30 October 2019

The plummet of music venues in Canberra


Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers playing Turning Heads Agency launch at The Phoenix a week before it closed its doors for good. Photo by Tim Floyd.

There are less and less local emerging artists playing in Canberra following the permanent closure of the Phoenix. The beloved venue used to offer a performance space for up to 20 local and touring contemporary acts per week and had a music program all year round.

It’s been a hell of a lot more difficult for the music community to play since the closure of smaller to mid-size venues in the city. Week in and week out I see Canberra artists struggle to find appropriate venues. Not to mention interstate touring bands, promoters and booking agencies who manage emerging artists in the Australian music industry.

MusicACT’s protest jam in Garema Place, 21st of June 12:30-1:30pm – Designed by Beniah Colbourn

Recently, the approval of a new development in Garema place has put some of the few venues we do have in the city at risk, due to current restrictive regulations. MusicACT wants to see these laws change to reflect the reality of the city that most of us want – with harmony between residences and music venues. The government has been aware of the issues surrounding the archaic laws for almost a decade, but having taken no action. It is no wonder that they now face a community frustrated by its struggle to be represented in our public spaces and one that is actively protesting against the archaic sound laws.

“There are some very simple ways we can achieve that, which we have documented at length for the ACT Government, [including] entertainment precincts that require double glazed windows and a sound limit set on the inside, so we can guarantee residences are quiet, but also so that music venues can do what they do.” – MusicACT

We’ve seen the downfall of Toast, Gypsy Bar, Kyte, The Phoenix and the issues with sound complaints with venues such as; Hopscotch, Knightsbridge Penthouse, Polish White Eagle Club, Chop Shop and countless of other vibrant venues and events across the city. You can see the rise of DIY house shows and promoters desperate to use any empty spaces (such as shopfronts and abandoned warehouses etc.) – often illegally. This clearly signals a lack of resourceful venues in Civic and surrounding areas.

I had a chat with Sancho Murphy business owner of Sancho’s Dirty Laundry and past venue manager of epic grassroot venues; Lowbrow Gallery and Chop Shop on Lonsdale street.

Was there a struggle with noise restrictions when it came to maintaining Chop Shop?

Haha yes! Because of the changing nature of the location of the Chop Shop warehouse (Braddon), we were required to keep sound levels to one that was appropriate for a mixed-use residential zone. Even though we were in basically the centre of the city where you would expect noise to reflect what is acceptable of a densely populated urban core. (#RIPTOAST)

How sustainable was it to run Lowbrow Bar & Gallery in Garema place?

Lobrow was chugging along but by no means was it a cash cow. It was able to be sustainable because it was a collaborative project between myself and Beach Burrito that allowed me to use some of their existing infrastructure from Beach Burrito downstairs and extending it to accommodate Lobrow upstairs – such as their liquor licence, rental agreement and sharing staff & stock between the two venues. What I couldn’t contribute in this area, I contributed with my time in coordinating the events and managing the venue along with a bar manager. It worked but one thing we were looking into but could never achieve was extending the liquor licence for Lobrow from midnight to 3AM, the cost involved for a venue our size – it was just never commercially viable. Which kinda limited our hours of trade and dictated what kind of events we could and couldn’t do. So we could never bulk trade to earn more to afford an upgrade to our upstairs licence.

What do you think needs to be done for the development of music venues in Canberra?

There should be some kind of temporary legislation that takes into consideration pop-up incentives. Or greater classification divisions for what is considered a micro vs small business vs start-up business and fees/permits/taxes to be adjusted accordingly. Because it’s definitely really hard for a grassroots venue to come up out of nowhere and establish themselves, it’s like you already have to be a millionaire with a few different venues around town who seem to be duplicating their existing business models under different names as “new trendy bar”. I feel like the ACT are notorious for having excessive requirements which I feel can be quite stifling to the creative process. Regularly consulting creative individuals, creative business owners and property owners to review and design a system that promotes economic development in the arts and creative industries – making spaces available to incubate short term use by artists, creative projects and community initiatives to trial and test creative spaces/venues before making them permanent. Oh – and of course more people need to turn up for shows and support smaller venues so they can flourish!

Neko Pink playing Weekend at Palko’s (CBR DIG’s 1st Birthday Party) – A DIY made event

I was also able to catch up with the iconic house show promoters at Mulgara and asked them about what they think about the state of Canberra venues within the city centre:

“When we started Mulgara three years ago, accessibility wasn’t foremost in our minds – that has risen as an issue more recently with the closing of venues, as well as issues surrounding the safety/inclusion of some existing spaces. In some ways house shows are much less accessible than venues – often people that attend are friends, and shows are organised generally through a wider network of friends and communities across Australia.

Of course everyone is welcome and we love to meet new people and host new bands, but realistically I think it can be intimidating to come to a house show or ask to play at one if you don’t know the organisers – especially if you are a shy or socially anxious person. That’s part of the reason public venues are really important too.

Public venues and house shows offer very different experiences and lend themselves better to different events – I don’t think a music community can thrive without good, public venues too. There have definitely been times when someone has come to us for a show and we struggle to find an appropriate venue for them – a house show may be too small and intimate, or the music too loud for the neighbours, and for whatever reason there is no public venue in Canberra that suits the event. It’s great that Canberrans are responding to the current lack of venues by organising more house shows, but in an ideal world these would exist alongside thriving, welcoming, and accessible public venues as well.”

Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers performing at Mulgara’s No Front Fences in 2018

Adding to that statement, Mulgara state that house shows are a big part of building and developing the music community here in Canberra.

“We like to be able to create a space where people can feel welcomed, and where people can express themselves and their creativity without fear of judgement. Without the pressure to make money that venues have, we can create a space that is more relaxed and more authentic. This allows us to build a community of people who know and care for each other and helps to shape the culture of our music scene.”

The Phoenix – Photo By Adam Thomas

On a positive note, we remain lucky to have hardworking venues in the landscape including, The Basement, Smith Alternative, Live at the Polo, Transit Bar, Mr Wolf, sideway, Harmonie German Club, & UC Hub and many more in other areas of Canberra.

There are multiple issues risking our venues at play including: sound regulation, alcohol culture and even trends within the community where people may be less likely to travel to watch local live bands. Is this because of the lack of transport? The fares of Ubers? Are we simply home bunnies stuck in a “Canberra bubble” and refuse to step out of comfort zones?

You might want to check out MusicACT’s countdown timer advocating for the change of sound laws. In December 2009 the Standing Committee on Planning gave the ACT Government NINE great recommendations that would have had a huge positive impact on live music. There has been no government action since.

The counter will stop when we get entertainment zones to Let Music Live.

The protests have shown that there are many of us who care. We are a real community and don’t have dramatic demands, we just want the things that exist easily in any of the best cities in the world. To get involved in supporting the Canberra music scene, contact us, we’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

*Cover image soured from Adam Thomas

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