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Live Music: The State of theUnion

We all know that the FL Forums love a good “impassioned discussion”, so each Friday over the next five weeks we will be fuelling that chatter with five controversial music debates. Thanks to Hyundai’s new Veloster will be giving away prizes each week for the best debaters.

Last week we moved into round three of the debate series with a topic near and dear to all our hearts – Is Music Journalism Dead. And if your response was anything to go by, it certainly isn't.

This week we are talking about another issue close to all our hearts – the future of live music venues in Australia. We want to hear about your local scene, how it is supported by you community and local government and what you think the future holds. For getting involved you could win a $350 voucher for gigs at your favourite local venue.

What is the future of Australia’s small live music venues?

When high-profile venues close their doors, it’s easy to say that the entire live industry is in crisis. But is that the case? How much is the live music industry worth in Australia and how can things be improved to make it more profitable for more people?

In the past two and a half years, Melbourne and Sydney have seen the closure of pubs and clubs like The Hopetoun, the East Brunswick Club, The Arthouse, the Public Bar, as well as the high profile battle for The Tote. But Music Victoria’s project officer Bek Duke says the situation is far from as dire as it’s sometimes painted.

“There have been different closures,” she says. “But there are places opening as well. Remember all the places that are opening, or are still open and that the people running them are really committed to putting on live music.”

Owning and operating live music venues is a high risk business proposition in Australia, and always has been. When venues close, a variety of economic factors are at play – business is business. In the case of the East Brunswick club, the hotel’s new owners declined to continue to operate it as a music venue when it’s far more profitable to turn it into apartments in a now desirable part of Melbourne. There isn’t much that can be done to step in and save a venue in that situation.

However for every much-loved venue that closes, there’s usually another trying to take its place. According to Duke: “Last year we [Melbourne] lost the Arthouse and the East [Brunswick Club] is going to close, but there’s now Phoenix Public House and the Bridge Hotel in Castlemaine, for example. So I think the idea that live music is in decline is completely bogus.”

“And we have the bands to support the scene as well. Just looking at Unearthed by state there’s something like 7000 bands registered in Victoria, young unsigned bands,” Duke adds.

There’s obvious hurdles for venue operators, many of them financial. A recent report co-authored by APRA cited the top two impediments being overheads – the regulatory costs like security and the costs incurred booking talent.

While punters in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra – at least – are able to head out to shows almost every night of the week, things can be quite different in regional areas, with options severely limited by geography.

“The regional touring circuit is kind of dead now,” Duke says. “No one anymore goes Sydney via Albury via Stall via Geelong via Melbourne, now it’s just the capital cities. The cost of putting on a show in Ballarat is the same as putting on a show in Melbourne, but you’ll just get less people turn up in a regional area. So it’s tough financially.”
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Spicy McHaggis

Spicy McHaggis said on the 27th Jan, 2012

The venues that are working have a clear musical direction; a booker who knows what they're doing, aware of local music and is good at their job. That's more than half the battle right there.
It's also handy not to charge ridiculous prices for drinks, and having a layout that has an outdoor area, or quiet area outside the bandroom


AndyLedHead said on the 27th Jan, 2012

So many things are about Marketing nowadays, it's hard not to get a mention. The Corner is probably one of the more successful local venues in Melbourne, and it's because they boast a wide range of decent bands at a price that is very payable. Most gigs are hardly priced higher than $50, and when you're selling out shows by groups as novel as the Vengaboys, you know you're in a pretty good place. That said, so many gigs ARE $50 nowadays it's hard for students like myself to make a choice on the group they want to see with that money.

Nat xxxx

Nat xxxx said on the 27th Jan, 2012

In Brisbane, places like The Zoo, The Arena, The Tivoli and The Hifi are some of my favourites. They are small-ish venues, allowing you to get up close with the band or stand back and watch if that's your thing. They don't charge an arm and a leg for drinks although they aren't the cheapest in the world by any stretch of the imagination. The layout and the atmosphere work in their favour and make the concert-going experience a pleasant one.

It will be interesting to see in the future how the resurgence of the pub scene such as Eatons Hill and Fitzy's goes in terms of comparison to these venues


Asher_DeGrey said on the 27th Jan, 2012

we just need more support for the live music scene. even though i am young, i think it is a bad thing that the younger generation would rather be dancing to a dj in a club rather than seeing a live band performing. how do we fix that? i'm not quite sure. but it is a cause worth fighting for. yes perhaps cheaper pricing of tickets could help the situation.


Braveheart81 said on the 27th Jan, 2012

I think the hardest area of the market is for the really small venues/bands.

Venues like OAF are very successful because it's a good size for small international acts and bigger local bands. Venues like The Hopetoun struggled to stay open because they mostly featured small local acts.

It would seem to me that it is very difficult to make money out of gigs where you can only charge $10 to get people through the door. In that instance you really need to do plenty of business over the bar which just doesn't happen at midweek gigs full of impoverished hipsters/students/hipster students.


