Venues and the City

This was originally written for the show catalogue for RMIT University’s ‘Music, Melbourne + Me‘ exhibition, so excuse the  Victorian focus. And look, this is pretty openly celebratory. But please note, the ability to see the good here is tempered by having seen so much worse, so often. You have to give Melbourne credit for its venues. You have to. I still can’t get over how nice staff are to musicians in licensed venues here. In Brisbane (and many other cities) musicians are treated fairly poorly:

‘Here’s your two drink tickets for the sold out show. Oh and you have to vacate backstage after you play.’ 

‘You want to do what? Leave your gear somewhere?’ 

‘The bar staff can’t hear at the bar, you need to turn down.’

What Melbourne does right is the little things. The first time I played here, the bar manager came around the bar when I walked in, had a conversation with me about my amplifier and then took me through to the gear store. Most of the people who work in venues in Melbourne play in bands and instead of this being some horror show version of how that went with record stores, the system works. People treat you how they want to be treated.  

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THE CITY’S HAND MIRROR: MELBOURNE AND MUSIC VENUES

By Ian Rogers (RMIT, Music Industry)

Interview quotations from Simon Fenner (former rock manager)

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ON MUSIC VENUES AS CULTURAL SPACE

Simon Fenner: (A good venue is a) venue that the people feel safe in and that has transport and they can get to and from and delivers what they want, delivers the experience they want and that experience (has) changed over the decades.  It’s become far more complex an experience than they demand now than they did back in the ‘60s and ’70s.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), French scholar Michel de Certeau set out to study the ‘ordinary,’ less visible elements of popular culture, namely what we might once have called ‘passive’ consumption. In placing his focus squarely on everyday life – especially on small acts of enjoyment and interaction that seem frivolous on the surface – Certeau was searching for resistance. He felt that people did not just idly let their lives happen to them. He had a hunch that small moments of victory and empowerment were taken from within in all this ordinary unassuming behaviour and in The Practice of Everyday Life he paused to consider how this works.

         I’m reminded of Certeau every time I think about music venues, especially two of his key terms: strategies and tactics. Certeau theorised strategies as the domain of the ‘proper,’ they are the directed uses and depictions and discourses that ostracise or externalise alternatives. Strategies give us the way things should be. Meanwhile tactics are the ‘calculus which cannot count on a “proper” to back them up, the ‘tactic belongs to the other’ (xix). Tactics are what we can get away with. They’re often sneaky, as Certeau mentions at one point: it’s like using the work phone for a personal call or stealing a beer from another band’s drinks rider. Tactics can look like obedience (like a work call or a drink from your band’s rider) but they’re far from it. And while it’s difficult to conceive of us battling the status quo as we stand – drink in hand – at a live music venue, we’re not as passive as we appear. We’re not just one of the crowd or a demographic of consumers.  We’re a little bit freer than that and a good music venue recognises and encourages this. The best music venues tacitly allow us to misbehave a little, or a lot. Good venues privilege the tactical. They are not prescriptive spaces. They encourage a very mild form of transgression from everyday life. While they accommodate a ritual (the live show) it’s an open-ended one: we all know what will probably happen (strategy) but we’re there because anything might occur (tactics).

         In this way, Certeau’s tactics interact with space. In Certeau’s worldview, the tactics actually create the space. When you really think about it, a space’s meaning – any space or place – is entirely wrapped up in how we all minutely but acutely misuse it, how we as people tend to personalise almost everything around us. An office desk is a piece of shaped lumber until you put your family photos and coffee stains on it. In terms of music venues, the ones held closest to our hearts are those in which we feel at home. These are the rooms we know best: think of the eccentricities of The Empress where ‘backstage’ is a hole cut into the stage or The Corner with its single column set dead centre in front of the stage. These venues know a lot about us as well: they know our bands or our friend’s band, the staff know our names or our music or our friends or our habits. Pause for a second to consider how much a room such as Pony, The Tote or Yah Yahs might know about you and consider how these spaces – these largely unfurnished rooms – have played such a large role in your autobiography. You and everyone you’ve seen or met there filled that space, made the venue what it is in your memories. Would any of us who love live music really be who we are today without these grubby rooms and what they accommodate and encourage?

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VENUES AND THE CITY

Simon Fenner: The venues that remained operating the longest in this town continually would be places like Billboard in the city, the Metro Theatre which is now called The Palace in the city.  A range of what we all call beer barns out in the suburbs, places like The Village Green, the International Hotel, the Tarmac Hotel, a number of venues.  I mean, I believe there’s something like 800 venues that have operated in this town from the ‘60s to now.  Of the 800, approximately 300 of them are still operating but not all of them are continuous and not all of them were important.  We are known – Melbourne is known throughout the world –  as having the most number of venues per capita of any city.  Now, that was true for a long time.  I don’t know whether it is still true today but I suspect it is, if you look at the weekly papers and the street press.

