In the space of a couple of months Sydney’s Hopetoun Hotel and Melbourne’s Tote closed their hallowed, well-worn doors for good. All three were bastions of grassroots music in their respective cities and their closures not only hurt venue owners but independent emerging artists and lovers of live music. But what can be done to avoid such catastrophes in the future? Pedestrian spoke to Quincy McLean of SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) and Stig Richards, Creative Director of music-focused Creative Agency Thought By Them to explore five ways live venues can stay alive.
1) ATTITUDINAL SHIFT
It’s easy to blame venue closures on mismanagement and backwards thinking Government policies but some portion of the blame must be shouldered by the punters themselves. The “Save The Hopetoun Hotel” Facebook group for example, boasts over 14,000 members – a figure which accumulated in a relatively short amount of time. It’s great that so many people are nostalgic and protective of The Hopetoun but if the members of that group were to attend one Hopetoun gig a month that would equate to 466 people every night of the week. Instead, in this alternate reality, we’d have a “Purge The Hopetoun Hotel” Facebook group and there would be lines around the block.
Similarly if the thousands who bothered to walk in Melbourne’s SLAM rally a fortnight ago instead walked into the Tote a few months prior, the venue would be flourishing. Joni Mitchell was right – you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone – but don’t act surprised when your inactivity begets a venue’s inactivity. It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance. We like to think we’re supporters of live music and should a venue close we’ll gladly sign petitions and join Facebook groups. The reality however, is proven in attendance and that’s left wanting. Should that disparity between what we think and what we do be nil, that is, we actually support live music from the get-go and watch bands we haven’t heard of on a regular basis then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Yes venues need to innovate and Governments need to review policies but the biggest shift must come from punters. It’s cool if you don’t regularly support live music but don’t complain when a venue meets its demise – you can’t have it both ways.
2) CHANGE LEGISLATION
Much of the debate around venue closure has centered on backward thinking Government policies. To shed some light on the issue from a legislative perspective we recently spoke to SLAM organizer Quincy McLean about the ways Government legislation can evolve to help protect and even encourage live venues to exist. Here are the main areas McLean identified.
CHANGE LEGISLATION THAT LISTS MUSIC VENUES AS “HIGH RISK”
Pedestrian: Liquor Licensing Legislation deems music venues as “high risk” venues. Meaning all live music venues require at least two security guards on site as they’re perceived (by the Government) as places where there is a propensity for violence. That’s your main contention, the “high risk” factor, is that correct?
Quincy McLean: That’s my main contention. If they found a way to remove music as a high risk factor it would go a long way to helping grassroots venues. Currently for venues like The Railway who on a very quiet weeknight may only attract a small number of punters, for them to hire two bouncers at $80 an hour for the duration of the night, it’s just not viable. So anything that’s going to be detrimental to the state of live music in Melbourne – we’re going to fight against.
P: Is the Government receptive to changing legislation?
QM: We’ve had five meetings with the Government and I have another one this Thursday. We feel like the process have very much been about educating the Government on the state of things. But I think that the rally for example was a great chance for tens of thousands of people to actually hear the words of the people who lost their jobs like Rick Dempster from the Brunswick Blue Shooters lost his gig at The Railway Hotel and Evelyn Morris from Piklet lost her gig at Hell’s Kitchen. I think a lot of people or at least part of the rally thought that it was just about The Tote. A lot of people in power didn’t really realize the extent of the damage and on the day they really got to see some of the innocent victims. We had people coming up to us saying “I didn’t realize how many people lost gigs or how many venues lost remaining nights”.
P: So they’re listening…
QM: They’re listening, but you have to be careful. Change in Government is really hard to make and so they’ll make as few as they have to as long as things appear to be OK. So we really have to keep on top of them to make sure that everything gets sorted out. Or at least that live music isn’t considered to be a trigger for high risk, that’s crucial to us.
P: The “Live Music Accord” (available at the SLAM website) mentions that the dialogue has opened between The Government and various music interests groups but when can we expect the proposed changes to come to fruition?
QM: They (The Government) are working on that. They are doing a roll back on any venues that are live music venues or where music is the priority. At the moment they’re looking at venues that hold an APRA license. So if a venue holds a APRA license they’re obviously contributing a cultural and creative aspect so that’s one area where they’re looking to create exemptions and venues can apply to have the high risk conditions rolled back.
ORDER OF OCCUPANCY LEGISLATION
P: Are there any other legislative amendments aside from the “high risk” factor you’d consider proposing?
QM: The order of occupancy issue that is definitely an important issue. The Birmingham Hotel for example, is a venue that’s battling against that now. The Birmingham has been operating as a live music venue for at least ten years and somebody’s moved in next to the venue and complained about noise. The Birmingham spent $3,500 soundproofing the windows of that venue with electric operated shutters to cut the noise that those people experience and their neighbours are still complaining about the noise. If order of occupancy laws were enacted – if you moved into an area where there was a live music venue that had existed for 10, 20, 30 years – if they are going about their usual business as they always had – you can’t move in and expect that venue to change. If you’ve moved into that area that was your decision so you either put up with it or soundproof your residence yourself.
