Lost Venues, Long Nights: An Introduction to Historical Maps of Live Music in Sydney and Melbourne

1 February 2015

Advertisements for Phoenician Club (closed 1998) and Phantom Records store (also closed 1998), On The Street, Sydney, August 1991

As with many other industries, live music in Australia has undergone a form of restructuring. Much of this occurred during the 1990s, though it wasn’t so obvious at the time and there were plenty of other interesting things happening, often within stumbling distance of one’s affordable inner-city rental accommodation. As an introduction to this story of change felt in place, over time, this article discusses changes to live music in Australian cities between the 1980s and the 2000s, transitioning from an industry heyday of sorts, towards a more familiar landscape of organised activism focused on saving inner-city music venues (see, for example: Faulkner 2013; Homan 2011; Levin 2014). The starting point for discussion is a set of maps and figures derived from gig listings in Melbourne and Sydney in three respective sample years, forming a necessarily brief but novel ‘forest through the trees’ perspective on long-range change.

Among the map data are some venue names from the past which may be familiar or surprising to readers, depending on the time frame in which they went out the most. But beyond the bricks and mortar of the venues – and one can, in several cases, ‘buy a brick’ to save a particular venue – the data also speak to the human geography of music, and, to borrow a useful phrase, its ‘lost geographies of power’ (Allen 2003). Over the years there has been no decline in the number of performers, or even music venues, in Sydney or Melbourne. The changes are more spatial. They trend towards the diminishing role of organisational oligarchs but also the spatial agglomeration of gigs and musicians, a map writ large by the collective web of ‘spatial leashes’ which accompany DIY creative work.

The maps presented in this article derive from a wider research project in progress by the author. They are based on gig listings (published listings for forthcoming live music events) from the same week in three separate years (1983, 1994, 2006), in both Melbourne and Sydney. The gig listings have been compiled into an historical Geographic Information System (historical GIS). The structure of the historical GIS allows maps to be generated on live music distribution in different cities and timeframes, as well as enabling summaries of the number of different bands, or calculation of the distance between venues and gigs.

In these particular maps the larger symbols represent venues with more individual gigs in the respective time frames, found in either the Rock, Jazz or Folk sections of the relevant publications. As with the wider research project, earlier years rely more on Fairfax publications (The Age and Sydney Morning Herald), while in the 1990s this transitions to street press (Beat and Drum Media). The wider research project uses more sample years and sources, but the overall trends are consistent with the abridged results presented here.

Melbourne Live Music Samples

Melbourne, 1983, most listed venues:
Chevron Hotel (City/Prahran)
The Club (Collingwood)
Her Majesty’s Nightspot (South Yarra)
Green Man (Armadale)
Central Club Hotel (Richmond)
Bombay Rock (Brunswick)
Armadale Hotel (Armadale)
One-C-One Folk Club (Princes Hill)
Prince of Wales (St Kilda)
The Venue (St Kilda)

Gigs listed in one week: 358
Average distance between gigs: 336m
Band/Performer count: 266

Melbourne, 1994, most listed venues:
Punters Club (Fitzroy)
Esplanade Hotel (St Kilda)
Arthouse (City/Carlton)
Public Bar (City/North Melbourne)
Rainbow Hotel (Fitzroy)
RMIT University (City)
Empress Hotel (Fitzroy North)
Royal Derby Hotel (Fitzroy)
The Tote (Collingwood)
Prince of Wales (St Kilda)

Gigs listed in one week: 511
Average distance between gigs: 189m
Band/Performer count: 411

Melbourne, 2006, most listed venues:
Esplanade Hotel (St Kilda)
Revolver Upstairs (Prahran)
Pony (City)
The Tote (Collingwood)
Ding Dong Lounge (City)
Corner Hotel (Richmond)
Peninsula Lounge (Moorooduc)
Rob Roy (Fitzroy)
First Floor (Fitzroy)
Arthouse (Melbourne)

Gigs listed in one week: 839
Average distance between gigs: 85m
Band/Performer count: 738