If music venues tell us a lot about ourselves, what does the constant and plentiful supply of these spaces say about Melbourne as a city? Quite a lot, I imagine. Certeau would agree. He had by 1984, let his thinking travel out to considering the city as well as the people in it. Certeau once visited the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre and looked down on New York City, noting that this was a place that never ‘learned the art of growing old’ (91). It was, to him, a place that invented and reinvented itself daily. This is all cities. They’re like the venues and spaces I spoke of earlier. They’re all empty shells, abstract sculptures and abandoned buildings/streets/parks without us filling them up with our lives. It is the transit of people through and around and to cities and venues that make them one thing and not another.

         Yet a city this invested in live music suggests something about the people who live here. We need these places and it goes well beyond the important and valid economic support they provide the city and it goes well past state marketing, branding and tourism as well. This network of venues is a circuit board for a huge part of Melbourne’s cultural identity. As the city sprawls further and further in every direction and as it reshuffles itself between a hundred different things (cosmopolitan metropolis, modern innovator, cultured curator and sports lover) there is that constant hum of live bands playing in a pub somewhere just down the road. Any night of the week, in any type of weather, it’s always there as a reassuring presence and a way for us to reflect on who we are and what Melbourne is about. In the hustle and bustle of a place so big and full, these music venues are Melbourne’s hand mirror, providing a rare and personal glimpse of what the city means to a great many people.

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REFERENCES

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. California: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

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On How To Build An Audience

AKA IT IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE

Part of why we go to shows is to see other people listen to music. Strange, but true. The anecdotes I use in class to explain this:

Imagine you could go and see your favourite band perform and you’re the only person there. You could stand where-ever you liked, you could be the sole beneficiary of the band’s attention and there would be no line for the bar or washroom. Close your eyes and imagine it for a second. Would it actually be fun? 

OR:

Have you ever seen one of your favourite bands sound-check? I have, it’s horrible. In 2006 I watched Sleater-Kinney soundcheck and it was an experience akin to watching kitchen hands in my favourite restaurant. It was the exact same thing: people standing on-stage, playing a song I loved. But outside of the performance – away from an audience – it was mechanical, dry, weird, melancholy almost. 

Why?

Because the audience is a huge part of what makes a live show unique and that’s a huge part of what we look for at shows. We want to step outside of what we’re used to, that’s why we’re there. Without the audience, all we see are people doing their jobs – jobs that can probably be almost as boring and as annoying as our own.

Smaller, local shows are different. Ten people are an audience at a local shows. Thirty people are a crowd. Fifty people are a raging success. A hundred means something’s happening. It doesn’t take a lot of people, not in the whole scheme of things. There are probably more people on a train in your city right now.

So from day one, if you want to build and audience, go where your audience wants to be.

And you know where they want to be.

It’s where you yourself go, when you look for music and community and escape.

And if you’re not looking for those things, if you can’t answer these questions, then you’re not a live musician and you shouldn’t be performing in front of other people.

You need to be personally invested.

You need to be personally invested.

You need to be personally invested.

If you’re not, you’re just doing the most poorly paid work available.

So, in short: the first step to building an audience is being part of one.

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)

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Musicians Could Learn A Lot From Louis C.K.

AKA THE JOYS OF PRODUCT INNOVATION, THINKING LATERALLY & TIME PRESSURE

I love Louis C.K. A lot of people do at the moment. He’s worked hard, his time is now and he not wasting it: In the coming months HBO will finish airing the third season of his TV show Louie, he’ll complete a self-booked tour of theatres doing stand-up and he’s set to appear in the new Woody Allen movie.

He’s doing this at 45.

And he’s a joint-custody single parent.

And he writes the show and he writes a new live set every calendar year.

Louie knows a lot about how to get things done. 

And I think he also knows a lot about what not to waste time on.

One quick example: Louie has 1.3 million twitter followers and is following 0 of them back.

What I want to do here is look at an interview Louie did with The Onion AV last week. It’s incredible (and wrong, and funny). I think if we pull apart some of what’s discussed, you can see some of the underlying principles at work.

STAYING ON TOPIC:

AVC: How can you not be in a perpetual state of complete exhaustion?

LCK: You know what? That’s the central question of my life—how to manage all of that. There’s a woman I see who’s not my therapist, but she’s like an old friend who’s a therapist in profession. She lets me talk to her like a therapist once in a while, and she does a great thing. Whenever I have a big dilemma, like this is a big problem in my life, she always says, “Wow, you’re going to have to figure that out.” [Laughs.] That’s all she says. And so I had to figure it out. I had to put some time and effort into figuring out how to manage energy and time and brain effort and all that stuff. I’ve got a bunch of different things I do. I learned that sharks sleep parts of their brain, like rolling blackouts; they can’t fall asleep because they can’t stop moving or they’ll suffocate. So they sleep sections of their brain at a time. So I do kind of a version of that, where I shut down brain centers. I literally tell myself, “Don’t logistically problem-solve for the next three hours, but you can talk to folks. Driving my kid home from school—don’t think about all the professional things you have to do.

