Music Australia News

Making the Case for a vibrant Australian live music scene

Image Credit: Victoria Tesoriero
Chris Bowen
| March 31, 2015

Australians love live music

Australians love music and attending live music. A 2011 Ernst and Young study for APRA/AMCOS found that 41 million people attended venue-based live music over the twelve months to 2010. And our love of our own music is growing. The 2014 ARIA charts show that 36 of the year’s top 100 albums were by Australian artists, nine more than the previous two years.

While these figures, our burgeoning talent, and legions of fans are impressive, success in the live music sector is not assured. The challenges and pressures are many, requiring advocacy and action. Music Australia supports a network working across the country to advocate and act so that Australians can continue to love great live music.

Live music can deliver solid benefits

There are sound economic reasons for backing live music, which generates over $1.2 billion a year according to the Ernst and Young study and provides over 14,000 jobs. In Austin Texas, which bills itself as the live music capital of the world, the industry generates $1.6 billion a year – in one city! A 2013 Austin White Paper also identified it as a powerful tourism contributor, with a survey finding three-quarters of people quoting live music as a key city attractor.

Key challenges

Over the past twenty years, Australian live music has faced a series of challenges, including costly and complex licensing, inner city development, anti-noise neighbours, changing venue environments, shifting demographics and a lack of willingness on the part of audiences to pay. National arts body the Australia Council’s recent study into arts participation showed a two percent drop in attendance at live music over four years to 2013 from 41 to 39 percent.

The current scene varies from area to area. Cities such as Brisbane and Melbourne are doing relatively well, in contrast with places like Sydney where the 2013 Live Music Taskforce found that just 6% of 2,268 licensed premises had live music licences with APRA/AMCOS. Melbourne hasn’t suffered such a significant downturn: as the 2012 Victorian Live Music Census noted, a run-of-the-mill Saturday night saw 97,000 gig-goers attend live shows.

Venues come and go, as always. However, there have been multiple closures in recent times. A 2014 Music Australia article charted ten venues recently closed down in Sydney and Melbourne, while on the upside six new spaces had opened up. Clearly this is very different to what former Saints guitarist Ed Kuepper, speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, remembers in the ‘80s: “I lived in Kings Cross and Darlinghurst and there were 20 music venues in walking distance.”

Image Credit: Victoria Tesoriero

Image Credit: Victoria Tesoriero

Advocacy and action are essential

In the past decade, many cities have been working remarkably hard to turn this situation around. Efforts have manifested in two forms: reform to remove regulatory and policy barriers that hinder live music, and activities to encourage development of the live music sector.

Reducing barriers involves removing obstacles, largely regulatory, that hamper live music in venues. These range from complex approval processes and onerous fire and other regulations, to restrictive noise limits and unrealistic fees and charges.

Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley provides a terrific example of positive regulatory reform. In the early 2000s, the area, which had nurtured the likes of Powderfinger and Regurgitator, seemed to be turning into a music ghost town. But a series of 2004 reforms, which required developers to invest in soundproofing and amended venue sound limits, inspired its revival. Today, the Fortitude Valley Entertainment Music Precinct attracts around 50,000 music-goers on an average Saturday night.

In Sydney, liquor and licensing reforms in 2008 and 2009, particularly driven by John Wardle, now co-director of the Live Music Office, made it easier and more affordable for venues to sell alcohol and program live music. Recent initiatives, many spearheaded by the Live Music Office, include City of Sydney’s Live Music and Performance Action Plan, and Victoria’s agent of change principle – placing responsibility for soundproofing on those who move near an existing venue.

On the sector development side, grants such as those introduced by the City of Yarra enable small venues to soundproof their venues and equip them for live performance, while arts bodies offer performance grants to ease the high costs of touring in Australia.

We are seeing results

As a result of key policy changes, Sydney’s small-scale scene has changed, with music entrepreneurs taking advantage of their newfound freedom. Numerous cafes and small bars now host live music–regularly or occasionally. Simultaneously, there’s been a move towards multi-purpose venues offering gigs, along with a host of other cultural experiences–from temporary exhibitions to ten-pin bowling.

However, more work is needed to maximise viability, including continued advocacy, further roll-back of regulatory barriers, greater sector development and proactive work between industry groups, government agencies and enterprising operators with a passion for generating live music in their venues.

By Music Australia CEO Chris Bowen and Senior Writer Jasmine Crittenden

This article first appeared in Clubs and Pubs Manager Magazine in February 2015.

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