Save Our Scene (SOS) – Melbourne music venues fight for survival

“In Your Living Room”, “MOD” (Music On-Demand) or “The Couch Hotel”. These could easily be names of new music venues around the world since live music has now indefinitely moved to the comfort of our homes. (And whoever has been to a regular live gig since mid-March, please forever hold your peace.)


Music artists, especially in Australia, adapted to the “new reality” fairly quickly. Switching to online shows and staging drive-in gigs wasn’t as hard as we had anticipated at the beginning of this new virtual journey. The technology and infrastructure were already there. It’s just that nobody paid attention to them until pretty much the whole world was forced to #staythefhome and get creative for a good few months.

Whilst we – the audiences, event organizers and performers – are now pretty used to experiencing gigs on computer screens, the empty music venues around Australia are literally fighting for survival. Melbourne is the worst hit. But the Victorian capital city is not having it any more.

To understand the scale of this (un)natural disaster, watch this clip that dropped only last week. And apart from tuning into Illy‘s poignant rhymes, try to focus on the captions with some crushing stats as well.

Here are the facts and numbers from the video:

  • In the pre-Rona times, there were 700 venues in the state of Victoria (VIC). [Over 550 in the Greater Melbourne area itself.]
  • 100k shows annually were hosted in the VIC venues.
  • The gig business generates $1.42 billion in VIC and $4 billion Australia-wide.
  • Domestic arts and entertainment tourists usually spend $14.3 billion on trips a year, whilst the international ones leave $17 billion Down Under for the same reason.
  • The three-month lockdown caused a $540-million-loss in ticket revenue. 6.6 million people couldn’t attend the scheduled shows.
  • Since the lockdown started, 600,000 people are unable to perform their jobs in the live performance sector. Their total estimated loss of income is $339 million. [Check out the AU/NZ branch of the “I Lost My Gig” campaign to find out more.]

Shocking, right?

I’m sure you’ve already had enough of hearing how much I’m hooked on Melbourne and its music scene. But let me reiterate: it is STILL the Live Music Capital of the World, for a reason and based on objective criteria. [I wrote about it in this post last year.] A big part of the claim to that title depends on the number and variety of live music venues in the area.

Not being able to host shows or open for drinks and food services (not every venue has a take-away facility) is disastrous, particularly for the smaller places. Here is another statistic from Illy’s video for you: Most of the industry is composed of small businesses and sole traders. 96% of them expect financial losses BEYOND September.

That’s why The Tote and Bar Open – two amazing venues with a great reputation for being diverse and inclusive spaces – both started GoFundMe campaigns to save them from going bust. [Find the links to both fundraisers at the end of this post.] I’m sure there are heaps many more finding it difficult (if not impossible) to make ends meet.

But it’s not only the smaller venues that are affected. The big players are screwed big time as well. Even the beloved St Kilda venue, The Espy, that struck a $100-million-deal to change owners just before the pandemic, was left hanging mid-April. Apparently, the talks about the sale will resume after the Rona crisis is over. But who knows when that will be…

The Industry Observer reported last week that the recovery period for the live music industry might be up to three/four years. Naturally, it’s down to each country’s strategy when dealing with the pandemic and setting restrictions on social activities. For the Melbourne venues, it is an unfathomable scenario. Most of them might not even survive the next 6 months.

This is why Save Our Scene (SOS) stepped in.

Aussies are famous for taking firm stances on politics and policies jeopardizing their access to live music. The community proved it in February 2010 when “SLAM (Save Live Australian Music)” was born. 20,000 people marched in Melbourne to show their support for The Tote. The venue was about to shut down due to VIC Government’s unfair liquor licensing regulations that blamed music venues for “high-risk activities”.

The music biz showed up again at the 2018 “Don’t Kill Live Music (DKLM)” rally in Sydney. This time they joined forces against the New South Wales (NSW) Government that attributed excessive drug use to music festivals. [I reported extensively on this event in this post.] The “SOS” campaign builds on the success of those previous uprisings, mobilizing both people from the industry and music fans alike.

There’s no doubt we all understand the lockdown’s “for greater good” purpose. Having thousands of people packed like sardines in music venues is clearly not the best idea to control the spread of the virus. But let’s look at the big picture here.