How many times have you been standing around outside the practice room (or inside) and the conversation turns to:

(A) Money and success

(B) Aspects of the commercial music industry

(C) Terrible bands who have succeeded in the commercial music industry

(D) The media who prop up the terrible bands who have succeeded in the commercial music industry

(E) People in the music scene you hate or who hate you

(F) Some or all of the above

Every band ever invented talks about this stuff. But maybe it’s better to keep all that external junk away from the songs. I think Louie’s rolling black-outs are a really simple and efficient idea. When he’s doing one thing, he’s cautious not to let some other thing muddy the waters. 

In the past, I’ve messed this up a million times but now my current band is pretty onto this.

We never ever talk shop before or during practice.

And we rarely email each other about band related things.

(We worked out that we’re terrible at emailing each other so we just stopped doing it as much as possible.)

In fact, we try to have as few meetings/discussions as humanly possible. You can grind all the fun out of a band by talking about it and thinking about it. So we tried to put a cap on it.

Plus now when I’m doing email, I’m not doing my band, end of story. And when I’m in the practice room, I’m not doing the band, I’m just playing music and trying to have a nice time. Most weeks, I walk up the stairs to where we practice and that’s first I’ve thought of the band all day. As such, I’m usually really happy to see everyone.

STAYING PRODUCTIVE:

AVC: How can you do all this without also cracking from pressure? 

LCK: I like pressure. Pressure doesn’t make me crack. It’s enabling. I eat pressure, and there might be times when I get a bad feeling in my gut that this might be too much, but you feel pressure when you’re not doing something, you know? When you’re getting ready for something, you feel pressure—when you’re anticipating. But when you’re constantly in activity, there’s no time for pressure to just sit there and make you crack.

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The Coveted Support Band Slot: It Basically Sucks

AKA LIVE PERFORMANCE AS LEISURE FOR SOME, WORK FOR OTHERS

There’s one prize that seems to cut right through all the social and hobbyist niceties of music-making: supporting touring bands that come through. Everyone who has ever performed live wants to play alongside the artists they love. And if you’re doing it right, you soon realise that these aspirations are closer to hand than you might have first thought. If your favourite band or artist still tours and your current project is popular in any way, musically similar in any way and business savvy in any way, shape or form, it could happen.

NB: If you don’t think it could happen and this makes you angry, guess what? You don’t know what you’re doing. You need to learn how to book a show. Or the promoter hates you personally. And that’s a whole other post. In fact, that’s two other posts.

But let me tell you what won’t happen at these shows you’ve been so looking forward to:

You won’t have a meaningful interaction with that artist or band you’ve loved since you were a teenager. 

You might sneak in a conversation here and there, share a beer, lend them a smoke, score weed for them. That’s about it. So, not much different from running into them outside the venue. One of my favourite stories about this involves a support band trying to give Josh Homme one of their band shirts. As told, he took the shirt, threw it on the floor and said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about this, I just want to get drunk with you.’ Yep. You can’t fault that sort of (drunken) honesty.

You won’t make much of an impression.

If they’re that big a deal, they probably won’t care about your band. They virtually made your band. They might be impressed or flattered by what you do but probably not. More likely they’ll be bored and completely oblivious. This might be your big moment but it’s often just work to them. This is another day in their working life, literally. In this scenario: you’re the office temp. You have to work together but tomorrow you’ll be gone. So your affable personality or lack thereof probably makes more of an impression than your music.

You won’t dramatically improve your draw. 

A few people in the audience will be impressed by what you do. The rest will just stand there and wait. A lot of the people in the audience who are impressed by your band will be the sort of people who only go to big ticketed shows. You’ll probably never see them again. Unless big ticketed shows are in your future.

You won’t have an amazing time.

The venue and/or the touring road crew will probably treat you like a bunch of assholes. You’re the interns, the work experience kids. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, obviously. You don’t really deserve to be treated like a bunch of assholes – to receive two bottom-shelf beers per band member, to be kicked out of the backstage area, to be given a line check only, to be hustled around and badgered and talked down to and then avoided by whoever is supposed to pay you or assist you – but if you’d seen how some bands like yours behave when they find themselves in this situation, you’d understand. Touring bands and big venue staff tend to work with their guard up for a reason.

And, on top of which, it’s a business transaction, start to end and you have no power.

So here’s the kicker: 

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