AKA THANK GOD FOR CLINTON WALKER
One of the best Australian music books you could read this year was published on a small academic press and unless you’re a nerd (or an avid reader of Mess&Noise, same difference) you probably didn’t notice. This book – History is Made at Night: Live Music in Australia by
Melbourne Sydney-based music writer Clinton Walker – is the sort of thing a lot of musicians should get ahold of.
Because it’s a sustained, thoughtful and entertaining argument for something most of us hold very dear: live music. It’s written in the shadow of the recent strife with Melbourne’s Tote Hotel but for a writer of Walker’s talent, this is just a starting point. He takes that moment and succinctly unravels why and how it could ever have been seen as acceptable to close down a beloved venue for virtually no reason.
As such, this book is all the ammunition a musician (repeatedly) need to clarify and defend what we do against a range of things: the real estate industry, bad policy, snobbish arts funding and an exploitative commercial industry. And this is the exact sort of work my discipline (popular music studies) needs to be doing in Australia.
That said, I figure you’re probably not going to find it at your local book store, much less read it.
So here’s my notes:
On the function of venues:
‘…I can vouch for what goes on in these rooms: a ritual of social and artistic communion and transcendence that is increasingly rare in a world of virtualization, isolation and commodification.” (3)
On vocational training:
‘You don’t learn how to write a song in school,’ (Paul) Kelly said. ‘You can’t do a TAFE course on how to play in front of an audience. These places were my universities.’ (5)
The live music industry is big:
…the value is enormous. The industry boasts nearly four thousand venues nationally which put on more than three hundred thousand gigs a year and attract forty million punters, generating more than a billion dollars’ revenue and employing fifteen thousand. (6-7)
‘Popular music isn’t in search of an audience, nor is it seeking to remix its demographic; it’s already got a vast and incredibly diverse audience. It doesn’t seek grand public monuments like an Opera House either. Everybody knows it’s (almost) never received government funding, and it’s hardly about to start sticking its hand out now. All it’s really asking is that when it does find some little hole in the wall in which to perform without harming anyone, it’s not harassed in doing so. All it’s asking is that the contempt, vilification and harassment stop. Now.’ (9)
On gigs and memory:
…the great gigs of my life exist now only in my memory. That’s part of the reason why live music for so long eluded examination: because it was so scattered, so of-the-moment, a composite of hundreds of rooms for the memories, thousands of personal histories made at night.’ (15)
‘Outdoors in the daytime is the antithesis of optimum conditions for rock’n’roll, and to me all these festivals represent the mall-ification of music, where their offer of one-stop shopping is great for diversity and spreading the word, but actively discourages deep immersion.’ (16)
Every band has it’s venue:
‘Part of this cerebral power is the very earthly reality of live music, its here and nowness in the dingy room in which it takes place. As Peter Grarrett said in 1984 in The Big Australian Rock Book: ‘Every Australian band comes from a different pub, and it’s there they define what they are about. Every band remembers that pub, and it’s more than sentimental value; it’s something much stronger.’ This is the unique local identity of Australian music… Garrett’s old band Midnight Oil couldn’t have come from anywhere but Sydney, anywhere but the northern beaches, and even more specifically, anywhere but the Royal Antler Hotel at North Narrabeen. Nick Cave and the late Rowland Howard couldn’t have come from anywhere but St. Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom.’ (18)
Those were the days. 1970s live music:
‘The venues worked through loopholes in the licensing laws, aided by widespread corruption.’ And ‘The big bands could make anywhere between ten and thirty thousand dollars a night, cash money,’ (25)
On the increasing popularity of live music:
‘It shouldn’t be so surprising that with all this virtuality, people more than ever wanted to experience live music in the flesh. Indeed, over the last decade, there’s been a 180-degree shift in the balance of power and the focus of the music business. Where it used to be that touring and playing live was a marketing means to the end of selling discs, now it’s the other way around: the recordings are more like ads for the gigs. Ticket prices for stadium gigs and festivals have skyrocketed.’ (39-40)
I love this. The Key Performance Indicators of club violence:
‘…devoid of the real KPIs for violence. No giant plasma screen TVs blaring sport. No gaming or gambling facilities. No chrome. No big sales of shooters or alcopops or energy drink-mixers. No football teams en masse. No designer label dress codes. No strippers. No man-child young gangbangers high on ice out to show how tough they are. No bouncers – sorry ‘crowd controllers’ – obnoxiously treating adults like cattle or naughty children.’ (42)
Walker nails the city I come from:
‘Victorian lobbyists like Paddy Donovan now point to BrisVegas as a role model. But even Brisbane now faces another test. In Brisbane, the anointing of the Valley as a special entertainment precinct was so successful it almost became a victim of its own success. The small rooms got squeezed out by bigger rooms, and so now, for example, when the Hi-Fi Bar recently opened in Brisbane, it was in the fast-coming, wild West End, not in the Valley. And so again the question becomes, how will order of occupancy rights play out on the new frontier? It’s be a bit of a travesty, after all, if the suburb accessed across the newly-completed and christened Go-Betweens Bridge had its burgeoning live music scene eradicated.’ (51)
And finally, on musicians:
‘…still the last to get paid, and paid the least.’ (53)
Buy the book from Currency House.