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Play On: Finding music and a new audience in an underground carpark

Lydia Dobbin and her team in Play On began a minor revolution. They perform classical music by Xenakis, Mendelsohn and Britten and then follow it with a DJ who ‘navigates diverse genres and pivots towards the counter-culture’. 

This concept is staged in underground car parks and other non-traditional spaces and was founded by Melbourne-based Dobbin and her co-conspirators, Tom Dreyfus and Cam Duff, (“a master of marketing” as she calls him), and a small team. 

“I am the only one who comes from the classical music world,” says Dobbin, who graduated from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and has worked as a manager for the Seraphim Trio, the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival and the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

Dobbin and Play On have locked onto young and diverse audiences for a music form that has become increasingly frequented by audiences, who, she admits, are “predominantly white, middle class and older, and to be generous, well over 50”. 

Lydia is young, but an old colleague. We meet at her favourite Turkish café, Babajan in Melbourne.

Dobbin is not the sort of person you’d suspect to be leading a revolution. She looks like she’d be more at home in Cambridge University auditorium. She’s highly articulate, soft-spoken and tenacious, purposeful and entrepreneurial. 

As a classical pianist with a Masters in Musicology, she has an insider’s view of the classical music world, and that made her think: “There’s no point waiting, we need to do something here”.

We talk about her recent stints observing the music scenes in Berlin, London and Athens. 

“The energy is amazing. These artists take control of their narratives and do stuff. They don’t wait for things,” she says. 

She realised a thriving underground classical scene was happening in those centres, so why not here?

It was during our time working together at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival that the idea of underground classical gigs began to ferment.

“My inspiration began started in the industry as a classical musician and then in the jazz industry. I became conscious that at jazz shows there was an intense listening experience, but people were more relaxed than at classical shows.” 

She began to put things together. Pairing classical and electronic music was a natural partnership.

“There is an audience that wants deep listening and could use their love of electronic music as a bridge to classical.”

Dobbin saw first hand the efforts made by producers of classical music to induce young people to concerts.

“Classical shows are financially inaccessible to younger audiences and are often also culturally inaccessible; the environment is not appealing to younger or more diverse audiences.

“Young people love classical music but don’t go to concerts, while they may have student tickets and various discounts, often they are still way too expensive.”

She also knew that sitting in an auditorium for three hours waiting for the exciting bits in Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, or Mozart’s Requiem was not what most twentysomethings want. Not many older people either. 

I try to imagine myself as a young woke guy with a beard and a tatt, bizarre as it sounds, and ask what do I get at a Play On gig in an underground car park?

Dobbin laughs, and I immediately sense the ridiculousness of that image I just conjured, 

You, woke? Well, you’re going to an underground car park. It’s exciting. We open the doors at 7.30 and we have an hour of ambient music and drinks, then the show begins at 8.30. The musicians, composers and audience are are all seated. After the live music is over, we go into electronic dance music and we run a bar, so it’s more like a rave in an underground car park.

“People like the idea of intense listening. This is a time when people do not look at their phone; they switch off, they close their eyes and immerse themselves in 45 minutes of fine music and then they let go and dance to electronic grooves.”

The program is done through discussion with artists and composers and Play On has also begun to commission new works. Series Five of Play On ends next week at the Collingwood Underground Carpark with legendary didgeridoo player, William Barton. 

“We are so excited about that” Lydia says, “he’s amazing, he’s a master of a musical practice that blends the oldest living culture in the world with Europe’s fine music traditions”

 For more information on Play On Series Five go to https://playonmusic.com.au/upcoming-events/ 

Photo of a Play On audience by Alan Weedon

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