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

By | 1 February 2015

Meanwhile, suburban circuits quietly shrank and the golden age of Australian pub rock, for all its debatable pros and cons, was definitely one thing: past tense. Its demise was mourned by some, and anticipated by others, such as this happy camper in 1987:

… sometimes I think no-one would bat an eyelid if INXS, Jimmy Barnes and Pseudo Echo formed a supergroup to record Advance Australia Fair for their next assault on the lucrative American market, with a dub mix of Waltzing Matilda on the B-side … and if your musical tastes happen to not quite conform to the conservative dictates of modern 1980s corporate pop, you’d better duck for cover (Barber 1987).

For Australian music generally, the 1990s can be characterised by a shake-up of the old order, but also a persistent eighties hangover of hoping to ‘make it’. Some did, and many more tried. And like a game of musical chairs after an overlong lunch, it wasn’t exactly secure, but it was nice to move around for a while. As Craig Mathieson describes in The Sell-In (Mathieson 2000) the 1990s saw serious courting between major labels and Australian indie bands (or, to use the more non-committal but pliable term adapted in the same era, ‘alternative’). Bands such as Ratcat, The Hummingbirds, You Am I, Spiderbait, Regurgitator, and The Cruel Sea became broadly popular in spite of their inner-city, vaguely arty-farty origins – the sorts of bands which in the 1980s would have legged it to the UK – but they also signed hefty record deals. While it didn’t necessarily cost much to record, deals still offered professional vindication and exciting prospects to ‘break through’ or ‘cross over’ from niche success. Likewise, a succession of small Australian record labels were vindicated for their prescient faith in left-field performers, before becoming absorbed into multinationals during the ensuing decade.

But if several new players did, indeed, do very well outside of the old business model, it wasn’t for lack of competition. Crucially, at the level of live music the data points to more performers, performing less often, and in a smaller area. This was particularly the case in Melbourne, where a crop of inner-city venues were experiencing a surge in activity – the Punters Club, the Esplanade, the Arthouse and the Tote, among others, located within Fitzroy, St Kilda and the city. For bands starting out, the overheads were much lower, but so were the odds of actually getting a gig. By the late 1980s many pubs had their own PAs installed, and equipment in general was less cumbersome and less expensive. Roadies, lighting technicians and equipment hire were not strictly necessary for bands starting out, and the costs of home recording were significantly lower. Mini-mountains of demo tapes – at this stage still something of a novelty – began to appear in the in-trays of record stores and radio stations (Howell 1989; O’Donnell 1989). But so too did reports of the shrinking availability of music venues, particularly in Sydney (Holmes 1993; O’Donnell 1989).

The venues that remained or sprouted anew were increasingly concentrated in the inner suburbs. For a confluence of reasons, by the 1990s large suburban pubs were no longer a big part of the picture. The end of Countdown, the introduction of electronic dance music and ‘raves’ (another dated term!), ageing demographics for pub goers, drink-driving regulations, poker machines, fire regulations, cover bands and, well, everything except gentrification, conspired so that the suburban music pub was reported as having ‘all but disappeared’ (Ausmusic 1993). The inner-city pubs which had been a part of, if not the profitable end of, the Australian music scene all through the 1970s and 1980s – the sorts of pubs that bands could approach directly, but which didn’t offer such an obvious route to success – began to take on the greater share of live music activity. Agencies and expensive touring became more the preserve of top-tier, established bands.

For bands starting out, the withdrawal of the more obvious hierarchy spelled casualisation, with all its ensuing late-capitalist pros and cons. On the one hand, bands no longer had to care about getting in the good books with local honchos – it was no longer a case of ‘if those two or three people didn’t like you then you may as well get a day job’ (Don Walker of Cold Chisel speaking about Melbourne, quoted in Milsom, Thomas & Hawkes 1986, p. 2). But it also meant organising one’s own gigs, doing more of one’s own publicity, forging alliances with bands in similar situations, and generally running on youthful energy. In turn, this meant operating on a shorter spatial leash. It was logistically challenging to play across town, or multiple times a week, without an established circuit (or pecking order/toilet-seat-warming hierarchy), and it was easier to find a welcoming scene in individual trendy pubs than going it alone in the spread-out suburban venues which were increasingly turning to other revenue streams. For a young person with an inkling of being a musician, inner-city pubs that hosted a large number and variety of bands became the most obvious starting point, even if this meant relocating one’s life to hang out there. Plus, with the cultural kudos attached to independent (sorry – alternative) music, these hubs were cool and exciting places, especially for new arrivals from rural and regional Australia.

