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.
THE CITY’S HAND MIRROR: MELBOURNE AND MUSIC VENUES
By Ian Rogers (RMIT, Music Industry)
Interview quotations from Simon Fenner (former rock manager)
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?
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.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. California: University of California Press, 1984. Print.