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Platform Paper 32
In 2010, when landmark Melbourne music venue the Tote Hotel was forced to shut down, it incited a public outcry that crikey.com called the year’s ‘most significant event in cultural policy’.
Declarations of the death or imminent death of live music in Australia are not new. But the Tote closure was a tipping point, and even though the pub itself re-opened, other venues around the country continue to close. Why does this most popular of the performing arts seem always to be so under siege?
Celebrated music writer and cultural historian Clinton Walker takes Platform Papers deep into the dark nether-regions of sticky carpet, dodgy house PAs and moshpit etiquette. Australia’s live music circuit has long been celebrated as one of the world’s best, but if places like the Tote keep closing down, where will the next Nick Cave, AC/DC or Paul Kelly come from? None of these artists ever expected or got a grant. All they ever wanted was a gig.
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Popular music isn’t in search of an audience, nor is it seeking to remix its demographic; it’s already got a vast and incredibly diverse audience. It doesn’t seek grand public monuments like an Opera House either. Everybody knows it’s (almost) never received government funding, and it’s hardly about to start sticking its hand out now. All it’s really asking is that when it does find some little hole in the wall in which to perform without harming anyone, it’s not harassed in doing so. All it’s asking is that the contempt, vilification and harassment stop. Now.
Shane Homan is a music industry and cultural policy researcher at monash university. he is the co-author of two commissioned reports on the music industries in nsW and Victoria: Vanishing Acts: an Inquiry into the State of Live Music Opportunities in NSW (2003) and The Music
Capital: City of Melbourne Music Strategy (2010).
On 13 August Michael Gudinski, founder of Mushroom Records, delivered the annual Thomas Rome lecture at the National Film and Sound Archives awards in Melbourne Town Hall. The Mushroom Group CEO was in good form, if extremely selective in terms of both personal and company histories (mythologising the good, excising the bad). Yet it was also a reminder of the passion of a major player in the growth of Australian rock and pop from the early 1970s. As Clinton Walker's essay states, Gudinski's original booking agency, Consolidated Rock, was crucial in establishing Victoria's live rock circuits before the formation of the Mushroom recording label.
For me, History is Made at Night reinforces the importance of passionate, unshakeable individuals in ensuring that cities have viable and meaningful live music scenes. This includes, of course, the author himself-Walker can rightfully claim a long history of intelligent writing about music that in many instances allowed mainstream Australia a glimpse of those working on the edges of respectability. One of several recurring themes in this essay is that if left to government, live music at night would consist of the touristic and the simplistic. Walker takes aim at several organisations found wanting in battles to preserve music venue infrastructure. Some of this criticism is valid, such as that of the Musicians' Union. Other criticism is not; for example, APRA, the peak collection society, has been very active behind the scenes in negotiation at both state and federal levels of government.
Walker also reminds us that successful music cities are ecosystems: venues can't survive on their own, but remain dependent upon good booking promoters and agencies, music education networks and innovative media networks (the contributions of radio stations RRR and PBS in Melbourne are instructive here, and the enthusiastic street music press). In the case of Sydney in 2012, it's back to the future: the revival of town hall and bowling club gigs provides a lifeline for non-mainstream scenes.
This essay is a good primer for those unfamiliar with various state debates and activity: where punters and musicians see crucibles of innovation and community, governments merely see public assembly and amenity issues. Some of the venue battles here are overly simplified and point to a wider range of issues and the complexity of individual venues and scenes. The parcels of real estate upon which local music venues are situated are now so valuable that residential redevelopment seems almost inevitable. Walker speaks of this, the fleeting nature of many venues, and the exceptions that are of twenty or thirty years' standing. This also speaks to the continuing effort to recognise the live music experience as one of cultural significance. While we don't want iconic venues to be sprayed with the heritage gloss that renders them as the plastic experiences so often found in the United States, the value of the individual gig to transform our understanding of a band, a genre or a scene has to be grounded more solidly in the cultural soil.
As one who has contributed to the 'piles of publicly funded paper' on live music, the current debates about the levels of Australia Council and other funding for the high arts are, of course not unrelated to the live music debate. The Trainor/James review of the Australia Council delivered in May 2012 acknowledged the need for contemporary music to be brought fully into the funding tent; and the need for live music to be similarly recognised beyond its commercial imperatives. This is part of a set of wider discussions about how OzCo now sees the popular as an important part of the national cultural furniture.
Whether we like it or not, what is self-evident within popular music communities must be continually demonstrated to governments who often remain in ignorance of the mixture of cultural, political and social issues involved. Where Walker despairs at the number of commissioned reports stating the same case on regulation and the economic worth of live music, there has been progress. The move by most states to new liquor licence categories based upon risk and behaviour histories will in the long term assist the small music venue, along with the small bar licence revival in several states. Where other measures may fail, recent reports revealing the economic worth of live music are more than useful in bringing other issues to the government table. As Walker notes, the inequities in noise law remain the central issue, particularly in Victoria, where the push is on to introduce 'order of occupancy'/ 'agent of change' regulations that can protect existing venues from resident complaints.
As has been noted in other public forums, two important test cases loom in Melbourne. The Cherry Bar on AC/DC Lane in the CBD, and the Corner Hotel in Richmond, both contend with nearby apartment developments under construction. For all the encouraging words from government about respecting music venues in their cultural and industrial forms, if either iconic venue is forced to change their current trading hours or music activity to accommodate their new neighbours, what the state really thinks about liveability indexes and the role of the 'cultural city' will be made decidedly clear.