This was particularly the case in Melbourne, for which the 1994 map shows, as noted previously, increased concentrations of live music activity in Fitzroy, the CBD and St Kilda. These areas were still only partly gentrified, so that musicians could afford to live within handy stumbling distance. While, longer-term, live music scenes operating within particular inner-city suburbs meant a smaller audience, many interviewees for the author’s wider research project reflected positively on the experience of living in close quarters with other musicians and in walking distance to venues. It wasn’t exactly glamorous or profitable, but at least it had a buzz. This concurs with the recollections of Kirsty Stegwazi, originally from Adelaide and a well-known 1990s Melbourne music identity, here remembering the Punters Club, Fitzroy, which hosted the most gigs of all in the 1994 live music sample:

Just from seeing all the posters on the wall you realised it was a hive of activity and was the epicenter of a lot of really interesting things…I was being included in this music scene and that was very exciting. I’d walk down from my house in North Fitzroy to play a gig, back in the days when you could still rent in that area, get drunk, and walk home with my guitar.

– Kirsty Stegwazi, quoted in ‘The Punters Club Remembered, Part 2’, (Schaefer 2014)

Meanwhile, into the national music broadcasting gap left by Countdown in 1987, stepped a new-look Triple J. From 1989, the Sydney youth radio station began expanding nationally, first to other capital cities and then into rural and regional Australia. In 1990 it also acquired a new programming manager and removed many of the existing staff (Austin 2005; Dawson 1992). This was, effectively, a new youth radio station for a new decade, and it was timed impeccably well with the surge of interest in alternative music after Nirvana went gangbusters in 1992. But, as many Sydneysiders noted at the time, the expansion of Triple J was great for rural and regional Australia, but bad news for local novice bands. When FBi Radio won a broadcasting licence in 2003, Sydney musicians had effectively spent thirteen years without access to community radio.

Interestingly, the popularity of Triple J never quite translated in Melbourne (Jellie 1995). Through the 1980s and 1990s the role and status of volunteer-run Melbourne community radio stations Triple R, 3PBS, and 3CR remained remarkably similar to their beginnings in the 1970s and, frankly, still to this day. Like the ‘time-travelling hipster’, Melbourne community radio pops up in otherwise foreign landscapes of past decades, looking a little underdressed for the times, but strangely familiar.

Of course, the years after Countdown and before Nirvana also coincided with a general economic recession, upon which some of the blame for the waning live music scene was briefly laid (Danielsen 1991; Scatena 1991). In the ensuing years, this bummed-out time tended to be forgotten in the excitement of a new, youth-focused wave of opportunities: new festivals, radio shows, competitions, surprise successes. A 1991 Juke article – ‘Rock and the Recession: The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Dwindle’ – reported glumly on working conditions for new Australian bands, and the horror that bands in the UK had started performing for free, gladiatorially hoping for a chance to gain record label interest (Scatena 1991). In later years this was reported differently: competitions were increasingly the norm as a route to success (campus band competitions are the reason that RMIT University ranks so highly in the 1994 live music sample), and silverchair achieved astonishing success after winning a 1994 national demo competition entitled, in true Zeitgeist style, Pick Me.

Other distinctive features of this era are the arrival of poker machines: to the state of Victoria for the first time in 1992, and lurking ever after in the corners of hotels of New South Wales (in addition to the existing club machines) from 1998. After a quiet time in the 1980s, festivals returned to prominence as big money spinners, effectively stepping into the fold for shrinking suburban circuits. The first Big Day Out was staged in Sydney in 1992, enjoying success in two distinctive waves (post-Nirvana and post-silverchair). Apart from some notable misfires – Alternative Nation (1995) among them – festivals generally grew in number and popularity during this period, and it is only very recently that the rhetoric of decline has drifted from the traditional pub music circuit and on to festivals (Newstead 2013).