NoniDoll said on the 27th Jan, 2012

i'm a bit disappointed that the only real mention regional areas (ie. not listed on fl gig guides) got was as a potential stop off for major artists. what about those bands and solo artists who start off in country towns? most of the time, unless they're willing to sell their souls to play covers for 80% of their set, they simply won't get a gig. if they *do* get a chance to build a following in their home town based on originals, they're snatched away by the big cities, often leaving country live music scenes without the main force that was driving them.

and there needs to be a big shout-out to organisations like indent, who are supporting all-ages events in towns off the beaten track and giving local artists support spots on their national tour bills. if we want to get the next generation on board with live music (over morons with a pa and itunes playlist), we've got to get 'em early! but all-ages gigs need the support of older generations as well. yes, that means going to a gig where you can't have a beer. (trust me, it's not necessarily as bad as it sounds. excitable teenagers are no more irritating than that drunken douchebag who spills his rum and cola all over you.)


HayleyRose said on the 27th Jan, 2012

i think venues that say hosting a gig is too expencive are just using it as a pathetic excuse. with or without a gig, the venue is always making a profit with cover charges and overpriced drinks that are about 70% ice and 30% drink in the glass. my friend and i were talking about this very issue last night, which also brought attention to the number of festivals that are now bowing out due to last minute acts pulling out and supposedly bad organisation. i understand that the world is in some sort of doomed global recession now, but that doesn't excuse the price of festival tickets to go from profitable to 'how much can we squeeze out of them'. every year tickets go up and then there's always the added cost of booking fees, credit card transactions online, and transport ect, and yet the lineup of artists (if they haven't already pulled out) in the end doesn't add up to what you pay for. my friend and i never really drew a conclusion on the subject, so i'll open it up to you now - why are music festivals losing their popularity? why are 40% of the bands bailing out? there is an outcry for more live entertainment and touring artists to perform around the country, yet when we are given the oportunity to participate we pass it up?


Mahali said on the 28th Jan, 2012

i too believe that some of the best music venues in brisbane are venues such as the hifi, the tivoli and the zoo. these venues all seem to bring an assortment of fantastic bands. like nat xxxx said they are small venues which is more intimate as obviously they aren't as many people as there would be in a large arena allowing the band or artist to connect with the audience on a more personal level. however, these events are crowded and since they are small venues they normally sell out quick (the tivoli in particular)

i think the hifi (which is based in brisbane, sydney and melbourne) has a good marketing campaign in terms of bringing people who never have been to their establishment and introducing people to new bands. this all can result in new business. what they do is they run competitions on their website for free double passes to an event. i am not 100% sure how often they are run (maybe every 3 weeks) but, when the competitions begin there is at least 3 double passes for shows up for grabs and occasionally albums, festival and movie tickets. like i said previously this is a fantastic strategy that is used to keep flow of business. maybe new/struggling business should implement a strategy similar to that of the hifis but, what works for one business may not work for another.

i read in the comments about the cost of the performance and how high they are. i have noticed that too but, it mainly for international artist. i don't believe the cost of tickets are ever going to decrease too much as there is so much more that need to be covered by a international touring artist than a local one. i am no expert but, i believe somewhere in the cost of booking the artist there is payment for their flights, their visas, accommodation etc.

however, one show in brisbane that seems to contradict my theory of cost for international acts is the sidewave for a day to remember, the used and you and me at six. they are each doing a headline show together at eaton hills and it only cost around $60 (i think). this is probably only due to them touring with soundwave and it being sold out, so possibly the promoters may have already reached the cost of booking the bands and a good profit thus, they don't need to charge as much. i am not really sure how it works out but, it is definitely a show that is going against the trend (at least i think so).

as for the cost of drinks at venues, i don't think that venues will be lowering their price on that either. like it was said in this article food and drinks are where they are making most of their income. if they decrease the cost, it is possible more people may buy alcohol increasing their overall profit but, it also people wont buy enough of the cheaper drinks to equal or increase their previous profits for the more expensive drinks. i guess this is also quite an uncertain factor but, most venues are resistant to change as they can make a big enough profit now for charging extra for drinks and don't want to risk it. simply they know what works for them now and think it will keep on working for them in the long run.

sorry if this posted more than once, i just could seem to get it to post :s


ashryn said on the 30th Jan, 2012

In Perth, there are plenty of people wanting to open small bars supporting live music but they can't get a liquor licence. Due to the relatively small number of the population who can even be bothered leaving the house, it makes sense for this city to do mainly small venues, and there are a few that are doing really well supporting local bands, touring acts, and giving the DJs a run every now and then as well.

The other issue we have here is the 12am curfew - If you leave after 12, you can't go back into any bars whose licence goes past 12, so you get a mob of people who have tanked up early hitting the streets at midnight and causing authority figures to shake their heads and mutter 'kids these days'

Since we only have a couple of decent sized venues, the few international acts who come here sans festival train have a decent chance of drawing a crowd; but these days its mostly reformed 70s and 80s acts.

The tiny live music venues dotted around don't seem to be having too much trouble (except when they get bought out by a Dam Murphys and refurbished in institutional beige with the soul removed, or shut down by neighbours who have just moved in and complain about noise to the council) staying open, probably because local bands are clamouring for a place to play, and don't mind not getting paid at the end of the night - or they do, but they want an audience more.


URBAN said on the 2nd Feb, 2012

successful venues have two key goals in their business plan. they share the love of a healthy bottom line and book bands that match their venue and the broadest demographics possible. the step inn [bne] learned that it couldn't survive on a diet made up only of metal and the best example of sticky carpet in the sunshine capital.