Sports venues, like stadiums, are allowed to host events Australia-wide with up to 10,000 (!!!) people from July onwards. Aussies have been flocking to the beaches since the restrictions were eased in April. It’s not mandatory to wear a mask in public places Down Under. And yes, those arguments refer to events that happen outdoors where (allegedly) it’s less likely to catch the virus.

But people still go shopping and meet with friends and family, sometimes in big groups. Cinemas are set to reopen in July with limited capacity as well. And public transport is in operation, keeping in mind passengers’ safety and well-being, of course. Why is experiencing live music directly still so restricted then?

Save Or Scene logo. Source: the campaign’s FB page

Well, many Melbourne music event spaces are fed up with waiting for the answer.

At the end of May 2020, over 200 independent small- and medium-size venues from The Greater Melbourne region issued an Open Letter to the VIC Government. Amongst them are 170 Russell (from CBD), Corner Hotel (from Richmond – the East) Evelyn Hotel (from Fitzroy – the North), Revolver Upstairs (from Prahran – the South) or Workers Club Geelong (from the West).

The letter states a simple fact that “our music venues cannot survive without Victorian Government intervention.” It also stresses that “music is who we are. It is a cornerstone of Victoria’s identity as the >creative state< (…) If our venues disappear, the live music economy will disappear, and our cultural heritage will go with it”. What an irreversible damage to Melbourne’s reputation in the world it would be.

It seems the consensus amongst the state authorities is that helping the struggling music venues is not only necessary but inevitable. No politician is quick to make things happen for a sector that is not traditionally considered crucial for the economy, though. So to back up the campaign’s actions, live music fans were asked to voice their opinions on VIC Government’s website.

And it turned out that – in two weeks – the largest e-petition in VIC’s history, with 16,000 signatures, was launched. [Link at the end of the article]. That was more than enough to officially table it in VIC Parliament. The honour was done by MP Fiona Patten on 18 June.

The petition’s result proves another telling statistic from Illy’s clip. Aussies are famous for their love of live music. Over half of the people Down Under attend live music gigs. [The population now is approximately 25.5 million people.] That’s why 76% of the local fans are willing to attend events as soon as it’s safe to do so. If the demand is so high, then there should be a way of making it possible soon. Obviously, with all the health and safety regulations implemented.

So the question arises: is the national government doing enough to help the creative/arts business?

There are special, emergency funds to aid musicians facing financial hardships (like this one from Support Act) available, not necessarily created by the authorities. Just a few days ago – three months into the pandemic and after extensive lobbying – the Australian government also announced a $250-million-support package for the broader arts sector. As the caption from Illy’s video states, “While a step in the right direction, only time will tell whether it is enough to save the industry”.

This relief program is not solely directed at music venues, either. So there’s still a long way to go to figure out how the Melbourne music scene can survive this unfair battle with nature.

To make things even worse, Victoria has seen a sudden surge of new COVID-19 cases in the last 4/5 days and the VIC Premier Daniel Andrews was forced to partially lock some Melbourne suburbs down again.

At the same time, though, restrictions have been recently eased by the national government for the whole country, but depending on each states’ circumstances. They allow smaller venues to reopen, provided they strictly observe the new health and safety rules. Western Australia (WA) and Queensland (QLD) are set to kick off their first post-pandemic events with limited capacity this coming weekend already. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the same is going to happen in Melbourne in the coming weeks.

Heaps of venues are struggling to survive. Yet, surprisingly, there are new ones ready to join the Melbourne live music venues community, despite the current grim situation.

For instance, this awesome new event space called The Industrique in Coburg North was meant to open just before the pandemic. The owner admits she is very lucky having a fantastic landlord who supports her initiative and cut her some slack during isolation. Also, she and her team used the time in lockdown to put some extra touches to the venue’s facilities.

So maybe there is a light in the tunnel for the live performance industry in Melbourne. And SOS is not going to lose this war after all.

If you’re keen on checking out my favourite Melbourne spots, you can find a sweet little list here.

Useful links if you are in the position to help Melbourne music venues:

The Tote GoFundMe campaign

Bar Open GoFundMe campaign

Save Our Scene petition to VIC government

Get social with Silly McWiggles here:

Find out more about Melbourne venues here:

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