In the 1990s bands also stopped leaving Brisbane, since this was no longer the hostile home for musicians and longhairs it had been during the Bjelke-Petersen years. This Queensland component of Australian music history is wonderfully documented by Andrew Stafford in Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden (Stafford 2006). The Deep North had previously provided a wellspring of migrant musicians to Sydney, but post-Fitzgerald inquiry there were more reasons to stay, including cheap rents, the absence of police raids at gigs (handy!), a cleaned-up Fortitude Valley, and a cool rehearsal space in the old Target building. Powderfinger, Custard, and Regurgitator,did well out of this and chose to stay based in Brisbane. Like the expansion of Triple J, this was Sydney’s loss, and after the excitement of a wave of ‘signings’ and high-profile successes early in the 1990s, the Sydney live music scene quietly sputtered and morphed into something one could succeed in spite of, but not because of.

So, by the middle of the 1990s, the old pub rock order and its features both good and bad – high turnover and popularity, regular work and defined paths to success, a mix of suburban and inner-city venues, crushing overheads, insane gender skew and weirdly feudal local power structures – were in the process of being selectively forgotten. The new landscape was more inclusive but more competitive, cheaper to get into but far less regular, overwhelmingly lower-paid, less suburban and also, perhaps creepily so, emphatically youthful and paternalistic, with young bands hoping to be picked up by various powers-that-be. The major labels, were, after all, still powerful, and not yet distracted by Napster. A 1996 Beat article encouraged young bands to play live, not as part of a circuit but because ‘you never know who might be watching’ (Bolster 1996). In the same article an Artist and Repertoire (A&R) representative noted that ‘to find the next silverchair or Regurgitator at the moment in Australia is easy, because there’s some incredible young talent out there, and I mean young … there’s certainly not much over twenty-five that’s striking my light at all.’

Indeed, like many other industries these young people were able to bring waves of enthusiasm, innovation and energy in spite of casual and low-paid work, clustering nearer to each other and having a pretty good time, all things considered. But by the early 2000s several Australian cities were investigating the state of local live music scenes (Carbines 2003; Flew 2001; Johnson & Homan 2003). Even if was a case of good riddance to band rubbish with the workings of the old scene, the sporadic excitement of band competitions and yearly festivals would not cut the mustard long-term for music lovers and policymakers who valued live music as a consistent, accessible and local presence. In fact, even as musicians now log more hours on the computer than on the road – see, for example, the wonderfully candid Funemployed: The Life of an Artist in Australia, from Cradle to Centrelink (Heazlewood 2014) – the trend for spatial agglomeration in live music locations has continued, and musicians have increasingly engaged with the politics of protecting live music venues. While there is, of course, a lot to this story, maps and geographic inquiry – both for the past and the present – can serve as a reminder that creative practices such as live music run on the energies and power relations of individual humans. In map form, these render inscriptions of lost venues, long nights, and, as it has transpired, loosening rules but ever-shortening leashes.

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

  1. Pingback: Bowie in the Pub: How Sydney Music Died - AUSTRALIAN MUSIC MUSEUM PROJECT

  2. you lo says:

    Sydney in the 90s was the best. we used to see live music 3 nights a week. plus the club’s were better more underground and no drunk asshats. now Sydney is a crowded boring place and it’s impossible to get around. easy way tea has replaced the music and cafe culture we had (actual cafes not the corporate cafeterias they call cafes now).. sad

  3. D says:

    thanks for sharing this. I am in my mid 50’s. I remember going to the record store and picking up a copy of Drum magazine regularly. Used to search the papers to decide which live bands to see in Sydney. We would go to The Basement or The Windsor Hotel in the CBD, Lord Nelson at the Rocks, The Rest Hotel – Milsons Point, Selinas – Coogee. Some great memories with some of the pubs still around.