Sydney Live Music Samples

Sydney, 1983, most listed venues:
Strawberry Hills Hotel (Surry Hills)
Tivoli (City)
Sydney Trade Union Club (Surry Hills)
Old Push (The Rocks)
Britannia (Chippendale)
Sylvania Hotel (Sylvania)
Sefton Hotel (Sefton)
Basement (Circular Quay)
Cat and Fiddle (Balmain)
Rose Shamrock and Thistle (Rozelle)

Gigs listed in one week: 471
Average distance between gigs: 240m
Band/Performer count: 324

Sydney, 1994, most listed venues:
Harbourside Brasserie (Walsh Bay)
Sandringham Hotel (Newtown)
Annandale Hotel (Annandale)
Metro (City)
Kinsela’s (Taylor Square)
Soup Plus (City)
Springfield’s (Kings Cross)
Vulcan Hotel (Ultimo)
Bowlers Club of NSW (City)
Basement (Circular Quay)

Gigs listed in one week: 469
Average distance between gigs: 414m
Band/Performer count: 353

Sydney, 2006, most listed venues:
Candy’s Apartment (Kings Cross)
Hopetoun Hotel (Surry Hills)
Basement (Circular Quay)
Sandringham Hotel (Newtown)
Mandarin Club (Haymarket)
Cat and Fiddle (Balmain)
Spectrum (Darlinghurst)
Empire Hotel (Annandale)
Gaelic Theatre (Surry Hills)
Excelsior Hotel (Surry Hills)

Gigs listed in one week: 788
Average distance between gigs: 308m
Band/Performer count: 639

The maps and figures presented here do not indicate any long-term decline in the number of live music performances (‘gigs’), nor in the number of bands, between the early 1980s in either Melbourne or Sydney. What they do point towards is spatially tempered expansion. In these samples the spatial variation of gigs (represented in the ‘Average distance between gigs’ figure, and in the visual clustering in the maps) declines over time, while the number of performers increases. For better or worse, live music scenes now survive with more performers, performing less often, and in a smaller area.

This pattern is stronger and starts earlier in Melbourne than in Sydney. This isn’t actually inconsistent with recent positive reports of the aggregate strength of Melbourne’s live music scene (Boulton 2013; Music Victoria 2012), nor with reports of its live music venues being under threat (Doman 2014; Levin 2010b). Rather, it highlights the human geography already present in existing accounts, but often lost in focusing on particular venues or on aggregate activity.

In the Melbourne samples, the number of performers nearly trebles across 1983, 1994 and 2006: from 266, to 411, to 738. The number of gigs also increases, but not in proportion with the number of performers. Meanwhile, the average distance between gigs shrinks considerably: 336m, 189m, 85m. Further, at each sample, Fitzroy, the CBD, and St Kilda (read: The Esplanade) made up an increasingly large proportion of the live music listings. Even inner-city areas such as South Melbourne, Richmond and South Yarra decline in activity or vanish from the data. This particular (Liberal-oriented) inner-city hollowing out is consistent with maps of independent arts and music venues presented by Kate Shaw (2013). The suburban shrinkage is the other side of this equation – this slunk quietly off stage with no help from gentrification.

While Melbourne live music experienced this spatially tempered expansion in the 1990s, Sydney was entering a well-documented decennium horribilis. By the late 1990s even the unofficial home-town booster band, The Whitlams, was singing (sadly) about their hometown more than in it. Speaking on radio in 1997, lead singer Tim Freedman commented that Melbourne had ‘a bigger sense of community, in pubs and being part of a crowd’, while inner-city Sydney had been ‘scattered to the wind’ (‘Australian Music Show’, Triple J, 3 September 1997, quoted in Carroll & Connor 2000). In addition, a variety of contemporary accounts point to a negative feeling in Sydney live music in the 1990s, depicting the city as a tough place to get a gig or find a friend (Ausmusic 1993; Carroll & Connell 2000; Casimir 1990; Holmes 1993; Homan 2000; Johnson & Homan 2003). In the same time frame, property prices trebled (O’Neill & McGuirk 2002).

