8 September 2020

Live music lifeline a drop in the ocean for ACT venues

| Michael Weaver
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Signs & Symbols

Canberra band Signs & Symbols on stage at The Basement. Photo: Michael Weaver.

A Federal Government lifeline for live music has been labelled a drop in the ocean by the owner of Smith’s Alternative in Civic, Nigel McRae, and the owner of The Basement in Belconnen, Lance Fox, but they say they’ll do whatever it takes to keep live music alive in Canberra despite the current capacity limit of 100 people.

The latest Federal funding is the $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund where small to medium-sized venues can apply for grants of $5000 to $100,000 to assist with upgrades to the venue, the purchase of equipment, promotional expenses and artist fees.

The investment in the arts sector, launched in August, was first announced during the Federal election in 2019. Applications close on 13 September.

“The grants will allow the arts sector to reactivate, re-imagine and create new cultural experiences, including innovative operating and digital delivery models. This will help keep artists, performers, roadies, front of house staff and all those who work behind the scenes employed,” said Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher.

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Music ACT director Daniel Ballantyne told Region Media about 20 to 40 Canberra venues would be eligible for the funding, which he said is long overdue.

“The live music industry has always stood on its feet commercially and for the first time in a very long time, it’s seeking financial and government support that will rapidly reassume its viability if given the chance,” Mr Ballantyne said.

“It’s a failure to perceive musicians as professionals and as worthy of support in difficult times. The film industry has had enormous support, even in Canberra. The contribution of musicians is equally significant.”

While the ACT Government provides the venues with reduced licence fees and rent, Canberra’s two frontline live music venues have been hit hardest by social distancing regulations.

Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers

Canberra band Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers were on the rise before COVID-19. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Smith’s Alternative is offering matinee-style shows of one-hour to a maximum of 24 people in the venue’s band room. They can also accommodate 15 people in the bar and about 20 outside.

The Basement has been running gigs for local bands where punters must sit down, even for heavy metal acts. Mr Fox’s 700-capacity venue is capped at 100 people, but he says he hasn’t been putting on gigs to make money.

“Artists need somewhere to play and someone should do something,” he said. “My wife said to me that you never stop in the middle of a hoe-down. You set out to save the scene, why would you stop now?”

Mr Fox said he has never applied for a grant and is reticent to do so, but “if there’s some money going, I feel like I should so we can better showcase the Canberra artists”.

Nigel McRae says he has been equally busy organising a range of shows and open mic nights at Smith’s between fielding phone calls from venues in Sydney trying to work out how to apply for the grants.

“We’re travelling along okay,” he said. “We’re at about 50 per cent of our former revenue, but we’re getting nice crowds and are putting on our first band next week.”

But MrRae said the grants were a drop in the ocean to resolve the issues facing the live music industry which has faced the closure of venues in Civic and the ACT Government stalling on Music ACT’s live music entertainment precinct proposal.

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“These sort of things are helpful for the people that have to win the grants. Making it competitive only makes it harder for a whole lot of people already doing a whole lot of things to try and win what is a fairly insignificant amount of money to try and keep things going.

“Personally, I find a little bit of a drop in the ocean. I might get around to putting an application in, but I’m busy enough just running the venue,” he said.

Lance and Nigel have been putting their heads together with a few other like-minded people and are very confident that people will keep supporting live music in Canberra.

“If a few of the venues can band together to create something through Music ACT and utilising the services of other businesses to promote live music, we stand a great chance of showcasing what an incredible scene Canberra has,” said Mr Fox.

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