Can you imagine a world without live music? With an estimated 49 million live music attendances every year in Australia, it’s easy to believe the industry is a vision of robust immortality.
Delve a little deeper, though, and this unimaginable scenario is verging on stark reality. Over the last 30 years, serious problems have been left to fester and spread, slowly poisoning a cherished industry. Problems which – left unchecked – will kill Australia’s live music industry, leaving a key piece of our culture nothing more than a faded, dusty relic.
Live music in Australia conjures memories of raucous nights, dancing with friends and shedding the stress of everyday humdrum with frantic abandon. Hundreds of local artists were playing in numerous of venues across the country, driving a booming local industry and birthing icons like AC/DC, INXS and Midnight Oil.
We’ve cultivated an environment in which artists cannot survive.
But while our live music industry had the world at its feet, darker forces were threatening behind the scenes. A lethal combination of government regulation, insatiable industry profiteering, and disregard for the value of music are strangling our live music industry, leaving a vibrant and diverse culture gasping for breath.
“It’s changed in a bad way,” says Ross Williams, lecturer for Griffith University’s Bachelor of Popular Music. A lifetime musician, Williams says we’ve cultivated an environment in which artists cannot survive.
“I was working seven nights a week when I was 17. I couldn’t work seven nights a week now, there’s just not the opportunity. I’m earning less per night now than I was in 1986. If you compare that to the price of a postage stamp or milk, or any other consumer price index item – you tell me one other thing which has gone down. Musicians pay scale has.”
It’s a reality his students are living. Where Williams himself refused to play for less than $150 a show, his students regularly struggle to earn $100 to be split amongst their entire band. Even if they do, making a living is impossible. In lectures, Williams makes a point asking his students to raise their hand if they know anyone playing at least four nights a week. The response, he says, is a rude awakening.
“Not one hand goes up in the air. No-one in the room knows anybody making the bare minimum wage from live gigs.”
Musicians are finding themselves victims of a financial squeeze caused by the progressive impact of regulations imposed on venues. Stricter drink-driving laws, combined with the burgeoning home entertainment boom, saw patron numbers slump. Already desperate to counter this decline, venues were instead slammed when increased residential development brought a new issue: noise complaints.
Inundated by angry residents clamouring for quieter nights, councils succumbed to lobbying and introduced noise restrictions. Venue owners were confronted with a financial dilemma: soundproof their businesses at astronomical cost, restrict live music, or shut their doors.
In 2014, Melbourne’s Cherry Bar made headlines with their creative attempt to solve this issue: crowdfunding to raise money for soundproofing. The bar successfully raised a staggering $50,000, yet this wasn’t even half the total required.
While public support for the Cherry Bar is a feel good story, it’s not a solution every business can rely on. Worse, industry regulation is only increasing; Queensland and New South Wales have recently introduced lockout laws. The legislation is aimed at solving the epidemic of alcohol-fuelled violence, but industry lobby groups are terrified the laws have caught live music in the crossfire, collateral damage in the fight against violence. It’s a situation Williams can’t help but see irony in.
“I think if they brought live music back in, it would solve a lot of the ‘one punch kills’ problem. A lot of young people are very bored, which leads to angst, binge-drinking, and use of ice – which ultimately leads to violence. I remember as a kid going to watch a band. You’d be dancing, not standing there binge-drinking for five hours. You’d sweat it out on the dance floor.”
While live music has the ability to generate community and encourage creativity, little emphasis is being placed on securing its future.
According to a 2009 study, 62.7 per cent of Australian primary schools and 33.8 per cent of Australia secondary schools have no dedicated music classes. Instead music education is often squeezed around maths and English, or outsourced to community members.
Opportunities for music education or exposure outside the school environment is in danger, too. Though not directly related to music education, the recent Federal Government slash to Australia Council funding by more than $100 million over four years sends a message. According to Nick Stewart, a founding member of ARIA winning band george, neglect of the arts is becoming an art itself. Left unaddressed, the damage will be irreparable.
“I don’t know if it will be my daughter’s generation or her kid’s generation, but the art of handwriting is gone,” he says. “Elements of music are exactly the same.”
Stewart knows the devastating impact losing these elements – like ‘jamming’, for example – would have on Australian music. Entered in a Battle of the Bands competition with no actual band to support him, he enlisted the help of several artists he’d met and only played casually with at a party the week before. It was from this impromptu jam session that george was born; several hours casually playing in a friend’s lounge room ultimately leading to an ARIA in 2002 for Best Breakthrough Artist, and a debut album which went double platinum within three weeks and has now sold more than 480,000 copies: Polyserena.
“I would like to see the music industry adopt what the film industry did.”
Stewart says music sales are crucial for musician’s survival. Yet the shift towards a singles market, driven by record companies’ relentless rush for profit, has seen album sales plummet. Combining digital and physical products, ARIA reports the wholesale sale value of albums dropped more than 57 per cent between 2006 and 2015. April 2016 was host to the worst week for album sales in Australian chart history. Music sales generate exposure, which leads to more live shows and more exposure. Losing even one part of the equation is disastrous.
“If we can’t generate enough money from the sale of a CD in order to tour the band… we have to pay for it ourselves. And that’s not something that’s affordable,” Stewart says.
“It’s a cycle effect. Without one part of it, it breaks down.”
For the live industry to survive, Stewart believes the culture needs new life through innovation. Williams agrees, adding the Government already has a model it can follow to reinvigorate it.
“I would like to see the music industry adopt what the film industry did, where if you invest in Australian film production it would be made tax deductable,” Williams says.
“It saved the Australian film industry and we need legislation like that in Canberra. If someone needs to invest in a new venue or recording and it is tax deductible, we might just save the industry.”
If they’re not, Williams says, then we’ll lose an industry which has played a huge part in defining our identity on the world scale. And for future generations of Australians, a night out watching live music with friends might not involve a trip to the local pub or club, but the nearest museum instead.