Again, the data presented in the maps above is not inconsistent with existing accounts, but adds nuance. The Sydney data does not indicate a drop in gig numbers or performer numbers in the 1990s, but there is a plateau in both, as well as a lack of inner-city clustering (either visible in the maps, or measurable in the average distance figure), which contrasts with Melbourne. This lack of inner-city clustering occurs along with the loss of the ring of suburban venues, a prominent feature in the 1983 Sydney map.

Further, of the Sydney venues with the most listings in the 1994 sample, several are fancier and higher-capacity venues, not suited for musicians starting out. And unlike in Melbourne, the list of 2006 top-listing venues is completely different to 1994. Thus, the negative reports of Sydney’s live music in the 1990s are related less to overall numbers of venues or gigs, than to lack of spatial consolidation – the feature which, for better and worse, characterised the survival of Melbourne live music through the same decade. But by 2006 Sydney live music can be seen making a recovery along the same lines as Melbourne: greater clustering, and loss of suburban circuits.

Of course, musicians have always navigated different gatekeepers, obstacles and opportunities. These leave their traces in maps of the past, but require some translation. These final sections describe the differing norms for Australian musicians in two distinctive earlier eras, and can help give context to the maps and figures presented above.

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’
- L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

Ridin’ down the highway Goin’ to a show Stop in all the byways Playin’ rock ‘n’ roll ... Getting old, getting grey Getting ripped off, under-paid Getting sold, second hand That’s how it goes playing in a band - Bon Scott (AC/DC), song lyrics ‘Long Way To The Top’, 1975
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9 Responses to Lost Venues, Long Nights: An Introduction to Historical Maps of Live Music in Sydney and Melbourne

  1. Claire says:

    Hi Sarah,

    This is a wonderful project, but I notice you aggregate more commercial venues (ex: Basement in Sydney) with smaller ones that regularly hosted indie bands (pubs/hotels around Sydney Uni, for instance).

    Was this a conscious decision? Do you think the data would look different, and tell a different story of the Sydney (and Melbourne) music scenes if those threads were separate? To wit, the amount of live music might remain about the same in numerical terms, but the number of indie venues available to indie, upcoming bands, might look quite different in that respect.

  2. Sarah says:

    Hi Claire –

    An important question, and one which runs through the whole project. It’s a productive tension, bubbling and shifting like an undersea volcanic rift, to be found in various guises across decades of commentary on the music industry. In the 1980s there’s quite a few articles pointing towards outright hostility between inner city venues and the mainstream music industry, which at the time was reasonably definable with Countdown and agencies and the big labels. More recently these obvious institutions no longer have the same clout, so it’s harder to define what one is independent from, and even back in the day Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil positioned themselves as outsiders.

    Similarly for covers – the concept of “cover band” creeps in as a threat later in the 1980s, but before that it wasn’t really a thing, it was just “a band”, everyone did covers, though they might be punk ones. So the lines are pretty changeable, in an interesting way. It’s all shot through with more than a dash of class and education and gender, the full extent of which I can’t hope to describe for the project, but which I do hope will come up as discussion points when people look at the maps and think about how things are, and have been, organized.

    In terms of the quantitative map database, yes, it was a conscious decision to not personally mediate the type of gig or venue to include, but to let the sources do this. Whatever the gig listing sources “count” as live music in that particular year, I do too. This is to:

    a) Maintain consistency in the different years and be able to compare apples with apples (this is also why private parties etc. are not sought out, because they can only be compared over time if I have the same information for different years);

    b) Finish the database at all. Kate Shaw has done some excellent work on independent venues in Melbourne, a project for which I helped with the map side (see link below). Defining “independent” is possible, and Kate is the most qualified of anyone I know to do so, but even then it took a huge amount of deliberation.


    c) Bring this very interesting discussion to the qualitative data. The PhD uses mixed methods, wherein the maps feature in interviews with musicians and they give feedback on which venues were actually important to them, and which ones maybe shouldn’t be in the maps. This is comparable to a study undertaken in the US, to make a map of gay and lesbian sites in Seattle – “Queering the Map: The Productive Tensions of Colliding Epistemologies” (Brown & Knopp 2008).

