History Is Made At Night: The Importance of Live Venues

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.

Why?

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)

Damn straight:

‘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)

Music festivals:

‘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.

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7 thoughts on “History Is Made At Night: The Importance of Live Venues

  1. Nitpicky IKR, but Walker’s a Sydneysider and has been for a very long time. It is an excellent little book, agreed (though I almost went off the deep end counting the number of times the phrase “Everybody knows” appears)…

    • I sit corrected. The last time I saw Walker speak he was in Sydney so I should have known this. The topic? ‘Nick Cave: Genius or Jerk’. Can’t remember who won. I think it was a tie.

      Also, I think you were a bit ahead of the curve re: Brisbane and the failings of the Entertainment Precinct. I’ve written about it too but you were definitely the first person I heard state publicly that maybe it wasn’t going to turn out quite as we all hoped. I do think Walker really did a good job capturing the tone of the research leading up to the Precinct though…it’s how I remember it. Brisbane really tried something out.

  2. That might be one of the few times I’ve been ahead of the curve with anything, so thanks! We (and I mean those of us at QUT who wrote the report you’re alluding to, but principally Terry Flew) had good intentions and I think we had the right idea, but perhaps we were naive about how it would end up playing out in the real world once it collided with the forces of gentrification, big money and nightclub mobsters.

    Walker’s book on one hand doesn’t tell anyone connected with music anything we don’t know. What it does do, effectively, is call for greater recognition of contemporary music’s worth; not just from without but from within, too. His most strident point is the most difficult for practitioners of what is, at its most potent, still an “outsider craft” to come to terms with: if popular musicians are to wield any kind of clout proportionate to their actual economic output (which is massive), then they’re going to have to start taking themselves more seriously.

    Translated, and I’m taking too long to get to the point: we need to learn to work within the system. If we want to avoid what happened to the Tote, if we want some protection for venues, if we want to see a sustainable future for live entertainment, then we might have to stop sticking it to The Man for just long enough to turn around, shake his greasy hand, sit down at the Big Table, point out exactly how much revenue and how many jobs are created by our industry (and it is an industry) and negotiate from there. Popular music (contra Lester Bangs) is an art form as legitimate as any other, and we’d better learn to argue its case if we want to fight for its future.

    That might make the zealots shudder, but that’s the reality. It’s why Music Victoria came into being, belatedly, and it’s why Queensland has had QMusic for a lot longer than that. IMO, we should show them a little more appreciation – especially as their futures are by no means assured under conservative new administrations. Trust me, we’ll miss ’em if they’re gone.

    • This is probably worth a post on it’s own but that’s pretty much what I think our job is, as people who study / document / narrate Australian music. We’re the ones who need to legitimate the the form at The Big Table and work out solutions. It’s that same old deal where scholarly work too often doesn’t trickle down fast enough or isn’t grounded enough to begin with to make a difference.

      This is why I maintain an interest in the Creative Industries discipline despite my cultural studies training. At least CI is always an ongoing attempt to take these issues head on.

      I think QMusic is only effective at certain things; it has its own priorities, circle and mode of working. There are huge parts of the Brisbane music community outside of its purview and reach. As such, we need a more varied approach. I look to stuff like Stuart Buchanan’s ‘New Weird Australia’ project as a good example that could be recreated in other communities. ‘NWA’ is really fast-moving, low on bureaucracy, high on turn-over and Stu’s approach always seems – to me – to be an arts-funding one, not vocation training and industry advocacy….which are too often aligned with contemporary music. If we have people like Stu dotted around Brisbane and QMusic as the hub, I’ve always thought that would work.

      (Should also point out that I have no issue with QMusic. Whatever gripes I may have with vocational training and so forth are also part of my own work/discipline. These are my challenges too.)

  3. You’re right about Qmusic of course and you won’t find a better example of its limitations than BigSound. But part of that problem lies with the musicians, too, who in their quest for independence don’t want to engage with anything that has government money attached to it. Those are probably arguments for another day.

  4. Man, I love Clinton Walker.  “Stranded” blew a big Australian picture open for me and he is the best talking head in “Living On Dog Food” (the reason I think of him mainly as a Melbournite).  Thanks for sharing, will have to get it.  When it comes to the value of live music, I reckon the point in that first quote about community is central (Greil Marcus said something similar right Ian?).  Appeals to artistic merit (comparisons with highbrow “arts”) and appeals to economic value (comparisons with industry, sport?) both apply, and are probably useful arguments (I would have no idea what works), but that community aspect is the real guts of what were fighting for, right? As in, creating a museum or a super league would not be the whole picture (just as they aren’t for any art or sport).  I guess this is why I like Clinton’s framing of the issue as just wanting to be left alone, to keep the playground we built ourselves (and which is often what attracted other people). Which is of course a fiction and in reality requires protectionism, intervention etc, which is where you need yr arguments from art, economy, community, whatever works. Not to detract from arguments coming from a CI point of view for more than just being left alone!  But to me that’s a good statement of the minimum. I imagine I should read the book.

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