CULTURAL HERITAGE LISTING FOR ICONIC MUSIC VENUES
P: We’ve mentioned changing “high risk” status and also the order of occupancy issue but could The Government also protect venues previously deemed as “culturally significant” through a kind of heritage listing?
QM: If the venue is deemed to have some cultural relevance then I think they should be protected. If they come under threat from soundproofing issues or whatever they should be able to apply for a grant. I mean, there’s not a lot of money in live music that’s something people have to understand, especially when you’re dealing with young, original bands who are breaking ground they’re not going to be pulling crowds in their early days. There’s not a lot of financial incentive for nurturing young creative talent and it takes a lot of foresight to recognize the talent well before the general public pick up on it. And the idea that they’re being punished by being considered “high risk” is ridiculous when they should actually be supported. Once you start looking at Arts grants for popular music it’s a bit of a bottomless pit. There’s a lot of music out there and a lot of it’s not good so you have to be careful about who you fund and how you fund. But I certainly think that legislation that allows venue owners to encourage young artists is an essential change.
3) CENTRALIZED BODY TO PROTECT LIVE VENUES, AND THEIR OWNERS
P: I’m not sure if this exists but is there a Union that represents the collective interests of live venues. And if not, and I guess SLAM has kind of filled this role, but should there be a centralized lobby group to protect venues from unfair legislation?
As far as I know there isn’t a union. But Music Victoria – a body that has been funded by the Government – I think will serve that purpose to an extent. Their role is quite diverse so they’ll be used by all areas of the music community. But if legislation like this isn’t enacted in the future a body like Music Victoria can stand up to the Government and they can consult the Government before they bring in legislation that may harm live venues. So I think Music Victoria certainly serves that purpose. SLAM was a spontaneous reaction to a set of circumstances and we’ll certainly have to at if there’s a future for SLAM. We’d like to think of SLAM as activists we can’t see ourselves existing within a Government framework. It is, I suppose, a pressure group on the Government and if the Government behaves itself then there’s probably no need for SLAM.
On the other side of the coin Pedestrian chatted to Stig Richards, Creative Director of Thought By Them – the Agency arm of music-centric media company Sound Alliance. Here are a few business-minded suggestions on how venues can survive in the future.
4) WORK WITH BRANDS
Pedestrian: The Metro teamed up with Virgin for a sponsorship deal last year – did you broker that deal?
Stig Richards: I proposed the idea and I was involved in planning the responsibilities of each party and I was involved in discussing remuneration and whether the mutual benefits would come.
P: This might be obvious to some but what exactly are the benefits for both parties?
The mutual benefits are actually quite long when you look at it in detail. From a brand’s point of view – if a brand has strong strategy and understands its place in music then it needs to do more than just put their logo somewhere and hope people like it. It needs to support music, it needs to be able to give its customers some added value within the music experience and from a venue’s point of view, and this is a very top line view, it can allow resources to do things that might not have as much commercial viability. This can be supporting smaller bands, setting up music development programs, increasing the quality of the sound system and just giving the venue tools to stay ahead. As people are quite aware at the moment – support for live music, though buoyant, it doesn’t have an influx of capital from elsewhere.
P: And do you see this same model working for a venue such as The Hopetoun where the reach and audience is much less then somewhere like The Metro?
SR: Definitely. I suppose the problem isn’t necessarily “is it good for a brand”, there are a number of brands out there that see the wisdom in involvement in the music space. We’re very fortunate in that our clients understand the value. Our job is to work out the best way for them to be involved and depending on scale, budget and objectives we then make recommendations and bring those ideas to life. For Virgin, which obviously has strong roots in music, it makes sense. But that isn’t to say that there other brands would be equally as appropriate for the dearly departed venues you just mentioned. I’d love to think we could have been in a position to have actually known some of the issues that other venues we’re experiencing so we could have gone into bat – both from a legislative point of view and a brand funding point of view. But I can also respect the notion that some venues might not want to pursue that avenue. But I would personally, as someone who likes live music, I would rather go to a venue that has a brand involved than have a venue close down and not have the opportunity to hear the music.
5) DIVERSIFY REVENUE STREAMS
P: There’s obvious ways venues can diversify revenue streams like daytime trading or hiring out the space for other purposes but that you’re aware of, are there any other ways outside of corporate sponsorship whereby venues can diversify their revenue streams?
SR: Well the Century Venue guys are doing a great job with Moshcam. It’s early days yet as a format for delivering content – but they film and record a lot of their gigs and then make it available online so they have the potential to make money from an advertising point of view around that content.
Then there’s merchandising obviously. If you have a venue as iconic as a Hopetoun or a Tote or a Metro – if you as a venue have your fan base like the bands that perform there have a fan base there’s scope for merchandise. Whether that be live DVDs, audio streams online, t-shirt – you could take that route.
Also I think it requires some lateral thinking these days. There’s deals venues have always done with brands with regard to sales rights in the venue. Perhaps they can think more laterally around that so instead of just having a deal for spirits and a deal for beer and a deal for soft drinks – they might be able to look at other things that might add to a punter’s experience at a venue. There might be things that you want on-site that you don’t have to go elsewhere for. Almost creating a contextually relevant retail environment of a festival site. You basically have to look at what people want and provide that.