    In the short term, I’ve noted in this article that the Basement was not suited to bands starting out. I also wouldn’t fancy trying to get a first gig at the Metro or the Harbourside Brasserie! Whereas almost all the 1994 Melbourne venues would be reasonably approachable, based on my memories of them.

    Another point I should have raised is that I think the Trade Union Club and the Punters Club, though decades and cities apart, filled an important role of being hip but relatively inclusive, hosting new little bands as well as bigger names. Personally I am not a fan of consciously “boutique” type venues. They do host up-and-coming (or young and hungry) bands but they have to practically poo their pants in fear trying to get a big enough show and it pretty much kills the vibe. That said, it’s very difficult to define what makes them boutique, not a glance anyway, or from the distance of decades. Musicians who have “been there, done that” (or not!) are a good measure, though very subjective, and the best numerical measure is that accessible venues have a lot of different bands. Fairly rudimentary, I know, but even that is tempered my understanding of how Sydney is going at the moment: the term “showcase” seems to be a euphemism of choice for “pay to play”?

    Thanks for reading


  3. Candy Says says:

    An important article, for sure, but too descriptive for me; that is, not enough acknowledgement of the dire situation facing the live music scene in Australia today (outside of festivals), and why. I reckon you would have gleaned more from anecdotal evidence – talking to musos and punters, past and present, as well as industry moguls and money grabbing outlet owners and managers – than from a Geographic Information System approach. Perhaps you did both? If so, the anecdotal stuff needed foregrounding, to demonstrate what musicians and fans value and privilege about live music, and why its preservation is important, in contradistinction to the fat controllers and those social features hastening its decline. Or am I simply being alarmist?

  4. marc dorey says:

    Hi Sarah,
    just wanted to chime in with a couple of personal observations for what it’s worth, being someone who chased shows circa late 80s-2K.

    1) Personally experience definitely jibes with your observation about the big agencies kinda running a closed shop for a certain part of that. The big wall we encountered was attempting to get on to bills of the bigger indie bands – say Cosmic Pyschos, Huxton Creepers – as newbies. The counterattack we chose was DIY gigs – you might pick an “old man” pub in Richmond with a nice big Ladies Lounge. Cut a deal with the publican to the effect of “me and my mates’ bands will play, we’ll supply our own PA, and we’ll split the bar takings with you”..or package a gig for a quiet night at an established venue like the Tote and pitch it to the booker – so maybe 5 x little bands with 50 mates each gives you a decent Tuesday night crowd. My now-highly attuned sense as a corporate toadie retrospectively tells me that what was happening then was a significant tilt in the market against what felt like the Gudinski axis.

    2) It wasn’t Nirvana, it was Ratcat. That’s when the A&R guys and bookers stopped giving ‘punk/indie/alternative/whatever’ bands the side-eyes treatment and started looking for the next indie-commercial crossover act. Then “punk broke”, to paraphrase Sonic Youth.

    Can’t wait to see the thesis and see if data confirms my hunches..and now it’s time for my Bex and hot Milo. cheerio.

  5. Sarah says:

    Great, thanks Marc, and sorry I hadn’t checked the comments. That sounds very fun to organize, or to attend, a band night in a Richmond old man pub, as well as being a small step in a big overall change, and I’m happy that the shoe seems to fit in terms of my interpretation of an era which I was peripherally aware of but not a part of. I have similar fond memories of playing in the East Brunswick Hotel in the early 2000s when it was still partly an old man pub (with sport on the TV and the smell of chips for background atmosphere). It was great, and after it went a bit more upscale we never played there again.
    You’re right, Ratcat did seem to be a big deal (and, frankly, ace). That was 1990 – the first wave before the big wave!

  6. Neil Wedd says:

    Thank you for a great story. I have seen most of this from 82 to now, all in the indie sphere, booking venues, managing bands, working for promoters and agencies. You missed the Vines, Jet era, which was a the last of the gold rushes. Our time came after Countdown and continues to this day. Venues now rule because you need to be seen. Old people go out and we now have different streams for the various niches. But one thing remains the same. Talent is great but without drive you won’t make it.

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