, we’ve had a huge amount of publicity, and Peter Garrett has been [championin](/news/4443582) the cause through the papers and on television. So we’ve started gaining public awareness and getting the word out there. We’re in the process of putting together some corporate stuff with labels and booking agents. We’ve been in talks with sponsors to do a couple of things here, and then of course we’ve been in talks with a variety of artists, so hopefully we’ll have some special shows to help raise money that’ll then go into the renovation of the hotel. So that’s all starting to flow and that’s really great.

As for Sydney: we’re in the municipality of Leichardt, but the Sydney City Council have been great in trying to champion the inner city to come alive a bit more than it has. That said, I think the Melbourne scene is a little healthier – Melbourne people treat music like they treat their football: it’s part of the cultural aspect of their lives, whereas in Sydney it can be a little tougher. But things have changed a little bit. When we opened, people looked at us like we were crazy, but you go along Oxford St now and there’s a bunch of good venues.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a depression or in the middle of a boom: people are always going to want to play music, kids are always going to want to be in bands, and people are always going to want to listen to it. You’ve just got to make sure you give them the platform for it. I think it’s healthy and it’s getting healthier, but there’s a long way to go.

(Photo by Linda Heller-Salvador)

Oxford Art Factory (Mark)

Darlinghurst, Sydney

It’s hard for some venues to muster the ability to change with the evolving market that’s out there, due to physical constraints or due to the area that they’re in. I don’t think the days are possible anymore where it’s just purely a live music venue – except maybe for places of a certain size, such as The Enmore. We certainly don’t rely upon live music 100 percent; we’ve always had a diverse array of entertainment put on by promoters and by ourselves. There are arcade game nights right through to gay events and other stuff.

Things are certainly good for Oxford Art Factory: we’re busier than we’ve ever been. A lot of acts we get through are international, but because of our size we probably still get a lot more local acts than you would at The Metro or The Hi-Fi or places like that. The Melbourne scene is probably stronger than Sydney, but then we do pretty well given how many venues we have in the city. Mayor Clover Moore is definitely pro-live music, I think, and definitely pro-creative solutions to Sydney inner-city living. She has to be congratulated for her efforts for making Sydney greener, but also doing something about the creative and cultural elements of the city.

Running a business is of course about making money, but we also try to look at the bigger picture. We’ve got two rooms and the larger room finances a lot of what goes on in the smaller room. But the aim is to give the bands a chance to grow. And we’ve seen that with a band like Guineafowl: they started in the smaller room and by the fourth week you couldn’t even move in there, so they moved straight into the bigger room.

With noise, we’re definitely lucky that we’re in the basement. But the other thing that I’ve noticed is people setting up venues often don’t check on things and don’t do the research on what they install. I can’t tell you how much research and how much planning I put into building Oxford Art Factory. If you don’t do that, you’re going to constantly be chasing your tails with complaints and so on.

(Photo by Daniel Boud)

The Brisbane Hotel (Gibbo)

CBD, Hobart

The news about venue closures doesn’t surprise me at all: it takes a lot of effort to keep a live music venue going these days. With Hobart, the number of live music venues has tripled in the last three years. The crowd therefore has thinned out; people are being more selective about the gigs that they go to now. As a band booker I’m being more selective about the bands and genres that play here so as to not hammer the punters with similar gigs every weekend. People only have a certain amount of money to spend. But things generally for us are like a bloody roller coaster! We have a few good weeks, then a few bad weeks, then a few killer weeks that balance everything back out.

The biggest problem any hotel or business owner has, in my opinion, is the small business syndrome of double taxes. I’d actually like to see a bit more assistance from government: we provide a service that attracts people into the nightlife of Hobart, we are creating lifestyle choices for many younger and older Tasmanians, but rarely do we see the praise in our efforts for doing so. Hobart can be a ghost town after 6pm on any day of the week and that’s what we’re trying to change.

The former premier of Tasmania David Bartlett told me personally that he loved live music and he was a big supporter of live music venues and the arts. With events like Mona Foma the awareness of the majority has been more forthcoming than in previous years. But even if the tide turns again the underground will still be there: they will keep doing house party gigs, and keep doing renegade gigs in unannounced locations.

All told, I remain hopeful for live music in Hobart: there are a lot of people keeping the scene alive and kicking, and people not conforming to that triple j structure where all boxes must be ticked to have a future. As for Australia, venues will come and go, new ones will pop up eventually to accommodate what is needed in the live music industry – it’s just the way the wheel turns.

(Photo by Martin Nester)